Carmen Agra Deedy and Eugene Yelchin Talk with Roger


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There's a new mayor in town, and his increasingly restrictive edicts face one implacable opponent, "a saucy gallito." The mayor insists on quiet; the rooster keeps calling ("Kee-kee-ree-KEE!"); their showdown provides a heartening message to us all in these times. Below, author Carmen Agra Deedy and illustrator Eugene Yelchin talk about bringing their rooster's rebellion to life for The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!

Carmen Agra Deedy...

carmen agra deedyRoger Sutton: Did you ever imagine how timely you would be with this book? I mean, a loudmouth politician who wants everybody else to shut up, come on!

CAD: I actually started working on this story about fifteen years ago, although I originally thought of it as a graphic novel. It was a story that was born of my own family history. My mother was a socialist, and my parents supported the revolution [in Cuba] initially. But then the revolution turned on the very people who had helped bring it to fruition. Because of that family history, I joined Amnesty International. I was writing to prisoners of conscience and reading a lot of their work, such as Armando Valladares's Against All Hope: A Memoir of Life in Castro's Gulag. He wrote this incredible, compassionate, beautiful book. At the same time, I felt these talons of cruelty rake across my heart. It's just brutal, what women and men can do to one another.

My sister and I had gotten a tiny grant from the NEA to interview Cuban refugees in our bluestocking town, Decatur, Georgia. I used to go to a little Cuban restaurant — I like to sit in restaurants and read. Nobody bothers you, and people feed you. I like the solitude of it.

RS: Me too.

CAD: I met this young Cuban man who was newly arrived. It took weeks to get his story, but eventually he told me he had been a prisoner of conscience. When he was a teenager, he had burned a Cuban flag and a Russian flag. He was arrested. His father had been in the upper echelons of the Cuban government, and still was. His father never came to see him, just wrote him off. The young man said the flag burning at the time had just been youthful rebellion, but it became this point of honor. He also talked about torture in such a detached way. People who told me about abuse always spoke that way, as if they were looking into someone else's life.

RS: That might be the only way a person can talk about it.

CAD: I would imagine. But it's a strange thing to witness. It's almost as heart-wrenching as watching somebody howl at the moon. What he described was the exact process Valladares writes about in Against All Hope. First we warn you. Then we take away your freedom. Then we restrict or forbid visits from family and friends. Then we mess around with your food. Then we put you in solitary or in the dark. Then, of course, there's torture, which was not going to end up in a children's book.

deedy_roosterRS: What do you think happens in The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! that makes the populace finally take solidarity with the rooster?

CAD: This started out as a human rights story, a prisoner of conscience story, and it sort of morphed into a freedom of speech story. But by the time it got to Scholastic, it was really about voice, having the right to a voice, the right to speak your truth. It became broader and broader. I think because of my own sojourn with this story, that it molded me as much as I molded it. Each person who reads it sees something different — oh, this is about freedom of speech; oh, this is about children not being stifled. And of course it's timely right now. But I really came to think of it as a Rorschach test while I was speaking to some fourth graders a few weeks ago. I read it to them and I asked, "What do you think this story is about?" I don't like to tell them; I like them to tell me. And this kid raised his hand and said, "I think that what it means is that no matter what happens to you, you can always find something to sing about."

RS: Huh.

CAD: Well, damn. There was one explanation I hadn't thought of. I modeled this book after Munro Leaf's The Story of Ferdinand, because I love that book so. Like Ferdinand, this rooster just has to be who he is. He has to sing. If he doesn't sing, he's not a rooster. I think the same thing happens to all of us. What finally moved the village to act, to join forces with the rooster? When they see someone insist on speaking the truth — his truth — the villagers start to remember a time when everyone had a song to sing. In his illustrations, Eugene so beautifully shows people peeking out of their shuttered windows. To me, the opening of windows is such a glorious moment of freedom. When we open the windows and doors in our psyche and in our homes, we're not just letting things in, we're letting things out. When we come together we remember that freedom we had been missing.

RS: You did a great job of showing how that freedom is taken away a little bit at a time. At first it's nicer in town — you know, it's not as noisy. But then little by little…

CAD: The erosion continues. If it were abrupt, everyone would be up in arms. That is, to me, the most insidious part of oppression. There are all sorts of explanations, apologies, and rationalizations. If it doesn't touch us directly, we think, oh, things are a little better, things are a little quieter. Democracy's noisy. It's loud, and it's noisy, and it's messy, but we would abandon that cacophony at our peril.

Eugene Yelchin...

eugene yelchinRS: How did you get involved in this book?

EY: I had just finished Elephant in the Dark [by Mina Javaherbin] with [editor] Dianne Hess at Scholastic, and she sent me this manuscript right away.

RS: Why do you think she thought of you?

