For as long as I can remember, there were three things I wanted to do," says Christopher Bing. "I wanted to draw, I wanted a crack at Everest and K2, and I wanted to fly jets."
One out of three isn't bad.
Bing, whose illustrated version of Ernest Lawrence Thayer's immortal poem "Casey at the Bat" (Handprint Books) made a splash this fall, never did join the Marine Corps Air Wing. Nor does he get in much high-altitude climbing these days, now that he's a family man (Bing and his wife Wendy have three children). But he does get to draw.
Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983, the artist has made a living doing editorial and political illustrations for such venues as the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and Japan Airlines magazine, among others.
"I draw for a living, and I love it," he says.
As an artist, however, Bing eventually found he wanted to expand his horizons. "I got tired of drawing all these 32-pica-wide illustrations for newspapers and magazines," he explains. "My mind was getting boxed into this little space, and I was only thinking of things that would fit on 8-1/2-x-11 sheets of paper, so I felt like I was shrinking rather than growing. I sat down and thought about what else I'd love to do, which eventually led to Casey."
He had long admired Wallace Tripp's 1978 version of Casey at the Bat (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, now out of print), which pictures Casey as a bear. "It's a wonderful book and, I think, the perfect small children's version of the book," he notes. "At one point I was looking at it and thought, Wow, this appeared in a newspaper at the time, and the idea flowered from that initial thought."
Henry Louis Gates Jr.--who has a cameo in Bing's book as the catcher--introduced Bing to his agent, Carl Brandt of Brandt & Brandt, who brought Bing's work to the attention of Christopher Franceschelli, former president of Dutton Children's Books. A contract soon followed.
Impressed with Franceschelli's faith in him, and with his wholehearted support of his vision for the book, Bing initiated a move to Handprint Books, a publishing house that Franceschelli launched this fall, and the original advance was repaid.
"The book was supposed to take a year, and eight years later he had it," says Bing, praising Franceschelli's patience and, more important, his understanding--particularly in light of a major life change that also took place during that time, when Bing and his family moved from Providence, R.I., to Lexington, Mass., where they now reside, in order to provide hospice care for his wife's grandmother.
"Christopher is great," says Bing. "He has backed me 100 percent, and he's more interested in a quality product than in deadlines going by."
He also credits book designer Todd Sutherland with having done "a brilliant job. He is an artist in his own right, and in a large part is responsible for the look of the book."
Bing's version hews faithfully to the late 19th-century format in which the poem was first published, presenting it as a series of trompe l'oeil newspaper "engravings" on pages adorned with scrapbook-type memorabilia--old baseball tickets, currency, period advertisements and the like.
"When people pick up one of my books," Bing says, "I want them to become absorbed into the work and feel like they are experiencing the time and the period of the event that they're looking at or reading about." He goes so far as to sign copies of his book in sepia ink "so as not to spoil the illusion."
Not that he didn't bring a modern sensibility to the pages. "As much as I'm trying to create the illusion that you're looking at a newspaper from 1888, there's definitely a contemporary dynamic to it," he says. "If you look at period engravings, they didn't have the dynamics in the images--the closeups, the long shots, the angles and things--that we now take for granted. Back in 1888, illustrations were rather flat. Kids these days are visually sophisticated, and I've tried to appeal to that more sophisticated eye."
As for his medium--pen and ink on scratchboard--Bing says the credit belongs to Chris Van Allsburg, one of his instructors at RISD and a personal hero (he counts Ben's Dream as one of his all-time favorite picture books). "My preference before I went to RISD was crosshatching in pen and ink," he explains. "Chris introduced me to line and scratchboard, which made all the difference in the world."
Bing pays homage to Van Allsburg, along with family, friends and other artists he admires, by adding their faux signatures to his illustrations as "engravers," another 19th-century conceit.
Currently at work on his second book--illustrating Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride--Bing quips that "true to form, it was due in July and I'm still working on it." But he expects it to be finished soon. "It's going much faster than Casey did, and will basically have taken a year to put together when it's complete."
All told, Bing is very satisfied with the balance that picture books have added to his professional life. "I love what I do for work," he says. "I truly think I'm one of the luckiest people on the planet. No matter how zonked I am or how hard I'm pushing a deadline, I really feel a zing when I go into my studio. I get to do what I want to do--I get to do my art."