September 27, 2022

Let's Talk Illustrators #226: Chris Raschka

It took way too long, but I finally got a chance to talk to Chris Raschka about his illustration career! Today we're focusing on his latest picture book Yellow Dog Blues, written by Alice Faye Duncan, which might just be his most uniquely-illustrated book yet. Come take a closer look with me!

About the book:
A lyrical road trip through the Mississippi Delta, exploring the landmarks that shaped one of America's most beloved musical traditions.

One morning Bo Willie finds the doghouse empty and the gate wide open! Farmer Fred says Yellow Dog hit Highway 61 and started running. Aunt Jessie picks up Bo Willie in her pink Cadillac, and together they look for his missing puppy love. Their search leads them from juke joints to tamale stands to streets ringing with the music of B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Where, where did that Yellow Dog go?

Let's talk Chris Raschka!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Yellow Dog Blues? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Alice Faye Duncan’s text?

CR: Alice Faye wrote to me directly, saying something like, “Hey there, I’m Black, you’re white, let’s do a book about THE BLUES.” That made quite a lot of sense to me.

Some time later I put together a dummy, which I hoped would capture a little bit of the spirit of Alice Faye’s folksy text. Fabric immediately came into my head as being my own vehicle for delivering the pictures.

LTPB: What differences have you found between creating a picture book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?

CR: If I have a text that is finished and whole in my hands, whether I’ve written it or someone else has doesn’t make much difference to me. I will treat it precisely the same way, that is, I will pair whatever images make sense to me for those words, that text.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

CR: As with most of my books, the greatest difficulty is finding the balance between abstraction and representation. The material I used here actually makes this question easier, as the fabric and paint and thread have their own limitations, and demand their own solutions—raw canvas can only absorb so much paint, stitched thread goes in straight lines, fabric and thread colors can only be blended by overlapping or weaving. Using these new materials happened to be also the most rewarding part of this project. I enjoy hand-work, I’m a knitter, I like having soft art in my lap. Using a hoop and learning various embroidery stitches is like candy to me.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book, and why did you choose such a unique medium?

CR: I used heavy canvas, fabric paint, fabric scraps, and DMC embroidery floss. The reason I chose fabric is because Alice Faye’s text is about the folk traditions of musicians playing in the countryside. The singing of the Blues is a social tradition, just as stitching, quilting, and all kinds of hand-work can be social traditions: things to do while sitting on porches or in parlors with your family and neighbors. I don’t have a porch or a parlor, but I have plenty of fabric shops and thread stores on 38th Street here in Manhattan, and I have a couch, and if no neighbors stop by, which they sometimes do even here, I have a TV.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

CR: I’m working on one book about stars, one book about a wonderful jazz composer, and one book about talking cats engaged in saving the world from tyranny.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

CR: I suppose if I was able to write my own picture book autobiography, I would probably be able to illustrate it myself, too, so that is what I would prefer. That said, the only person I ever wrote words for is Vladimir Radunsky. Him, Vladimir, it is, whom I would chose to illustrate anything I wrote.

A million, billion, trillion thanks to Chris for talking to me about how he created these unique illustrations! Yellow Dog Blues publishes TODAY from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Chris and Eerdmans for use of these images!

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