You Never Heard of Jonah Winter

7:59 AM Posted by Lori Calabrese

You never heard of Jonah Winter?! Jonah Winter is THE author of You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World, and Dizzy. He is also the author of Diego: In English and Spanish, a biography of Diego Rivera, and Frida (English Language Edition), about artist Frida Kahlo, which was hailed as "a grand accomplishment, worth celebrating" by the New York Times Book Review and named a 2002 Parents' Choice Gold Medal winner.

The poet and amateur opera star has written picture-book biographies on everyone from Gertrude Stein to Barack Obama. Born in 1962 in Fort Worth, Texas, Winter spent most of his childhood painting pictures, playing musical instruments and writing poems. When he wasn’t doing these things, he was either collecting baseball cards, studying his baseball cards, or trading his baseball cards. Today, Winter still likes poetry and painting, but also focuses on writing children's picture book biographies sure to entertain, educate, and enlighten young readers.

Winter’s striking picture book biography on Sandy Koufax shows how Koufax experienced discrimination as one of the only Jewish players in the game and is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers. The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) since 1968, the Award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature.

In addition to taking home the recognition as a Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Young Readers, the book has also garnered the "Top of the List" award from Booklist as the best children's non-fiction book of 2009. It was recognized as a Booklist "Editor's Choice," and was also selected by Kirkus and Parents Magazine as one of their "Best Children's Books of 2009." Oh, and did I mention it was just announced as an ALA Notable?

I'm jumping up and down that the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour brings Jonah Winter to Get in the Game--Read! So without further ado, let's dive into some questions...

What kind of icon is Sandy Koufax in Jewish culture and why were you inspired to write about him?
What kind of icon is Sandy Koufax in Jewish culture?!? He's right up there with Moses, as far as I can tell. Or at least, that's the sense I've gotten from conversations I've had with Jewish audiences at various presentations I've done for this book. He's huge. And the reason for that is mainly due to the stance he took during the 1965 World Series, when he refused to pitch Game 1 because it fell on Yom Kippur, the most holy of Jewish High Holy Days. He took this stance at a point in American history wherein our society was still plagued by a lot of blatant anti-Semetism, and announcing one's Jewishness to the world was by no means something that anyone would have taken for granted. What Koufax did with this one act was tantamount to a game-changer, in terms of Jewish pride. This one act spoke volumes, but mainly it said, "I'm Jewish -- and I'm proud to be Jewish." What an example he set! Here's this incredibly successful, incredibly talented, incredibly handsome man... using a national spotlight to announce his Jewish pride to the world. The fact that he wasn't particularly religious was irrelevant. The fact that he was the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s during his 6-year span of glory, however, was extremely important. Had he been a mediocre player, this act would not have meant anything. In 1963, he had made the cover of Life Magazine for his pitching prowess. He was already a baseball/pop-culture icon. His decision to sit out that World Series game placed him in the highest echelon of Jewish American icons. What interested me about him, though, was the oddity of his career -- a career that began with 6 mediocre years... followed by the most amazing 6 years any pitcher has ever strung together, and then ended abruptly when he was still quite young. It remains to this day a head-scratcher. The fact that he is the J. D. Salinger of baseball also interested me -- there is something undeniably intriguing about someone who doesn't want to be known, whose life presents a mystery.

How did you research and prepare to write "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?"
Given the fact that Mr. Koufax is such a private person, who has not encouraged biographers to delve into his personal life, research was a challenge. I relied heavily on the recent biography by Jane Leavy quite a bit, just to get a sense of what he was like as a person, but truthfully, his baseball record is a matter of common knowledge. The Ken Burns baseball documentary was useful for watching film clips of his pitching, which of course was at the heart of the story. My picture book biographies are generally 32 pages long, with just a couple of sentences per page, and geared towards an extremely young readership. I don't intend for them to be full-length adult biographies, exhaustive in their details, or packed with huge amounts of information. My task is to take the basic story of someone's life... and then see how much information I can eliminate. The point is to tell a good story. If you're just presenting a long list of facts about the subject's life, you will lose your readership -- that is, if you're writing for what I like to call the Attention Deficit Disorder Set, i.e., young children. It is possible to tell an interesting picture book story about someone without knowing volumes of information about that person. At least, that seems to be the case with this book, given the positive response it's gotten!

