The oversized, obstinate title character in Vladimir Radunsky's latest picture book, The Mighty Asparagus (Harcourt/Silver Whistle, May), surely lives up to this appellation. It refuses to budge when a king, queen, princess and even the ruler's rhino try to remove it after it suddenly appears on the monarch's lawn. And as the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, Asparagus! (Stalking the American Life), it has consumed the lives of two filmmakers for nearly two years. The vegetable clearly has drawing power.
Yet, despite the title of the book, which has its roots in a traditional Russian folktale entitled The Turnip, it is the lavish artwork rather than the stubborn stalk that steals the scene in Radunksy's pages. To create the art, he drew from Italian Renaissance paintings—liberal borrowings for which he offers thanks (and an apology) to such masters as Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico and Perugino.
The author, who grew up in Moscow and now divides his time between New York and Rome, explained, "This book was inspired by my travels in Italy where I see so many glorious Renaissance paintings. I always think what a pity it is that so many children in America may never see these paintings, or will see them when they are already grown-ups, or that this art will be offered to them in such a boring manner that it won't touch them. The Mighty Asparagus is my attempt to introduce children to a few pieces from the collection of classics in this, I hope amusing, way. I don't know if I ever will be forgiven by the authors of those masterpieces, but I am convinced that the idea was worth it. Perhaps someday when the children see the originals of these paintings, they will remember where they saw them first and will treat them as old friends."
In creating the book's multi-faceted art, Radunsky relied on both traditional and computer-age techniques. "Since I needed to 'repaint' the faces and figures borrowed from the classical paintings, to turn them into grotesque personages that I needed for my story and also to paint new ones," he noted, "I had to use a more or less classical technique of tempera." He said he also used collage in some places.
The simultaneous playfulness and sophistication of these illustrations is likely to make The Mighty Asparagus appetizing to adults as well as youngsters. Discussing its crossover potential, Tamson Weston, who edited the book, observed, "Vladimir has such a funny, quirky sense of humor, which is a big part of this story. This book introduces art history to kids, yet adults well versed in Renaissance art will recognize the bits and pieces of paintings. And there are some jokes that adults will get more easily than children."
Asked if he expects that adults will reach for this book as readily as children, the author responds, "Although my main readers are children and my main concern is to make my books funny, interesting and understandable first of all for them, I purposely use language, terms and images which would help a child make a step up into the adult world. Without pursuing any pedagogical purpose directly, I nevertheless see this approach as the main goal of children's books."
A Vegetable That's Ready for Its Close-up
One adult whose attention The Mighty Asparagus immediately snagged was Kirsten Kelly, in whose life asparagus has played a major role. A native of Michigan's Oceana County, hailed as "Our Nation's Asparagus Capital," Kelly has worked for a number of years as a theater director and recently earned a master's degree in directing from Juilliard. She brings together her childhood experiences, education and professional expertise in Asparagus! (Stalking the American Life), a documentary of which she, with playwright Anne de Mare, is co-producer and co-director.
Though she had never before worked in film, Kelly has long wanted to focus on asparagus in some medium. "For years, people have been fascinated when I tell them that, where I come from, people worship asparagus," she said. "I've wanted to tell their story and a documentary seemed the right way to do it. I was able to conduct some really great, intimate interviews, which allowed the community to tell its own story."
Aside from divulging the eccentricities and festivities surrounding the area's asparagus obsession (kitchens crammed with asparagus knick-knacks, the annual crowning of Mrs. Asparagus, the much-ballyhooed National Asparagus Festival), Kelly's film also has what she terms "a bit of a wake-up mission" in that it explores the shaky economic situation of Oceana County's asparagus industry, which has been hit hard by the U.S. government's free-trade initiative. "The movie is not making a political statement," she asserted, "but we are offering a look at what is happening to this community that is trying to survive on one crop."
A part-time employee of St. Mark's Bookshop in Manhattan's East Village, Kelly was understandably thrilled to get an early look at The Mighty Asparagus, which she has since shared with the folks back home, whom, she declares, "feel redeemed by the book." She is eager to meet Radunsky when he visits the bookstore in August. There Kelly and de Mare will conduct an interview with the author, which they hope to include in the film.
And author and filmmaker may well engage in a compelling dialogue about the intrinsic nature of the asparagus, which Kelly enthusiastically describes as "absolutely amazing and so very strong that it has been known to grow right up through concrete."
Radunsky's perspective sheds slightly shadier light on the stalk. He explains why he selected it as the centerpiece of his tale: "Asparagus belongs to the vegetable world and what normal child likes vegetables? So, in the small world of a child, the asparagus can successfully fulfill the role of a villain. As for me, once I let my imagination loose it was easy to imagine an innocent asparagus stalk grown to immense proportions, an embodiment of the world's evil, which one has to fight with the help of brave knights, battle rhinos, wise advisers, and goodwill."