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April 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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In the background of our conversation, I can hear Raúl Colón’s etching tool methodically scratching across the watercolor-and-pencil illustration he is creating. Colón is an artist who rarely rests. Publishers seem to be knocking down his door to illustrate their latest picture books, and the result is some of the industry’s most stunning visual displays in recent years. His artistic creations have graced the pages of numerous award-winning books, among them are As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March toward Freedom (2008), by Richard Michelson, and Colón’s own whimsical wordless picture book, Draw! (2014), which is loosely based on his childhood self.
Colón has been an artist since his earliest days, and his creative sensibilities make him a keen observer of the world around him. He is a man who loves learning, and interpreting people and ideas from all walks of life in his work. Most recently, Colón has contributed his artistic lens to a number of biographies for children, illustrating famous faces like Hillary Clinton, Pete Seeger, and Roberto Clemente, as well as lesser-known, yet enormously influential, female scientists and engineers such as Ruth Law, Marie Tharp, and Henrietta Leavitt.
Colón was happy to share his thoughts on the science of art and creativity, his most recent subjects, and upcoming personal and professional works.
VANDER PLUYM: How did your artistic childhood impact your worldview as an adult?
COLÓN: Most people I know who are involved in the arts—and this could be writers and musicians and illustrators—we have an intellectual curiosity. We like to learn a lot about many things. I guess that’s one of the things that I learned to do as a child. My parents always read a lot. My mom was very religious and was into reading and learning, and I acquired that, too. All of that has informed who I am today.
VANDER PLUYM: What advice do you have for children who aspire to become illustrators like you?
COLÓN: When I speak to young people, I tell them that one of the things that I did—and I’ve got to thank my parents for this—I always read a lot. My mom made sure I learned to speak both English and her language, which was Spanish, so I learned to read and write at a very young age—two languages. I’ve always been interested in reading as well. Reading lead me to become an illustrator. I found out what an illustrator was by reading comic books. I knew that the art from the comics came from artists, but illustrator isn’t necessarily the term you use for artists in comics. I found out in comic books that there was a group called illustrators, and I would also see magazine illustrations. I associated illustrators with the work I saw. Reading led me to learn about different artists and different things in life.
VANDER PLUYM: How do you begin your creative process?
COLÓN: I read the text and then I reread it. When I first get a few images in my head, I do a few quick thumb sketches. People probably find that they’re more like scribbles, but I know what they mean. Once I feel like I have an idea of what I’d like to do, I divide everything into 32 picture-book pages and leave space (or whole pages) for text. I do these little squares about an inch wide and number them, and then I know how to illustrate them. That’s how I realize where to do a spread or silhouettes or vignettes. Then I proceed to work on sketches where I try to draw a whole scene and see how it looks. It doesn’t have to be in order. There’s a scene I might see right away—an ocean, mountains, a plane flying over. I do the ones that are interesting first to get a feel for it and then I move on to other scenes.
VANDER PLUYM: Your use of color is striking. In particular, I am thinking about your coloration of the image on the cover of As Good as Anybody, which is drawn from the original black-and-white photograph of MLK and Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Selma. How do you go about deciding which color scheme is best for your subject?
COLÓN: For Heschel’s life, I used a lot of blue combinations. When it came to King’s story, I used more sepias and browns. I divided it into two sections. Warm and cooler tones. I decided on those two basic colors, and it fit the story because I wanted Heschel’s part of the story to be this blue, dark period when Nazism was taking over Germany. And, of course, King didn’t have an easy life either, but he was in the South. It happened long ago, so I wanted to give it more of an antique feeling—more nostalgic. Other books, if set on a colorful island—like Sugar Cane (2007)—in the tropics, use lots of colors. Others, I subdue the colors, depending on the mood.
VANDER PLUYM: You have illustrated a number of biographies. Is there something in particular that draws you to this genre?
COLÓN: My editors! They send me a lot of biographies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a lot of them are women. A lot of them are about women who aren’t necessarily well-known, which I feel compelled to do. I do have a few that are coming out that aren’t biographies, except for Pete Seeger and Cervantes. I have a sequel to Draw! that’s a whimsical story, not a biography. I also have a book about a boy who goes to a library. Something is coming up that is poetry, and I am free to do whatever I want, so several books coming are not biographies.
VANDER PLUYM: You have such a gift for capturing the sense of wonder that drove so many of the scientific figures you have illustrated. What are some of your methods for demonstrating this curiosity to the reader?
COLÓN: I guess it’s instinctual. I do research. Marie Tharp from Solving the Puzzle under the Sea (2016)—I had no clue about the stuff she was doing. I did a book called Look Up! (2013), about a woman who studied the night sky and measured the distance between the Earth and the stars (Henrietta Leavitt). I had no clue, so I went to Harvard to find out where she worked and how it was done. Research is part of the deal. Since it’s about discoveries and accomplishments, I try to focus on the things that are wondrous about it.
VANDER PLUYM: Do you see any relationship between the art that you do and science?COLÓN: There’s a book called Einstein, Picasso (2002) that I read a few years ago. It correlates how these two individuals were scientists and artists at the same time. Picasso started experimenting with compressing time by trying to visualize a three-dimensional world into two-dimensional space. Which is why you see his signature work, his face in profile but full portrait at the same time. He was trying to show another dimension. When Einstein came up with his thought experiments, they were very visual. Most people think of math and numbers, but he was very visual; he started with pictures and ideas and visuals. Da Vinci and Michelangelo, they were architects; they were very scientific minds that just happened to work in the art field. There is a correlation. When you use colors, color changes moods, that’s a very scientific process. You think that way when you work.
