CHARLOTTE IN LONDON by Joan MacPhail Knight,
pictures by Melissa Sweet (Chronicle, 2008). Ages 8+, 64 pp.
It’s August, the perfect time for some armchair traveling! Are you in the mood for a little cherry clafoutis, raspberry fool, and vegetable soup?
Earlier this year, while I was preparing for my interview with Caldecott Silver Medal winner Melissa Sweet, I noticed that she’s the illustrator for Joan MacPhail Knight’s Charlotte series. I had never seen any of these totally captivating, impeccably designed books before, and it was love love love at first sight!
I think I was actually hyperventilating as I turned those first pages. To begin with, you all know how much I adore Melissa’s work. Add to that, Joan’s brilliantly written travel diaries about some of my favorite places in the world, which include mention of food on practically every other page ☺. And, at the center of everything, a joyfully curious, observant, ingenuous ten-year-old, who brings a unique, refreshing perspective of what it may have been like to live in a thriving international artists’ colony.
I just wish I had known about the series nine years ago, when the first book, Charlotte in Giverny, came out. In any case, I want to marry all four books, clutch them tightly to my child’s heart, step right into their pages, and become Charlotte Glidden!
Wouldn’t you want her life, too? It’s 1892, and she’s moved from Boston to Monet’s artist colony in Giverny, France, so that her father can learn to paint in the new French Impressionist style. Charlotte befriends Monsieur Monet and finds herself enamoured with her new surroundings, as she learns French, meets many interesting artists and friends, and yes! — savors the delectable cuisine prepared by their chef, Raymonde.
I’ve always longed for a chef called Raymonde. *sigh*
Charlotte chronicles all these fine things in her journal, which is overflowing with antique photos, paintings, sketches, postcards, treasured keepsakes, and a few recipes ☺. In the second book, they travel to Paris; the third, New York; and the fourth, London! Hee! (As you know, I am only slightly partial to London, England.)
Melissa and Joan are here today to briefly comment about creating Charlotte in London, but before I turn it over to them, a little more about this latest installment, published by Chronicle Children’s Books in 2008:
The Gliddens go to London so that Charlotte’s mother can have her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent. Charlotte and her best friend Lizzy share a room at the Savoy Hotel, where the “King of Chefs,” Monsieur Auguste Escoffier, lavishes them with mouthwatering meals.
Fortnum and Mason: “They have everything a queen could want — I counted fifty different kinds of marmalade. We left with a picnic basket filled with chicken pies, cheeses and biscuits, chocolate truffles and two fruit tarts: strawberry and apricot.”
Besides visiting famous landmarks like the Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey, Charlotte attends dinner parties with the likes of James McNeill Whistler, Henry James, and Sarah Bernhardt. They picnic on the Thames while watching the Henley Royal Regatta, and venture out to an artist colony in the Cotswolds, where Charlotte accidentally meets the elusive Mr. Sargent, who paints her picture! (You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out whether he ever painted Charlotte’s mother.)
Charlotte describes all these events in glorious, sensual detail, echoing the sensibility of artists who moved their easels out of their studios to paint en plein air, so they could capture the momentary and transient effects of natural light in the world around them. While looking at the Houses of Parliament with her father, Charlotte says, “I saw a magical kingdom bathed in gold.” This feeling of enchantment permeates throughout — so much wonder and majesty in the city, uncommon charm in the country. Witnessing it all through Charlotte’s eyes is sheer delight!
The illustrations are a combination of Melissa’s winsome watercolors and charming collages, alongside Joan’s postcards, ephemera, and carefully selected Impressionist paintings (most of which are framed by Melissa). One moment, you are reading Charlotte’s account of the day, the next, you are gazing at a famous painting which just “happens” to illustrate that part of the story. It’s marvelous how all these elements blend together to evoke 19th century London, the spirit of a young girl, and the passion of the artists. Let’s find out more from Melissa and Joan:
Melissa, how did you create the illos for this book?
Typically, I’m collecting objects, paper and ephemera when I travel, or even while taking a walk around town. Every odd thing I like comes home with me. When I began illustrating Charlotte in London, I happened to have some great maps someone gave me of London and the surrounding towns, maps of the cathedrals, etc. The maps were a great starting point.
