Bonnie Christensen Biography (1951-)
Author and illustrator Bonnie Christensen began her career in children's literature in the mid-1990s, and since 2000 has brought the life of enigmatic Americans into focus for younger readers through such self-illustrated picture books as Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People and The Daring Nelly Bly: America's Star Reporter. Her first book for young readers was An Edible Alphabet, which appeared in 1994. The work is an abecedarium, or alphabet book, for primary graders in which each of the twenty-six letters are represented by a food item. The book is also unusual in that Christensen borrows terms from other languages for the more unusual letters—instead of the usual xylophone or X-ray for the letter X, she introduces Xanthorhiza, the term for an edible root used in homeopathic medicine. Her colored woodcut illustrations depict both the item itself and a way in which people might use it. The apple page, for instance, shows an adult and a child using a cider press. Many illustrations are set in gardens, such as the urban rooftop garden that is home to the fig tree she draws for the letter F. In another section Christensen explains the process of woodcut printing and its origins in the seventeenth century. She also includes an appendix with a brief entry for each plant, and cautions her young readers that not all plants and berries are edible.
An Edible Alphabet won Christensen praise for her imaginative visuals. "The effect is striking," maintained Carolyn Jenks in School Library Journal, dubbing the volume "beautiful as well as interesting." Writing for Booklist, Hazel Rochman described Christensen's debut effort as a work "with an extraordinary sense of depth," and particularly rife with "images [that] celebrate our connection with food that grows on the land." A Publishers Weekly commentator also praised Christensen's efforts, terming An Edible Alphabet "thoughtfully designed and masterfully executed."
Another work written and illustrated by Christensen is Rebus Riot, which contains fifteen poems in rebus form. A rebus is a riddle in which the reader must decipher a series of images whose sounds represent a different word or syllable. Some of the rhymes featured involve food, while others center around other themes such as transportation or animals. Christensen introduces difficult words to her young readers—"shallot" and "tapir" among them—and also provides nearby solutions for her riddles as well. In the School Library Journal, Patricia Pearl Dole termed the verse "clever, imaginative, and hilarious," and the illustrations "full of action and humor," and predicted that even adult readers will derive enjoyment from Rebus Riot. In a critique for Horn Book, Nancy Vasilakis praised Christensen's "deft visual puns and sprightly rhymes," as well as for images that are "as inviting as the verses themselves."
Christensen has also provided pictures for texts by other writers, including Joseph A. Citro's Green Mountain Ghosts, Ghouls, and Unsolved Mysteries and Putting the World to Sleep, by Shelley Moore Thomas. In Thomas's bedtime story, the author relates the tale of a child being lulled to sleep by his mother's song, while a little girl does the same for her teddy bear nearby. Ruth K. MacDonald, reviewing the book in School Library Journal, offered particular praise for the watercolor hues and variegated images ranging from indoor coziness to a majestic night sky that, the critic asserted, provide a "sense of movement, of stately rejoicing in the coming of night."
For the pages of Stephen Krensky's Breaking into Print: Before and after the Invention of the Printing Press, Christensen created wood engravings and painted borders. Aimed at ages seven to ten, this title explains and illustrates how books were painstakingly copied by hand before the invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg in the 1400s. The author and illustrator then detail just how radically that innovation impacted the world. Reviews of Breaking into Print commended the quality of its design and execution. School Library Journal contributor Shirley Wilton maintained that the author and illustrator's talents blend to create a handsomely designed and highly successful introduction to what is generally viewed as Western civilization's most significant achievement.
In 2001 Christensen published her first self-illustrated biography, Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People. "This picture-book biography masterfully blends the elements of two genres," Betty Carter declared in Horn Book, adding that the book "is well told, perfectly paced, and beautifully illustrated." As Christensen's text and illustrations depict the noted folk musician's life, the words to all seven verses of Guthrie's most famous song, "This Land Is Your Land" frame the spreads in a hand-lettered border. Christensen's "dramatic mixed media, woodcut-like illustrations," as a Kirkus Reviews contributor described them, were perhaps the most-praised aspect of this book. Writing in Booklist, GraceAnne A. DeCandido called them "sinewy and emotionally compelling," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that, with their earth tones, Christensen's works "creatively evoke the period and the variegated landscapes" through which Guthrie moved.
