Author Chat: Amy Novesky on Georgia in Hawaii

Amy at the Honolulu Museum of Art

I’m thrilled and delighted to welcome award-winning author and independent children’s book editor Amy Novesky to Alphabet Soup today.

She’s here to tell us more about her latest picture book, Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased (Harcourt Children’s Books, 2012), which will be officially released next Tuesday, March 20th.

Did you know that in 1939, Georgia spent nine weeks touring the Hawaiian Islands? She was commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company “to create two paintings to promote the delights of pineapple juice.” Though she loved the time she spent in Hawaii and painted flowers, waterfalls, and feathered fish hooks, initially she refused to paint any pineapples.

She found the sharp and silvery fruit quite strange and beautiful. She wanted to live nearby so she could study it up close.

But the pineapple company would not let her . . .

Instead, they presented her with a pineapple. Georgia was disgusted. She did not want to paint the fruit now that it had been picked, and she would not let anyone tell her what to paint.

Georgia was just being herself — committed to painting what she saw, as she saw it, in her own way, so that is precisely what she did.

Amy and illustrator Yuyi Morales have done a brilliant job of presenting this little-known chapter in Georgia’s life, a rare instance in which she allowed her art to be used for commercial purposes. Despite the pineapple problem, Georgia was fascinated and intoxicated by Hawaii’s unique and varied land and seascapes — lush flora, interesting lava formations, mountains, gorges, waterfalls, beaches, caves, streams, and of course, abundance of tropical blossoms. She thrived in this natural paradise, as she explored remote areas in Hana, Maui, and strolled along the black sand beaches on the Big Island with her trained eye fixed on unspoiled vistas of singular beauty.

Amy’s lyrical, sensual text and Yuyi’s evocative acrylic paintings rendered in textured jewel tones (forest/moss greens, fuschia, aquamarine/prussian blues, fiery oranges, earthy browns) beautifully echo the iconic artist’s creative spirit gladdened by a place of pure enchantment.

Amy, please tell us about your connection to Hawaii. How would you describe it to someone who’s never been there? What’s one thing most people would be surprised to know?

My family began visiting the island of Kauai when I was a kid and eventually created a home away from home there. I’ve been going to the same place every year since; now, with my own family, including my six year old son, who wants to live there.

There’s no place like Kauai. It’s green and gorgeous. The air is soft and warm and fragrant with the scent of flowers and saltwater. The ocean is full and lovely; one of the places I feel most deeply connected to everything. The people are warm and wise and generous. How I’d love to live in a place where people wear flowers!

But, it’s easy and dangerous to romanticize such a place, to call it paradise. Hawaii is a real place like any other. People live and work and raise kids and have worries. There’s traffic and trash. And that beautiful ocean? Just recently, a massive die-off of heart-shaped sea urchins was discovered in several spots off Kauai’s southern coast. It’s a foreboding sign of things to come. The ocean is dying, even in Hawaii.

How did you first learn about Georgia being commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Company to do two paintings? What made you want to write a children’s book about it?

I was researching Georgia’s work for a very different book I planned to write and discovered her Hawaii paintings in a comprehensive monograph. That first book fell through and I had to find another story to tell. And then, I was standing before Georgia’s Hawaii paintings in the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and that’s when I knew which story I was meant to tell all along.

I had no idea that Georgia had painted in Hawaii, and I think most people don’t. Also, I always try to find a personal connection to a story I am writing. Anyone can write a book about Georgia O’Keeffe, but I felt that, given the Hawaiian setting, and my years visiting there, this was the Georgia O’Keeffe book I was meant to write. I’ve always wanted to write a book about Hawaii, too — as a way to give back to a place that has given so much to me — and so the two converged into one book.

What kind of research did you do? What did you enjoy most?

I read every book written about Georgia O’Keeffe. The challenge with this story was that Georgia’s Hawaii trip amounted to a footnote in most books, if it was mentioned at all. There had been very little written about her time in Hawaii. That said, there is a wonderful, now, sadly, out-of-print museum catalog written by Jennifer Saville and originally published by the Honolulu Academy of Arts to coincide with an exhibit in 1990 of Georgia’s Hawaii work. Unfortunately the exhibit was well before my interest in writing a book; I would have loved to have seen it. But the book was tremendously helpful.

And, interestingly enough, the only other book about Georgia’s time in Hawaii — Georgia O’Keeffe’s Hawaii by Patricia Jennings and Maria Ausherman — was published nearly the same month as mine! How I would have loved to have had access to this book as a resource for my own, but I think it’s great that both books came out at the same time; I think they complement each other. Jennings’ and Ausherman’s book is not a children’s book, but it includes the story of Jennings’ experience as a young girl hosting the famous artist at her family’s Maui plantation. It includes photographs, reproduction of Georgia’s paintings and letters. It’s wonderful.

As for the book’s setting, I relied upon my own experiences of Hawaii to bring it to life in an authentic way. I enjoyed imagining Georgia O’Keeffe in a place that I love.

Could you please share an interesting or surprising tidbit that you discovered about Georgia that didn’t make it into the book?

