Barry Wittenstein is the author of the new children's picture book biography Sonny's Bridge: Jazz Legend Sonny Rollins Finds His Groove. He also has written The Boo-Boos That Changed the World and Waiting for Pumpsie. He lives in the Bronx.
Q: Why did you decide to write about saxophonist Sonny Rollins in your new picture book?
A: I’ve known his name, and knew his story from growing up. And was always fascinated by the image of a sax player practicing on a bridge! Then, more recently, there’s an effort to rename the Williamsburg Bridge in his honor. So, Sonny Rollins has always floated in my brain somewhere.
Sonny’s story touches on so many universal themes that kids relate to in their own lives. Believing in themselves, making difficult decisions, working hard to achieve a goal, and on and on. I’m always looking to develop stories that would work well for a kidlit audience. Plus, and it was a plus, his story has never appeared in children’s lit. And, he’s still alive!
Q: How did you try to get the feeling of jazz into your text?
A: I am a huge fan of the Beatnik poetry of the 1950s. It’s the pre-Hippie era. Reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind opened my mind to free verse. I also wrote, performed, and studied poetry in college. I listened to Sonny’s music and read many articles about him. Research, I love research. So….I kinda imagined being back in 1959 and improvised. As I did different versions and then edits, I continued to shape the language.
Q. What do you think Keith Mallett's illustrations add to the book?
A: Well, he is phenomenal! He is an artist, and his illustrations are art. To state the obvious, his work made my words better! Genuinely a jaw-dropping moment when I saw what he had done. Charlesbridge picked The. Perfect. Collaborator. for Sonny’s Bridge.
Q: You also have a new book coming out about Martin Luther King Jr. What can you tell us about that book?
A: A Place to Land is about how Dr. King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech. It comes out in August, published by Neal Porter Books. Legendary illustrator and Caldecott winner Jerry Pinkney did the artwork. And it is incredible. No surprise there!
I had heard that there’s approximately 100 children’s books about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I always told myself that if I were to write a book about Dr. King, it would have to have a unique angle. That probably sounds obvious, since a book without a unique angle would never be published. But I never actively sought that unique angle. I figured there was no need for my take on MLK.
Then, as I am wont to do, I read on the internet about a book his attorney, Clarence Jones, had written. It focused on how the iconic speech came to be. I had never heard the story. Did I just miss it? Then I researched some more. There were a few, but not much written about this storyline. And I then I researched if any children’s lit book talked about the mechanics of the speech. Again, nothing.
I knew I was interested in how the speech came to be, and I guessed it would appeal to kids who – like most of us – dread rewriting. That the “I Have a Dream” speech didn’t just appear in Dr. King’s hand that day as he stood on the podium, addressing the country and the world. The story is a series of twists and turns and a touch of kismet.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: SHHHH… I can’t reveal specifics, but I have about 10 narrative nonfiction ideas in various stages of writing in my head and on paper. They include an old painter, an invention, a chef, an Olympic athlete, an iconic reporter, a train, a library, baseball…then there’s a few fiction things that are begging to be written. Lack of ideas is never the problem with me. Good ideas? Yes, hard to find. Ability to implement those ideas? Definitely a struggle.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Besides, I would like to see a dessert menu?
I have a fiction book out in 2020 called Oscar’s American Dream, published by Anne Schwartz. It is the story of a small corner store's evolution over 100 years, and how its different occupants reflect the changing face of America. It is being illustrated by Kevin Howdeshell and Kristen Howdeshell.
After that comes out, I’m retiring and going to mime school. I figured I will have said all I need to say, and it will then be time to zip it.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Barry Wittenstein.