Sunday, June 03, 2007

Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin

Children's books on a Cambodian theme are fairly few and far between so the intriguing Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin, published last year, is a great addition to children's bookshelves. Written by Michelle Lord and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, the book is set in 1906 and the court dancers at the Royal Palace in Cambodia are abuzz with news of a trip to France for the Colonial Exhibition. Little Sap, a poor country girl who joined the dance troupe to give her family a better life, is apprehensive about traveling to a faraway land. In Paris, the artist Auguste Rodin is captivated by the classical beauty of traditional Cambodian dance. He insists on sketching the dancers, especially Little Sap. As Rodin's pencil sweeps across his paper, Little Sap's worries melt away. She realizes how much she has grown as a dancer and how far she has come in fulfilling her special duty to her family.

The following interview with the author and illustrator shines light on the creative process behind creating this this magical book.
Michelle, How did you become a writer? What drew you to the writing process? ML: I fell in love with Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, and Stuart Little when my second grade teacher read them aloud to our class. I couldn’t wait to hear about Charlotte, Wilbur, and Templeton each day. I created my own little books throughout elementary school. Later, when my own children began elementary school, I returned to writing.
Felicia, were you always creative? What led you to becoming an illustrator? FH: Growing up I wouldn’t say that I drew pictures any more than any other child, but I did like to create things with my hands. From drawing rainbows, making mobiles out of origami cranes, to hand sewing small teddy bears, I explored many avenues of visual creativity. My interest in art continued through college where I enrolled in many classes, including figure drawing, painting, monoprinting, ceramics, and graphic design. Finally, I zeroed in on illustration.
What about Little Sap interested you? What could you personally relate to in this story? ML: Young girls from across the ocean inspired a famous artist with their dancing. That, to me, is interesting. In the book, Little Sap worries that she is not as good as the other dancers. I think most people can relate to feelings of not fitting in or being different. I know I can, especially when I move to a new town or go to an event where I don’t know anyone.
FH: I feel that I relate to the dance aspect of the story. Although the story of Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin was about Khmer court dance, a form of dance that was unfamiliar to me, dance in general had been a big part of my life when I was a young girl. In addition to ballet and tap dance lessons, I took “buyo,” or classical Japanese dance, which I continue to study and perform today. Like Little Sap, I too can remember the nervousness and excitement of performing on stage for the first time.
What kind of research, if any, did you conduct for this project? ML: I read books on Rodin and his art. The Rodin Museum in Paris has a very informative Web site. I was lucky enough to visit the museum after I’d finished the book. I am very visual, so I also studied photographs, posters, Web sites, and videos. I looked at the cover of French magazines from 1906 to get an idea of how the French ladies dressed. Old postcards of the royal dancers were a favorite. I really got my imagination going by staring at those pictures. It was also very impotant that the story be accurate, so I had an expert in Khmer dance check my book for errors. She found some mistakes in my descriptions of certain dance movements which I fixed with her help. After all, with hundreds of movements, I was sure to get a few wrong!
FH: Reference for Khmer court dance came from several sources. Michelle Lord, the author, lent me two DVDs. One was about the history of Cambodia, and the other included Khmer court and folk dance performances. I would watch and listen to the dance music over and over again as I painted. I also visited a dance group in San Jose and photographed a few girls as they practiced. The mother of one of the dancers, Leslie Kim, generously lent me her daughter’s costume jewelry, along with many other useful items, including her own photographs from a trip to Cambodia. I saw another dance group perform along with a live Pin Peat orchestra. I visited with the instructor, Charya Burt, and she shared her experiences of being trained at the Royal Ballet in Cambodia. She also took time to review my sketches, correcting dance poses and costume details. Amitav Ghosh’s book, Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, also inspiring to read: as Ghosh described the actual 1906 encounter between the Cambodian dancers and Rodin, which the story is based on. Lastly, I used various reference materials on Rodin, which I got from visiting local libraries, bookstores, and Internet sites.
Had you been a fan of Rodin's work before this project? If not, are you now? ML: I was familiar with Rodin’s sculptures, The Thinker and The Kiss, but not much else. I admire how Rodin found beauty in everything, and that he created art throughout his life, from childhood until he was well into his seventies.
FH: I was familiar with Rodin’s life through art history books and had seen a collection of his sculptures here at the Legion of Honor. However, I was not aware of his sketches and watercolors of the Cambodian dancers. Now that I know the story behind them, I appreciate his life and work more.
Have you had a chance to share the book with children? If so, what were their reactions? ML: I thought that mostly little girls would be drawn to a book about dancers. So when a second grade boy told me that he liked my book so much that his mom ordered one, I wanted to hug him. He made my day!
FH: I plan to share the book with the San Jose Cambodian Dance group. I hope that they see themselves in Little Sap and are inspired to continue to study and perform this magical dance form.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? ML: The things that make you different are the same things that make you special! Also, never give up! Always keep trying, and you will reach your goals.
FH: I hope children of all ages will be inspired to seek out the arts by visiting local museums, seeing live performances, or even better, traveling the world and immersing themselves in different cultures.
Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin is the first picture book for both Michelle Lord and Felicia Hoshino. Lord lives in New Braunfels, Texas, with her husband and their three children. Hoshino lives and works in San Francisco, California.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, I'll definitely check out the book. So is it true that Rodin went to Cambodia, or is it just part of the story? I heard a rumor that he did, but when I went to the Rodin Museum just last weekend to see if there were any Khmer-inspired art, sadly, I didn't see any. Anyways, I always love your blog... always interesting entries.

Andy said...

Thanks Anon. This is what I wrote about Rodin back at the end of last year when some of his Khmer-inspired drawings came to Cambodia:

One exhibition that I will definitely visit when I get into town on 12 January are the Auguste Rodin drawings at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The exhibition opened last week and contains 40 (out of 150) of the sculptor/artist's most famous drawings, which he completed in 1906 after being captivated by the Royal Ballet dancers of King Sisowath, who were visiting France at that time. The French government are sponsoring the exhibition (which will run through til 11 February) to celebrate the 100th anniversary of King Sisowath’s visit, and to house the fragile works on paper, a wing of the National Museum has been renovated and a room with temperature and humidity controls room constructed. The Rodin exhibition will be some compensation for about 100 of the best pieces at the museum that are currently out of the country and on display in Bonn, Germany. However, their absence has allowed another 100 items to be taken from the museum's storeroom for a rare display. Every cloud has a silver lining.