Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The colors of us - In conversation with Karen Katz

Once upon a time a teeny tiny baby was born.
I held the photograph in my hands.
We looked at this tiny baby, in yellow pajamas, laying on a mattress with no sheet.
She looked very fragile, yet strong.
"You need to decide right this minute if you want to adopt her"".
We had the photo for five minutes.
My husband and I went into another room and sat together.
We looked at her and at each other.
"Yes, this is our child. We love her already. Yes, we want to adopt her".

And that was the beginning of our adoption story...
... a story one filled with tears and anxiety but also passion and spirituality.

These are the emotions author and illustrator Karen Katz shares about her adoption story which is also in her illustrated book Over the Moon. Karen is Kabiliana's first guest of 2009. What a lovely way to start the new year than going through her interesting human and professional experience on writing about diversity ? Somehow is a way to wish a world with no more racial barriers and no more intolerance.
How would it be the world without colors? Black is just black and white is just white or behind these two colors there is more? Karen Katz really guide us in a "delicious" (read the book to know why) journey of tastes where brown is not really brown, it can be: "butterschocth", " and white is not really white, it's "french toast"or "peach" . This and more you'll find in The Colors of Us. This book that explores the various hues of us, in its simplicity conveys a very important message: there's not only one way to see things, to define who we are. And the more creative way we choose to describe the world around us, more is the capacity to live in harmony and understanding.

KABILIANA - Karen you started your career as a costume deisgner, a graphic designer and a quilt maker, how did it end up you became a children's author and author?
KAREN- I have always been interested in folk art from around the world: Indian miniatures, Mexican cermaics, fabrics, Chagall, Matisse, Children'a art and primtive paintings. The careers I have hadve taken all these interests into account. ooking back I can see that these passions and career choices have played a large part in influencing me to become a children's book author and illustrator. But, most importantly was when my husband and I adopted our daughter from Guatemala I decided I wanted to illustrate children's books. For nine months I painted pictures of kids and anything that looked like it could be in a children's book. My first book Over The Moon was the story of that magical experience of welcoming our daughter Lena into our lives. Twentytwo books later my daughter - now 14 years old - still is an inspiration for me.

KABILIANA - Lena is originally from Guatemala, when she became part of your life did you ever thought that onde day you would be asked about your different skin color and diversity?
KAREN - Yes, I knew one day that question would come. I thought I was ready when she asked but still it was a touching conversation. Over the years she never asks anymore because she understands and is proud of her color.

KABILIANA- Let's talk about The Colors of Us. When did you have the idea to write this story?
KAREN- When my daughter was five years old in kindergarten she asked why she was a different color than my husband and me. We talked about it. The next day I was at her shcool looking at all the beautiful kids in her class and I thought:" These kids are brown and tan and peachy they aren't just black or white. It was then I decided to do this book as a celebration of the beautiful colors of kids.
KABILIANA- The Colors of Us is a lovely journey through the world of diversity starting from skin colors and its many shades and nuances. Choosing food metaphors meant children easy, close to their world and fun to identify the different colors of the skin ?
KARFEN - Yes, and I didn't plan in that way. It has just happened as the book took place shape.

KABILIANA - How did Lena's coming in your family changed your life as a person and as an artist? Did you ever-faced racist behaviors from outside?
KAREN - Lena coming into my life changed it because now I was a mother and I had the greatest gift to love in my life. we have always thought our daughter is the most beautiful girl in the world. As an artist I've always admired the beauty of diverse peoples around the world so having Lena, as a daughter was just an extension of those feelings. Of course now we have a special place in our heart for Guatemalans! We never experienced any racism towards our daughter but we do live in NYC and it is a multicultural and sophisticated city.

KABILIANA - What a kid should know to struggle against intolerance?
KAREN- I'm not an expert on intolerance but I can give you my opinion as a mother and person. I would say there is no recipe but to teach your child that there is intolerance in the world and remember it is only other people's ignorance. It does hurt and kids will be hurt by prejudice but if you have a strong sense of self that will carry you thorugh. Children learn by your example so make sure you are aware of your own feelings.

KABILIANA - How did you and your husband valorize Lena's diversity? Does she has any relationship with her country of origin?
KAREN - We have always talked about Guatemala to her and showed photos. Last year we made bulenos, Christmas cookies from Guatemala. This winter we are taking a trip there. She is very proud of her heritage. It's just a natural part of who she is.

KABILIANA - Can you tell us something about your creative process?
KAREN- (here a selection ) Have an idea- Write it down - Write it in a lot of different ways, think about it , picture the art in my mind and skeep on it - Research the idea to see who else has done it, and then make sure I do it my way with my voice - Do little thumbnails sketches in color - Take manuscript and thumbnails to your editor and hope she likes it - Make a lot of mistakes and have some bad days - Make a lot of great art and have some good days - Finish art and spend a few days gluing papers down and cleaning up mistakes - send your work out - go to school and read your book to some kids and remember why you love making books.

KABILIANA -Do you have any advice for who'd love to start writing for children?
KAREN- Get the seat of your pants into the seat of your chair and make time to do teh work. It will never be the perfect time and you will never have enough to do everything. But do it. Read Read Read amd look at great children's book writers and illustrators. Love what you're doing. Send your stuff out. Keep at it.

KABILIANA - What kind of reader you were as a child? What were your favorite books?
KAREN- When I was ten I actually didn 't read much. I played with a lot of paper dolls. I do remember at the paintings in an edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The paintings of Snow White and Red Rose, Rumpelstiltskin and Thumbenila were very scary, but I loved them. They were mysterious and ornate and fed my imagination. I think that is what a good illustration or story does. What strikes me is that now I am an avid reader and I adore children's books... so its never too late to learn to love books.

KABILIANA- Does your daughter Lena love reading?
KAREN- Actually my daughter is dyslexic and does not really enjoy reading. she is an excellent athlete and a great student. But she does love my books!

KABILIANA - Can you tell us at least three titles of children's books you recently enjoyed as a reader?
KAREN- Mama do You love me? by Joosse; Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger; Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold; The Patchwork Quilt by Valerie Flournoy;Isla by Arthur Dorros and Elisa Kleven; Diego by Jeannette Winter; Why The Sky is far Away by Mary Joan Gerson; Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis.


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