There are book and then there are beautiful books. Here is one of those beauties. And the title says so right up front. Please welcome Mary Lee Corlett and Belle to the Write Game.
Belle: The Amazing, Astonishingly Magical Journey of an Artfully Painted Lady
Written by Mary Lee Corlett
Illustrated by Phyllis Saroff
Also available on Amazon.com
(Just in case this trailer link below fails)
• I have to say that is one beautiful cover and one fabulous book trailer. Now can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I have lived in the Washington DC area for over 20 years, but I was born and raised in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. My mother and three sisters still live there. I earned my M.A. in art history from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and my first museum job was at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I was a teaching assistant for the Saturday children’s classes offered by their education department. (I taught 4 and 5 year-olds in an activity class called “Mini-Masters!”) Later, I worked in the registrar’s office. After I earned my M.A, my husband and I moved to Washington so that I could pursue curatorial and research work. I joined the staff of the National Gallery of Art in 1989. We’ve lived in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, for about 13 years, and we have a 15 year old daughter.
• This is your first children’s book?
Yes! And it is such a thrill to see it in print! I have been interested in writing for children for a couple of decades and I have a file drawer full of manuscripts (and rejection letters ) to prove it. I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in 2004 and in 2007 I submitted Belle for a manuscript review at my regional conference. The author who reviewed the book was so enthusiastic; she kept me from getting discouraged in my hunt to find the right publisher. The Editor-in-Chief at the National Gallery also loved the book when I showed it to her, but sadly, we don’t have a children’s book publishing program at the National Gallery. Ultimately, though, it was she who put me in touch with Bunker Hill Publishing.
• What or who inspired you to write Belle?
The short answer is – my daughter! I used to bring her down to the National Gallery for the wonderful family programs offered by our education department, but I also wanted her to enjoy a simple walk through the galleries with me. I searched for a book based on the Gallery’s collection with the thought it would help spark her interest in doing that, but I quickly discovered the kind of book I had in mind didn’t exist! I wanted a fun-to-read, fictional story that featured a variety of paintings from the National Gallery’s great collection and focused on the magic of the museum and the ‘art experience.’ So when I couldn’t find that book, I decided I’d better write it!
• You obviously are someone who loves art. Can you tell us how you chose your paintings for Belle?
I have been fortunate to research and write about some pretty terrific artists while on the staff of the National Gallery – Roy Lichtenstein and Romare Bearden, for example – my field is American art. I love writing about art and artists and of course, I love just looking at art. Yet ironically, when you work in a museum, you often don’t carve out the time to just wander through the galleries. So writing Belle was the perfect excuse to do that!
It was on one of those walks through the galleries at the end of the day, with the idea of this book on my mind, that the butterflies in Jan Davidsz de Heem’s canvas [Vase of Flowers] just popped out at me! I think the yellow Brimstone caught my eye first. He was so delicately alighted, there on the edge of that tulip. He just looked to me as if he might flutter away at any moment. But Belle (the Red Admiral) was up there quietly hovering in the corner. It occurred to me that she’d been hovering there for over 300 years, a quiet observer, and I thought – SHE must have some stories to tell! Once I discovered those butterflies, I never looked back! The story began to take shape and soon it had a life of its own.
I wanted to present their journey more or less chronologically through art history. That’s why there are no works from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance in the book. Works from these periods are certainly represented in the Gallery’s collection, but Belle and Brimstone were painted in the seventeenth century, and I felt it was important to have their journey take them steadily forward through time, rather than jumping back and forth through the centuries. And, of course, I needed a villain! I thought there was something comical about having the butterflies’ avian nemesis come from such a tiny little painting [Circle of Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds]
The worst part of the selection process was discarding favorites! I wanted to select works that would be particularly fun to look at and to imagine blending into. And of course, the colors had to be right. Brimstone chooses the Vermeer with an ivory-colored ribbon [A Lady Writing], while Belle looks to the one with the red hat [Girl with the Red Hat].
• Is there something else you are currently working on?
I would love to make Belle into a series, so I am currently working on a manuscript that takes her on a journey to another museum. Art travels all the time for touring exhibitions – the perfect set up for another adventure!
I am also working on a manuscript that features the art of the National Gallery’s wonderful outdoor sculpture garden. This book would have completely different characters, and I am envisioning it for a younger audience (ages 4 to 8 years).
Well, you've captured my attention Mary Lee. I love the concept and I'm certain your younger readers are going to be captivated by Belle and her adventures in the art world. Congratulations.