Jonah Winter Interview Transcript
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
The author Jonah Winter was interviewed by Scholastic students.
What made you decide to write the book about Frida Kahlo? Are you a fan of Mexican art?
Ten years ago, I wrote a book about Frida Kahlo's husband, the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. It was a very popular book, and I was asked to write about Frida Kahlo as a sort of companion book to my book about Diego Rivera. I've always liked Mexican art because I grew up surrounded by Mexican art in my home. My mother, Jeanette Winter, the children's book illustrator who illustrated my book about Diego Rivera, has enough Mexican art to open up a small museum.
Have you seen any of Frida's original works?
Yes, I've seen her works in two different museum shows in New York City. They are even more beautiful to see right in front of you than they are in a book.
Do you plan on writing any other husband and wife books?
I hadn't thought about it, but I can think of a few right off the bat that might be interesting to write, such as the famous American patriots John Adams and Abigail Adams.
Frida's life was very sad and painful. Was it difficult to write a children's book based on her life?
Yes, this was the main challenge in writing a book about her. In fact, my mother was originally asked to do the illustrations for this book. My mother is a very respected illustrator. She did a very good job illustrating the book Diego about Frida's husband. However, my mother decided that Frida's life was too difficult to turn into a children's book. I on the other hand saw this as a challenge, and this is what made writing this book an interesting project for me. I couldn't tell her entire life story in a children's book since a typical children's book is only 32 pages long. So I had to decide what part of her story would make sense in a children's book. I decided that the part of her story that would make sense is the fact that she used art to overcome her pain.
How come you only write biographies?
The first biography I wrote was on Diego Rivera, called Diego. Because it did so well, I realized that I had a talent for writing this kind of book. And I have always found biographies interesting.
How do you decide whom you're going to write books about?
Usually I write books about people whose lives interest me because they have done something or are doing something that I would like to do. For instance, I wrote a picture-book biography on Benny Goodman, the famous jazz clarinet player, because I am a clarinet player and Benny Goodman was always my hero. I've written two books on famous baseball players because I've always loved baseball. When I was a kid I wanted to be a baseball player, but I was not good at hitting, fielding, throwing, or hand-eye coordination in general. Since I just turned 40 years old, finally now I've had to admit to myself that I can never become a baseball player. But I can still write and illustrate books about baseball. Yee ha!
What kind of music do you like to play on clarinet?
I like to play jazz on clarinet; I like to play the song “Up a Lazy River.” I also like to play a kind of Jewish music called klezmer, which is kind of like Jewish jazz. I also like to play sad Italian songs on the clarinet. Sometimes I like to play the Mozart clarinet concerto.
Did you ever want to be a painter?
Yes, seven years ago I decided I wanted to become a painter, so I became a painter. I started painting and decided that I would try to get my illustrations published in the form of a children's book. I succeeded! I've published two books about baseball that contain my illustrations. Luckily, I was able to combine my interests in painting and baseball in these illustrations of baseball players.
What is your favorite book, and who is your favorite artist?
This question could get me into a lot of trouble because both of my parents are artists. I have a lot of favorite artists. Frida Kahlo is one. Of children's book illustrators, I of course love my mother's illustrations. And I am also quite fond of the illustrations of a woman named Dayal Kaur Khalsa. You can find her books in the library. My favorite book by her is called I Want a Dog. She also wrote another book called How Pizza Came to Queens.
How come you didn't illustrate Frida yourself?
I wanted to illustrate Frida, but I was not famous enough. The editor felt that it would be good to have a woman illustrate the book and specifically a Hispanic woman. Whatever the editor's reasons were, he chose absolutely the perfect illustrator for this book, and I'm so relieved that I didn't have to illustrate it because I wouldn't have done as good a job.
Was it hard working with a Spanish illustrator?
I didn't work with the illustrator [Ana Juan]. The text that I wrote was given to this illustrator, who is Spanish but who also speaks English. I've never actually met the illustrator or have had any communication with her.
How do you do your research for your books?
I go to the library, and I check out as many books as I can on the subject I'm going to write about. I read these books, and when I'm through reading them, I close them and set them aside and get out a pen and a pad of paper and start writing what I can remember from my research. When I'm through writing, I go back to the books to make sure I have not remembered anything incorrectly.
