e: I love how this story came to you - can you tell us a bit about the journey from your son and through you?
Barbara: My son Larson has been practicing martial arts since he was 13. He and I share an interest in doing sports that aren’t team activities. I walk, run, & do yoga. Even as a child, I’d choose riding my bike or my horse by myself to playing baseball. Martial arts are collaborative; you spar with a partner, train with teachers and in the company of other students, and compete as a team group at events. But it is an activity that you can easily do on your own.
Here's Larson sharing books of ancient Chinese calligraphy with Barbara.
Martial arts is not just about fighting. It’s also very much to do with learning to control the forceful, or external, power of various fighting forms. In martial arts, the internal, controlling forms are deeply revered and taught, and are felt to be as important as the external expressions. The calligraphy on the title pages of THE FIVE FORMS is found on ancient bronzes. The calligraphy names the animal it appears next to. The calligraphy next to the cloud image is the written term for ‘origin' or 'source’ - in this case, bringing the girl back to her original state, or the way things were before she began. In Qigong, there are movements or forms, breathing and meditative practices used to calm, clear, empty, and make still. It’s very spiritual, and is about taking control of chaos. I wanted the little girl to take control of her situation, through an internal form of martial arts. In the last form, she is doing what is called a ‘tree hugging’ pose, that centers and returns energy to a calm state. In many martial arts styles, there’s a closing group of movements to bring energy back to the way it was before the practice began.
The story of THE FIVE FORMS was also inspired by the story of THE SORCERER’S APPRENTICE, with a pinch of THE CAT IN THE HAT thrown in for good measure.
Barbara: The story determines what drawing style and technique I’ll use for the art. Many of my books have been set in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’ve turned to illustrators and artists from the time period of the narrative to establish the illustration style. For ADELE & SIMON, I looked closely at the work of Daumier, Delacroix, Gustave Dore, and of course, my hero Grandville. CINDERELLA found it’s artistic inspiration in the drawings of Watteau and Fragonard. Art for TWELVE KINDS OF ICE was inspired by the engravings of Rockwell Kent. The art in my early books was drawn in pen and ink and watercolor, with the idea that the art should look like engravings you might find in old books.
The cat's name is Viola.
e: What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Barbara: I believe ‘HEART ART’ happens when the charm, playfulness, whimsy, and mischievousness of the author/illustrator’s personality comes through their work, straight to the reader.
e: In the book you mention that you worked closely with your son to get the details right. Did any funny stories come about as a result?
Barbara: My son Larson and I just got off the phone, trying to recall the funny parts of our working together. Our talking about martial arts forms, and martial arts in general inevitable turned into long talks about life, cats, family, cats, food, cats, Eastern philosophy, cats, future plans, cats, and… you get the idea.
We both like cats.
e: What was THE FIVE FORMS' path to publication?
Barbara: After my beloved editor Frances Foster had a stroke, and was no longer able to work, Simon Boughton stepped in as my new editor at FSG. Simon came to my home to visit me, and spent the day in my studio, looking at drawings and scraps of doodles taped to my walls, talking about books that inspire me, stories about my family, and ideas for potential books. Simon saw creative abilities in me that were different than those Frances saw. He recognized the energy of those very early stories and inspirations from my childhood, and helped me work whatever creativity is - magic? - to get those inspired thoughts and memories out onto paper.
While we were in the studio, Simon thought of my doing a book about martial arts and a little girl. In the days that followed his visit, I began writing a story line, initially in long hand. As I wrote, I doodled characters and settings… the first story was very long, very heavy, all too epic. I had an appointment to meet Simon and my agent, Jennie Dunham, for lunch in NYC. As I rode the train from New Haven, Ct to Grand Central station, I drew out the dummy and story for THE FIVE FORMS. Trains and airplanes are the best places to work on the initial phase of a book!
Having a good editor is everything in making a book. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have great editors - Dianne Hess at Scholastic is a genius and a joy to work with. Deirdre Jones at LittleBrown is absolutely super. Every editor sees and draws out a different aspect of who you are as a writer/illustrator.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator, and with THE FIVE FORMS in particular?
Barbara: Trusting your intuition. Going with your gut. Not allowing fear into the studio. Writing and creating art is all about risk taking, creating accidents and resolving them. Because THE FIVE FORMS was done in an entirely new style for me, I had to put aside all those little nagging thoughts - would people like this? Was it any good? It was a bit like being in free-fall - it was fun for me, but I can be plagued by self doubt, and had to really keep those feelings at bay.
Barbara: Books are powerful things! The information they hold can be terrifying, comforting, amusing, instructive, challenging - but always irresistible. And - in the case of the little girl in THE FIVE FORMS - books can be put away when you’ve had enough, although they will forever change you, even when returned from wherever they came from.
e: This book seems to represent a journey that could potentially change how you approach the rest of your work. As such, what are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Barbara: My next project is about a little girl and her sports car. Full disclosure - I have an Audi TT, and have driven it over 70,000 miles in 5 years. So—yea, it’s biographical, with an 8 year old me as the protagonist.
Again, the artwork will be done with a thick, spontaneous brush line. Bold, Bright. Simple. Contemporary. A little girl. Lots of power.
e: Great—I can't wait to see and read more!
About Barbara: Barbara's books have won 5 New York Times Best Books awards, a New York Times Notable Book citation, a Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor award, and numerous other awards, recommended/best book lists, and starred reviews. Go to BarbaraMcClintockBooks.com to learn more.
Barbara McClintock is vastly talented! This interview revealed how thoughtful she is about her work. Her fearlessness about trying new techniques and subjects is inspiring. Thank you so much for this interview.
I love this! I've always been a fan of Barbara's work. It's great to get such and in depth behind the scenes look at her process.
This post is an inspirational revelation!
See Barbara! This book is striking a nerve! I think you've created something really special in THE FIVE FORMS!! :) e
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