Written by Janet Wong
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
Margaret K. McElderry
This is the third book of poetry written by Janet Wong that Paschkis has illustrated. NIGHT GARDEN: POEMS FROM THE WORLD OF DREAMS, the first collaboration between Wong and Paschkis, was a stunner. It was designated a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2000 and a National Council of Teachers of English Notable Children’s Book. Their second book, KNOCK ON WOOD: POEMS ABOUT SUPERSTITIONS, was a Riverbank Review Books of Distinction Finalist. Needless to say, I waited with anticipation for my review copy of TWIST to arrive from the publisher. As soon as I looked at the front cover and read the first poem, Breath, I knew I had in my hands another wonderful pairing of art and poetry from these two talented and accomplished women.
TWIST is a collection of poems about different yoga positions. There’s nothing fussy or pretentious about Wong’s poetry in this book. With well-honed writing and lyrical language that is accessible to young children, she captures the poetic essence of the yoga poses and creates tangible images of sixteen different body positions—including Warrior, Tree, and Crow. Paschkis’s vibrant watercolor illustrations are striking and meld into a visual harmony with Wong’s fine text.
This is an attractively designed book. The format of TWIST suits the subject matter of the poetry perfectly. Each two-page spread includes a poem that explains the meaning of a particular yoga position and a painting that illustrates that position. Both the illustration and the poem are set inside frames of the same size—with the illustration on the left-hand page and the poem on the right-hand page. This gives the effect of the poem and the painting being mirror images of each other. The framed paintings are set inside larger border-like illustrations, which also mirror each other. These larger illustrations include design details that extend the yoga theme of each of Wong’s poems.
Here are three examples from the book to show you how the art and text work together so beautifully to provide us with a unique artistic and literary interpretation of yoga.
Crow depends on his elbows.
You cannot always fly.
You need to rest
the weight of yourself.
TWIST has the elements that I look for in an illustrated poetry book for children: well-written poetry with a new “twist” and art that not only adds visual interest to the book, but also adds another dimension to the author’s text.
An Interview with Janet Wong & Julie Paschkis
Janet and Julie were kind enough to let me interview them about their most recent collaboration on TWIST. Here’s a little background information first: Julie and Janet are friends. They met through Laura Kvanosky, author of ZELDA AND IVY: THE RUNAWAYS. Each of their three books has been submitted as an author/illustrator package, which is pretty unusual in the publishing world.
Elaine: Janet, in your Author's Note at the end of TWIST, you tell readers that you wrote the poems for Julie, who loves yoga and loves to stretch. Did you just sit down one day and decide you were going to write these poems for Julie...or was there something in particular that inspired you to so? I’d also like to know if you practice yoga.
Janet: Even though it has been years (and pounds) since I have practiced yoga, I did do the poses as I wrote the poems. I think my dog Nissa found it quite strange to see me typing away on the computer, then flopping suddenly down on the floor, stretching, then hopping back up to my desk for more typing. I'd be straining on the floor and she would come and lick my face in encouragement (or maybe sympathy).
I don't do enough exercise, and it was very good for me to have a reason to "have to" do yoga (apart from the health and spiritual benefits). One review suggested that this book was inspired by the "current yoga craze" but, actually, I started writing these poems in 2002, after Julie finished the paintings for KNOCK ON WOOD, and finished the poems in 2003. I was so pleased with what Julie had done in that book and wanted to give her another project, an "irresistible project." I chose yoga, knowing that she is passionate about yoga and practices it several times a week. I was a bit worried when I started seeing children's yoga books coming out. With each passing year, I worried that "the market" was disappearing. But this isn't a how-to book. I'm hoping that kids who have learned yoga will stumble on this book and feel a jolt of excitement at discovering a celebration of an important part of their lives.
Elaine: Julie, did you enjoy illustrating this book of poems that Janet wrote especially for you?
Julie: TWIST was great fun to illustrate. I do a lot of yoga so I felt like I knew the poses from the inside out (less googling than usual for reference). Janet's poems were surprising and just right. So many of the poses have animal names. She pushed those connections in ways that brought imagery to mind that was fun to paint. Now when I do yoga poses I often think of lines from her poems. I will be in cat pose and suddenly think of a pleasant bowl of cream.
