Welcome to my interview with Richard Michelson, author of Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King (Sleeping Bear Press, 2011), a 2012 Sydney Taylor Notable Book for Younger Readers. The interview is part of the official Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour, sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries. Click here for a list of all the Sydney Taylor award, honor, and notable books for 2012. Let’s get started:
You are well known for your poetry for adult readers. How does your poetry influence your writing picture books for young readers? I was writing and publishing poetry for adults well before I began writing for children, or was even aware of the rich picture book tradition (I was not a reader as a young child and, alas, didn’t read picture books to my own children when they were young). I did not fall in love with the possibilities of this wonderful word/picture art form until I was in my 30’s. I couldn’t believe what I had missed, and I’ve been making up for lost time since.
I was immediately comfortable in the genre. The best picture books texts use words to condense and illuminate, much like poems do, and my poetry for adults has a strong narrative base in any case. My habit is to think in rhythm, meter, and line, and I compose all my early drafts as poetry. It is not until I send off my revisions to the editor that I rearrange into prose and, perhaps, add some connective tissue.
On your website, you discuss the benefits and pitfalls of writing outside of your racial and cultural experience. With Lipman Pike in mind, what are the benefits and pitfalls of writing inside your racial and cultural experience? My family was 100% secular (or rather, anti-religious). I had no bar mitzvah celebration, nor did I attend Hebrew school. The neighborhood, however, was entirely Jewish, though I watched it turn African-American (and many of my books are written through the eyes of African-American characters), sparking a life-long interest in issues of race and social justice.
It was not until my wife converted to Judaism—against my wishes—(she went into labor while in the mikvah; but that is her story to tell) that I began exploring my heritage. So the major pitfall is that while working on Lipman Pike, along with my non-Jewish illustrator and non-Jewish editor, I was expected to know the answer to any questions that arose: Would the characters be wearing yarmulkes outside of Temple in 1874 Brooklyn? Should the father’s haberdashery have a mezuzah by the door? Beard? No beard? The advantages include knowing the dialects and speech patterns intimately. And when I am on the road speaking to kids, and Jewish librarians and teachers, everyone reminds me of one of my relatives. So there is always lots of hugging. That is a nice benefit.
What inspired you to write about Lipman Pike? A few years ago, I was asked to write a children’s book called A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet. My task was to narrow down all of Jewish knowledge into 26 letters. Takes a bit of chutzpah, but I agreed to try. For instance D is for King David, and under this letter I was able to write not only about the Biblical King, but also the Jewish traditions of poetry, since David is traditionally considered to have authored the Psalms. At one point K was for Koufax, and I intended to discuss sports heroes. In the research process I came across the name Lipman Pike. I asked many of my sports-crazy friends, and no one had heard of him. How could this be?
Lipman Pike was the first “professional” ball player—the first player, that is, accused by the League, when it was still supposedly all amateur—of illegally accepting payment. Of course, many players were taking money “under the table,” but Lip, as the Jew on the team, was the one charged, so he became known as the first player “paid to play.” Partly because of this incident, the next year, in 1871, the league changed the rules and formed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Lip went on to be baseball’s first home run king and first superstar, yet he remained proud of his Jewish roots. He was a man who followed his dreams and yet remembered where he came from. How could I not want to share his story with young (and older) readers?
You are also an art dealer. How closely were you involved in choosing, and working with, Zachary Pullen, the illustrator for Lipman Pike? Do you envision illustrations your for book as you write it? Because I have a visual imagination and work so closely with the illustrators at R. Michelson Galleries on a day-to-day basis, I definitely envision the artwork as I write. In some cases, I will even do a quick layout/mockup for my personal use to help me pace the story visually, as well as aurally. Of course once my manuscript is sold, the editor chooses the illustrator and both can have a very different vision than I did.
The picture book is a collaborative art, and it works best when two different visions combine to create a greater whole. So I also know when to step out of the way, and give the artist a chance to bring their whole imagination to the project. In this particular case, I did not know Zak at all and we are yet to meet. It was a wonderful surprise when I saw the finished art and now I can’t imagine the book looking any other way.
Why did you decide to use fictionalized dialogue between real people? Many of my books use “invented” dialogue to create a sense of time and place. This is, of course, a controversial technique for those of us writing non-fiction. But I took the risk to make the story more immediate. I believe that if we are going to communicate history in a picture book, it is fair game to “sometimes” use a poet’s wordplay and a fiction writer’s tools. But there are many lines I won’t cross, and it varies somewhat depending on whether the subject left writings of their own. I have a lecture I’ve given at various writing conferences called How Much Fiction Fits in a Non-Fiction Picture Book, and it always creates a wonderful discussion with the audience. But this is a difficult question to answer without going into great depth, and I don’t want to hijack your blog.
Thanks for the interview, Richard!