VANDER PLUYM: Other than visual art, are there any other types of art in your life?
COLÓN: For a while, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I was gonna be the greatest rock ’n’ roll star on earth, but that didn’t pan out. I told my mother that I was planning to play my first gig at a club, and she said, “WHAT?! What are you doing? When is this? What time?” I told her that we started at midnight, and she was like, “I don’t think so!” I think that ended my career right there. I’ve always played music and enjoyed it a lot. I’ll tell you—it’s not a secret—90 percent of illustrators are frustrated musicians, too! A lot of us were born in the sixties and seventies, and we all wanted to be musicians.
VANDER PLUYM: Does music ever inspire your art?COLÓN: Oh, definitely, yes. Another thing about it is, I play music as I work. Although, this year, I’ve been listening to too much NPR and it’s driving me nuts with this election. Enough already!
VANDER PLUYM: What’s next for you?
COLÓN: I am trying to put together my own personal work. I have dozens of sketchbooks with a bunch of ideas that I would like to put out there. I’m thinking about displaying them. I do have a couple of galleries that I work with that are asking me for more personal work. Books have given me other work, but I’m trying to introduce more of this personal work into the books I’m doing. With that book of poems, I am hoping to unleash some ideas that I’ve had that I haven’t used, and that will keep me going.
As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March toward Freedom. By Richard Michelson. 2013. Knopf, $16.99 (9780385753876). Gr. 2–4.
Draw! 2014. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781442494930). PreS–K.
Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine. By Heather Lang. 2016. Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, $16.95 (9781620916506). K–Gr. 3.
Hillary. By Jonah Winter. 2016. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (9780553533880). Gr. 1–3.
Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century. By Carole Boston Weatherford. 2014. Knopf, $17.99 (9780375856068). K–Gr. 3.
Look Up! Henrietta Leavitt, Pioneering Woman Astronomer. By Robert Burleigh. 2013. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $16.99 (9781416958192). PreS–Gr. 3.
Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes. By Juan Felipe Herrera. 2014. Dial, $19.99 (9780803738096). Gr. 3–7.
Solving the Puzzle under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor. By Robert Burleigh. 2016. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, $17.99 (9781481416009). Gr. 1–3.
Sugar Cane: A Caribbean Rapunzel. By Patricia Storace. 2007. Disney/Jump at the Sun, o.p. K–Gr. 3.
Classroom Activities: Focus on STEM
Colón’s books easily lend themselves to STEM activities. Try the following when sharing these titles.
Great Women in Science and Engineering
Read aloud Look Up!, Solving the Puzzle under the Sea, and Fearless Flyer. Using the additional resources listed below, students can work in small groups to learn more about one of these amazing female pioneers in STEM. Ask students to compare these resources with the stories told in the picture books and find additional facts and images of these women to compile into a presentation or poster. The following resources may be helpful for each:
Look Up! and Henrietta Leavitt:
PBS: People and Discoveries
Britannica Biography: Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Heroes of Space: Henrietta Swan Leavitt
Henrietta Leavitt and the Human Computers: Great Minds
Solving the Puzzle under the Sea and Marie Tharp:
Marie Tharp: The Woman Who Discovered the Backbone of Earth
Seeing Is Believing: How Marie Tharp Changed Geology Forever
Scientific Biography: Marie Tharp
New York Times: The Lives They Lived Video
Fearless Flyer and Ruth Law:
Women in Aviation and Space History
The Pioneers: Ruth Bancroft Law
Mashable: 20th Century: “Let Women Fly!”
Ruth Law and Her Curtiss Pusher Video
When students have completed research presentations and shared with the group, consider discussing the following questions:
Are there any characteristics that these women seem to have shared? What made them unique?
What drove these women to succeed in such male-dominated fields?
How do you think their experiences in STEM would be different if they were working in today’s world?
Because of their achievements in STEM, what other developments have been possible?
Engineering and Technology
After reading the aforementioned picture books and delving further into the lives of these three scientists, ask the students to return to the picture books and their additional resources to find what kinds of tools each of these women used in their findings. Examples: What type of plane did Law fly? What did Tharp use to create her maps? What tools were required for Leavitt to see the stars? Students can then conduct further research into these tools. For an additional engineering challenge, students can use classroom materials to build a scale model of their figure’s important tools.
To further explore the respective fields of these three scientists, engage students in mathematical activities on astronomy, oceanography, and flight, developed by NASA and NOAA, through the following links:
Bridging Art and Science
Read students the following segment from Colón’s interview about the relationship he sees between art and science:
There’s a book called Einstein, Picasso (2002) that I read a few years ago. It correlates how these two individuals were scientists and artists at the same time. Picasso started experimenting with compressing time by trying to visualize a three-dimensional world into two-dimensional space. Which is why you see his signature work, his face in profile but full portrait at the same time. He was trying to show another dimension. When Einstein came up with his thought experiments, they were very visual. Most people think of math and numbers, but he was very visual; he started with pictures and ideas and visuals. When you read about Da Vinci and Michelangelo, they were architects; they were very scientific minds that just happened to work in the art field. There is a correlation. When you use colors, color changes moods, and that’s a very scientific process. You think that way when you work.
Discuss with students where they personally have seen or experienced this same bridge between art and science. Consider examining Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches as a class and analyzing how they are both art and science simultaneously (http://www.drawingsofleonardo.org/).
Lauren Vander Pluym works as a Technology Coordinator at the Logan School for Creative Learning in Denver, Colorado.
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