Five questions for 2019 Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award winners Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van Thanh Rudd

A talented pair from Down Under, author Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrator Van Thanh Rudd are the co-creators of this year’s Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book Award winner The Patchwork Bike (Candlewick, 5–8 years). Rudd’s playful, tactile illustrations (done on scrap cardboard) perfectly complement the childlike sensibility of Clarke’s spare, rhythmic text as the young narrator and her two brothers go “bumpetty bump” through their desert village on a handmade bike.

1. This was your first picture book together (and both of your picture-book debuts!). How did it come to be?

MBC: I'd been seeing Van's street art (murals and sculptures) around our neighborhood, and I was interested in finding out more about it, so I contacted him to ask if he would like to be interviewed for The Saturday Paper, the national newspaper I write for in Australia. The more I saw his work, the more I knew that I wanted to ask him to illustrate the text that I'd written for The Patchwork Bike. His work and his politics so perfectly aligned with the themes of the book, and once I'd met him face to face, I felt it would be a wonderful collaboration. I was so glad that he was open to the idea. I gave very little direction in terms of the illustrations; I don't think we even talked about what materials would be used, or what the characters would look like. I was confident that he would just "get it." And when I saw pictures of the first couple of paintings, they absolutely blew me away.

VTR: I had known that Maxine was doing slam poetry around Melbourne and also that she had been interviewing various artists for the newspaper. When we met, she mentioned she had some words for a children's book, and I said I'd have a go at illustrating it. I never expected to add picture-book creation to my visual art repertoire, but I'm glad Maxine asked me. It's been a very interesting ride so far.

2. Maxine, the text says so much in so few words. Did you have to edit it down or is spare writing your style?

MBC: I started out as a poet (in fact, at the moment I work as the Poet Laureate for The Saturday Paper). Outside of poetry, I primarily write short fiction, essays, and profiles, so the brevity of picture-book writing really suits me. The editing was about how the words sounded and how they fit together, as opposed to editing for length — thinking about how the book would sound when read aloud, and if the sounds I'd come up with for the bike, like winketty wonk and bumpetty bump, were the "right" ones. I also thought a lot, while editing, about the voice of the narrator and whether I'd sufficiently captured her personality and age.


3. Van, what inspired your illustration style/materials/process? And how large were the finished illustrations?

VTR: Not long after I said yes to illustrating The Patchwork Bike, I began to have doubts about my ability to develop strong enough visual concepts. I didn't want these illustrations to be like any other book I'd seen. I wanted the images to leap out at you and grab your attention — to lead you on a twisting journey around Maxine's words. I began by working on scrap cardboard (I have used this method often in the past to let the creative juices flow). I researched the work of street artists, and one of the artists I came across was EVOL, who'd done some fantastic work on scrap cardboard.

World politics also strongly influenced my illustrations. I've been involved in many solidarity protests connected to the global financial crisis, such as the global Occupy movement, Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter. So when The Patchwork Bike came along I was overflowing with political visual matter, from Twitter messages to posters to memes, and this naturally seeped out into my cardboard works.

I didn't want size to be a problem, so many of the scrap pieces of cardboard were quite large (over one meter — or 40 inches — in length).

4. Question from five-year-old Elliott, son of BGHB committee member Kim Parker: Are the children and mother in the pictures real people?

VTR: For visual inspiration, Maxine had passed on to me some images of real people riding bikes, and I'd also found some on the internet, but I used these merely as reference points for creating fictional people.

5. Maxine, we saw your Twitter thread about "publishing risk." What do you hope that people in the industry take away from your BGHB win?

MBC: Van and I were in some ways an unlikely pairing for this kind of book project. I'd never written a picture book before, he'd never illustrated one, and our original Australian editor [Robert Watkins at Hachette Australia] had never published one before. And both of us had a history of creating very political work. Diverse children's books are still few and far between in Australia, though that is starting to change. When Van sent me his picture of the mother in the book, for example, I suddenly realized I had never seen an Australian picture book containing a mother who wore a hijab or any other kind of head covering (though I'm sure some others must exist!). Our publishers really let us go for broke with this book. They trusted our direction and supported our vision—and it paid off!

From the June 2019 issue of The Horn Book Herald. Click here for a list of past BGHB winners and honorees. For book reviews, acceptance speeches, and more, click on the tags Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards or BGHB19.

2019 BGHB Awards committee members Monica Edinger, Kim Parker, and Cynthia K. Ritter

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