EY: I think I proved myself by going the extra mile for Elephant in the Dark. When I read that manuscript, I foolishly said to myself, that sounds like Persian miniatures. It seemed like such a great idea. And then I spent a year on Persian miniatures. With The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!, a similar thing occurred, because technically it's not a picture book. It's more what Uri Shulevitz would define as a story book.

RS: What do you think is the difference?

EY: It's just what he said in Writing with Pictures. In a picture book, you don't write anything that could be illustrated. A story book can have fewer pictures because you do write everything. But I couldn't do fewer pictures here because we couldn't do the text justice in thirty-two pages. I went in assuming that I was going to do quick pen-and-ink sketches. That, of course, didn't work out, because when I get into it, I get into it, and then I have all kinds of crazy ideas, and I have to try them all. I ended up using oil pastels, which is an extraordinarily difficult medium because you can't really make corrections. So it took some time.

RS: How do you illustrate a storybook text, where the story itself isn't presenting you with narrative problems that need to be solved in the pictures?

EY: I look for developments. I see what's in the text, and I try to go as deep as I can into it, in order to see what needs to be unpacked visually.

RS: Can you give an example from this book?

EY: In this book it's very simple. There's a protagonist, the rooster, and there's an antagonist, Don Pepe. The protagonist doesn't change, essentially, throughout the book. He keeps the same shape, the same facial expression, the same body language. The antagonist, on the other hand, falls apart completely. His demise is expressed in the text with some verbs, but not overtly. I created this visual progression — for me it's all about progressions. What effect does that visual change produce, in addition to what one learns from reading the text?

RS: I see. What layers can you give the story through the pictures that aren't already spelled out in the text?

EY: Yes. With this story, the events are basically just everything being taken away from the rooster. He's confined in a prison. It's the same location. It's the same two characters. You have to step outside and bring the world in. And that outside world also changes; it reacts to what occurs between Don Pepe and the rooster.

RS: I think, even in terms of simple storytelling, that by involving the other people in the story, you're essentially doing away with the logic that the rooster's going to have his head chopped off. Because he's awakened the populace. So even if Don Pepe kills the rooster, he doesn't solve his problem.

EY: That's exactly right. There's one particular look that I tried to give to the citizens of that city and the world that they live in at the beginning of the book, and that look changes as things get worse for the rooster. The world becomes very gray and cool. The only bright colors are on the rooster. And then with his call-to-arms and victory, the village returns to its original brightness and color and all those good things. If you look, for example, at the way the people of the city are rendered at the beginning, in the first double-page spread, "Dogs bayed, mothers crooned…" I wanted the painting to ring with sound. That's why the colors are so bright and contrasting. There's a lot of contrast, a lot of exaggeration. There's this sort of vibrating quality to it. And then if you look at the very last spread — "Once again there was a village where the streets rang with song…" — they're similar in terms of the approach of color, application of paint, the movement and the exaggeration of form, all of that. But if you go back and take a look at the page three spreads back, "The entire village held its breath waiting for the gallito's reply," there's very little color in the crowd. It's more static. Because it's the hardest, darkest moment in the book.

RS: How much are you thinking about this before you do it, and how much are you rationalizing it after it's done?

EY: Mostly everything is decided in the dummy. My dummy is very detailed. It's almost exactly what the finished book looks like. I solve all the problems that may occur in the black-and-white pencil stage. When I get to color, I'm just going to town. I'm painting like crazy, and I love it. I think absolutely everything out in advance. The size, the scale, the color. If you look at my picture books, each one is different.

RS: That's true.

EY: Almost as if they are done by different people. I had done a lot of art before I started making books, so I came prepared. Each story has its own visual voice, and, as the illustrator, one has to respect the text and get out of the text's way.

RS: We know how Dianne came to offer you this manuscript. What caused you to accept it?

EY: There's an obvious answer, and I think that's the answer you are looking for — that the story spoke to me because it's about a tyrant and about someone who resists that tyrant. Of course the subject matter is familiar ground for me. But if the story were poorly written, or not well told, I would never have accepted it, even though the subject matter was appealing.

RS: Actually, I didn't have an answer in mind when I asked you the question. In fact, I realize that my next question is a stupid one in light of that. Because I was going to ask what is it like to have created a picture book that is so timely, although you couldn't possibly have known it at the time.

EY: Yes, we had no idea.

RS: But this is your theme.

EY: Yes. All of my books are about that (at least the novels are). That's what my life is about. [Read Eugene Yelchin's 2013 Horn Book Magazine article "The Price of Truth" and look for his "Mocking Moscow" in the upcoming May/June Special Issue: Humor]

RS: How do you think this book will fare in the current political climate?

EY: I honestly don't want to think about this. I really would like the book to stand on its own.

RS: But no book ever does.

EY: It's not a newspaper. It's not journalism. I hope it's for all times, this book. After our current political climate hopefully changes, this book will still stand on its own merits.

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