Suzanne Slade is the author of the new children's picture book The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue. Her many other books for children include The Inventor's Secret and What If There Were No Bees?. She lives in the Chicago area.
Q: Why did you choose to write a picture book about George Gershwin and "Rhapsody in Blue"?
A: This story idea actually found me on the Fourth of July many years ago. It was late at night and I was watching a fireworks celebration on our local PBS station while "Rhapsody in Blue" played in the background.
The show host mentioned that the first time George Gershwin performed "Rhapsody in Blue" he didn't use any sheet music, but rather played the notes in his head.
I couldn't stop thinking about that surprising fact, so I decided to research Gershwin and that first performance. The more I learned about how he created that iconic song, the more I wanted to share this inspiring, true story with young readers.
Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?
A: I began my research with primary sources containing Gershwin's own writings, as well as reliable websites and books. Once I had a decent rough draft I reached out to experts for vetting and additional facts.
Thankfully, Dr. Michael Ruhling (Rochester Institute of Technology music professor, president of North America Haydn Society) and Raymond White (music specialist from the Library of Congress George and Ira Gershwin Collection) both kindly agreed to help with the project.
I guess there were two things that really surprised me about Gershwin. First, he was a clothes horse. Gershwin was invited to many parties, and he loved to don the latest styles whenever he went out.
Second, I was shocked to discover he died when he was only 38. His short life makes his prolific music career and accomplishments even more amazing.
Q: What do you think Stacy Innerst's illustrations bring to the book?
A: Stacy's imaginative mind and incredible talent took this story to a whole new level of "creative."
I love how he cleverly emphasized the "blue" theme with moving scenes filled with lovely hues of blue. He also created hand written text for key musical phrases which adds a certain flair to the book.
Stacy's illustrations blew me away, and it seems several reviewers are quite fond of them too:
"The swirling text wraps around the inventive (and mostly blue) art, both literally and figuratively, capturing the time period as well as the dazzling musical piece." —Booklist, starred review
Innerst’s acrylic spreads are almost entirely done in blue and gray tones, with broad brushstrokes, scanned textiles, and paper adding texture; each scene is striking." —School Library Journal, starred review
Innerst's acrylic-on-paper compositions, in a striking palette of indigo, sepia, and white, whimsically evoke both the period and the composer's creativity.... Bravo!" —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Q: As someone who's written about 100 books for kids, do you write more than one book at a time, and do you see any overlapping themes across your work?
A: Since the book making "process" can take two to five years or more, I always seem to have several books at various stages of production. I try to be in the "writing" phase of only one or two new stories at a time so I can properly keep track of all my research materials and have enough time to work with experts.
Regarding themes, I have an engineering degree so many of my books are about science topics, though I really enjoy writing about the lives of fascinating people as well.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My next picture book, Out of School and Into Nature: The Story of Anna Comstock, will release from Sleeping Bear Press in Spring 2017. I'm excited to share this true story about a determined, ground-breaking woman who loved art and nature.
In Fall 2017, Dangerous Jane (a picture book about Jane Addams) comes out from Peachtree.
I'm currently doing final revisions on my first fiction picture book, tentatively titled Sara's Surprise, which Tilbury House will publish in March 2018.
In Spring 2019, The Daring Dozen will release from Charlesbridge. I'm thrilled about this space book because I worked on rockets during my engineering days and can't wait to share some fascinating, little-known facts about NASA's moon missions with curious readers.
My agent is also finalizing contracts for three new nonfiction books, so it seems I'll continue to be busy with upcoming projects.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Readers can find a free Teacher's Guide for The Music in George's Head on my website here. Also, here's a link to listen to "Rhapsody in Blue."
--Interview with Deborah Kalb