Jonah Winter was "raised by atheist wolves" -- artist parents who didn't quite fit with their fundamentalist Christian neighbors in Dallas-Fort Worth. Neither did Winter, a jazz-, baseball- and poetry-loving kid who fled to Oberlin College and then to jobs in publishing and llama-farming, plus a stint as clarinetist in the indie-rock band Ed's Redeeming Qualities, before settling on a career writing and illustrating children's books. Subjects have included Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Benny Goodman, Latin American baseball stars and Negro Leagues ballplayers. The self-taught painter is also a poet whose 2004 book Amnesia won the Field Poetry Prize. Winter, 42, moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh in early 2004; he lives in Squirrel Hill with his wife, singer Sally Denmead (a.k.a. Monongahela Sal). His latest picture biography, Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, illustrated by Raíºl Colón, was published this spring.
How did you start writing children's books?
It's sort of the family business! My mother is a children's-book writer, and my first job out of college was with my mother's editor at Knopf. When I came back to New York after graduate school, the same editor hired me again. I made a lot of connections and gained an understanding of what makes a good picture book. One thing led to the next and it's like, "I could do this, I have the skills."
How did Roberto Clemente come about?
It was suggested by an editor of mine who knew I loved baseball and who had read my book on Latino baseball stars and knew that Clemente was in there. And I was of course thrilled to be asked to write a biography about this. Growing up, he was my hero; even though I grew up in Dallas I rooted for the Pirates. And Clemente, and Willie Stargell, and Manny Sanguillen, those were my guys.
When I first started getting interested in baseball, there was no team in Dallas. So I rooted for the Pirates. I liked Roberto Clemente and Manny Sanguillen. They were really good, for one thing. I guess they were as opposite from Dallas as I could imagine.
Why did your editor pick Clemente?
We have such a growing Latin American culture in this country; publishers more and more want to do books on Latin American topics. She picked him because of all the Latin American baseball players she could think of, he was more than just a baseball player. Anyone you talk to is going to talk about what a great man he was.
It was funny, because in my first draft, all I was emphasizing was baseball. And she said, "No, no, no, we have to emphasize the other side of his personality, that he was a humanitarian." And then the illustrator -- Raíºl Colón, who's a huge baseball fan and is from Puerto Rico -- saw this revised version and said, "Oh, come on, this has to be more of a baseball story!"
You address racism against Clemente, especially by sportswriters.
I don't know how much my editor wanted me to deal with that. I think she was a little bit nervous about it. But I insisted that it be in there, because how can you talk about Clemente without talking about how he was maligned earlier in his career? It really took until the 1971 World Series to turn the press's opinion of him around. I mean, they mocked his accent in print, they called him lazy, called him a hothead.
Did your editor balk?
A repeated refrain from children's-book editors is "too adult." However, I think as long as it's done in a language kids can understand, you can deal with difficult topics. In the Frida Kahlo book I deal with her accident, and that's a very difficult thing.
How do your poetry and your picture books relate?
I think that poets in general are probably suited to write picture-book manuscripts because the writing goal is one of reduction, and condensation. In my case I do picture-book biographies, so I have 32 pages, one or two sentences per page, to tell the entire story of a person: Frida Kahlo or Roberto Clemente. That probably involves some of the same parts of the brain that writing a poem involves. Unless you're Dante or Walt Whitman! It's really the pictures that should be telling the story.
Do you have a writing strategy?
I try to approach each [book] differently. Like the one on Roberto Clemente, I tried to approach his life as a fairy tale because his life kind of was a little bit, the way he began [in Puerto Rico]. Certainly his life does read a little like a fairy tale, with the last hit he ever hit being his 3000th. And of course that he died trying to help people made him rise above. Where he ended up was kind of mythic.