How long did it take you to write Frida? Did you have to do a lot of research about her?
The research that I did is not what took up most of the time. In other words, I didn't do a huge amount of research — but enough so I understood her life well enough to write a children's book about her. The difficult part about writing her story was figuring how to make something so complicated as her life into something as simple as the story I wrote. The plan that I finally hit upon was to tell her story in a series of present-tense sentences, almost like sentences that would be written on a little Mexican ex voto painting. Ex voto paintings, as I explain in the book, are little religious scenes painted by Mexican folk artists that often have words on them explaining what's happening in the scene. Frida Kahlo collected these little paintings, and they influenced her. Some of her paintings are like ex voto paintings with words on them. So from my point of view, it seemed like a good idea to tell her story in this manner; this seemed like one way to make her complicated life story a little simpler.
Since you are so interested in Frida's life, have you ever thought about writing an adult book about her?
No, I don't write adult biographies. For me, the challenge in writing a biography is taking a complicated life story and making it as simple as possible. One of the reasons that I like to do this is because I'm a poet, and poems are sometimes similar to children's books.
Have you ever met any of the people you write about?
Last summer, I met a very famous baseball player named Orlando Cepeda. He's in the baseball Hall of Fame, and his name is in one of my books on baseball. Unfortunately, I did not paint a picture of him in this book but instead used a picture of his father, who is also a baseball player. It made me kind of nervous meeting Orlando Cepeda because I hadn't included a picture of him in my book. However, he was very nice and kept complimenting my hat. It's the same hat that I was wearing in the picture of me on my biography page on Scholastic's site. I asked Orlando Cepeda if he would give me his autograph, and he said yes, if I would give him my hat, but I got his autograph and got to keep my hat. Ha!
In your Author's Note, you say that Frida inspired women artists. Do you think or hope that your book might inspire kids to become artists too? I thought it taught a lot about what art can do.
Absolutely. That would be the best possible result of this book, that it would cause a child to want to make art.
What would you tell someone who wants to write a biography? How do you get started?
Go to the library, check out books on some famous person who you've heard about whose story interests you. Read those books, then see if you can — not looking at the books — tell this person's story yourself. If you want to write a picture-book biography, you have to imagine each thing you tell about this famous person having an illustration next to it.
What kind of poetry do you write? Has any of it ever been published?
I write poems for adults mainly. Sometimes the poems I write are very silly. I wrote a series of poems called “Book Reports,” which were little ten-line biographies from the point of view of a misinformed 13-year-old boy narrator. In these poems, I often got the facts wrong, misspelled words, and was generally goofy. These particular poems are not published anywhere. I also like to write poems in poetic forms, like sonnets, which are 14-line poems; they have particular structures.
I hadn't thought about it. That's a great idea! First I'll have to think of someone to write a biography about. I did write a poem called “The Fool in Shakespeare," based on a really bad English paper I wrote in college. In this poem, I refer to Shakespeare's play Hamlet as “Hamblet.”
Are you working on any books right now? What are your plans for future books?
I am working on several picture-book biographies right now on famous musicians, baseball players, and one on a saint. At some point in the near future, a book I did called Wild Women of the Wild West will be published.
Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?
I wanted to talk about what prompted me to start writing children's books. Since I was a little kid, I have always been interested in tackling things that I have a hard time with. For instance, when I was in grade school, I was horrible at music. Music didn't make any sense to me. So I decided that since this was my main weak spot, I would try and become better at it and try to make it my strong point. So I did and started learning how to play various instruments. By the time I was in high school, I was known as a musician. With children's books, it has been a very similar thing that has happened. When I was a kid, reading was very difficult for me. I always wanted to be outside playing. I had a really hard time concentrating on books, so I decided that I wanted to tackle that problem, and that's why I decided to become a writer. Sometimes it seems kind of strange that I'm a writer, considering how hard it was for me when I was younger, but my point is anyone can do anything. Even if you think you're really bad at something, you can become really good at it.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to be writers?
My only advice to children who would want to become writers would be to write. Fill up notebooks with whatever you feel like saying, whether it's in the form of a diary entry or poems or stories or your own mini-biographies of people who interest you. There's no magic formula for becoming a writer, except to write.