Some of my favorite details about Georgia’s travels were cut from the story itself but made it into Yuyi’s beautiful artwork. For example, Georgia arrived in Hawaii wearing a wool ensemble, but by the end of the trip she had shed her heavy clothes for a straw hat and wood sandals the locals wore, a flower behind her ear. That is one of my favorite paintings in the book. Also, that she regretted not picking up a rare piece of red coral on the Big Island is not in the story but is mentioned in the author’s note and shown in the art. Georgia told her friend, Ansel Adams, that going to Hawaii was one of the best things she ever did, which is a bit surprising, given her original reluctance, but not surprising given how special a place Hawaii is.

Also, interestingly, I just learned that pineapples take 2-3 years to grow; I find that fascinating, since, once cut and cored, they take far less time to eat!

Which is your favorite of her 20 Hawaii paintings? What’s your favorite Hawaiian flower?

I love the waterfall paintings from the Iao Valley in Maui. On my last trip to Kauai, in Hanalei, I stood before a tall green mountain with a white thread of a waterfall, and I felt like I was standing in one of her paintings.

My favorite Hawaiian flower, that’s a tough one. I love the more delicate, fragrant, lei-making flowers best: plumeria and pikake.

Do you happen to know which island Georgia loved the most and why?

My guess is Maui, where she spent the most time and had, likely, the most freedom to move about and paint. And I wonder if the Big Island, and meeting the Hawaiian cowboys, reminded her a bit of her beloved Southwest. But I’d love to believe that Kauai was her favorite, just because.

Do you think the short time Georgia spent in Hawaii influenced her later work? How?

I believe travel deeply influences our work, and so I can’t imagine that Georgia wasn’t influenced by her travels in Hawaii, despite it amounting to a footnote in her biography. Her primary landscapes at the time were New York City and the Southwest — two very different landscapes. Hawaii must have felt quite exotic and foreign and very far away (It is the most isolated archipelago in the world). No doubt she was out of her element and the trip was challenging at times, as all good travel is. On top of that she was painting on commission; she wasn’t there to paint what she pleased, although she did; she was there to paint what the Hawaiian Pineapple Company wanted her to. So, maybe she was influenced not to take commissions after that!

Did you have a say in selecting Yuyi Morales as illustrator for this book? Which of her paintings is your favorite and why?

Authors generally don’t have a say in the illustrators for their book. But I was thrilled when Harcourt chose Yuyi Morales and she agreed to paint the book. I love the work that she did; I think it’s a gorgeous book. I love, “And Georgia painted flowers!” on that rich, ginger-pink background, and I love the painting of Georgia on the ocean liner on her way home, the loose flowers from her lei like an offering to the islands and to the sea. But I think my very favorite painting is “Georgia was even starting to look like an island girl” as this one is set in Koloa, on the island of Kauai.

If you could meet Georgia in person today, what would you ask her?

I’d ask her how her trip to Kauai was, and what she liked best about that island. And I would ask her how her experience in Hawaii changed her life.

What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?

To me, the book not only celebrates the beautiful artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe, it celebrates the beautiful islands of Hawaii. The book’s subject is of course, Georgia, but I consider Hawaii a compelling supporting character in the story.

As for the story, what I like about it is that Georgia only painted what she was inspired to paint. And she knew what she needed to do her best work. She had a high level of artistic integrity (as well as a healthy (unhealthy?) amount of stubbornness!) and I think that’s really important: to live and work with integrity. And I’d like to believe that Georgia painted the pineapple not so much for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, but for the people of Hawaii, as a way to give back to Hawaii all that it had given to her.

What’s next for you?

I have a picture book about photographer Imogen Cunningham, illustrated by Lisa Congdon, coming out in the fall from fledgling children’s book publisher, Cameron and Company. My book, MISTER AND LADY DAY, about Billie Holiday and her beloved dogs, illustrated by Vanessa Newton, will be published early next year by Harcourt. And I am at work on a few new picture books about artists, as well as a book about the ocean — in particular, the Northern Pacific Hawaiian Islands — which I am working on with Hawaiian contemporary artist, Sally French.

* * *


As Amy mentioned, eventually Georgia did paint a pineapple, but not until after she had returned to the mainland and the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later Dole) found the paintings she had submitted, of a heliconia flower and a papaya tree, unacceptable:

Hoping to persuade her, they airlifted a pineapple plant to her in New York, where she finally painted “Pineapple Bud,” which was used in their advertising campaign and shown a year later at the NYC gallery An American Place along with her other Hawaii paintings.

Georgia in Hawaii, a perfect read for Women’s History Month, includes both Author and Illustrator Notes, as well as lovely endpapers featuring paintings of nine Hawaiian flowers. It has already received glowing reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus, and a *starred* review from Publishers Weekly, which calls it, “a rich and unexpected depiction of a treasured artist.”

Reading it took me home to central Oahu, where I grew up not too far from those same fields where Georgia saw her first pineapples. What did she think, I wonder, when she bit into her first juicy chunk, 73 years ago?

