Nicholas Day’s debut book for young readers, The Mona Lisa Vanishes, illustrated by Brett Helquist, received the 2024 Sibert Award. Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka is the author and illustrator of many books for young readers, including several picture books about musical icons, such as Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, Mysterious Thelonious, and John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. In their forthcoming picture book, Nothing: John Cage and 4’33”, the duo tells the offbeat history of Cage’s experimental—and controversial—composition of uninterrupted silence. We asked Day and Raschka to discuss their collaboration and how they captured Cage’s unconventional spirit and humor on the page.

Nicholas Day: I should start by saying that this household has been a homebase of the Chris Raschka fan club for a very long time. In fact, occasionally someone in the house will just say Moosey Moose apropos of nothing.

Chris Raschka: You’re a Moosey Moose family, excellent!

Day: And everything else going way back. In fact, one of the books that I read that made me want to write kids’ books was Arlene Sardine, because it was so beautiful and wondrously strange and evocative and did all sorts of things that I didn’t think you could get away with.

Raschka: Well, yeah. I probably shouldn’t have gotten away with it. It’s funny—that book was actually the very first book dummy I ever made. I like that book. It’s my most notorious book.

Day: It would be hard to surpass it, I think.

Raschka: I think I should mention the evolution of Nothing: John Cage and 4’33”’s illustrations. You sent the manuscript to Brenda [Bowen], our mutual agent, and Brenda sent it to me, which is the way it [often] works in this world.

I’ve always loved the work of John Cage. So before I even read your manuscript I wanted to do it. And it was a wonderful manuscript. I will say I kind of wanted to base [the first dummy] on a couple things, [the first being] river stone drawings that John Cage made, so I collected a lot of stones and I was going to make figures out of them. But then that actually became secondary to making the paper, which is the equivalent of the concert hall being the star of the book. So I made paper out of many pieces of paper and sewed them together, taped them together. So it was this patchwork of different, mostly white, off-white paper and stuff. All just crazily glued and patched together with just a few figurative elements to try to tell the story‑your story, and I sent it to Neal [Porter], who is our editor. And Neal was not having it.

Day: [Laughs.]

Raschka: The point of 4’33” is that the carrier of sound—the world around us—is already full of music that we might not be aware of. And so, I wanted the same to be [true of] the carrier of art, which is the paper, [which] also has characteristics and things in it. Of course, most paper in books—if it’s good paper—has no flaws and it’s quiet, in a way. So that was just a little too much for Neal. So that led me to do another dummy, which is very close to what the finished book is.

Day: Wow. I had no idea.

Raschka: I must still have that dummy somewhere.

Day: I’d love to see it. That’s a process.

Raschka: Yes, and that’s not unusual for me. I’ve often done books, and then whoever looks at it says “what?” or laughs.

How do you feel about your busy first year?

Day: Well, this is just how it works, right? You start working in children’s books and everyone is exceedingly nice to you and very fortunate things happen, and you get paired with extraordinary illustrators? I expect this to just continue happening from now on. So, I will settle for this year just being repeated.

Raschka: Did you ever imagine that you would wind up in the world of children’s books?

Day: I mean, it’s the usual story. You have children and you start reading children’s books and then you get interested in writing children’s books. And so, I am another victim of this inexorable sequence.

Raschka: Yeah, that’s great. What’s your next project?

Once you hear
[John Cage's]
name and know something about him, then the huge world of his life opens up.
– Chris Raschka

Day: The next long project of The Mona Lisa Vanishes sort is a book about the so-called year without summer, which was a couple hundred years ago.

Raschka: Right, yes. Like, the 1820s? When all the ash froze solid.

Day: Yes, exactly, after the volcanic eruption of 1815. It traces that and the writing of Frankenstein. It’s a book about climate change from a wholly different perspective.

Raschka: So Frankenstein was after that winter. Is that right?

Day: She [Mary Shelley] writes it… or at least she comes up with the idea to write it… and starts when she’s inside in Switzerland with Shelley and Byron. And part of the reason they’re inside was because the weather was so awful.

Raschka: Oh really?

Day: Because the volcanic eruption [had] thrown all this sulfur and ash into the atmosphere and it sent the climate haywire.

Raschka: Sounds great. Of course, Mary Shelley was not much older than a YA reader herself when she wrote Frankenstein.

Day: Yeah, she was 16 when she eloped with Percy Shelley. So that manuscript is all done. Yas Imamura is doing illustrations for it.

Raschka: That’s fantastic. I look forward to seeing it.

Day: Me too. What is next for you?