The Daring Nellie Bly: America's Star Reporter profiles the famous journalist, who was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864. As Nellie Bly, she traveled the world breaking important stories at a time when any type of female newspaper reporter, even a much less serious one, was an oddity. Christensen explains some of Bly's more famous work, including her tour as a war correspondent in World War I and her efforts to expose the deplorable conditions in which female factory workers and insane asylum inmates were forced to survive. (She actually had herself committed to an asylum to get the latter story!) In 1889 she set out to travel around the world in under eighty days and succeeded, completing the circuit in seventy-two. "Appropriately enough" in light of these exploits, Sue Morgan wrote in School Library Journal, "this terrific biography reads like an adventure story." "Younger readers may lack the historical context to appreciate the nature of Bly's crusades," thought a Publishers Weekly critic, but they "will come away with an appreciation of her many feats." Christensen has also edited a book for older readers. Featuring original illustrations, In My Grandmother's House: Award-winning Authors Tell Stories about Their Grandmothers includes personal essays by twelve famous writers, among them Beverly Cleary, author of the "Ramona" books; Native American author Cynthia Leitich Smith; Minfong Ho, creator of Sing to the Dawn and Rice without Rain; Cuban picture-book author Alma Flor Ada; and author/illustrator Pat Cummings. Each woman takes a different perspective on her grandmother and the older woman's role in her life. Some write from a child's perspective, while others view their grandmother through the eyes of an adult woman. Interestingly, many of the writers, looking back as adults, see their grandmothers, not as variations on a simple, cookie-baking stereotype, but as complex women who were once young themselves. Booklist reviewer Gillian Engberg termed In My Grandmother' House "a fine collection that will encourage teens to reflect on their own families and recognize the individuals behind the family roles." A Kirkus Reviews critic, while also praising the tales as "deeply moving," noted that most "require an adult perspective to be appreciated fully."
Discussing her career, Christensen once explained to Something about the Author: "After college I worked in New York theater including Joe Papp's Public Theatre, New York Shakespeare Festival, Actor's Studio, Chelsea Theater, and Stella Adler Studio. Eventually playwriting became my main focus. A few of the plays actually saw the light of day off-off Broadway. During that time, I worked for Screen Actors Guild and then Paramount Pictures.
"While in New York I studied wood engraving with John Depol and attended classes at Parsons School of Design and Center for Book Arts. I returned to Vermont and focused on wood engraving, exhibiting prints locally, and was offered my first illustration work. Through a keen interest in printmaking and letterpress printing I eventually hand-printed and bound a limited-edition book. Desire to see that book reach a wider audience eventually led me to trade publishers and initiated my career."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, January 15, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of An Edible Alphabet, p. 932; October 15, 1996, Ilene Cooper, review of Breaking into Print: Before and after the Invention of the Printing Press, pp. 426-27; May 15, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Rebus Riot p. 1577; September 1, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People, p. 98; June 1, 2003, Gillian Engberg, review of In My Grandmother' House: Award-winning Authors Tell Stories about Their Grandmothers, p. 1757; September 1, 2003, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Daring Nellie Bly: America's Star Reporter, p. 117.
Horn Book, January-February, 1996, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Putting the World to Sleep, pp. 68-69; May-June, 1997, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Rebus Riot, pp. 336-337; January-February, 2002, Betty Carter, review of Woody Guthrie, p. 93; September-October, 2003, Betty Carter, review of The Daring Nellie Bly, pp. 626-627.
Kirkus Reviews, October 15, 2001, review of Woody Guthrie, p. 1480; March 1, 2003, review of In My Grandmother's House, pp. 380-381; September 15, 2003, review of The Daring Nellie Bly, p. 1172.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, review of An Edible Alphabet, p. 69; September 11, 1995, review of Putting the World to Sleep, p. 85; October 8, 2001, review of Woody Guthrie, p. 62; November 10, 2003, review of The Daring Nellie Bly, p. 61.
School Library Journal, May, 1994, Carolyn Jenks, review of An Edible Alphabet, p. 107; October, 1995, Ruth K. MacDonald, review of Putting the World to Sleep, pp. 120-121; October, 1996, Shirley Wilton, review of Breaking into Print, pp. 114-115; March, 1997, Patricia Pearl Dole, review of Rebus Riot, p. 149; October, 2001, Kathleen Simonetta, review of Woody Guthrie, pp. 136-137; May, 2003, Susan Oliver, review of In My Grandmother's House, p. 164; October, 2003, Sue Morgan, review of The Daring Nellie Bly, p. 146.
Teacher Librarian, September, 1998, Jessica Higgs, review of Rebus Riot, p. 51.
Teaching Music, October, 2003, review of Woody Guthrie, p. 76.
Bonnie Christensen Home Page, http://www.bonniechristensen.com (February 4, 2005).
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