Inspired by this book, I’ll be visiting the Honolulu Academy of Arts on my next trip to Hawaii, just to see Georgia’s Iao Valley Waterfalls. ☺

GEORGIA IN HAWAII: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased
written by Amy Novesky
illustrated by Yuyi Morales
published by Harcourt Children’s Books, March 2012
Picture Book Biography for ages 6-9, 40 pp.
Cool themes: art, artists, Hawaii, women’s studies, travel, independence, nature.
Available now for pre-order.
On shelves March 20,2012. 

♥ Learn more about Amy Novesky, her books and editorial services at her website.

♥ Yuyi Morales’s official website and blog.

♥ Amy will be reading Georgia in Hawaii at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, on April 1st, 4 p.m.


*Photo Credits:

Pineapple chunks by traci+jake/flickr.

Pineapple plant by fotos by foofy/flickr.

Lei Pikake by jennasflowers/flickr.

*Spreads posted by permission, text copyright © 2012 Amy Novesky, illustrations © 2012 Yuyi Morales, published by Harcourt Children’s Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

23 thoughts on “Author Chat: Amy Novesky on Georgia in Hawaii

  1. I always love the work of Yuyi Morales – I am forever inspired by her whimsy and the flowing movement of her characters. Paired with the artistry of Georgia O’Keefe, in the paradise-setting of Hawai’i — wow. What a celebration of beauty.


    1. I know — Yuyi is amazing, isn’t she? And her work for this book is gorgeous, really stunning. She doesn’t compromise her own style while evoking O’Keeffe’s. As soon as you open this book, you fall under its spell. But Hawaii has a way of doing that to people . . . :).


    1. Yes, they paid for her trip. She was reluctant to accept at first, but after learning a bit more about Hawaii and looking at maps, etc., she decided to give it a try. She went by train from NYC to San Francisco, then boarded the SS Lurline to Oahu.

      Not only was this a big creative leap for her, but apparently events in her personal life may have also played a factor in her decision — depression over her husband’s infidelity. So Hawaii was a place of healing for her, too, a way to rekindle her creative spirit. I’m now very anxious to read Patricia Jennings’ and Maria Ausherman’s book for more details about Georgia’s time in the Islands.

      Your portrait of Georgia is amazing, stunning, and truly a masterpiece. Wow! So glad you linked to it. The detail is incredible. Thanks, Peter!


    1. I think Amy hails from your neck of the woods, Debbi. Have you been to Book Passage? Fascinating stuff about Georgia here :).


  2. Wonderful interview, Jama! SO interesting. I too had not known about Georgia’s time in Hawaii. Having spent time there visiting with family growing up, I can imagine what a different world it must have seemed to her (the image of her wrapped in wool when she first arrives is priceless) when she landed. It has always seemed like a magical, healing place for me. I love the beautiful illustrations by Yuyi Morales. She really captures the vibrancy and lushness of the flowers that grow there. Thanks for posting!


    1. I felt warm and itchy just reading about her wool ensemble :). But — if you’re traveling from NY, and never been to Hawaii, you can’t really imagine just what the climate will be like till you get there.

      Yuyi has indeed done a beautiful job with her illustrations. She captures the sensuality, sweeping lines and fluidity of O’Keeffe’s art. I imagine Georgia went crazy for all the flowers!


  3. The story and beautiful illustrations capture how easy it is for the soul to completely connect with nature in Hawaii. I look forward to poring over this book to enjoy the gorgeous artwork. I enjoyed learning more about Georgia – the tale gave me a softer, more dimensional image beyond her great talent and strong personality!


    1. Sounds like Hawaii was precisely what she needed at that point in her life. Read an interesting tidbit about Georgia’s time in Maui, when 12-year-old Patricia Jennings served as her tour guide — she wouldn’t let Patricia watch her paint. They’d go to these different spots, Georgia would set up her easel, and Patricia was instructed to go away and amuse herself until Georgia was done. But the two developed a special bond :).


  4. Terrific interview with Amy Novesky! Fascinating and inspiring. I’ve had a sneak preview of the book and it’s truly stunning and the text is lyrical, engaging and captures Georgia’s independent spirit. A wonderful book to be cherished.


  5. Hi Jama, fascinating interview as always! The images are likewise perfectly laid out alongside the text-narrative. There is a science and art to this. 🙂 We are planning on having an ‘arts-inspired’ theme in the next few months or so, and I shall definitely include this in our list of books to feature in the event that we do push through with that idea. Haven’t visited Hawaii yet, but I heard that it’s a great place. I am a child of the ocean, so I have a feeling I’d fall in love with the waves, the flowers, the pineapples. 🙂


    1. I’m sure you’d enjoy Hawaii, Myra, for all the reasons you cited — and of course there’s the FOOD! Love the idea of an arts theme at Gathering Books. Don’t forget to also include Amy’s, ME, FRIDA :).


  6. Such a beautiful book.

    And next time I eat a pineapple, I’ll appreciate it even more, knowing the patience required to get it onto the plates of those of us who will devour it! (Two to three years? Whoa.)


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