Learning about historical figures and current events needn't be a drag for kids, if they're lucky enough to have Jonah Winter for a teacher. The Pittsburgh resident, poet and amateur opera star (with the Pittsburgh Savoyards) has written picture-book biographies on everyone from Sandy Koufax to Gertrude Stein and Barack Obama.
The gorgeously illustrated nonfiction books make brilliant use of voice to bring their subjects to life. You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?! (illustrated by André Carrilho) uses old-school Brooklyn slang, and The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan (illustrated by Richard Egielski) employs the delicious topsy-turvy wordplay that characterized their operas.
Winter's mother, Jeanette Winter, is a noted author of children's books, but his own work often has a political bent. One upcoming book, Peaceful Heroes (Arthur A. Levine Books), tells of nonviolent icons from Jesus to the firefighters at the World Trade Center. Here Comes the Garbage Barge (Schwartz & Wade Books) recalls the orphaned trash barge that floated around Long Island in the '80s.
You began as a poet, but then collaborated with your mother on Diego, about Mexican artist Diego Rivera. How did that happen?
I had written a series of poems for adults called Book Reports, from the point of view of an illiterate, misinformed 13-year-old boy [including one on Rivera]. My mother, God bless her, I think she thought it was a really good poem. She approached me to write the text, thinking I would bring the same kind of brevity.
Obama hadn't yet won the election when you published Barack, about his childhood and rise to prominence. Was that a nailbiter?
Some people go to Vegas -- I write books about people who haven't become president yet! I took a big gamble. [But] I left the end of it open-ended. Even if he had lost, it would celebrate what he accomplished.
It's become a political outlet for me. I certainly have a very leftist agenda. I took a lot of heat for my book on Barack Obama. People were saying I was hoping to create a new Hitler Youth. I've gotten accused of brainwashing.
In Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, your handling of the lesbian relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas is quite deft -- it's just presented without comment. Why do it that way?
You don't say, "Let me tell you what heterosexuals do in bed." My goal was to celebrate them and present their lives as normal. Maybe because of the way I did it, it's impervious to the Sarah Palins of the world who want to censor books about gay penguins.
How do you write in a voice that appeals to kids without being condescending? Do you have kids?
I'm the only kid in my house. If you have an imagination, if you haven't forgotten, you don't have to have kids. If you have any memory, or if you're simply immature, it's just a matter of accessing that when you're writing.
I try to find a voice that's going to be engaging. I worry about losing people's attention. That's one of my goals, to use a different voice for every story. I really enjoy reading aloud when I do school visits. When I perform Dizzy, which I wrote in a beatnik, beat-poetry voice, I have Dizzy Gillespie playing, I wear a beret and sunglasses. Kids really appreciate it. I have a blast!
To quote William Carlos Williams, "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem." If you as the writer have fun, that'll communicate.
Are you a poet who writes children's books, or a children's-book author who writes poems?
I think I used to say I'm a POET (whohappenstowritechildren'sbooks), but at this point I'm so put off by the egregious pretension in the poetry world. If you're a children's-book author, you're hammering nails in your coffin as far as being a cool hipster poet. I think it's totally cool to write children's books.
- Books in the key of life: Jonah Winter