Might Mother Goose have lived on Pudding Lane in Boston 300 years ago, creating songs and poems to entertain her 14 children? Two-time Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka and the late illustrator Vladimir Radunsky playfully explore that hypothesis in Mother Goose of Pudding Lane, due from Candlewick this month. PW spoke with Raschka about the inspiration behind his fifth and final collaboration with Radunsky, who died in September 2018, and about their long friendship.
You’ve written that Vladimir Radunsky influenced your choice of careers, even before you met him. How so?
In the late 1980s, I was working as a freelance magazine illustrator and editorial cartoonist, and I wasn’t really sure what direction I wanted to let myself go in terms of the art world. I happened to be in the original Borders bookstore, in Ann Arbor, and I noticed on a table one of the first books Vladimir had created—The Pup Grew Up! I picked it up and I was spellbound. I immediately felt, “Yes, this is the kind of thing I want to do!”
What was it about that picture book that enchanted you?
It was entirely beautiful in its design, its elegance, its intelligence, its sheer sense of humor. The whole book felt like a work of art. There was a certain sensibility of clear, exquisite craftmanship and a lack of sentimentality.
When and how did you meet Radunsky in person?
Several years after I first saw The Pup Grew Up!, my wife and I moved to New York City—in part because the back flap of that book stated that Vladimir lived there. In 1992, I published my first book, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, and the following year I was approached by Marc Aronson, an editor at Holt, to illustrate The Genie in the Jar by Nikki Giovanni. Brenda Bowen was editorial director at Holt at the time, and she had worked with Vladimir on The Pup Grew Up! and knew him very well. [Bowen continued to work with Radunsky, as his publisher, editor, and agent, for the rest of his life.] When our son Ingo was born—he’s now 24—Brenda organized a get-together at a playground in the city, and my wife and I brought Ingo and Vladimir brought his twin girls, who are a year and a half older than Ingo. That was fall of 1995, and that was the beginning of our friendship.
How did the two of you come to collaborate on a book?
Vladimir was feeling around for someone to work with—he was a very, very sociable person and always loved bouncing ideas off others. He liked what he’d seen of my work and he pursued me—but I was shy about it. Then we spent a long evening together. After eating at a restaurant, we were walking through Riverside Park late at night and we came across two baseballs in the grass. Vladimir jumped to pick them up and insisted that we each sign both balls, and then announced that that was the contract upon which all our future books would be based! I still have my baseball.
How did your first book together come to be?
Vladimir prevailed upon me to meet at a café in SoHo two times a week over a long springtime. Mostly he told me stories of his own life, and one day he said, “Let’s create a book.” We talked about it for months but came up with nothing, until finally, on the spur of the moment, we came up with the idea of Table Manners [Candlewick, 2001], which was our first collaboration that saw its way into print. We went on to do four more books together: Boy Meets Girl/Girl Meets Boy, Hip Hop Dog, Alphabetabum, and finally Mother Goose of Pudding Lane.
Did Radunsky’s move to Rome in 2001 affect your collaborative process?
We managed to work it out, despite the distance. He lived in Rome for the last nearly 20 years of his life, but he usually came to New York once a year, and for many years I visited him in Rome. When working on a book together, we got into the habit of splitting the tasks—I would write and he would illustrate and design.
What was the genesis of Mother Goose?
Vladimir somehow came across a reference to an article published in the New York Times in 1886, which stated that the real Mother Goose was born Elizabeth Foster in Charlestown, Mass., in 1635, and she married Isaac Goose of Boston. There have been debunkings of this myth, since there is little documentation, but the story was of interest to Vladimir on a personal level, since his wife’s parents lived in Boston, and he visited the city often. He came across what is supposedly Mother Goose’s tombstone in Boston and was very excited about it. He said to me, “We must do a book about this!”
Did that process go smoothly?
Well, I came up with five or six tellings of the story, sometimes related to the legend of the Boston Mother Goose and sometimes taking different angles. Vladimir rejected them all, including one of my favorites: I wanted Mother Goose to be on the FBI’s most wanted list, since many of the poems in the Mother Goose canon are considered inappropriate for children and were deemed immoral and banned! Ultimately, I told the legend in a Mother Goose style of my own, incorporating poems of hers that related to her life. Vladimir’s challenge was to design and illustrate the book so as to keep the strings of text separate and understandable. We worked on the book for six or seven years. He was ill for a number of those years, so there were inevitable big gaps when he didn’t have the strength to work.
Despite his illness, do you have fond memories of this final collaboration?
Yes. He and I shared a strong love of poetry and nonsensical literature, and doing this book allowed us to talk a great deal about all kinds of literature—high and low—which was something we always liked to do. I know the history of our friendship would not have been as strong if we hadn’t worked on books together, and this last book in particular drew us together.
I was with Vladimir the morning he went to the hospital last September and spent his last three days with him. He was happy to be in a beautiful hospital near the Vatican, surrounded by Renaissance-era buildings. And even though from his window he could only see a wall, he loved that wall. Vladimir was his same wonderful, funny, acerbic, unsentimental, undaunted self to the very end. It is one of the true joys and honors of my life to have been so close to him.
Mother Goose of Pudding Lane by Chris Raschka, illus. by Vladimir Radunsky. Candlewick, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-7636-7523-3