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Q&A With Award-Winning Illustrator Christopher Bing

Bing discusses where he gets his ideas from, his creative process and how he hopes to relate to kids.

Christopher Bing, an award-winning children's book illustrator, calls Lexington home. Bing has won accolades for his work on Casey at the Bat, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere – whose cover illustration has been used for the logo of the Liberty Ride bus – and Little Black Sambo. Most recently, Bing published The Story of Little Red Riding Hood.

On illustrating for children's literature, Bing tells Patch, "If adults stop to reflect back on their feelings towards the world when they were young, they see they tended to be far more intense and very often extreme. To tap into this wealth of emotion and help guide and mold it, to embrace the world in all its aspects of wonder and often horror, is a huge responsibility and honor."

The illustrator hosted an open dialogue on children's book publishing and introduced The Story of Little Red Riding Hood, at Cary Memorial Library on Aug. 19.

Patch: When and how did you develop an interest in illustrating?

Bing: I can't ever remember a time when I didn't want to draw.  My earliest memories as far back as I can remember are of sitting in the kitchen of my grandmother, who was an artist, and drawing while she cooked. She would stop and look at my drawings as she moved from one side of the kitchen to the other and make suggestions, and over time that's the way I learned to communicate with the world. I was never a very good student in school. As much as I love to read, I can't spell to save my life, so writing has not been a good way for me to communicate. So, I have always just focused on drawing as my way to do that. 

Along with those early memories of drawing in my grandmother's kitchen, I can remember always opening up the newspaper first thing in the morning, and trying to imitate all the different drawing styles of the comic strips: everything from the very loose and simple style of Charles Schultz, to the very complex and much more sophisticated drawing style of Alex Raymond, who did Flash Gordon, to the historically based adventure strip Prince Valiant by Hal Foster. I have always admired detailed and realistic illustration.

Patch: What does a typical workday look like for you?

Bing: I wake up between 6 and 6:30 in the morning, depending upon how late I was up the night before. I usually get to bed at around midnight or one o'clock in the morning. I make coffee, and, during the school year, wake up our children. I have breakfast, then help everyone get started on their days.

My children go off to school, my wife off to her work, and since I work in the barn behind the house, I then have that incredibly long commute of about twenty feet from the back door of the house to the front door of the barn, where I sit and draw or paint anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day.

Patch: What are some of your favorite children's books, and why?

Bing: My absolute favorite when I was a child was Little Black Sambo. He was such an amazing child. He was clearly loved, because his parents gave him those four presents at the beginning of the story. He was independent, because he went out walking through the jungle by himself. He was incredibly brave and smart because he managed to face down, literally face to face, four tigers that were going to eat him and actually make them not eat and leave him alone. By the end of this story, he had managed to get his clothes back, and then there's that wonderful magic moment in the story where the tigers melt into butter.

Then, my absolute favorite part of this story was at the end, where there was a feast of pancakes for dinner. As a kid – and some times as a grown up – I loved to have pancakes for dinner, so much so that when I was little, I would wake up every morning asking my mother if we were going to have pancakes for dinner. That part of the story just resonated to my core.  

Other favorite children's books of mine were just about anything by Dr. Seuss. I love his pictures and illustrations, their very stylistic ink brushwork. Ferdinand the Bull, in black and white ink and brushwork, and very formalistic illustrations like Howard Pile's paintings for stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, just amazed me when I was child. I loved poring over others like N.C. Wyeth's work too.

Patch: What motivated your work for The Story of Little Red Riding Hood?

Bing: My inspiration for The Story of Little Red Riding Hood was my daughter Tessa. I had missed the opportunity of putting my two older children, my son and my elder daughter, into a children's picture book, which always broke my heart. The fact is that they are both extremely attractive children – young adults now –and they would have made great characters in a picture book. Looking at my youngest daughter, I felt time was running out, because she was growing rapidly. So, I asked her one day, what story, if I was going to make her the main character of a picture book, which story would she like to be in most? She said, "Little Red Riding Hood." That was the inspiration. 

I am hoping as time goes by, she will be proud of her representation in the book, and hopefully, someday when she has children, she'll be able to point to the book as she's reading it to them and say, I remember posing for these pictures for Grampa, and with any luck, I will have lots and lots of grandchildren – though I can wait quite a few more years before I am a grandfather – to use as models in my picture books.

Patch: When did you illustrate your first book? What was the experience like?

Bing: I have always considered myself a conceptual editorial and political illustrator for newspapers and magazines, rather than a children's picture book illustrator. I literally fell in the back door of the children's book industry. The work I was doing for the opinion-editorial pages of newspapers and magazines tended to be small, so I was afraid that my mind's eye would become calcified into only seeing things in a smaller scale.

So, I sat down in my studio one day and asked myself, if I were going to work on a project that nobody would ever see and would be buried with me and would be purely a labor of love, what would I do? My favorite children's story – bar none –came to mind, which was Little Black Sambo.

I then proceeded to do the illustrations for Little Black Sambo for myself. I never intended to get it published, but friends who saw the end product kept pushing me to try. Some of the strongest encouragement, ironically enough, came from my black friends, who thought I had rendered the image of the black child so positively that I should try to get it published.

It actually took years for me to find a publisher who would publish it. Keep in mind that I wasn't trying very hard, either, because my editorial career was booming. But, when a publisher finally said he'd like to publish it, he said he couldn't publish it as a first book. From his point of view, because of the story's controversial position in our society's mind, I would get slaughtered in the press and end up having absolutely no future career in children's picture books. So, we needed to put out two books before Little Black Sambo to cushion its impact on my career.

