How do you go from working in a home for handicapped children to having a piece of your original art presented as an award to John Kennedy, Jr.? Why, you write and illustrate children's books, of course. At least that's the path Chris Raschka has followed, but it's been circuitous at best. He told me something of the path he's followed when we talked recently.
Raschka always thought he would be a biologist as he was growing up in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, he spent a lot of time painting and playing musical instruments, eventually mastering the viola. After graduating from college, he was on his way to work for a summer at a crocodile farm in India when a sudden opportunity to work in a home for handicapped children in St. Croix diverted him. That experience, about eight years ago, changed his life in several ways. He and his wife began to exhibit their art in St. Croix, and he began to be curious about sardines a process that gave birth to his 13th picture book, Arlene Sardine, although the gestation period was a long one.
In the meantime, Raschka returned to the U.S. where he was scheduled to start graduate school at the University of Michigan. At the last minute he got a two-year deferment and took a job illustrating for the Michigan state bar association's publication. That led to doing political cartoons, and art carried the day at that point. He never returned to graduate school. He credits picture book artist Vladimir Radunsky with persuading him to move to New York to be nearer opportunities to illustrate children's books. However, Raschka didn't quite forsake music. His first title for Orchard was Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, published in 1992. Not only did it feature a great jazz musician, but the form and style of both text and illustrations suggest the loose inventiveness of jazz. Waddling birds, dancing lollipops, shoes with legs, and Charlie Parker and his saxophone go crazily across the pages to scat words in different kinds of type. Yet they repeat in unexpected ways and give the same pulsating beat as Parker's music in his recording of "A Night in Tunisia," which Raschka credits as the inspiration for the book.
In each succeeding year since '92, Raschka has published one or more picture books. His Yo! Yes? was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1993. With minimal words (maximum of two per page) and simple drawings of the same two boys, one black and one white, on each spread, he depicts the story of finding a new friend that makes readers want to jump up and yell YOW just as the boys do on the final page.
Raschka returned to a jazz theme again in Mysterious Thelonius, which Orchard published in 1997. Even more inventive than Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, it is, at first, pages of brightly colored squares on which the jazz musician Thelonius Monk plays his piano in wild contortions. After more consideration, the puzzle yields to show how Raschka has matched the 12 musical tones of the scale to the 12 values of the color wheel. It becomes a way to see music in color and, if you can read music, to play the words of a picture book.
I asked Raschka how he happened to think of the life story of a sardine for Arlene Sardine. He remembers its origin well. One day, as he was putting away an assortment of food donations from the United States, he was struck by the amazing journey of a can of sardines. It had come from the Sea of Japan to the U.S. and then to St. Croix. He began to wonder about the world travels of a fish and wrote to that sardine company and several others. His best information came from Norway, describing the process of how a brisling fish becomes a sardine. Later, the information resurfaced and became the basis for Arlene's story.
In semblance of a can, Arlene Sardine is designated on the cover as an "easy-open book" with "Net Wt. 12 oz." Inside it tells the story of how one little fish, in a school of thousands, dreamed of becoming a sardine. Smiling sublimely all the while, she is caught in a purse net, sorted, salted, canned, covered in oil, sealed in a can, and cooked. Arlene was a sardine. The semblance may be hard to swallow for an adult either that there are too many of us on the planet or that death is just a part of the life cycle but young readers will certainly like the interesting depiction of how sardines are made from little fish. Raschka hopes they will also see it as the fulfillment of Arlene's dream, a cause for celebration much as a birthday or the last day of school. He describes it as "the celebration not of an ending but of a moving on, a changing." If there's anything he knows well, it's change. Don't be surprised if you hear that he's off to Japan to personally follow the journey of Arlene. Who knows what other interesting and colorful stories he will find?