By Libby Stille, Publicist
Author and retired children’s librarian Vaunda Micheaux Nelson loves telling stories from forgotten moments in history. Her latest picture book, Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion, is no exception.
Told with a Western twang and illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Gordon C. James, Let ‘Er Buck! introduces readers to African American cowboy George Fletcher. Fletcher loved horses from a young age and grew up to be a popular rodeo bronc buster. After he unfairly lost the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up to a white man, the outraged audience declared him “people’s champion.”
Let ‘Er Buck! will be published on February 5 and has already received 4 starred reviews. Publishers Weekly called it a “triumphant tale of fairness trumping prejudice for a wrangler extraordinaire” in its starred review, and Booklist, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews also starred this “enthralling” (Booklist‘s word, not ours!) picture book.
Today Vaunda talks about her inspiration for Let ‘Er Buck!, and Gordon shares his artist’s statement on his “painterly oils [that] swirl with energy” (according to Kirkus).
Interview with Let ‘Er Buck! author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Lerner: You write children’s and young adult books about a range of subjects many readers might not have heard of before, from one of the first African American Deputy US Marshals, Bass Reeves, to your great-uncle Lewis Michaux and his Harlem bookstore. Where do you find ideas for your books?
VMN: Sometimes I stumble on ideas by happenstance or serendipity. Bass Reeves, for example, was mentioned in a television documentary about blacks in the Old West that my husband, Drew, had recorded for me. “Who’s that?” I asked, and my research began.
My Uncle Lewis’s story was staring me in the face for years. I guess I wasn’t ready for it yet. When I finally recognized the significance of his life, the story took hold of me and wouldn’t let go until I found a way to tell it.
Lerner: How did you come across George Fletcher and how he became the People’s Champion at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up?
VMN: I first came to know George Fletcher’s story through an article in Cowboys & Indians magazine. Again, Drew found it and passed it on to me, saying, “I think you’ll want to read this.” An understatement. Drew is an incredible idea man and story finder.
Lerner: Describe your research process for this book. Are there any details you had to leave out?
VMN: I collected as much information as I could through books, articles, census reports, birth and death records, telephone interviews and whatever else I could uncover. I obtained many materials through interlibrary loan, an invaluable service. I also used legitimate internet sources. (Internet articles often contain useful bibliographies that lead me to additional sources.)
I traveled to Pendleton, Oregon, to access archives and other resources at the Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame, the Umatilla County Historical Society, the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute, the public library, the court house and the local newspaper. I interviewed individuals who knew or knew of George and connected with local residents who became enthusiastic about my project.
As always, I ended up with much more information than was included in the book, but it helps to know the backstory to feel confident about what you ultimately share with readers. There was so much intriguing information I wanted to share. Thankfully, I was able to include some additional information about George and the main players in the 1911 event at Pendleton in the back matter.
But there’s so much more. In researching George’s story, I crossed paths with other fascinating figures whose stories are also worth telling — Jesse Stahl, Jackson Sundown, John Spain, Til Taylor, and Enos “Yakima” Canutt, who became an actor, stuntman, director, and friend and mentor of Hollywood star John Wayne.
Lerner: Let ‘Er Buck! is written in a distinct narrative voice. (Not every nonfiction picture book describes a character as “six feet of rock solid”!) How did you find the right approach to telling this story?
VMN: This was so much fun. I love words and the many ways they can be used to make meaning. To create beautiful, powerful, playful sentences through the order and choice of words. And I love it when an oral storyteller speaks in a voice that places the listener right there in time and place. I worked to accomplish this in Bad News for Outlaws and Almost to Freedom. For Let ‘Er Buck!, I used print and online sources containing western, specifically rodeo, terminology. And I used “live” sources like Drew, a Western enthusiast with a brain like an encyclopedia.
Illustrator Gordon C. James on process
GCJ: First I print out and read the manuscript with pen in hand. This way I can do tiny drawings in the margins if an idea jumps out at me. Next I do thumbnails. These are small drawings of my ideas. I do four or five per illustration. After I pick the best, I’ll post them on my studio wall like a storyboard. I am now able to see what kind of the flow the book has. I can check for dead spots, redundancies, etc. The book needs to move and bounce like a good jazz song.
The book needs to move and bounce like a good jazz song.
The next big step is taking photo reference. I cast the book, finding people to play the characters. Using my thumbnails as a starting point, I take photos of the people to work from. Now it’s time to do full-size drawings using my reference and my imagination for each scene. After the drawings are approved by the art directors, it’s time to paint. The drawing and painting process for illustration is very similar to the process I have for my fine art. I want that fine art feel for my books, like you could hang each page on your child’s bedroom wall.
Here’s one of the final results:
Look for Let ‘Er Buck! in bookstores and libraries near you on February 5, or order on lernerbooks.com now.
Plus, if you’re heading to ALA Midwinter, come to Lerner booth 2430 at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 26, to meet Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and to get a free signed copy of Let ‘Er Buck!