Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview with R. Gregory Christie

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series I run here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

I recently reached out to author-illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, who despite being neck-deep in projects, took some time out to provide some really thoughtful answers. I met Gregory a few years ago at the African American Children's Book Fair in Philly. Then, he signed my beautifully-illustrated copy of Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a book that I now feel like re-reading. I'm honored to welcome Gregory to the series!

R. Gregory Christie
Your style of illustrating is very distinctive. You abstract the proportions of your figures and favor loose brush strokes. It's quite painterly I would say. What are your influences and how did you develop your style?

I began painting from PBS shows when I was around 8 years old. It did two things for me, primarily to get over the fear of using color (a common fear among young aspiring artists along with breaking away from realism) and secondly exposed me to professional grade pigments. I asked for paints and star wars figures as a little boy.

I just knew Picasso for a long time but as I got to art school I held a job at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. My idea and world of art expanded greatly during those years. When it comes to children's books, the first one with Lee and Low Books was influenced by Ernie Barnes, Pablo Picasso and Egyptian art.

Double-page spread from It Jes' Happened

You are a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. I've heard it said that the types of books chosen for the Coretta Scott King awards are the "liver and brussel sprouts" of children's books, meaning books that are educational and inspirational but not fun for kids to read. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

No, its a shame how the accomplishments of people with pigment often fall through the cracks. In my opinion a "dream deferred" type of thing where the curriculum and value for 'brown books" are unbalanced against "non brown books". This seems to be remnants from the past, we are smarter than that now, I know it! I'm not just speaking about African American stories it's simply brown folks accomplishments in relation to children's stories and I'm not just speaking about whites, saying specifically that there's some evil plan to mess up black and brown people by ignoring black books.

Cover of Brothers in Hope, Coretta Scott Honor Award winner
Also, speaking about my own interests and actions. I doubt that I could name several Native American children's books, Latino classics or Oceanic stories without going to a search engine. It's just that people want to see themselves I guess, but I think we all need to be careful not to be so stuck in hegemony, especially when dealing with foundational imagery and should be careful about negativity when it comes to cultural understanding.

In specific regard to your question, in my opinion a there are a lot of fun books, playful and insightful in terms of cultural understanding with the Coretta Scott King book award choices. Such talk is dangerously close to the line of devaluing of the award and could possibly kill a great or enthusiastic sentiment before we even start to build it in children. Isn't the bottom line to touch the world of a child by opening the door to other worlds?

You've earned a lot of recognition, winning major awards like the Ezra Jack Keats Award and The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award. For many illustrators, illustrating children's books is a sort of backstage business. Do you think children's illustrators should strive for recognition and eminence, or is there a general understanding that illustrators are sort of the underlings of the bookmaking business?

I disagree. In my opinion it's like arguing who really makes a marriage work, man or woman? I imagine it's both and it's within varying degrees. But I am certain that an author illustrator union is as strongly complex and fragile as a marriage. Sometimes the words are on such a higher level than the art and visa versa. But a great editor, and belief in the project by all parties including the marketing department, makes for a good union and can prevent an imbalance.

Last year you launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to open up your own bookstore. What got you interested in the book-selling business?

Sagging pants and text talk... babies playing with cursing on the subway and the media, corporations and government rewarding ignorance and systematic memorization over thinking. I'm not a bleeding heart; I've seen so many people give their lives up for a cause..only to see them homeless and sick without support.

In truth and in my opinion, the elephant in the room is that people learn at different paces. We, or at least a majority of people I speak to all have a 'tribe' and cause..but at the end of the day idealistic thinking about a utopian society leads to heartbreak. It's hard to get adults to change.. I think that they can manage, get really great at that, but really can not change. On the other hand kids can, and you have a good 20-year window to expose them to their own possibilities of greatness.

Additionally I think we are moving in a foolish direction to make everything computerized. It's a tower of Babel in my own personal opinion. I got tired of seeing these things so this is my own way to deal with it. The "book business" as stated is so much more; it's more of a "possibilities business" because I have knowledge and sincere belief to offer. My heart is in the right place and the people who get it (what I'm doing) get it. But I do admit it is a commitment and I do miss my freelance life of vacations to Stockholm and Amsterdam. I can really go on and on about this decision but what's most important is for me to take the time to say thank you to the people who believed in me.

Your bookstore, GAS ART GIFTS, also houses an art studio. It sounds like a neat idea. What is the art studio used for?

GAS-ART GIFTS (interiror)―no ordinary bookstore!
To keep some fun along with the discipline. An 11-hour day has cost me relationships, sleep, lots of commuter and gas money but I know it's right and keeps me balanced. In truth, the location makes this idea a long shot. A majority of the people are not ready for this idea and again in honesty it can get discouraging that I own a job rather than a business. However, the brighter side is that I LOVE to paint and have quite a few assignments to do. I can do both, I can go in to another world and also open possibilities I would never have sitting alone in a studio.

You know? This is a unique idea; it will take time for a lot of people to "get" and support it. But I feel that in these times (in the information age), we cant shrug our shoulders and say newspapers, books and magazines, even libraries and cursive writing are on their way out. We (the adults that I think can't change) have an obligation to preserve traditions and use innovation to inspire the people after us.

