24 Carrot Writing is excited to again welcome author Alison Goldberg to the blog! In 2018, Alison joined us a year after her debut picture book, I Love You for Miles and Miles, illustrated by Mike Yamada (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) had launched. Using all she had learned during that launch, Alison wrote the fabulous guest post, Goals For Promoting Your Debut Picture Book. We are thrilled to have Alison back as she prepares to launch Bottle Tops: The Art of El Anatsui, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (Lee & Low Books, 2022). This time we are chatting about research!
Welcome back Alison!
The first is research. While I Love You for Miles and Miles is a sparse love poem, it was built on a foundation of information-gathering. I read truck catalogues, rode on cranes and trains, and observed construction sites. I wanted to find specific details that could convey the size and strength of vehicles in love metaphors. And I needed to know which truck is actually the biggest. (The dump truck!)
The second necessary step in my writing process is finding the rhythm of a story. I think each book has its own unique sound. I wanted I Love You for Miles and Miles to be gentle and rolling, like a train lullaby, so the verse grew from there.
The biggest difference in writing the two books came in the final stages. With Bottle Tops, there were additional steps to ensure accuracy. I sent drafts to El Anatsui and his archivist, Amarachi Okafor, and worked closely with my editor, Kandace Coston, while incorporating revisions.
Many years later when I started writing for children, I thought his bottle top sculptures were an ideal topic for a picture book. They are so visually appealing and have a tactile quality that invites viewers to look at how they’re made. Up close, you can see how the metal is folded and shaped and connected by wire. The sculptures’ massive size is exciting. Stepping back, they transform from individual pieces of metal into a flexible form resembling cloth.
In addition, El Anatsui’s artistic journey holds many lessons about how an artist can seek out their creative voice. He works with a material that’s close at hand and that evokes his history and environment. He has experimented over decades and is still finding new ways to make art. Artistic journeys are lifelong ones.
El Anatsui is an acclaimed contemporary artist, and picture books are an important form to introduce children to major cultural figures. During my research for Bottle Tops, I saw how few picture books about African artists are currently on our library and bookstore shelves. We need many more. Black Artists Shaping the World by Sharna Jackson is a wonderful new resource that includes profiles of several contemporary African artists, and I encourage readers to seek out this book too.
El Anatsui is a renowned artist and I was able to find many wonderful sources. While reading books and articles and watching videos, I searched for evocative images—the snapshots that could carry parts of the story. For example, when I learned that as a child, El Anatsui was fascinated with the forms of letters and copied the names he saw on doors before he could read, this felt like an important image to include to show his development as a visual thinker. Another image that stuck in my mind was how he assembled large sculptures by arranging patches on his studio floor while photographing the possibilities. I love Elizabeth Zunon’s gorgeous illustration of this moment—a bird’s-eye view on the creative process.
Researching the sounds and feel of the story involved getting away from my desk. During a visit to an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, I remember hearing an artwork moving, so I included a line in the book about the jangle and rattle of the bottle tops. At home, I tore up bottle tops to bend and shape them myself, to feel their weight and pliability.
There was also the research I did in the years before writing this book, when I lived in Ghana during college and graduate school. I had the opportunity to visit some of the places that are important in El Anatsui’s biography—a coastal town near where he lived as a child, the university where he studied, and the National Cultural Centre where he learned about Ghanaian arts. I remember going to a town where Adinkra stamps are carved from gourds; Adinkra is an art form El Anatsui refers to. It is because of these experiences that I was able to envision this book.
Because El Anatsui is a contemporary artist, he continues to make new work, and during the time I was writing this book, additional sources became available too. I added quotes, but I’m glad I had focused on a specific time period. While his story continues, the book needed an arc. If I had left that open it would have been too tempting to include other work that he’s made since then.
Find your writing community to share and read works-in-progress, and to be a part of each other’s writing journey.
I’ll join illustrator Elizabeth Zunon for an event at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, New York on July 9th at 1:30 pm.
When I’m not deep in the research, you can find me online (and links for where to find my books) at www.alisongoldberg.com, Twitter @alisongoldberg, and Instagram at @alisongoldbergbooks.
Thanks so much for having me on 24 Carrot Writing!