Interview: Lenore Look

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I’m sure that many of your share my love for Alvin Ho. He’s one of the most unique characters in children’s literature that I have ever read. Getting the opportunity to interview Alvin Ho author, Lenore Look, is an honor. I’m hoping that you enjoy the interview, and that you check out her beautiful picture book Brush of the Gods.

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My students and I study legends and myths as part of our fourth grade curriculum. I am excited to add The Brush of the Gods to our arsenal. Can you talk about how your Chinese heritage has informed her work on this book?

I grew up listening to my dad tell tall tales about growing up in China, and about Chinese historical figures and events that really sparked his imagination. He knew the cold, hard facts, but the way he told them to us always sounded like a first-hand account. For example, I know for a fact that my dad suffered the cold winters and brutal beatings as a forced laborer in the construction of the Great Wall. Also, he was practically scared to death as a sculptor in the creepy tomb of the terra cotta army. In happier times, he witnessed the invention of the kite, ice cream, and fireworks. He never told me about Wu Daozi, but he knew Wu’s friends very well, the poets Li Bai and Du Fu.

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Why do you feel that it is important that we continue to pass legends on from generation to generation?

Wu Daozi isn’t a legend, per se, he was a real guy. To me, a legend starts with a sensational, fictional birth, like the Monkey King, or Romulus and Remus, and survival depends on a series of miraculous interventions. Wu’s birth was ordinary, as far as anyone knows, and his survival as an orphan and then as an artist, in 8th Century China, depended on luck and pluck, which meant that he had to do a lot of plain, hard work. The only part of his story that is legend is the claim that he never died, but simply walked into his last painting and disappeared.

We tend to turn real people who have accomplished great things into legends, and Wu’s contemporaries did that to him, though I’m not sure that it was intentional. It was the first time that people saw three-dimensional painting and they were so amazed by it that they really thought that his paintings moved and walked away. They were not making it up! It’s hard for us to imagine their astonishment, but they really did believe that he created life with his brush. And the fact that the elements would eventually wash away his work, contributed to their wonder. So this isn’t a legend, I’m simply passing on the cold, hard facts.

BrushofGods2When writing a picture book about a legend where the main character is an artist, the illustrations are vital. Did you get a chance to work with or have any input with Meilo So on the illustrations? What did you think when you saw the final art?

I’m happy to take no credit for the incredible art that Meilo So produced for this book. She worked closely with the amazing team at Schwartz & Wade to create the vision that you see. I don’t get involved at all in the illustration process once I’m done with my manuscript. I believe in letting the artist freely interpret the story as she sees it. It’s art. It can only come from within. It’s not work-for-hire. I’m not asking her to paint my kitchen. The only time I say anything is when there are historical or cultural inaccuracies, or when an artist asks specifically for direction. Otherwise, I stay out of the way.

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My students and I are always looking for great picture books about legends. Do you have any favorites that you could share with us? 

EL CHINO, by Allen Say. SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. STARRY MESSENGER, by Peter Sis. Each one is about a real person who worked very hard and accomplished great things. I have all of these on my shelf and love returning to them again and again.

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