J. L. (Jessica) Powers, a member of the Keepers of the Dancing Stars class, is here at the Launch Pad today with her new picture book biography Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza. Jessica is also the author of three young adult novels, The Confessional (Knopf, 2007); the award-winning This Thing Called the Future (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011); and Amina (Allen & Unwin, 2013). She is also the editor of Labor Pains and Birth Stories (Catalyst Book Press, 2009) and the award-winning anthology, That Mad Game: Growing up in a Warzone, Essays from Around the Globe (Cinco Puntos Press, 2012).
Welcome, Jessica!George was one of those kids. You know, the kind that never stays still. And then one day, the doctor said he was going blind. Did that slow George down? Not for a single second. In fact, he was so fast, he went on to break a world record for blind runners. And now he’s breaking more barriers—because ironically, George Mendoza, blind painter, paints what he sees.
George Mendoza started going blind at age 15 from a degenerative eye disease. It wasn't the sudden onset of blindness that many people experience. George lost his central vision and started seeing things that weren't there—eyes floating in the air, extraordinary colors, objects multiplied and reflected back. George describes this condition as having "kaleidoscope eyes."
He triumphed over his blindness by setting the world record in the mile for blind runners, and later competing in both the 1980 and 1984 Olympics for the Disabled. Now a full-time artist, Mendoza's collection of paintings, also titled Colors of the Wind, is a National Smithsonian Affiliates traveling exhibit.
This is his story, told through his paintings.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Honestly, I'm always looking for ways to turn what I write into books. I've written lots of articles and even if an article brings me more money than a book ever does, it doesn't feel real until it's being sold on Amazon. So naturally, when a magazine asked me to write an article about George Mendoza, a blind artist who paints what he sees, it was only natural that I'd try to figure out a way to make it "real"--that is, a book. The picture book biography idea occurred to me because I'd read Diego and Frieda, both picture book biographies, and I thought George's story was a natural one for the picture book audience, not to mention format.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way? I do have an agent but she was unable to sell this book, though she tried. George and I gave up on it, or, to be fair, I gave up on it. I figured it was dead--some 25 or 30 editors had said no. A few years later, George got a phone call from Purple House Press. They publish reprints of classic children's books that have gone out of print and George's father had written one they wanted to re-publish. George couldn't give them permission--he's actually never known his father--but he did tell them his story about becoming a blind artist and mentioned that he had a picture book ready to go. I was flabbergasted when he called me and took a "Let's wait and see" attitude but literally two weeks later, I had a contract, and 9 months later, I have a book on the shelves. I love small presses--they are so much faster than the big guys in New York (whom I also love, of course).
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Sara Zarr once told me that she re-types her novels several times during revisions. In fact, she does it so frequently, that sometimes she gets annoyed and thinks, "Do I really have to do this? This novel doesn't need it at this point"--but still she does it. It had never occurred to me to re-type my entire novel but now I see how useful it is as a revision tool. When you retype something, NOTHING is sacred. Everything is on the table for change, no matter how small or large. It makes it much easier to kill all those little darlings.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for your writing? For my award-winning YA novel This Thing Called the Future, I googled a lot about witchcraft in South Africa, but of course, I also traveled to South Africa and spoke at length with people who had encountered those who practice witchcraft. (Lots of people in South Africa employ witches and some traditional healers work in witchcraft, but it's hard to get anybody to admit their involvement unless you have money and you're looking for somebody to do what you want done.) It has certainly been interesting to look deeply at the spiritual practices of ordinary, modern Zulus.
Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza was published by Purple House Press (www.purplehousepress.com) and is in book stores now!