This year author Linda Glaser and illustrator Adam Gustavson will receive the 2013 gold medal in the Sydney Taylor Book Award’s Younger Readers category for Hannah’s Way, published by Kar-Ben.
I am so pleased that on the occasion of this prestigius award, Adam Gustavson took some time away from his paintbrushes to answer a couple of questions. His illustrations are really great–they kind of remind me of those golden age illustrators, like Norman Rockwell: Very realistic, yet still wamer than photographs would be plus great facial expressions and wonderful historical details.
Hey Adam! Thanks for visiting me here on my blog. Lets get started…Have you ever illustrated specifically for a Jewish audience before?
Yes; early on in my career, I was contracted for a Hanukkah book. The project was eventually canceled by the publisher, but only after I’d produced several rounds of sketches for it. I more recently had the opportunity to illustrated Elka Weber’s A Yankee at the Seder (a Sydney Taylor finalist) a few years back, a really well written Civil War Passover story. The research I put into it was almost exhausting, from exploring the possible immigrant backgrounds of the main characters to furnishing an imaginary Virginia home from the mid-19th Century, to picking just the right Seder platter for the family.
Before this book, what kind of connections, if any, did you have with the Jewish community?
Some of the people closest to me in my personal life are are Jewish. I’ve been to weddings, Bat Mitzvahs, funerals… In general, that has acquainted me enough to know just how much I don’t really know. So when embarking on a project whose religious overtones are central to the story, I have a list of patient people to call, and a sixth sense of sorts as far as how much deeper I should be digging for answers.
How did Kar-Ben find you?
They were looking for an illustrator for Hannah’s Way, and contacted me through my website.
I know you did an immense amount of research so that you could illustrate Hannah’s Way with historical accuracy.
What was the most unique/ surprising/ weirdo Jewish fact or ritual that you encountered in your research that really surprised you, that you had no idea about before?
Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Even though the family in the book is not conservative enough to wear Tefilin, it popped up in my research as I was trying to figure out just how Orthodox they were, and it was something I was not previously aware of.
Any other cool facts, not necessarily Jewish, that you discovered along the way?
Well, I did get to spend a lot of time figuring out different fashion options and models of school desks available in the 1930s. I trolled through literally dozens of class photos from the era and the area (the story takes place in rural Minnesota), and had to keep track in my head just which kids I’d decided lived on farms versus in town, and also had to make decisions on just when all the interiors pictured in the story were last redecorated. This being the Depression era, I had to keep remembering to include details from the teens and ‘20s to account for the fact that none of the characters were really in the market for new stuff.
Is the success of this book taking you into any interesting Jewish venues that you had never visited before?
I did get to participate in a panel discussion at the Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference in New York, NY, this past Fall, and will be heading off to Texas to receive my Sydney Taylor this June. Each of those is a first.
What did you love about painting this book? What did you hate? (or at least, not love!)
I love period pieces. Aside from the oddball problem solving opportunities I’ve mentioned, I like the compositional opportunities of dated furniture and clothing more than their contemporary counterparts. I like the lack of technology everywhere, and the shapes of old cars and trucks.
The toughest part, I think, involved Hannah; so much of the story revolves around her anxieties about fitting in, and so there were a number of spreads that could only be solved with portraits of her looking worried. Getting that sort of treatment to stay fresh, to not get redundant, can really keep a fellow on his toes.
Are any of the illustrations based on any real people either from your own life or from history?
Not in this book, surprisingly, though I have been known to hide folks I know in books before.
In the book, the father seems to be observant–probably Orthodox. Orthodox Judaism comes in many flavors, from Hassidic to modern. How did you decide which ‘flavor’ he should be?
How did knowing that ‘flavor’ impact what clothing you determined he should wear, and what their home should look like?
That was a real issue for me. Back to that idea of knowing how little I really know, I was constantly concerned about getting the level of orthodoxy right, particularly since I just don’t know how malleable Orthodox Judaism is with respect to time. Has it changed or evolved since the 30s? With Protestant Christian culture, changes in fashion and division of the sexes happens through a fairly secular lens, but I didn’t have any direct experience with how that relationship progresses in Orthodox Judaism.
So I erred on the side of making the family very Conservative, and Joni Sussman, my editor at Ker-Ben, was very helpful in toning down anything that was too (in her words) “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Here is classic question that they always ask the Oscar nominees : Where were you when you heard about the award, and what was your reaction?
I was in my studio, trying to work on another project and having a total creative block. For me, any creative block is always followed by an acute case of “I should have gone to trade school and been a plumber” anxiety.
Learning of the award at just that moment didn’t necessarily clear my head of distractions bringing forth a torrent of creative brilliance, but it was a nice reminder that I would have been a terrible plumber.
Is there anything else of interest that you would like to share with my readers about Hannah’s Way?
Keeping track of how many days the story spans, and making sure everyone got a bath and changed their clothes at all the right parts took some real concentration. There are few things more embarrassing, I’d think, than having a reviewer point out the protagonist’s penchant for wearing the same dress over and over, or her obsessive compulsive wardrobe changes…
Thanks for your insights into your process Adam. But I have to say, I don’t think you have to worry about any reviewers pointing out anything embarassing–your work is a pleasure to look at! Thanks so much again for taking the time to speak with me.
Click to find out more about: Hannah’s Way.
PLUS: I recently had the opportunity to interview Carol Liddiment, also a Sydney Taylor awardee. You can check it out here.