Barb Rosenstock is the author of two new children's picture books, Blue Grass Boy and The Secret Kingdom. Her many other books include Vincent Can't Sleep and The Camping Trip That Changed America. She lives in Chicago.
Q: Why did you decide to write a children’s picture book about Bill Monroe and his bluegrass music?
A: I got lost. Seriously. I got lost in Indiana and wound up in a town called Bean Blossom, which is where a really big bluegrass music festival happens every year. I kept seeing that name, Bill Monroe, on billboards, and had no idea who he was.
When I learned that Monroe is often credited with “inventing” bluegrass music, I wondered how a whole kind of music could have been created by one guy.
I thought I wanted to write about a type of music, bluegrass and country, that is heard so much throughout American culture, and yet has been hardly addressed in children’s literature at all.
Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: My research process wasn’t that unusual for the book. Reading books, articles, visiting the places, and talking to experts in bluegrass.
I was surprised when I learned that Monroe had esotropia, his left eye turned inward. It’s what we used to call “cross-eyed.” He took a lot of very rough teasing from his own brothers and others about his eyes.
His condition wasn’t corrected until he was an adult, so he really couldn’t see very well at all while growing up, and not much better afterward. Yet his problems with his eyesight probably contributed to his sensitivity to sounds in general and the development of his music.
Q: You also have another new book out—what was the inspiration for The Secret Kingdom?
A: Getting lost, again, but this time on the internet. I was researching Van Gogh and I typed in some string of words that had to do with art and being an outsider.
The magic Google formula showed me photos of what turned out to be Nek Chand’s huge, lush sculpture garden in Chandigarh, India, which is considered one of the largest “outsider art” environments in the world.
I couldn’t (and still can’t) believe that Nek's Secret Kingdom, whose real name is "The Rock Garden of Chandigarh," was built from scrap and other recycled materials. There’s always a surprise with nonfiction!
Q: What do you think the illustrations—by Edwin Fotheringham and Claire A. Nivola, respectively--add to the books?
A: I love to see how the style an illustrator chooses communicates the book’s atmosphere and voice.
In Edwin’s case, the illustrations for Blue Grass Boy have a casual feel and there’s a lot of movement that mimics the farm and countryside where Monroe grew up, as well as the tone of his bluegrass music.
With The Secret Kingdom, Claire's work is almost delicate, and reminded me of Nek Chand’s physical person and his family’s sense of place. There are also many circular or curved elements (are there many straight lines in the book at all?) which goes to the book’s theme of how stories circle around to bring us home.
In both cases, which is why I love picture books, there is the story in the pictures as well as the one in the words, as well as the way they work together. Three stories in one book.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m almost finished working on a bio of Claude Monet and work every day on a MG novel in verse, that may or may not see the light of day. It feels good to stretch a bit.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m a lucky, lucky author! I have a third book coming out this same year! Otis & Will Discover the Deep is about the first explorers who built a craft that went down in the ocean below the light level. It's illustrated by the amazing Katherine Roy and will be published in June by Little Brown.
I hope it will encourage budding scientists and fascinate those kids who like adventure stories. We just received our third starred review, so I hope you’ll look it up, find some kids to read with, and DIVE IN!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barb Rosenstock.