The Great Ones Volume 1: R. Gregory Christie–the illustrator as character actor

I am proud to introduce the first in a series of ongoing posts about contemporary children’s book illustrators I admire.  These humble capsules will try to zero in on one thing about what makes this artist a truly special creator of children’s books.  I cannot think of a cooler person to start with than R. Gregory Christie who has given the world over 50 acclaimed picture books over the past 20 or so years.  Christie has won 5 Coretta Scott Illustrator Honor awards (The Palm of My Heart, Only Passing Through, Brothers in Hope, The Book Itch and Freedom in Congo Square), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (Bad News for Outlaws), a NAACP Image Award, is a three-time winner of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year (Only Passing Through, Stars in the Darkness, Freedom in Congo Square), a 2017 Caldecott Honor Award (Freedom in Congo Square), among other honors.  To top it all off, he’s one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Recently I had the chance to hear Mr. Christie speak on a panel and one of his comments really stayed with me.  He says that he views himself as a “character actor” style illustrator who bends his art to match the tone of each book.  I went back and looked at some of his work with this in mind and it really makes sense.  He is a brilliant interpreter of an author’s words, capturing the mood that the writer creates.  For a mind-blowing comparison just look at Bad News for Outlaws:  The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal (2009, written by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), Sugar Hill:  Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood (2014, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, published by Albert Whitman & Company), The Book Itch:  Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore (2015, written by Nelson, published by Carolrhoda), and Freedom in Congo Square (2016, written by Weatherford, published by little bee).

Christie’s work in Freedom in Congo Square, about slaves who endure hard labor during the week and have only one afternoon of joy playing music in New Orleans’ Congo Square, calls to mind the power of great folk art.  We don’t see the features on the slaves’ faces.  Their bodies are bent at painful, difficult angles while working, but are then curved with graceful release when enjoying the music.  Meanwhile, in The Book Itch, about Lewis Henri Michaux and the creation of the National Memorial African Bookstore, Christie creates a real sense of place, making the reader feel as if they are a customer in the famous bookstore.  We see the expressions on the people’s faces, although some of the work is abstract.  Christie serves up beautiful portraits of such historical figures as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.  The Book Itch has a serious tone, especially when the people grieve after Malcolm X’s murder, and Christie’s work doesn’t shy away from this sadness.  What emerges, thanks also to Nelson’s evocative text, is an indelible study of how this book store changed lives.

Compare the serene art in The Book Itch to the bouncy spreads found in the almost giddy Sugar Hill.  Weatherford’s finger-snapping rhymes introduce the youngest of readers to the celebrated Harlem neighborhood where legendary figures as Thurgood Marshall and Lena Horne hung out while children played stickball on the street.  The warm wink on the book’s cover tells you “oh, this will be fun” and Christie’s pastel illustrations create a captivating warmth.  Meanwhile, on the cover for Bad News for Outlaws, a picture book biography about respected Old West lawman African-American Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, Reeves meets your eyes directly–looking dignified and very serious.  Nelson starts the account with a bang (quite literally) showing Reeves in action, and Christie gives us scenes straight out of a movie, with the reader at one point staring down the barrel of Reeves’ gun.  He excels at capturing the landscape and vistas of the Old West.  But mostly what impresses is how Christie depicts Bass’ brave, no-nonsense personality.

R. Gregory Christie is always trying something new in his work.  Although of course you can see similarities in how he depicts body movement and human figures, he flexes his style and this helps each title take on a distinct visual world all its own.


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