I've known junkies that proudly say they can sew. Thugs who tell me they can or used to do art, and the point is that somebody showed them something, and even though they made poor life choices, that particular skill seemed to be one thing they were proud of and I got inspired by that. Such a situation makes me think that it's not enough to just also must build confidence and bring forth exposure as you give assignments and tasks. If you can get all those things in a high degree then chances are the students will stick with it and character will grow.

But people get bored and used to a good (and sometimes even a bad) thing, that's where the innovation from our generation comes in and the obligation to make the world a better place through individual relationships, unique thoughts and actions is needed.

You've illustrated over 20 children's books. Be honest you have a favorite?

I like the rawness of The Palm of My they say it's never as good as the first time.

Your artwork has been featured on HBO Kids and the PBS children's show, Between the Lions. What would you say is the biggest difference between working on picture-books and working on a television project?

I couldn't tell you...I am very careful to stay in my lane and do the things that interest me. So when it came to those jobs I found my joy in being a painter and in honesty wasn't too interested in the phase of the projects beyond that. The animators seemed to enjoy their segment of job as well and most certainly took what I did to an interesting level.

You've illustrated many children's books that can be described as socially conscious or social justice books. I'm thinking of books like Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, and Keep Climbing, Girls. Are you selective and deliberate about the types of projects you take on?

Yes. It comes down to doing the books that I wish I had as a kid. But eventually after doing so many historical books I wanted something for baby showers and for very little ones to see, so books like Jazz Baby and Black Magic came in to play. The store gives me an opportunity to see the spectrum of my choices in one place. It also lets me see how my personal preferences and choices directly effect fans of my work. That type of feedback is invaluable and rewarding.

Double-page spread from Jazz Baby by R. Gregory Christie

You've also worked on many illustrated biographies of African-American historical figures like Muhammad Ali, Sojourner Truth, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong and Richard Wright. Is there something about biographies that appeals to you?

For me, I hope that it just helps to bring out balance that may be lost to the Christopher Columbus and George Washington lesson plans. Even though I may be answering my own question with the word "obscure"...where are the obscure women/Native American/Asian/paraplegic stories? So I guess it's up to myself and other artists to get these stories out there. It's one of the reasons I was proud to do When Thunder Comes with Patrick J Lewis and Chronicle books. That project has a mix of cultures and some powerful poems.

Double-page spread from The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali

Can you tell us a little bit about your next project or projects?

These days its about building GAS-ART GIFTS in North DeKalb Mall. I have art students interested in weekly classes and eventually hope to have guest illustrators and their books sold on a 30-day basis. The foundation of the store will be my own books but I'd love to see famous authors and illustrators flown in to sign-sell their books and run a workshop. I want to see local aspiring artists use the space to teach classes in everything from calligraphy to sewing. I also have something HUGE coming out by the end of the much so that I'm not allowed to tell by social media, so stay tuned in to my own blog to see what it is.

In terms of books there are quite a few, and I'm superstitious about promoting a book before I wrap it up, so stay tuned in on the blog for that as well.

What advice would you give to someone considering children's book illustration as a full-time profession?

It is not a "one-book-wonder" type of profession. "I wrote a book" may not be as wise as I've written some stories". It's the same as telling an album producer that you are a singer and you wrote "a" song.

Also it's not wise to cut yourself short by putting the whole package together, meaning that you've written a story and now feel that you need an illustrator so that you can shop it around. It would be like getting your script green-lighted for a huge blockbuster but insisting that your close family and friends play the lead roles. It would be pretty rough to market a film like that and a shame considering that the studio has connections to established actors.

So check out out the many blogs and internet information on the children's book industry and you are halfway there due to the knowledge just waiting for you to learn out there. Also, create. Whether you have a deal or not, find the joy in creating and don't let them kill it with contracts and demands.

Consider that once a manuscript is sold to a publishing company, unless you are very famous, chances are you will not have a say where the illustrator takes the visuals. So if you have a really special story you may want to have so many good ones that you get those out first and save the special story as a mid-career book. Chances are you will be able to truly collaborate to a little bit more of a degree at that point.

Don't give up and find a way to live your dream.

R. Gregory Christie has been working as an illustrator for over 17 years. He has illustrated over forty books, and collaborated with clients such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Kennedy Center, Pete Seeger, Queen Latifah, and Karyn Parsons on a variety of projects. He is a two time recipient of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the year Award, The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award, The NAACP’s Image Award, Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, and a three time winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. His artwork has been featured on HBO Kids, PBS’ Between the Lions, The New Orleans Jazz Festival’s Congo Square poster, and for one year on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway system in New York City.

He currently works as an illustrator and owns and operates a bookstore and art studio called GAS ART GIFTS in Decatur, Georgia. He enjoys teaching young people about art and literacy, and is available for school and library visits as well as other community events. You can follow him on Titter at @GasArtGifts and on Facebook at

Summer Edward is a Children's Literature and Publishing Consultant. She holds an M.S.Ed. degree in Reading, Writing, Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of a Highlights Foundation Scholarship for promising children's writers and the School of the Free Mind's inaugural Way of the Book Honor Award given to artist-authors demonstrating long and sincere commitment to changing the world through children's books. Learn more about her here .



Love is love keep up the good work ;) Much Love. K

Barbara Ross Doran

Great interview Gregory! You make some incredibly valuable points! Barbara Doran Ross


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