An Interview with Karla Kuskin
by Tana Elias
Karla Kuskin is the author and illustrator of over fifty books for children, many of which are poetry. She received the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry in 1979. Ms. Kuskin was born in New York, New York, in 1932. She attended Antioch College and Yale University, where she received a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts in 1955. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York and Arlington, Virginia.
Karla Kuskin delivered the first annual Charlotte Zolotow Lecture on Thursday, October 1, 1998, on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, Wisconsin.
TE: You worked with Charlotte Zolotow on several of your books in the 1980's--what was it like to work with Ms. Zolotow?
KK: I always enjoyed my meetings with Charlotte, working or non-working, and I consistently learned from her. One of the working experiences I remember most clearly took place when we were doing a book I wrote, A Great Miracle Happened There (HarperCollins, 1993). It had originally been Charlotte's idea that I do a book telling the story of Chanukah. When I thought I had finished the manuscript she went over it with so much care, did a wonderful job of editing it line for line. I have rarely had a more helpful and satisfying collaboration with an editor. Perhaps that is because in much of my work I wrote verse or poetry and most editors leave that pretty much alone. But in Great Miracle there were some problems with the wedding of fact and fiction and Charlotte was perceptive and precise. She pinpointed the difficulties and was very, very helpful and accurate about changes.
TE: And you also worked with her on The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (Harper & Row, 1982) and The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed (Harper & Row, 1986)?
KK: Yes, but there Nina Ignatowicz was also involved in the process, so only some of the work was done directly with Charlotte. On some more technical aspects of production I worked with Nina, after Charlotte, Nina and I decided that Marc Simont was the person we wanted as illustrator.
TE: So you were involved in the decision to have Mark Simont illustrate those books. Isn't that rather unusual [to have an author choose or be involved in the choosing of an illustrator]?
KK: Oh, I've been an illustrator for so long, and I've done so many books, that I have a veto power on illustrators which means I help decide who's going to illustrate something. Marc had done the pictures for a book I wrote, published in 1979, called A Space Story (Harper & Row, 1978). That was the first time he had worked on a book of mine, and that was also the first book I wrote that I didn't illustrate myself. When I wrote Philharmonic, I thought of Marc because he draws people so with such humor and ease--much more ease and humor than I find in my own hand--so we all decided that he would be a great choice, and he acquiesced and that was it.
TE: In a recent article that you wrote for the Horn Book magazine [March/April, 1998], you wrote that "too many critical, but not critical enough, eyes are impressed by self-proclaimed art, overinflated glossy work reflecting the graphic fashion of the moment but with very little personal or unique to recommend it." I enjoyed your comments in that article, and I also enjoyed the illustrations in your earlier books. Why is it that, with the exception of City Dog, you are no longer illustrating your books?
KK: I think I've gone out of fashion, to tell you the truth. I think that my kind of illustration is not what is generally looked for today. I mean, I'm not a big illustrator, I don't draw very glossy or very realistic stuff, and right now an awful lot of work has a look that is much more...I don't even know how to say it. But it's not my look.
TE:It seems like there are many books today, picture books, that are more art than text, where the text is almost an excuse to get the art published.
KK: I would agree with that and it's too bad because I think that the most wonderful picture books are that extraordinary welding together of words and pictures so that one really supports and augments and illuminates the other. Without that you don't have a truly interesting or strong picture book.
TE: I think your very first book, Roar and More, is a perfect example of that "welding together," where the words and pictures very definately compliment each other, and really ARE each other.
KK: Right. Well, that was a long time ago [laughs].
TE: Do you think the technology of publishing has a lot to do with that, the fact that having many different colors on a page is relatively easy to do now?
KK: I think that's a very important point, and absolutely at the bottom of a lot of it. When I first started doing books, there were very few books that were full color, and if you used a lot of colors, you did color overlays yourself, pre-separating by hand. Now it's often more expensive to use black and white. Everybody has color equipment, full-color equipment, and everybody does full-color books. There is a look that this has brought about, particularly some very bad drawing and painting from photographs, with a kind of realism that is not really very skillful, but, to an untutored eye... well, will do, I guess. And then, of course, some of it is great. The exploding rainbow that has hit publishing, of color and so many computer-driven techniques, has certainly changed the look of books.
TE: It seems that there is a trend with picture books to be realistic, not only in the type of illustrations, but also in the text--to address realistic scenes, to write in a realistic manner--versus a lot of the work that you do, which involves prose, fanciful images, and rhyme. Have you ever felt any pressure to be more "realistic" in that sense?
KK: The only time I've written about real things other than what comes out of my head, or what I take and strain through my own imagination, has been A Great Miracle, which was partly story but mostly a true rendering of what Chanukah is about. And before that, in a book called Jerusalem, Shining Still (Harper & Row, 1987), which is a history of the city of Jerusalem. There's some poetry or verse or rhythmic writing in it, but the facts are very important to the history I was telling. I stuck to them. That's another book Charlotte and I worked on. To answer your question more directly: maybe I should feel such pressure, but I have not.
TE: I'm glad you mentioned Jerusalem, Shining Still because it was a special favorite of mine. I enjoyed the way you told a story, but the book was also a poem in a sense that you seemed to have a refrain in the book--recounting the past history, then adding on another layer of history, returning to the refrain, then adding still yet another history.
KK: Well I'm glad that that came through. It was very much a part of what I felt in dealing with such a long period of time and so many changes during that time. That survival of a place that was and is so important to the three great monothiestic religions. I tried to find the rhythm in the words and the facts, a rhythm I tried to sustain and build.
