chatting with joan yolleck: paris, painters, poets, and baby brioches

When I first discovered Paris in the Spring with Picasso this summer, it was definitely love at first sight.

The title alone conjured up blissful images of a city bursting with creative energy, teeming with artists and bohemian types meeting at sidewalk cafés and salons, everyone in love with life and each other. Add to that dreamy vision Majorie Priceman’s wildly exuberant, free-spirited art, and I was a goner before alighting on the first page.

I’m so pleased debut author Joan Yolleck is here today to discuss how she created this enchanting children’s story about an imaginary soirée at Gertrude and Leo Stein’s home at 27 rue de Fleurus. It’s a charming portrait of several real members of Stein’s coterie, glimpses of what they might have been doing in the hours prior to the party. Guillaume Apollinaire writes a poem after seeing a street acrobat, Max Jacob composes comical rhyming couplets about his father’s tailor shop, and Picasso is, of course, busy painting.

  Alice and Gertrude, 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris 1922

Guillaume and Pablo are joined by their girlfriends, Marie and Fernande, and at dusk, along with Max, they all head over to Gertrude’s house, strolling through Paris (dazzling by street light), past a circus, across a river, by a cabaret (Lapin Agile). Meanwhile, Gertrude’s been reading in her favorite chair, while her companion, Alice B. Toklas, is setting out cakes. Our charming feline narrator asks us to imagine what all these famous guests might talk about once the party is underway.

Lapin Agile was a restaurant frequented by many artists. The food was hearty and inexpensive.

Ooh-la-la! But this is a book to kiss and marry! I love Joan’s impressionistic storytelling; the conversational narrative sparkles with juicy asides and delicious details (extraordinary artists doing ordinary things). Priceman’s gouache and ink illos spill over with unbridled beauty, electrifying élan and panache, ravishing colors, intense energy, and joyous movement (across, over, under, beside, between, hither and yon). This book captures the joie de vivre of Paris in the early twentieth century, allowing children to “meet” these party guests in the most delightful way, enticing them to learn more about Stein and her incredible salon.


But, pardonnez-moi. Now, it is time to meet Joan, who is visiting today from Toronto, where she lives with her two Siamese cats and reviews children’s books:

Jama: Bonjour, Joan! It sounds as though you’ve been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and her coterie for awhile. What are you hoping readers will take away from your story, especially since most children of picture book age might not be familiar with these artistic luminaries? 

Joan: I hope children will be interested in the characters as they go about their day before the soirée. Each one is doing an activity that captivates them, from Max waking up and writing a poem to Alice arranging cakes, and I hope that if you substitute ordinary names, the story will still take hold for children. At the same time, it is a story introducing names of famous people and another hope is that readers will have images tucked into their memories of this wonderful coterie of artists and will explore them in greater depth when they are older.

Picasso and his mistress, Fernande Olivier

Jama: What was the most challenging part of writing this book? 

Joan: More than one! The most challenging parts were how to tell the story, who to include, and from what vantage point. At one time it crossed my mind to write the story from the perspective of a little girl who might be related to Hélène, the housekeeper. I am very happy with the way PARIS IN THE SPRING WITH PICASSO turned out, and very grateful to my editor, Anne Schwartz, who gave me direction.

Jama: Please tell us a little about your research. 

Joan: In my twenties, I read a fair amount about Gertrude Stein. I liked her writing style, so this was a natural extension of my earlier reading.

The studios of the Bateau-lavoir were cheap places for artists to find lodging. Max Jacob had a room downstairs looking into a decrepit courtyard while Picasso lived upstairs and had skylights. The story goes that Fernande and Picasso met in a doorway at the Bateau-lavoir while Fernande was waiting for a rain shower to end. Picasso paused to talk and then whisked her off to his studio. In 1970 the Bateau-lavoir was destroyed by fire, but has since been rebuilt.

Research is so much fun and a real education. I spent whole days and weeks at the Robarts Library (part of the University of Toronto) and my local library. Going through the stacks at Robarts was an adventure and there were many treasures. When I found something original and relevant, it was like mining gold and I would follow the vein as far as I could. Reading up on peripheral characters like Gertrude’s brother, Leo Stein, or the woman who managed the Bateau-lavoir created a whole, real world that I could dream about and imagine. All in all, it was years of research and now each of them seems like an old friend to me.

Jama: How did you go about deciding which details about each character to include and/or exclude? 

Joan: What to put in and what to leave out was a challenge, particularly since I knew so much about each character. I had very clear images of them going about what they loved to do. Sometimes I would include a gesture that gave a suggestion of character, for example, Picasso sweeping a lock of black hair from his forehead or it might be a fact that gave a hint of a way of life, such as Max coming in very late the night before and falling asleep with his clothes on. A key element was to include details or scenes that were playful and interesting and would make sense to a young reader.


One of the passages I wrote showed Apollinaire walking by the Seine River browsing for books (something he would do) and I had him bargain with a bookstall vendor for a book. Apollinaire was very cost conscious and so was the bookseller! It was too long, and as you know, word count for a children’s book is very important. I had to leave it behind.