He then asked me what I would like to do for my first published book. I immediately said Casey at the Bat as a scrapbook from 1888. This was an idea I'd had since I was a junior at Lexington High School.

Then, after I worked on it for seven years, Casey at the Bat came out and I became an "overnight success." Then, we did The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

So to recap, Little Black Sambo is actually my first book, which was published third. My first book that was published was the second book that I illustrated, and my second book was the third book illustrated. I've had a very upsidedown and backwards entrance into the children's picture book industry.

Patch: What draws you to illustrating for children? What are some of the challenges that come with catering to a young audience?

Bing: I think that pictures are universal. I find that the overwhelming majority of children are very, very visually oriented and I have always been good at relating and communicating my ideas to the world this way.

I actually find it very easy to align my illustrations to a younger audience. I hated being patronized by adults when I was a kid, so I won't and don't patronize them. I actually look at my role as a guide to let them know that there are adults out there who have a great deal of respect for them and their thoughts and feelings. 

As a kid, I really hated when an adult would come to our class and set kids up that way, in essence, bragging, "I know more than you." Of course they do, because they are older. Kids know this and don't need to have their noses rubbed in it. It just always showed me how insecure these (adults) were, that they needed to embarrass a child to make themselves look grander. When this happened in my classes, I always wanted to get out a telescope and look through it backwards at them: my quiet way of saying to them, you are really smaller than all of us, and I can see it.

If adults stop to reflect back on their feelings towards the world when they were young, they see they tended to be far more intense and very often extreme. To tap into this wealth of emotion and help guide and mold it, to embrace the world in all its aspects of wonder and often horror, is a huge responsibility and honor. Just turn on the TV and watch the news for an hour, then think back to what you were exposed to as a child, and you will begin to understand why today's young generation seems to hesitate at leaping from the nest into the world as we did. 

If the reader takes a moment to think about the things that had a powerful impact on his or her lives as a child, one of the most prominent will be some story or book that he or she identified with and still remember to this day with great fondness. I hope that over the course of my career, I will produce books that will make children think, explore, take risks and find a place, even if it's just in a book, that will make them happy, bold and part of the world. With a little bit of luck, one of my books or stories will be the one they identify with and carry inside them for the rest of their lives to positive effect.    

I draw for children the same way I talk to them. I don't talk down to them, I respect their minds and the way they think.

Patch: Would you say your work has a particular style?

Bing: I like drawings that are very detailed and accurate and yet, at the same time, I love fantasy, so I try to create these worlds that you can step into with out much, if any, suspension of disbelief. With a story such as Casey at the Bat, which was first published in a newspaper in 1888, I thought that's the way I would illustrate it – as if it were published in a newspaper in 1888.

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere looks as if you're looking at hand-water-colored engravings from back in 1776, because they didn't have color printing back then. If you saw a color illustration in a book back then, it was really just that, a hand-water-colored engraving.

Then, with Little Black Sambo, I tried to make the book and the illustrations look as if the book were something you had found maybe on the same jungle path Little Black Sambo had been walking down. So, there are water stains on the pages, bits of vegetable detritus, and bugs on the pages, too. In other places in the book, the pages look as if they are separating from the binding when you open it up. I've had book sellers call me up laughing, because people have so bought into my affectation that they really thought that the pages were separating from the binding and brought the book back, only to be impressed that the book design was that thought-out.    

My approach to The Story of Little Red Riding Hood has been very much the same. I've tried to make the book look as if the book in and of itself had sort of participated in this story. On the cover you see crumbs from the cakes that Little Red Riding Hood and her mother made for the grandmother. You see flowers that Little Red Riding Hood may have picked sitting on the cover as well as pressed throughout the inside. The cover also has a circular stain from a wine bottle that is in the story too.

I try to design my books in such a way that the book actually looks as if it is a product of and part of the story, not just a vehicle for the story.

Patch: Where do you seek inspiration when crafting your illustrations?

Bing: When I'm doing my illustrations, I spend a lot of time thinking about the story, and I close my eyes and listen to conceptual music, meaning bands like Tangerine Dream, Yellow, and Porcupine Tree, and also a lot of classical music.  I just let my mind go without having any set idea, and just watch the stream-of-consciousness movies flow through my mind. Then, as the images come, I start doing very quick thumbnail sketches, and then expand up on those sketches. 

Now, that said, working on something like Casey at the Bat, where you have a story that takes place within 15 minutes of time in a very specific place – (in the case of Casey), a baseball park, 100 years ago – the lighting has to be consistent and exact. I try to figure out the most interesting way to present those images within that time structure.

I had the exact same thing with The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. These poems are fiction but based on historical facts, so I was working from the factual information at hand. The parameter for those books was already set. I was working with reality, as opposed to working on something like Little Black Sambo or The Story of Little Red Riding Hood, which are fantasies.

The settings [for Little Black Sambo and The Story of Little Red Riding Hood] are as fantastic as the stories. They have tigers and wolves that talk, tigers melting into butter, and a wolf eating both a grandmother and a child who remain alive to be cut out of the wolf and then sew the wolf back up while placing rocks inside him, as he's actually sleeping through all of this. 

These are such fantastic things that the reader needs to really adjust their thinking. As much as my style is very real or formalist, I then have to make the fantasy work within very formal real images. This falls in line with my thinking that fantasy works best when you can anchor it in an environment as real as possible. That makes the fantastic all the more so when it happens, because the reader doesn't have to spend time suspending their sense of disbelief with the setting, just the action and events.

Michael Barrett August 26, 2010 at 02:53 PM
Great interview, great character portrait. I loved the particulars and the artist.

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