Jonah Winter is no stranger to larger-than-life characters. The prolific author of more than 30 nonfiction picture books, he’s explored the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Frida Kahlo, Willie Mays, and, in his New York Times bestseller Barack, Barack Obama. That he should set his sights on the King, Elvis Presley, is no surprise—what’s surprising is how he first envisioned the book.
“I originally conceived of this book as a modern saint’s story,” Winter says, citing his fascination with the numerous cults around the icon, some of which are predicated on a very real sense of Elvis as holy. While his editor steered him away from such an approach, he says that, in the end, Elvis Is King! retains some of his original allusions to the religiouslike trajectory of the star’s life, albeit in a tighter, more serious fashion. “His life began in such pain, such sorrow, such limitation,” he explains. “What he turned his life into—that was something close to a miracle.”
Odds are, when you think of Elvis, you think of him with his greased-up hair, swiveling hips, and that instantly recognizable voice, but when Elvis was born, such a fate would have seemed nearly impossible. A scrawny, shy, blond boy from a poor family in the Midwest, his is truly a rags-to-riches story. For Winter, the genesis of Elvis Presley resonated on a very personal level.
“The idea that you can overcome your shyness, your stage fright, your self-consciousness through, ironically, being as outrageous as possible is something I understand to my core,” he says. In his early 20s, Winter too decided to shake loose his identity as a “nerd” and an “outcast” and rebrand himself as someone more outgoing. There’s a sort of reverence when Winter discusses Elvis’ decision “to just utterly transform himself from a shy blond-haired poor boy [into] something that would, at the very least, turn heads, get people’s attention, be totally different from everything else in his environment.”
Beautifully illustrated by Chris Sickels, with whom Winter has collaborated on two other books, Elvis Is King! is a standout piece of visual art in and of itself. “The amount of work and detail that went into every illustration is staggering,” Winter reflects, “and the humanity with which he imbued his illustrations of Elvis helped my story be what it ultimately wanted to be—a very human portrait of a very human figure.”
Indeed, the portrait that Winter delivers doesn’t mask the blemishes. Behind the shimmer of raw talent and electric charisma lies a young man who struggles with fame and money and fast food. Importantly, Winter also notes the tensions inherent in Elvis’ story: charges of cultural appropriation, or making African-American music more “palatable” for white audiences. Winter doesn’t question that that’s exactly what record labels wanted from Elvis, but he does push back when it comes to criticism of Elvis himself. “Could any of the genres of modern popular music have happened without the never-ending borrowing and stealing that happens in music?” he asks. “What would music history be if all the musicians up to now had simply ‘stayed in their lane’?”
Winter offers an honest and fitting tribute to the King, exploring the power of music to heal and to inflame, to lift a talented boy out from poverty to the very peaks of success. “I hope that kids who are growing up in poverty will see that it’s possible to rise out of that through music,” he says of the book. “I hope that those kids who are not growing up in poverty will see that money is not what made Elvis a great musician.”
James Feder is a writer based in Tel Aviv.