Five questions for Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, by Roger Sutton

Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have been pioneers in the presentation of books about modern and contemporary art for children. Their subjects have included architect Frank Gehry, sculptor Louise Bourgeoise, and painter Jackson Pollock; their book Chuck Close, Up Close was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor winner in 1998. In their latest collaboration, Ballet for Martha, Greenberg and Jordan examine a work that was itself an inspired collaboration, Appalachian Spring, composed by Aaron Copland for a ballet by Martha Graham. Although the book is truly a three-way partnership, with Brian Floca contributing on point and pitch-perfect watercolor illustrations, I simply could not do the math for five questions for three people. As it is, neither I nor Jan nor Sandra could tell you exactly who answered what below!

1. Martha Graham was, as Ballet for Martha points out, famously collaborative. As are you two. What do you think has allowed the two of you to work so successfully together?

The key to our working happily together for twenty years is chatting. Chatting and laughing. We begin with a messy idea; everything goes into the pot, no critics allowed. If it’s a large, complicated project, like the one we are starting now, we might divide the research. But for most books, including Ballet for Martha, both of us chat, read, and interview. We look at art and chat some more. We each write our own versions, then exchange our work and start revising. (For the text of Ballet, the computer files show twenty-seven drafts and that doesn’t include the back matter.) Once we have a complete first draft, we get tough with each other. We are both very, some might even say fanatically, picky. It probably helps that we often are in different cities when the conversation gets tense. However, our experience proves that when one of us says, “Eh, I don’t know about that word/paragraph/chapter,” she’s probably right. Changes are made, followed by more changes. Sometimes Jan takes the lead, sometimes Sandra, but we never tell who found the subject/shape/voice, who wrote a great line — or who wrote a lame one. Good or bad, it’s our book.

2. You write about subjects — Graham, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close — that don’t immediately cry out for a children’s book, but you make such seem almost inevitable. What do you look for in the subjects you write about?

We respond to all kinds of art but admit to a particular interest in contemporary painting, sculpture, and architecture. Considering that very young people seem to intuitively understand the computer, the iPhone, and the TV remote (all of which perplex their parents), why not trust them to “get” art that reflects the gestalt of their time? We search for artists with interesting stories and enjoy introducing readers to the process of creating artwork. That said, our biggest challenge is finding a way to translate any artist’s work from one kind of visual experience into another, i.e., a book. “How can we make it look exciting on the page?” becomes the first practical question when we find an artist we both admire. Insofar as we have succeeded, we’d like to give two thumbs up to Neal Porter, the editor of all three books you mentioned in your question. He gets very involved in what we do, and his own love for art and his bold editorial commitment to design are responsible for the overall look of our books.

3. When children are taught art or music history (which is probably less frequently than you would like), the main topics tend to be drawn from the Nineteenth Century and before. Why do you think that is?

Historical perspective offers a general agreement on what deserves to be called “great,” and that can be reassuring to parents and teachers alike. After all, most people want nothing but the best for their children. We think part of that “best” should be art and music, as important to kids’ daily lives as math, science, English, and foreign languages. Early in her career Georgia O’Keeffe taught art to teachers. She believed studying art had an impact on even the small aesthetic decisions we make. “Where you have the windows and doors on a house. How you address a letter and put on a stamp. What shoes you choose and how you comb your hair.” But it’s true that music with a melody and art with a recognizable image are easier to talk about than an abstract painting or atonal music. That’s our mission: to help both teachers and students begin a conversation with new art through clear and, hopefully, stimulating cues. In Ballet for Martha, we use certain sensory words to describe the music, movement, and music. In Copland’s music, “[Martha] hears the rollicking echo of a Virginia reel, the galloping energy of a rodeo, the lilting melody of the Shaker hymn.” “Isamu’s set is spare and angular, like Martha’s way of dancing.” The commonalities between the arts in terms of descriptive language and modes of analysis always intrigue us.

4. What’s hardest to write about: dance, painting, or sculpture?

There is no contest. Writing about dance, especially the technique developed by Martha Graham, is difficult. Brian Floca’s watercolors, created from many afternoons photographing rehearsals and watching the tape of the first performance of Appalachian Spring in 1944, were the key to explaining the moves Martha taught her dancers. We wrote some excruciatingly dull sentences explaining Martha’s technique of “contraction” and “release” and cut all of them. Only an illustration could show how a dancer crouches down and, with her stomach muscles, leaps up. Martha designed her technique to express emotion. In every art form from the visual arts to music to dance, the final step in understanding the artwork is asking, “What is the feeling expressed by the artist’s use of such elements as color, line, texture, or form?”

5. If you were taking a child to his or her first dance performance, what piece would you most want to be on the program?

We have taken assorted children of all ages to such traditional choices as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. Both ballets were in huge concert halls and lasted over two hours. Of course, they are riveting and stunning, but we think for a child’s first experience with dance, a shorter, more intimate performance would be better. Plus we find that while girls, especially, are attracted to the glamour of the ballerina, when it comes to their own dancing, they often prefer a more modern approach. (Not just girls, either — one of Jan’s grandsons does African dancing at Alvin Ailey.)

Appalachian Spring is usually performed in a small theater. It is about thirty-five minutes long and usually grouped with two of Graham’s other dances. Appalachian Spring tells the story of a young pioneer couple on their wedding day and the completion of their new farmhouse. Each of the characters in the dance is distinctive. Copland’s music enhances their roles, from the proud farmer showing off for his bride to the stern preacher warning of hard times. The period costumes, the stirring movement, and the familiar refrain of the Shaker hymn are very accessible to children.

This article was originally published online in Notes from the Horn Book
Vol. 3, No. 8, August 2010