It’s the time of year when we start looking at brand-new picture book offerings from publishers, and I’ve already seen some exciting books. But there’s one more picture book from last year that I want to highlight before 2014 becomes even more of the memory it already is, and that’s H. Chuku Lee’s retelling of the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” illustrated by Pat Cummings. Lee, who makes his children’s book debut here, relied on the traditional French version of the tale to structure this book of the same name, released in early 2014 by Amistad/HarperCollins, but Cummings set the book in West Africa. As the Kirkus review notes, “A brown-skinned Beauty—what a refreshing change!”
Lee, who served as the U.S. editor for the African-owned, London-based African Journal Ltd., was also the co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and served as an officer in the U.S. Information Service at the American Embassy in Paris. “While I spent ten years as a journalist,” Lee told me, “it is safe to say I would never have written (retold) any children’s story, were it not for Pat’s infectious enthusiasm for children's literature.” And he knows a great deal about this enthusiasm—indeed, Pat has created over 30 books for children and also teaches Children's Book Illustration at Pratt and Parsons—because they are married. I talked to this husband-and-wife team via email at the tail end of 2014 to ask them about the experience of creating this book together.
Chuku, reviewers have praised your adherence to the traditional “Beauty and the Beast” tale, while also giving it your own unique stamp. How challenging was that to pull off?
Translating from the original French was a bit challenging, because I haven't spoken French regularly since my days at the American Embassy in Paris. Moreover, there were several perspectives from which the story could be told. Once I decided to retell the story from Beauty's point of view, in the first person, the action flowed from her feelings. Hers was the only point of view that conveyed the power of the love, the magic, and the promises that animated all of the characters.
I know authors and illustrators don't typically collaborate when creating a picture book, but your situation is different in that you're married. What was your collaboration process like?
Chuku: The collaboration was straightforward. Pat asked me to translate Madame Leprince de Beaumont's original French version (La Belle et la Bête) for a picture book. I researched the story that began with Madame Villeneuve, dusted off my French-English Dictionary, and went to work. There was no other collaboration, except a brief discussion about the color and symbolism of the Rose, around which the story revolves.
Pat: Although Chuku had been a journalist, this was a new venture for him. I told him that the way it would work was: He would turn in a first draft; the editor would say, “I love it. Can you make a couple of changes?”; and then a slow crawl across hell over broken glass would begin to finally reach a final draft.
He turned it in, [our editor] said, "I love it. Can you make a couple of changes?" He did, and she said, "Perfect."
Now, it's not that I wanted him to suffer, but he has no idea how unusual this was. I think his journalistic style—lean, mean, essential text with a compelling hook—was elegant and served the story well. Hopefully, Beauty and the Beast will be just the start.
Pat, can you talk about your research for this book, given that you set it in West Africa?
I originally pitched the idea to our editor, Barbara Lalicki, as Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast meets the opening scene of Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. To her credit, she got it. I was going for a mythic, fairy-tale blend of African and European imagery. So I surrounded myself with images from Africa, particularly from the Dogon tribe, and with stills from the Cocteau film. It was a fantasy, so I felt free to mix and match elements to suit whatever actions and emotions were called for in each scene.
And, Pat, how does your teaching inform your own illustration work, if at all?
It continues to surprise me: You learn so much more than you teach. Having to deconstruct stories and art, not just offer gut reactions like “nice” or “needs something,” makes you analyze what you think works and why. Picture books and teaching both require clarity in communication: Why this image? Why depict this moment? Why were certain choices made? Sometimes we fly on intuition alone, but having to critically examine the underpinnings of a drawing or a story has been a process I've learned from my students. Plus, my students can answer all of my technology questions.
Photo above left: Pat Cummings
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Copyright © 2014 by H. Chuku Lee. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Pat Cummings. Published by Amistad/HarperCollins, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of Pat Cummings
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.