First, I gather up all the pieces and then, as I’m making the collages, color and design take over. I don’t worry about an object or piece of paper or fabric being “authentic” or from England. The final art just needs to feel like it was from a given place.
Joan’s text gives me lots of opportunity to create very different pieces within each book. We’re coming from: “What would Charlotte do?” I wouldn’t mind being Charlotte and living her life!
Joan, can you tell us whether you selected the paintings before writing the story, and a little about your research?
Paintings — from museums, private collections and galleries around the world — serve as inspiration as I start to write and later on they may help illustrate Charlotte’s adventures. It’s not unusual for me to have specific paintings in mind at the outset, but a great deal of the fun for me in writing this series is the quest for just the right painting as the story unfolds — it’s like a treasure hunt.
For the London book, as well as for all the Charlotte books, I supplied the ephemera — old postcards and photographs, a menu, etc. I collect these things on my travels (in this case, when I was in London and the Cotswolds doing research for the book), and I also replenish my ephemera collection at shops and yard sales here in New York’s Hudson Valley and wherever else I might find myself. Ephemera in Melissa’s collages are hers.
I do my research in libraries and museums, in my travels, and on the internet. I also rely on my own life experience: when I was Charlotte’s age, I traveled with my family to live in France. We set sail from New York bound for Le Havre and settled in Paris where I spent most of my growing up years. From there, we traveled often across the English Channel to London where, like Charlotte, I loved the way they named their foods (Boiled Treacle Roll, Toad in the Hole, Bangers and Mash, and so on), and was morbidly fascinated by Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and toured the beautiful English countryside where, again like Charlotte, I was captivated by the Gypsies and their camps and wagons. And I, too, loved clotted cream!
I love the historical facts that I unearthed about London in 1895, among them: that the wild swans on the Thames belong to the Queen, that Anne Boleyn had eleven fingers, and that the ravens at the Tower of London were fed by a Yeoman Warder a diet of raw eggs, including the shells. And I love, too, getting to “know” the personalities of the various characters and bringing them to life with revealing details: that Sarah Bernhardt slept in a coffin, that John Singer Sargent couldn’t get the hang of riding a horse — or even a bicycle! And that it was not unusual to find James McNeill Whistler dressed in a kimono.
Is Raymonde based on a real person, and how do you go about selecting the recipes for the books?
Raymonde is based on Madeleine, the cook we had in Paris. She had a crusty exterior and a warm heart — not unlike the delicious cherry clafoutis she used to make for us! I loved to hang out with her in the kitchen and think of her still when I make potato gratins, leek and potato soup, or a good, hearty Boeuf Bourguignon. The day she arrived, Madeleine brought her own pots and pans and wooden spoons with her. She was a natural cook who didn’t have much use for measuring cups or spoons — and neither do I!
I always choose a recipe that I enjoy and that a child can make. I chose Raspberry Fool for this book because I love the name, and the dessert!
Thanks so much, Melissa and Joan, for stopping in and for creating what is now my all-time favorite illustrated series for middle grade readers. I can hardly wait for the next book to come out, because Charlotte will be visiting Venice, which I consider to be the most romantic city in the world!
Friends, if you have yet to read this series, don’t waste another second. The hardcover editions are printed on thick stock that beautifully showcases the art. Also included are an Authors Note, a Credits page listing all the paintings by journal entry date, and profiles of all the artists.
Though the Charlotte series is recommended for ages 8+, I’m sure many adults find them irresistible and highly collectible. I love the combination of travel diary, scrapbook, historical fiction, art history, French lessons, and cultural enlightenment. Joan has done a wonderful job of spotlighting the American Impressionists and capturing the spirit of the age. Her love of French culture and art shines through on every page. Melissa’s watercolors and make-you-weak-in-the-knees collages beg to be savored again and again. Needless to say, I give the Charlotte series my highest five spoon rating — in fact, why don’t I just up that right now to ten? ♥
For more about the Charlotte series, visit the Chronicle Books website, where you’ll also find a lovely interview with Joan about Charlotte in Giverny — how her childhood influenced and inspired her writing.
*Spreads copyright © 2009 Melissa Sweet, text copyright © 2009 Joan MacPhail Knight, posted by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books. All rights reserved.