Elaine: Janet, reviewers of TWIST have noted the variety of ethnicities Julie depicts in her paintings. Was this something the two of you discussed before she did the art for the book?
Janet: I like the fact that Julie varies the ethnicity of the children in our books. We have never discussed this with each other, but I feel it is very important for kids to see a variety of looks. Not just different races, but different hairstyles and body shapes. I'm happy to have inspired the roly-poly round-bellied "jelly doughnut" of a girl in the poem "Finding the Center" in TWIST. There's a secret truth in that painting that Julie didn't intend: the green apples in the foreground (painted by Julie to symbolize envy), actually (in my mind and personal history) symbolize Asians. When my grandfather learned that I was dating a white man (who later became my husband), he said, "There are green apples, red apples. We are green apples. But you need to try all kinds." My grandfather was about 85 years old when he told me this. He was quite poetic, a natural storyteller—and a very wise man.
The Jelly Doughnut and the Green Apples
Elaine: Julie, would like to speak to this diversity represented in the books you have illustrated for Janet?
Julie: I always want to include lots of different ethnicities so that children can see themselves. But also that reflects reality; on my block alone there are Indian, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, black, white, and mixed race children.
Elaine: Julie, where did you get your inspiration for the art in TWIST?
Julie: I looked at a lot of Indian miniatures as I did the illustrations for TWIST. Since yoga comes from India it made sense for those pictures to influence the art in the book. I studied the miniatures for the colors and for the way space is divided up. I love how saturated the colors are in the Indian paintings. One interesting fact that I learned is that the intense yellow pigment in the miniatures was made from feeding mangos to the cows and then making paint from their dried urine. (I didn't use that technique.)
When I painted the clothing and the borders I looked at the Indian miniatures, at paintings of people in Indian clothing and at a Dover book of paisley patterns. I put all those ingredients in my head and painted the patterns based on those inspirations; they aren't exact copies of anything. I tried to make the patterns fit the poems. For example, in the illustration for the poem Triangle all of the patterns on the clothes are based on the triangle shape. Or in Cobra the border and clothing have lines that snake around.
Elaine: Janet, tell me about your author-illustrator relationship with Julie and why you love working with her.
Janet: Perhaps the most amazing thing about Julie is that she has made each book of ours significantly different from the last. People who look quickly might not notice the little differences, but all together they add up to something quite important.
For instance, NIGHT GARDEN: POEMS FROM THE WORLD OF DREAMS had no glossary of "dream interpretation" at the back. I thought that was fine; Julie, too, wanted to emphasize the poems and not distract the reader with psychobabble. Why, then, did we include "back matter" in KNOCK ON WOOD: POEMS ABOUT SUPERSTITIONS? Julie's curiosity about (and even, I would say, fascination with) superstitions, as well as the folkloric element of her paintings, led me to justify including a glossary (of sorts) at the end of the book. I say "of sorts" because, again, she encouraged me not to distract the reader with dry academic text, but rather to try to provide commentary that would be playful and inspire wonder. With TWIST: YOGA POEMS, I sought to replicate KNOCK ON WOOD's back matter with commentary or even instructions on the poses, but Julie was quite firm about not wanting that. I think that she has become increasingly certain with each book about how she wants it to look.
Julie is the only illustrator with whom I have this level of "back and forth"--or maybe I should say "back and back"! I like to consult her when the book is still being written, but she makes it pretty clear that I am to leave her alone to paint as she sees fit, once the manuscript is finalized.
Elaine: Julie, tell us what makes working with Janet and her texts so inspiring.
Julie: Our friendship grew out of working together. I think we spur each other on to create good work; I hope that A plus B equals more than C. I like illustrating Janet's poems because her imagery is like a diving board for my imagination. Also, her poems are subtle. When I read them over and over I notice the artistry in the construction of the poems and I find layers of meaning.
Come back on Sunday for a “sneak peek” at a potential Wong/Paschkis project!