Chris wakes up at five o’clock in the morning and prepares breakfast according to plan: Monday — eggs; Tuesday — cereal; Wednesday — oatmeal. At six thirty he wakes our son, Ingo, and after breakfast they eventually leave the house together. Ingo turns east to cross Central Park to go to school and Chris walks north along the Hudson River to his studio. Every day at the same spot, opposite a certain lamppost, he leans over the wide wooden rail to check the progress of the tide, which, he will tell you, fluctuates by about one hour per day.
Chris’s habits are as regular as the tide. The organization of each day is the key to his productivity. Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” One manifestation of Chris’s daily work habits is his collection of sixty-five sketchbooks spanning twenty-six years.
The first sketchbook is dated 1986, two years after we were married. At 8½ by 11 inches, it is one of the largest, a black hardcover with unlined white pages. At the start of the book, he was working part-time as a lawyer’s assistant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a job he took to free up time for art after a wrenching decision to give up his spot in the freshman class at the University of Michigan Medical School. By the final pages we were living in New York, where I was teaching and he was pursuing art at a worktable in the living room of our small one-bedroom apartment. As I adjusted to my new job, he took on most of the domestic chores that year. Tucked among the sketchbook’s drawings is a grocery list: 1 dozen eggs, 2 frozen piecrusts, 1 loaf bread.
The notebooks also hold quotes from whatever Chris is reading — such as favorite poets like Elizabeth Bishop or W. H. Auden — as well as scenes of daily life in watercolor, pencil, and ink. Like all of his notebooks, number thirty-five, from 2006, shows a continuous evolution of style. It looks like he was on a Picasso kick that year, and next to pencil studies of Picasso’s cubist compositions are words from the master: “To repeat is to run counter to spiritual laws … Copying others is necessary, but what a pity to copy oneself!” A nod to cubism can be found in Chris’s work: in the skewed facial features in I Pledge Allegiance and in the face of the Can’t Sleep moon.
The sketchbooks contain all the beginnings of Chris’s picture books. In notebook fifty-five, spring 2010, he was still experimenting with loose roughs of a small white dog. One page is covered with titles: “The Ball,” “Two Balls,” “My Best Ball,” “Daisy’s Ball.” An ink drawing of a dog drowning in water seems to allude to work-related stress with its tagline “dream.”
Another studio shelf holds a jumbled box of book dummies. To me, the dummies are the most precious items in the studio, and I sometimes badger Chris to preserve them better. These miniatures are raw inspiration-on-the-page, and I often like them better than the polished final products. Each book is handcrafted in a variety of binding and stitching patterns. The texts are hand-lettered with a Raphael 8404 paintbrush, his favorite. Once, after an art director had handed back a dummy filled with the dreaded editorial sticky notes, Chris removed the stickies and transferred the comments directly onto the dummy pages with red paint, as if to take control of his work again.
I also like the studio scrap pile. Characteristically, the scraps have a specific place, the bottom drawer of the flat file. Chris cuts his art rejects into small squares and collects them, loose, in handmade portfolios—folders fashioned from butterboard, bookcloth, and fine papers, and secured with cotton tape ties. Each square has a fragment of picture-book art — a rabbit’s ear or a little black crow — on one side and a blank side that is perfectly usable for new drawings on the other. These portfolios become picture-logs of solo or family trips to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Singapore, or Rome. When we stay with someone we know, he’ll remove a sketch and prop it by the nightstand as a surprise gift for our host.
A dislike of waste and a penchant for order characterized Chris’s childhood in a Chicago suburb. His Viennese mother sorted Legos by color and size, and she rotated breakfast foods according to a schedule. The family went camping on summer vacations to save money for occasional trips to Europe, and his thrifty mother darned the family’s socks. In this orderly setting, Chris’s interests were supported. He kept a succession of salamanders, turtles, and even a baby caiman in a large tank in the kitchen. He took art classes and played viola and recorder.
In his studio, Chris tends snails in a tank and twenty-six cacti on the windowsill. If something breaks, he mends it — a teapot, a chair, the leather handle of an old briefcase. He sewed a waterproof cover for his bicycle seat out of a plaid Chinatown bag. As he works, he listens to music on the radio. He is big on schedules, like a year-at-a-glance pie chart. It’s a ring divided into twelve sections with images from the books he plans to be working on drawn in each wedge. Some people draw or paint to generate order: Chris creates order to release wobbly, unrestricted lines.
When he is in the midst of a project, Chris fixates on things he will need, like trees or hair or yellow windows burning in the dark. For his latest book, he’s been watching kids on bikes. He studies the way a helmet appears to overbalance a small child’s body, the chunky sneakers on the pedals, and the sense of pride in the upright posture.
Chris doesn’t confine sketching to a nine-to-five schedule, like the rest of his workday. He always travels with paint, brush, notebook, and a small bottle of water. At church, he used to draw detailed mazes to keep Ingo from getting restless during the sermon. Once I watched as he eyed a small child one pew over who held a fistful of crayons. She was absorbed in her drawing, and Chris was engrossed by her art-induced hypnosis. Before my eyes she morphed into a Raschka drawing.
At the risk of over-quoting a muse, here’s one more from Picasso: “Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways.” Chris cuts down on distractions in a dozen little ways. By checking e-mail only once or twice a week, he generates less e-mail and is able to preserve more time for work. One of his maxims is: “Do the most important thing first.” Art and writing therefore take place in the morning. The order in which lesser tasks happen is left to fate, sometimes literally, by tossing a paper cube with a task stamped on each side, among them MAIL, FILE, CALL, LOG. Afternoons are for buying art supplies or visiting editors by bike or on foot.
I’m a person who gets immersed in one project at a time, so I admire Chris’s ability to stop one thing in the middle and start another. He wrote the first draft of Seriously, Norman!, his first novel for children, over the course of one year in strict two-hour morning sessions. He began by walking with no fixed destination in the vicinity of the library, which did not open until nine o’clock. By the time he sat down to work he had sentences in his head ready for the page. He wrote with an HB pencil in one of a series of slim black notebooks from Muji, the artsy Japanese stationery store. At eleven he packed everything up, rode his bike to the studio, paused for coffee, then switched to painting.
Like every artist, Chris gets stalled. This happens surprisingly often for someone who has completed sixty-three picture books. “I can’t remember how to draw,” he’ll say after returning home from the studio, or, “I can’t find the right style.” Restless, he’ll wake at three or four instead of five and read in the living room. To reopen channels of creative work he’ll “shake up the schedule,” as he calls it, with a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to look intently at Chinese paintings, or he’ll stop at the St. Agnes Library book sale on Amsterdam and 81st Street to comb the shelves for art books by Bonnard or Klee or J.M.W. Turner.
When the Caldecott committee called on a Monday morning in January, Chris was on his way to work as usual. I happened to accompany him that day, and that’s why neither of us was home to receive the call. Chris had left his cell phone at the studio, so he was totally unreachable. We were down by the river. He had pulled me to the water’s edge to lean over the wide wooden rail to check the tide, which, like a disciplined creative life, leaves a lasting and visible pattern on the shore.
Chris Raschka’s picture book A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal. Read his acceptance speech in the July/August 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.