Raschka: Coming out in the fall, I hope, is a middle grade chapter book I wrote a long time ago that I’ve been working on with Michael di Capua. It’s about to head to the printer.

Day: Fantastic.

Raschka: It’s a story about two groups of cats in two different apartments in Manhattan and they are both members of espionage agencies. And, of course, they can speak. And they are in a terrible international conflict that comes to a head on the Upper East Side.

Day: Right.

Raschka: And I have another book that I’m actively illustrating—another chapter book—about two girls. It will probably be called The Wasp. It’s about a main character who’s stung by a wasp and that sting enables her to understand what people are really saying, not just what it sounds like they’re saying.

Day: When was your first musical picture book that you did? Was it the Charlie Parker book?

Raschka: Yes, that was my very first book.

I was trained as much as a musician as I was as an artist. And when I first came to New York, I was doing editorial illustration, and I was sort of headed towards children’s books in my mind. I was trying to figure my life out and I listened to the radio every morning. I listened to this jazz program on WKCR, Columbia [University’s] radio station—do you know it?

Day: Legendary station.

Raschka: Yeah, legendary. There was Phil Schaap, who was a great source of jazz knowledge. I listened to him every day. He played only Charlie Parker for an hour and half, basically, every morning. And one of his great, and very true, impulses was to spread the gospel of jazz as America’s classical music, and [that] it should be taught as such. And that’s when it occurred to me that, yes, it was missing from elementary school, that jazz was a topic for thought. And jazz has been such a part of the American social movement, as well. I mean, we don’t think of it so much, but it has been and that’s when I thought I would try to do a picture book on Charlie Parker.

Day: Right, and do something that captures the joy and energy of it.

Raschka: Yeah, that was the hope. I started out thinking, “Well, it’s gotta be a biography.” That was going to be difficult. Then I pivoted and I thought, “No I just want to get at two facts”: the idea of bebop and the idea of a saxophone, and the rest conveyed through a feeling about the music.

Day: Yeah, exactly. That approach kind of “rhymes” with the approach taken in creating Nothing: John Cage and 4’33” in a lot of ways.

Where what’s less important is—and I think this is often the case in good nonfiction picture books—is the information that’s being conveyed, and what’s more important is the feeling that resonates after the book.

Raschka: Right. I also think with biography that you just need a name, you need to hear the name and see the name. And there can be one key attached to it—one way to enter that name, however it might be. Like with Charlie Parker, it was simply the word “bebop.” And you pair those things, and then when a reader—whether that reader is a child or an adult, like my mother, who had no connection to jazz—hears the name Charlie Parker, their attention is drawn to it. And it’s just a small key to open the door to a deeper understanding.

I can’t remember if I knew John Cage when I was in high school—it’s possible. But once you hear his name and know something about him, then the huge world of his life opens up.

Day: I first came across Cage in college, and once you learn something about Cage it’s like this ball of thread that you can unwind forever because it touches on so much of what’s interesting and propulsive about 20th-century culture. Cage has this philosophical reputation for various reasons, and that can feel forbidding to a lot of people. Which is funny because I think Cage is kind of the most open—especially late Cage—and, to use the word joyful, open-spirited of a composer. And that’s part of why 4’33” works so well as a question for children to start with, right? Because it’s this thing that can feel alienating to people who have had more contact with the world, but if your experience with the world is still fresh, the questions that 4’33” asks seem intuitive and perfectly natural.

Raschka: Right, yeah, definitely. The other thing about Cage that I love is his humorousness, his playfulness, obviously, his openness to everything.

Day: Yeah, there’s this spirit of “why not?”

Raschka: I remember hearing him speaking on the radio once. He was a great mushroom collector. And he was out in the woods and got lost. And he had to spend the entire night in the woods, in the north. And the way he described it was that it was just kind of a lark and he figured out how to look at the stars and enjoy the evening. I mean that’s kind of a terrifying thing, but he took it very gently. It seems that he took the world gently. All of the vilification he got from people about what he was up to, and yet he seems to have found it all worth thinking about, just a part of the harmony, if you will, of life itself. Yeah, I love his character.

Day: The ability to do things that can seem very plain and not be worried that people will dismiss you… that’s a hard thing to do. And also, I feel like it’s something that “rhymes” with our target demographic.

Raschka: Yeah, right, definitely. He was also a graphic artist. I have a book of his art. It’s quite interesting. I think my favorite things that he did were with stones he collected in a river, and he outlined them in paint over and over again and made beautiful, rhythmic imagery. So he was a great artist all the way around.

Nothing: John Cage and 4’33” by Nicholas Day, illus. by Chris Raschka. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 Apr. 2 ISBN 978-0-8234-5409-9