Many of your nonfiction books make brilliant use of voice to bring your subjects to life. For example, Dizzy, uses a beatnik, beat-poetry voice and "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!" uses old-school Brooklyn slang. How do you find the voice of your subjects?
I let the subject itself lead me to the voice. As far as finding the right voice to narrate a kids' book on Dizzy Gillespie goes, the Beatniks loved bebop, and they had a playful way of expressing themselves which I thought children would dig, Daddy-o. They were inspired by this jazz and they often gave readings accompanied by live jazz. Those were the days! Nowadays, poetry readings, most of them anyway, just consist of narcissistic losers, fresh from some graduate school creative writing factory, reading incomprehensible garbage in a monotone while other narcissitic losers listen on, hoping to advance their "careers" somehow by their presence at said readings. But I digress.... My recent book on Gertrude Stein uses a Gertrude Stein voice (a voice which has been imitated and parodied for generations): No-brainer. Finding the right voice for the Koufax book was tougher. But the more I thought about how inscrutable this guy is, the more I started heading in the direction of a sort of Ring Lardner voice. Lardner often used "old-timey" voices, with loads of personality, to tell his sports stories. Once I hit on that, I knew it was the right way to go -- it definitely fit the subject matter. Voice is important to me. In my poetry for adults, practically all of my poems are told from the vantage point of some persona -- and many of them are dramatic monologues. I really don't see the point of writing or reading poems that lack a distinctive voice. And that has definitely affected how I write for children.

I read that you still have all your baseball cards from when you were a boy. How did you avert such disasters as your Mom throwing away your prized collection?
Why would my mother have thrown away my baseball cards? She's not a sadist! I guess there are some people who, upon becoming adults, leave their cards in the attics of their parents' homes. Well, not this pig. I've always carried them around with me in my 1980 census bag (my first job out of high school was as a census taker), hauling them from one residence to the next, all 28 domiciles! (I've moved around a lot. In fact, that's what inspired me to write my book The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven. I still have 11 to go...!)

Many agree that "You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?" isn't just a tribute to Koufax, but a tribute to old-time baseball. We've seen a majority of sports books for children focus on baseball. Why do you think that is?
Well, geez, I guess all my baseball books are a tribute to old-time baseball, given the fact that they're all about baseball history. I must admit, I (like many other people) am disheartened by the current state of things in baseball, though I must also admit that I do still like to catch a game now and then. No matter how much baseball has been perverted through money and steroids and corrupt billionaire owners, it still retains much of its original beauty when it's being played. Once you become addicted to baseball and to baseball history, to that continuum that started back in the 1800s, it's hard to ever kick that addiction. Baseball has inspired writers for generations -- it's a sport which is very easy to wax poetic over. And even if it has been overtaken by football and basketball as America's most-viewed pastime, I don't think it has been usurped by those sports as the most important sport of writers. And writers are the ones who write the books, both for kids and adults. And another thing: Baseball, regardless of the afore-mentioned modern taints, is still pretty innocent and accessible, as far as games go. There's not a lot about the game itself that you need to protect children from. Football and hockey, on the other hand, are absurdly violent sports. And basketball (from high school to pro) is a sport played mainly by the very tall. Plus, basketball, football and hockey are very expensive sports to attend. Baseball, though, attracts a variety of body types, it's not generally violent, and the Major League games are generally affordable to attend. It's one of the great things besides jazz that America has created. Why shouldn't there be lots of books on baseball for kids?


Thanks, Jonah for stopping by and congratulations! Thankfully, there are lots of books on baseball for kids, including You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!

Be sure to check out the entire schedule for the Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour. There are so many wonderful books, authors and illustrators highlighted-- if you don't check them out, that would be like never hearing of Jonah Winter. Gasp!
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  1. madelyn said...

    Somehow the Elvis wig alone makes me interested in this book... It sounds like that would be good both for my son AND my dad. Great interview. Thanks!

  2. Heidi Estrin said...

    Speaking of "voice," Jonah's voice comes through loud and clear in this interview! What a treat! Lori, thanks for this wonderful profile.

  3. Anonymous said...

    I loved learning about how the author found the right voice for the book. I had never though about that before...

    Thanks :)

  4. Barbara Bietz said...

    Thanks for this terrific interview! It's a delight to get to know the author of such a weonderful book!

  5. KSP said...

    Thank you Lori and Jonah. When it comes to baseball statistics, I have Attention Deficit, and this was the first book I've read about baseball where I could appreciate the player's statistics.

  6. World Of Warcraft Gold said...

    I liked studying about how the writer discovered the right terminology for the submission. I had never though about that before...