I’d been reading picture books to my kids for years before writing my own. I’d always taken pleasure in them but never really considered what a deep art form the genre is. It took creating Libba to figure that out.
First, let’s take the words. Like in a song or poem, I wanted to get them just right. I wanted them to be musical. I wanted them to flow easily when read aloud. I didn’t want too many of them. I wanted them to be historically accurate and culturally sensitive. I wanted concrete details to hold up the story but I wanted to leave room for the illustrations to do some talking. I wanted good timing and suspense. As I got deeper into the writing process I realized that what I initially thought of as “little kid stuff” was turning out to be a major creative challenge.
I didn’t know enough about African American history or current Black experience, so I read books on those topics. I listened to tons of country blues music. I talked with several people who knew Libba, and they gave me excellent information about her life but I wasn’t able to locate any of Libba’s family or inner circle during my first round of interviews, so I gave up. Two years later, with the deadline for publication looming, I resolved to find someone. I made an exhaustive family tree from online articles and finally (through several tries on Facebook) found someone in Libba’s family who would grant me an interview: her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans.
Brenda was raised by Libba in a house of 10 in Washington, D.C in the ’50s and ’60s. Libba would put Brenda and the other grandkids to sleep by playing them songs on her guitar. Brenda sang beautifully when she was 12 on Libba’s song “Shake Sugaree.” Brenda helped me considerably with getting the details and tone right for the book. Over several long phone calls we became friends. When I played a concert in Washington D.C. last spring, Brenda joined me on stage and we sang “Shake Sugaree” together. This was one of many wonderful surprises that came about from writing this book.
Next, let’s consider the pictures. When the illustrations capture the imagination and draw the reader into the world of the story they make the book. If done badly they can break the book. I had very little say over who the illustrator would be (this is typical in picture book publishing). I hadn’t heard of Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, but when I saw her work online I loved it and had a feeling she would do the story justice. I couldn’t be happier with how Tatyana captured Libba’s gentle but powerful essence. Tatyana’s work is remarkable, especially because this was her picture book debut.
From the first seed of an idea to publication, Libba took seven years to come to life. (The book takes seven minutes to read.) This book was a labor of love that I’m grateful for because I read picture books with a new eye now. Some of my childhood favorites– George and Martha, Little Fur Family, The Amazing Bone, and Where the Wild Things Are— strike me now as works of genius on par with any other art form.
The plaque for the 2019 PNBA Book Award for Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten will be presented to Laura Veirs Saturday February 23, 2019 at 1:00 pm at Green Bean Books in Portland.