He Finds A Sound Unique and New.
Keeps It To Himself.

Author-Illustrator Bonnie Christensen Brings Django Reinhardt to life in poetry and painting

By Jules

(Jules is the pen name of Julie Danielson of Smyrna, TN, who has variously been a sign language interpreter, children’s librarian and most recently was the librarian at The Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville. She now describes herself as a stay-at-home mother who has “given up on the idea of any hobbies other than reading, since all I want to do in my spare time is read.” She adds: “Good thing my husband likes to cook.” She is now the sole proprietor of the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast—http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings.com—which she launched with a friend in 2006; it’s a must read for anyone who loves books of any and all kinds as well as intelligent conversation with authors, poets and such.)

I am having a cyber-breakfast with author/illustrator Bonnie Christensen, who has brought us a handful of engaging nonfiction titles over the years—either illustrating them or both writing and illustrating them herself. Perhaps best known for Woody Guthrie: Poet of the People (Alfred A. Knopf), for which she was given the Horn Book-Boston Globe Honor Award in 2002, she has illustrated fifteen beautiful books for young readers, her primary media being oils and wood engraving or dry point engravings, though she seems to have no fear and has also attempted such artistic adventures as old-skool fresco.

Bonnie’s newest title, which she both wrote and illustrated, is a picture book biography of jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, published by Roaring Brook Press. Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist has been described by Publishers Weekly as a “sensuous tribute”; indeed, with her oil paintings and spare, lyrical prose, she brings to vivid life the fascinating biography of one of the world’s most renowned jazz guitarists, whose hand was so badly burnt in a fire in Paris in 1928 that doctors thought he would never play guitar again.

“Django Reinhardt,” Bonnie says, “is a fascinating subject in so many ways. His music is simply ‘the stuff that dreams are made of,’ from the early Paris dance hall music to the sophisticated jazz style he developed later. When I first read his story, I was hooked. Gypsies, Paris in the ’20s, jazz, and a debilitating injury to overcome—wow! And not only did Django overcome adversity, but {he} turned it to his advantage through artistry and sheer determination.”


Django doesn’t hear the chatter
Listening to the saxes sigh
Trombones moan, clarinets wail
Jazz riffs curling through the night.

Jazz Americain, jazz like Django—
moving bending
changing blending
Try that rhythm, stretch that measure,
Syncopation. Twist that line.


Little Django, trout tickler, hedgehog hunter,
Catches fish or meat for dinner.
Games of chance and movie lover
Left abandoned by his father.


One day, at last with bandage gone,
All alone, no one listening,
Django takes guitar in hand.
Right hand slowly strumming slowly,
Stiffly picking cross the strings.
While the famous left hand hardly moves,
Two fingers lay as still as stone.

Every day he works that left hand,
Works the first two awkward fingers,
Works for weeks to get them moving,
Works for months to make them fly.
Gradually he finds a new way,
Playing scales, and chords, and tunes.
He finds a sound unique and new.
Keeps it to himself.


Above illustrations from Bonnie Christensen’s Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist
(Roaring Brook Press, September 2009)
This and other Bonnie Christenson titles may be purchased at www.amazon.com

This Django excerpt is from a longer interview with author/illustrator Bonnie Christenson at “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Bonnie Christensen,” posted on September 28, 2009 by Jules at http://blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=1806. In this fascinating interview, Ms. Christensen discusses the path that brought her to illustrating and writing books, her influences and the tools of her trade.

Bonnie Christensen’s Django: World’s Greatest Jazz Guitarist recently won the Schneider Family Book Award, which honors an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences.

Django: World’s Greatest Guitarist is published by Macmillan, http://us.macmillan.com/django

Bonnie Christensen’s books by title, publisher, year published:

Fabulous!: A Portrait of Andy Warhol* — Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt, NY, 2011
Django* — Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press, NY, 2009
Ida B. Wells — HarperCollins, NY, 2008
Magic in the Margins — Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2007
Pompeii, Lost and Found — Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2006
I, Dred Scott — Simon & Schuster, NY, 2005
The Daring Nellie Bly* — Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2003
In My Grandmother’s House* — HarperCollins, NY, 2003
Woody Guthrie, Poet of the People* — Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2001
Moon Over Tennessee — Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1999
The Grapes of Wrath — Folio Society, London, England, 1998
Rebus Riot* — Dial/Penguin, NY, 1997
Breaking Into Print — Little Brown & Co., Boston, 1996
Putting the World to Sleep — Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1995
An Edible Alphabet* — Dial/Penguin, NY, 1994
Green Mountain Ghosts — Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1994
(* denotes books also authored)