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Writing a Picture Book: When Words and Pictures Collaborate

Posted on Wed, Mar 6 2013 8:51 am by Lauren Stringer

The Rite of Spring, the ballet collaboration between the composer, Igor Stravinsky and the dancer/choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, so shocked the public during its premiere in Paris on May 29th, 1913 that it caused a riot in the theatre. When I discovered this story, I wanted to write a playful and rhythmic picture book that conveyed the thrill and drama to children. I began with what I knew about the two artists:

“Stravinsky played piano, fingers plinking, prancing, fingers dancing. When Stravinsky played piano he could hear oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Piccolos, cymbals, and timpani too.”

“When Nijinsky danced a dance, he could fill the stage like a floating swan, a leaping deer, and a landing sparrow. Slithering serpents, tip-toeing fauns, and a strutting peacock too.”

But after several drafts, it became obvious that I needed to do lots of research. However I was afraid that too much information would tame my playful text and turn it into a dusty retelling of a historic event.

The manuscript languished for months while I resisted the research. Finally I succumbed to a pile of books from the library and could not stop reading about one of the most compelling stories of the making of a ballet that revolutionized the arts in the 20th Century.

There was Nicholas Roerich, the scenic artist and costume designer whose knowledge of ancient Russian cultures guided both the composer and choreographer. The impresario of The Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who brought Stravinsky and Nijinsky together in the first place.

There were hundreds of accounts of what actually happened on that fateful night when the riot broke out in the Theatre des Champs Elysees, including Stravinsky’s story of holding onto Nijinsky’s coattails while he stood on a chair shouting out the beats in Russian because the dancers could not hear the music over the din of the audience. Also the influence of Cubism on both the music and the dance must not be omitted. How could I leave any of it out?  My fears of a long story cluttered with facts were coming true.

When I teach the making of picture books I try to convey that knowing how to read the pictures is equally as important as reading the words. Remembering that I was writing a picture book rescued my manuscript—a story written for young children in words and pictures that unfolds over 32 pages, often read aloud in an intimate setting, such as a lap or a story-time circle. Not only was there such a thing as back matter—usually a spread or two at the back of a picture book for more historic details that add to the understanding of the story, but there are also the pictures!

When it came to illustrating When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky the more research the better. In fact, I kept a thick file of images to work from in order to get the costumes and settings correct and the fashions of the times historically accurate. All of the historic details I learned did not muddle my story, but instead added to the richness of my illustrations. In When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, words and pictures together are essential for understanding the whole story, just as the music and the dance are essential to experience together for understanding The Rite of Spring.

In the illustration on the left, evidence of Cubism’s influence on the dance and music is conveyed in both illustration and text. In the illustration on the right, Serge Diaghilev, the founder of The Ballets Russes sits on his chair observing the rehearsal. Nicholas Roerich, the set and costume designer for The Rite of Spring is busy sketching some of the bear costumes for the ballet. Stravinsky was known as a very physical player of the piano and would often stand and pound out the music at rehearsals at the fast tempo he required. Nijinsky purposefully turned toes inward and bent elbows to counter the traditional line of ballet.

Text and Illustration copyright © 2013 by Lauren Stringer
Copyright © 2013 by Harcourt Children’s Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

 

Lauren Stringer has illustrated many celebrated picture books, including The Princess and Her Panther by Wendy Orr and Scarecrow and Snow, both written by Cynthia Rylant, as well as her own Winter Is the Warmest Season. She is the 2012 winner of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers, Loft Award in Children's Literature, Younger Children. On Tuesday, March 12, she will give a presentation on When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky at The Loft Literary Center. Visit her at LaurenStringer.com.