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DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER

“Children love the movement and dancing words that are threaded throughout the book.

They love to spin, whirl, and waltz as I read it.

They want to get up and move around, and it's so fun to see them

imitate the motions Helen used as she created her art.”

 

Elizabeth Brown is a professional violinist, film producer, and college teacher. And now, after three years of waiting for her #firstpicturebook to be published, Elizabeth is an author. DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR:THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER is a Spring 2019 Junior Library Guild selection with "textual descriptions of Frankenthaler's process [that] are gorgeous" (Kirkus Reviews).

  
Q. Was DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?

A. I have an MFA in Creative Writing and spent years in writing classes, writing in other genres, and teaching writing at the college level before I started writing picture books.

DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR: THE STORY OF HELEN FRANKENTHALER is my debut picture book, but it's the third picture book I wrote. My first and second picture books are releasing from other publishers soon! 

 
Q. What inspired DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR?

A. I first learned about Helen Frankenthaler in a modern art history course in college. My professor emphasized her work in the course as she was one of the major abstract expressionists in the 20th century and overcame the male-dominated art world at the time, which was very difficult to do at that time! I thought writing a picture book biography of her early life would work well as a book for young children, and I am so happy that Abrams thought so as well! In my author's note in the back matter, I discuss my inspiration in more detail. 

 
Q. How did you pick the title of your book?

I chose the title to emphasize Helen's movements around the canvas and her methods of applying paints, making the colors "dance" on the canvas. Also, since Mountains and Sea was the painting that led to Color Field movement, I definitely wanted to make sure this came across in the title. 

 
Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?

I write by hand until I'm pretty confident I have a very solid draft. Before I even write anything though, I have done lots of thinking, freewriting, answering questions about the character and/or topic until I feel I am ready to begin working on it as a book. Then I start to storyboard it and outline it in a book dummy to see how the idea might work as an actual picture book. I keep writing by hand until I feel I'm ready to start typing it out. I then type it, print, read, and make revisions by hand in it, and then type, print again, make revisions, continuing in this fashion until I feel it's really close to a final submission ready draft. Then I create another book dummy to see how it all works out and keep revising if necessary. Finally, I begin reading the manuscript out loud many, many times, and make tiny edits over and over, until I feel the manuscript is ready to submit to my agent. 

 
Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft? 

My favorite part is the ending. I chose to make it a lyrical ending as it not only hints at Helen's life and success as an artist following Mountains and Sea, but it also defines the essence of Color Field painting and that she will live forever through her art. This ending came in later drafts; it wasn't in the first draft.

 
Q. What kind of resources did you use in your research for this nonfiction story?

A. I used many primary sources, including interviews of Helen Frankenthaler, studying her art work, especially Mountains and Sea, I watched documentary films of Helen as she created her paintings, and I also used reputable secondary sources about Helen written by art historians. The most important part of my research was the help and vetting of the manuscript by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. This was crucial to the success of the book, and I can't thank them enough for all their help!

 
Q. How did you decide on the timeframe of this nonfiction story?

A. The book focuses on Helen Frankenthaler's early life, from young childhood through age 23, after she completed her game-changing Mountains and Sea. I knew that I wanted to focus on this timeframe as it highlights how much Helen's development began in childhood and how she built on that through her young adult life and beyond. This timeframe also allowed me to highlight her love of color, her struggles to overcome her father's death and the male-dominated art world, and set the stage for showing how emotion and nature are rooted in all of her work, both of which formed in childhood. The timeframe also works well for a picture book biography where showing a slice of her life allows for more focus on essential aspects in her life and work while appealing to picture book readers.

 
Q. What information do you include in the back matter?

A. The back matter contains more information on Helen Frankenthaler, photos of her, a photo of Mountains and Sea, an author's note, an art activity based on Helen's soak-stain technique, quotes and their sources, and a selected bibliography. 

 
Q. Did DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?

A. My agent sent it out to about ten editors, and we sold it in this first round of submissions!

 
Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR.

A. My agent called me when we received the offer from Abrams, and of course, I was thrilled beyond anything! I was going to be a children's book author!


Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 

A. I was given a chance to weigh in, and I was thrilled when Aimee Sicuro was selected as the illustrator. Her ability to capture the colors and Helen's personality and interweave these throughout the book was amazing. Her illustrations are stunning and add so much to the story.

 
Q.  What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?

A. All the luscious color! Aimee definitely understood Helen's art process and worked this in throughout the entire book. Her gorgeous art complemented the text so well. I am so fortunate to have her as the illustrator. 

 
Q. How long did DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. About three years. I received the offer in the spring of 2016, and the book releases on March 19, 2019. 

 
Q. When you read DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR to kids, which part of the book gets the best reaction?

A. Children love the movement and dancing words that are threaded throughout the book. They love to spin, whirl, and waltz as I read it. They want to get up and move around, and it's so fun to see them imitate the motions Helen used as she created her art. I hope they'll try the art project at the end of the book! I hope the book inspires them in their own artistic and creative pursuits, now and in the future.


Q. Did you create any book swag for DANCING THROUGH FIELDS OF COLOR? If so, what kind?

No, I haven't yet, but I do see myself doing an art activity for school or author visits.

 
Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?

The #1 tip is to keep writing, no matter what! I also suggest that picture book writers develop a love for revision. Revision is where the artistry of writing happens. I can't imagine being a writer and not loving revising since as writers we will be revising so much! One never really stops revising a book I feel. There are so many ways to tell a story – as a writer, it's so important to grasp this and then be able to embrace it. Love the journey and the process!

 
Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise or marketing tip that you can share?

A. I don't really have a favorite writing exercise. I just have my process, and I stick to that as it works for me. I do find new exercises to try, and it's nice to add those in to my process if they work for me. Mostly, I love good old-fashioned freewriting as a way to solve problems I may encounter as I draft a story. This has always helped me in my process.

 
Q. What are you working on now?

A. I am working on more picture books!

 

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)

A. I look forward to connecting! You can find me at:

Website: www.elizabethmbrown.com

Twitter: @ebrownbooks

Instagram: @elizabethbrownbooks

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