Craft, Career & Cheer: Bonnie Christensen

Learn about Bonnie Christensen.

Note: interior illustrations below are from Bonnie’s Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) and featured here with permission.

What do you love most about the creative life?

In attempting to answer this question, I ran straight into a wall. There are so very many things to love about the creative life, can I love all of them “most”? I’ll try to be obedient and address the lovable aspects in order of preference. And I’ll explain why as best I can.

#1 The moment of creation. Where did that idea come from? Why won’t it leave me alone? What does it want me to do? Is it insane? Can I actually even mention it to my agent without feeling like a total ninny?

It’s pure bliss though, this something new that rose up out of the earth one morning while I was making the espresso.

#1. Freedom. This doesn’t just mean that I can wake up at a ridiculous hour and lounge around in my jammies, eating salt-and-vinegar chips and chocolate-covered coffee beans all day while reading every Jane Austen novel for the 100th time.

No. But maybe tomorrow. No, no. Freedom to explore, or do nothing, to take a walk or a shower at 3 p.m. The strange sort of place that a wonderful idea will crop up in the unstressed mind. I can spend a day at the beach, if I work all weekend. I’m a grown up, and I can create my own life, my own schedule. It’s wonderful to have the freedom to daydream and doodle and sometimes to do nothing at all.

I have a friend who often says “nothing is something to do.” I like that.

[Yes, #1 is a tie.]

#2 Research. The older I get, the more ignorant I feel. To create books or illustrations requires research of all sorts. Travel, reading, museums, meeting people, learning new languages, understanding other cultures, other times in history.

At the moment, I’m fascinated with Etruscans; three years ago, I knew nothing more than the name. But one day, when a series of ideas have percolated properly, the Etruscans will tap on my door and present me with a task. That’s when the work truly begins. But it’s work rooted in curiosity and enthusiasm, an exploration or the best sort.

#3 Change. From Etruscan to jazz musicians to a child learning to make borscht to a journalist putting her life in jeopardy for writing out against lynchings, each book brings a new universe of experience and understanding, new friends and enemies, new costumes and lighting and architecture.

In short, each book is a new life, each one entirely unique.

[Cover art from Magic in the Margins by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrated by Bonnie Christensen (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).]

#4 Fun. Jammies and espresso and a big table with lots of crayons and newsprint, or a tiny notebook with fine black pens. Crayons smell good; they really do. And I can blast my iPod as loud as I like, and when Marvin Gaye comes on, I can jump up and dance around like a dervish and then do it again and again.

I can do whatever I want in my studio. But I know that if I want to keep my studio, I’d better sit back down sooner or later and do the work part. And the work part is good too, always creating a challenge to be solved whether with illustration or writing, and I like challenges.

How do you define professional success?

Hm. This is something that changes constantly.

At one time professional success meant not being a “one-book wonder.”And then it meant “just keep going.” But that’s not success exactly, that’s really lining up work.

Now that I’ve stopped counting the books like birthdays, it seems professional success is really a personal philosophy. And what I’m concerned with is personal success within my profession. It’s easy to identify professional success; loads of books published, awards, being made into an action figure (okay, I exaggerate, but if I had the kind of success I’d demand it!)

Just look at the New York Times best seller lists, buzzing with brilliance. Once upon a time, these lists gave me sour grapes and ennui. Now I don’t look at them, and I’m much happier.

I let my mind wander. I let my body wander to foreign places. I play the violin.

I’m scatterbrained. Sometimes I go to an important event and later discover I’m coated with a nice layer of cat fur because I need glasses for more than reading.

I’m in the business of making the best books possible for me, and even then, they are never good enough, but I try to keep in mind the child who will read the book and discover elements included to amuse myself while working, and those same elements will make the child happy too. This is my personal success within my profession.

Could you tell us about your new release?

My latest book is Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2009) which I both wrote and illustrated. It’s a biography of Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist who rose to prominence in Paris dance halls of the 1920s and ’30s but was then badly injured in an accident. He didn’t give up guitar despite losing use of two fingers of his fretting hand; instead, he spent almost two years retraining himself to play in a new style adapted to his ability. Really an incredible man with a rare musical talent.

The other project I’m working on is The Princess of Borscht, written by Leda Schubert (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 2011), a lovely and funny story about a girl trying to make borscht to help cure her grandmother who’s in the hospital. It’s quite a leap from the serious nonfiction work, and I’m loving the serendipity of it all.

After that, I have Fabulous, A Portrait of Andy Warhol (Christy Ottaviano/Henry Holt, 2011), a picture book bio of Andy Warhol, coming out. Cool.

Cynsational Notes

Django, World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist was named the 2010 Young Children’s Book Winner of the ALA Schneider Family Book Award. Peek: “The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.”

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.