Apollinaire and his girlfriend and muse, Marie Laurencin.

Jama: What do you like most about Marjorie Priceman’s illustrations for your story? Do you have a favorite spread? 

Joan: I love all of her illustrations, each one holds such detail and is so fantastically colorful and exuberant. I love the one where Picasso has a little mouse in his desk drawer. It’s so very true because around 1908 Picasso kept a pet mouse. I also love the energy you see as he paints his famous picture of two women. Another favorite is the double page spread showing Apollinaire roaming the streets of Paris, and I love the vibrant red/orange in the picture with the elephant…and the one where they’re all crossing the bridge…and the illustration of Gertrude smelling the roses…I can’t choose! Toutes sont très magnifique!

 “Two Nudes,” Pablo Picasso (1906), MoMA, NYC. 

Jama: Did you have your cat in mind when you created the narrator for the story, or was the suggestion of the black cat as narrator solely Marjorie’s invention? 

Joan: Oh my goodness, I wish I had. It was Marjorie’s brilliant invention and it worked perfectly!

Jama: Are there any particular books or films you can recommend for those wanting to learn more about Gertrude Stein and her Paris salon?


Joan: There are many really good books on Stein. One is GERTRUDE STEIN: IN WORDS AND PICTURES by Renate Stendhal, a great study with lots of photos and an excellent time-line. PICASSO’S PARIS: WALKING TOURS OF THE ARTIST’S LIFE IN THE CITY by Ellen Williams is a lovely tourist book. For really ardent fans of Gertrude Stein, a recent book called TWO LIVES by Janet Malcolm is an original investigation into how Gertrude and Alice (both Jewish) were able to survive the second world war in France.


I watched films with actresses playing Gertrude Stein, but none of the films stayed with me. They didn’t seem to invoke the Gertrude I imagined. I did come across a wonderful, brief archival recording of Fernande, later in life, that showed a strong, still beautiful woman, but when I went back to take another look at the film, I wasn’t able to find it.

Jama: Though I’ve heard of it, I’m not all that familiar with Alice B. Toklas’s cookbook. Do you happen to know anything about the dishes she might have served at these Saturday soirées? (Were they more typically French or American?)  

Joan: The ALICE B. TOKLAS COOK BOOK has primarily American and some international recipes. Although, Alice wrote that when she went to live with Gertrude Stein in 1908, she cooked simple dishes from her home town in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Dishes included fricasseed chicken, corn bread, apple and lemon pie.

A story circulates, through many of the Stein books, about a dinner where everyone went away in a wonderful mood and perfectly satisfied. The reason being Gertrude seated each artist opposite one of his own paintings and it goes on to say she knew everyone was very happy because they had to send out twice for more bread!

Unfortunately, I didn’t find references to food served at the soirées, but I have the idea that the food was very generous and the artists feasted upon it with great pleasure!

Jama: Do you like French food? If you have a favorite recipe, please share! 

Joan: I do love French food. I love the delicacy, the tradition and the flavors, the buttery richness and the ‘je ne sais quoi’ that happens with French cuisine. I have a recipe I’d like to share that was generously provided by Janice Poon, a cookbook and children’s book author.

(makes about 100 mini buns)

2-1/2 cups warm water
4 T active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. salt
1 cup butter, softened
4 eggs
6-1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup butter, melted

Lightly grease several baking sheets with butter. In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix warm water with yeast and stir to dissolve. Add sugar, salt, softened butter, eggs, and 4 cups of the flour and combine on low speed. Increase the speed to medium and beat for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer and set aside.

Place the remaining 2-1/2 cups flour in a bowl larger than the mixer bowl. Add dough and, using a wooden spoon, incorporate into flour. Pinch off 1-inch pieces of dough, form them into balls by hand and place them on baking sheets, about 1-1/2 inches apart. Allow dough to rise in a warm room, 30 to 40 minutes, or until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Brush the tops of the buns with melted butter and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Cut in half, brush with butter or spread 1/4 tsp melted butter. Spread with softened butter on cut sides. Grill until golden brown on hot frying pan. Remove to plate with cut side up. Sprinkle generously with icing sugar. Drizzle with lemon juice. Yum.

Note: Unfilled mini-buns can be baked and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost and bring them to room temperature before filling and serving. Perfect for lobster roll hors d’oeuvres.

~ adapted from The Cocktail Chef: Simple, Chic Entertaining by Janice Poon and Dinah Koo (Douglas & McIntyre, 2007). 

Merci beaucoup, Joan! And extra thanks for the fascinating photo notes!


written by Joan Yolleck
illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published by Schwartz & Wade Books, March 2010
Picture book for ages 6+, 40 pp.
*Includes introductory Author’s Note and thumbnail sketches of key characters

Paris in the Spring with Picasso has already received *starred reviews* from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist, and was included on the ACPL Mock Caldecott first short list.

♥ Check out this interview at The Book Broads.

♥ Online Reviews: BookMoot, readertotz,, Sal’s Fiction Addiction, CM Magazine.

 Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.


*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2010 Joan Yolleck, illustrations © 2010 Marjorie Priceman, published by Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.


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