of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
R. Gregory Christie
see cover art permission
Looking at the collection of picture books on my young child's bookshelf, I'm
struck by the uniqueness of each artist's approach, whether it's a simple cartoon
style with gobs of white space, lush watercolors that bleed off the page, or
wacky collages that pull together unexpected elements. The way each artist's
personality jumps off the page is part of what I love about picture books. But
as much as I love picture book art, it isn't very often that an artist gets
under my skin the way R. Gregory Christie has.
Christie's acrylic illustrations are a compelling blend of realism and distortion. In his first book, The Palm of My Heart, a collection of poetry by African American children, Christie paints people with oversized hands, long, thin necks, and arms that hang past their knees. The effect of these exaggerations, in addition to drawing out the accompanying text, is that the reader perceives the lean, solid strength of the young African American writers. In Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, by Anne Rockwell, Christie first emphasizes the subject's combination of intelligence and powerlessness in a painting of her with a large head and tiny hands held up in surrender. Behind her we see the chest of her white master, a stick in his enormous hands. Later, as the young woman spins wool and prepares to escape, it is her hands that appear large and strong.
Christie's portrayal of faces is most notable, even haunting. There is sometimes distortion within the faces, such as the vast nose on a gang banger in Barbara Joosse's Stars in the Darkness, but it is mostly the way that Christie emphasizes faces over the rest of the body that gives them their power. Christie's bodies are often simple and minimized, both in size and detail, contrasting with rich, complex faces that convey the world inside the characters. In Stars in the Darkness, one illustration shows a young boy smiling up at his brother with pride, as the brother looks at a gang member with curiosity and even longing. The boy and his brother take up only one small corner of the full spread, yet their faces tell us as much as the words in the text, and the dramatic composition enhances the impact.
Whether it's a picture book about a young girl overcoming her fear of chickens (Rukhsana Khan's Ruler of the Courtyard), a poetic tribute to the black church (Tonya Bolden's Rock of Ages), or a verse biography of Langston Hughes (Tony Medina's Love to Langston), the books that Christie illustrates speak to the lives of all children, and his illustrations create harmony with the words. The paintings, with their disproportion, may initially strike a reader as being strange or different, but in the words of Shawnta'ya Jones, one of the young poets of The Palm of My Heart, "differences are good because no one else says the same things as you." No one else paints the way R. Gregory Christie does, and those differences bring a new depth to children's book illustration.
Cover art reproduced with permission from Yesterday I Had the Blues. Copyright © 2003 by R. Gregory Christie. Tricycle Press, www.tenspeed.com