Local Author Spotlight: Jo Ellen Bogart

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Jo Ellen Bogart was born in Houston, Texas, and received degrees in elementary education and psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She has written many children's books, including The White Cat and the Monk, illustrated by Sydney Smith, a Governor General's Award finalist and a USBBY Outstanding International Book. Her picture book Jeremiah Learns to Read, illustrated by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jacobson won the Ruth Schwartz Children's Book Award, and Gifts, illustrated by Barbara Reid, won the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award and was selected for IBBY's Honour List. Jo Ellen lives in Guelph, Ontario.

Anthony and the Gargoyle, Jo Ellen's most recent title, is a wordless picture book for children which tells the story of Anthony, a young boy who befriends a baby gargoyle. In this interview with the Eden Mills Writers' Festival, Jo Ellen tells all about this magical story. 

What is the process, as an author, of writing a wordless book?

I think that writing a wordless book is similar in many ways to writing a book with text in that there is a story, a setting,  a main character, and usually other characters to interact with the main character.  In most cases, something happens.  What happens to start the real action in Anthony and the Gargoyle is the breaking open of the rock that Anthony has had on his bedside table for as long as he can remember. Earlier in the book, the "reader" had become familiar with the house and the family through photos on the wall.

Because there is no text, I had to really think of how the illustrations could carry enough information and emotion to help the reader understand what is happening. This was my job as the author.  I described carefully  illustrations that I felt would set the scene, begin the action, and eventually, lead to a conclusion.  Maja Kastelic, the illustrator did a marvelous job of creating the family, especially Anthony, and, of course, the little gargoyle.  I can tell that she put long hours into this creative process, and she shared art with me and with the Groundwood editor and artistic director, as the project developed. With illustrated books, there is often this kind of interaction, but  there might have been a bit more attention given, since the art was all there was to tell the story.

How does the collaboration between author and illustrator change when the published piece will have no words at all?

 As I said, in a wordless book, the author depends on the illustrator to produce art that shows what is happening. I needed to describe the action taking place. As I thought of the story unfolding,  I did not think in words, but more in figures moving and interacting.  I did not hear the conversations, only understood the meaning of what was going on. I was watching a silent movie. In a few cases, I gave a less detailed description and left it to Maja to fill in the details. Her endearing scenes of Anthony and the little gargoyle playing his room are some of my very favourite scenes.  The most important factors of a good wordless book are the skill and understanding of both the author and the illustrator, and their working together.  If the illustrator understands the feelings of the characters, she can show the feelings in the art.  Facial expression and body language can bring the story to life without words.  Maja has included some words in the pictures to, for instance, name books being read or to create the atmosphere of the city, Paris.  My favourite word was Boulangerie.

What literacy skills might be developed by experiencing this book?

Reading is a complex skill of decoding letters and words, but I think there is a situational aspect to experiencing a book.  What is going on in the story?  How are the characters feeling?  Are they happy, sad, surprised, curious?  The pictures contain so much information to be pored over, looking for clues to be shared with parent, sibling, teacher, or friend. Even if there is text, a picture book depends on its art to fill out the story. Pictures carry a lot of the story in any picture book.  The child learns how stories work, how they move along, how things happen, and what the result might be. In this story, the family travels to Paris and then returns home.  What has changed on the trip? The book is in some ways a puzzle to be decoded through image. There is enough detail and change that this book can be viewed again and again and new details discovered each time.  Go back and laugh again when Anthony and the little gargoyle are playing with toy dinosaurs. Did you notice that the little gargoyle's tongue is hanging out?  A picture book is a little world to live in, to relive any time. What might the characters be saying?  A child might supply the words.  Even without a text, it is a story. As an added value, children can find beauty in a book, as art involves them with line, form, and colour.

What is your favourite part in Anthony’s story?

It is always hard to choose a favourite part of a story.  I like how Anthony is curious about his new friend and looks for information.  I like how he shares his friend with the older relative in the hospital.  Perhaps I love most the last smile that Anthony and the little gargoyle share on parting.  I am stunned by the beauty of the two creatures lying on the bed looking up at the sky. Anthony is pointing to something.  As a Canadian, I first thought of snowflakes, since I like to watch falling snow, but looking again, I see that Anthony might be pointing to stars in the sky.  We ponder the thought of life far, far away.  And there is life of a different but wonderful form sharing with Anthony  the night  sky.  What thoughts will children have when they look at this picture?  I will need to talk to some children about this book and find out.  I hope that a lot of children see this book and give it some thought.  To end, I must also say how much I love the picture of Anthony and the little gargoyle with eyes closed, holding hands. 

Purchase a copy of Anthony and the Gargoyle from your local independent bookstore.