TE: In one of your books, Something Sleeping in The Hall (Harper & Row, 1985), a collection of untitled poems, the only separation of the individual poems is by the arrows on the right hand side of the page spread. How did you make that decision not to title the poems, when some of your other works have titles?
KK: It's interesting that you said that. I've never thought that they weren't separate, I thought we separated them. There was more than an arrow to show the poem continued to the next; there was a small illustration at the top of each new poem that acted as a title. It was Charlotte's idea to do a book of I Can Read verse, which I don't think anybody had done before at that time. I wrote a whole pile of verse, and ended up writing enough for two books so that second collection, Soap Soup (HarperCollins, 1992), was also for the most part written. I had never done an I Can Read Book before, so I didn't realize how much of the book is illustration. I really thought that visually we had separated the verses rather completely, but since then I have learned this lesson: so many people anthologize work and then they want and need titles. So in my most recent collection, The Sky is Always in the Sky (HarperCollins, 1998), I believe every poem has a title.
TE: I thought Something Sleeping in the Hall was brilliant because I had never seen a book like that and it seemed to make poetry so accessible to such a young reading audience. As you said, they were visually different and you knew when one was beginning and one was ending, but you also had the sense that they were flowing into each other and they were also one big poem, kind of a poem of life...
KK: ...very nice way to put it!
TE: I thought it was very unique, and I enjoyed it a lot. What are you working on now, or what do you have in publication at this point?
KK: Well there are a number of books, but I don't think anything is going to be coming out in the next six months or year. There are three different poetry collections that we sort of keep on rearranging and right now one of them seems to be a book about animals. And then there's another one that seems to be verses about food. And then there's a book that talks about summer on an island, because for a couple of years - many years ago - I went to Prince Edward Island. I grew up in Manhattan Island, and right now I'm on Bainbridge Island, so being a part of island life has struck me for a long time, and I've written quite a few poems about these islands. So there's both published work that we're trying to recombine to make books, and then unpublished work. Then, there are two picture books presently being worked on by two artists, both will be picture books using single poems of mine. Simon & Schuster is publishing one of those picture books, and the others I mentioned are Laura Geringer books at HarperCollins. And I, in recent months, keep going back to a manuscript that I wrote years and years ago, for Ursula Nordstrom, before Ursula retired and I worked with Charlotte. Charlotte would have been a wonderful editor on this and I wish I had her now! I'm going back over this manuscript which has never been published. It's a long story, which for me is quite a different way to work. Some of it I like and some of it I don't, and I'm trying to see if twenty or forty years later I can re-work it. In addition, I keep writing poetry or verse...those are some of the projects. Oh, and there is one more; Clarion is bringing back an old book of mine called The Bear Who Saw the Spring (Harper, 1961) with new pictures. The illustrator, if I remember correctly, is a Russian illustrator named Alexander Koshkin.
For more information about Karla Kuskin, please see:
Copeland, Jeffrey S. Speaking of Poets: Interviews with Poets who Write for Children and Young Adults. National Council of Teachers of English, 1993, pp.35-41.
Kuskin, Karla. Something Autobiographical about the Author, Vol. 3.
Kuskin, Karla. Thoughts, Pictures, and Words. Photographs by Nicholas Kuskin. R.C. Owen Publishers, 1995.
Kuskin, Karla. "To Get a Little More of the Picture: Reviewing Picture Books." The Horn Book Magazine. 74:2 (March/April 1998), 59+
Parker, Marilyn Kurtz. "A Visit From a Poet." Language Arts. 58:4 (April 1981), 448-451.
Something about the Author, Vol. 68.
Selected Books by Karla Kuskin
All books illustratrated by Karla Kuskin unless otherwise specified.
The Sky Is Always in the Sky. Illustrated by Isabelle Dervaux. A Laura Geringer Book/HarperCollins, 1998.
The Upstairs Cat. Illustrated by Howard Fine. Clarion, 1997.
James and the Rain. Illustrated by Reg Cartwright. Simon & Schuster, 1995.
City Dog. Clarion, 1994.
Patchwork Island. Illustrated by Petra Mathers. HarperCollins, 1994.
A Great Miracle Happened There: A Chanukah Story. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. A Willa Perlman Book/HarperCollins, 1993.
Soap Soup and Other Verses. A Charlotte Zolotow Book/HarperCollins, 1992.
Jerusalem, Shining Still. Illustrated by David Frampton. A Charlotte Zolotow Book/Harper & Row, 1987.
The Dallas Titans Get Ready for Bed. Illustrated by Marc Simont. A Charlotte Zolotow Book/Harper & Row, 1986.
Something Sleeping in the Hall. A Charlotte Zolotow Book/Harper & Row, 1985.
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed. Illustrated by Marc Simont by Marc Simont. A Charlotte Zolotow Book/Harper & Row, 1982.
Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams: A Collection of Poems.. Harper & Row, 1980.
A Space Story. Illustreated by Marc Simont. Harper & Row, 1978.
Near the Window Tree. An Ursula Nordstrom Book/Harper & Row, 1975.
Any Me I Want to Be. Harper & Row, 1972.
The Bear Who Saw Spring. Harper & Row, 1961.
Roar and More. Harper& Row, 1956. (New edition published in 1990 by HarperCollins)
Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter1998, Number 3 with permission of Tana Elias and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©1997 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.