Jonah Winter's work focuses on famous people of color

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Jonah Winter, author of the recently released "Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World," is a Pittsburgh resident who has written about the Pirates' Roberto Clemente and whose next project is about life in a steel town.

Mr. Winter's love for baseball led him to write "Fair Ball!: 14 Great Stars from Baseball's Negro Leagues" and "Beisbol! Latino Baseball Pioneers and Legends."

He is also author of the award-winning children's books "Diego," a biography of artist Diego Rivera in collarboration with his mother, author/illustrator Jeanette Winter (whose "The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq" was a MY GEN Book Club selection), and "Frida," about artist Frida Kahlo, which was hailed as "a grand accomplishment worth celebrating" by The New York Times Book Review.

Mr. Winter recently spoke to the Post-Gazette about his work.

Q: If I am not mistaken, you were born and raised in Fort Worth, Texas, before coming to Pittsburgh. How did growing up in Texas and then coming to Pittsburgh influence you?

A: Though I was born in Cow Town, I hoofed it on up north of the Mason-Dixon line as soon as I came of age. Like so many immigrants in search of a better life, I chose to live in New York, where I resided for 20 years. And then, like so many New Yorkers in search of more space, I moved on. Growing up leftist in a conservative neighborhood in Texas made me appreciate heroic rebels such as Muhammad Ali. Living in New York fueled my ambition and aspirations as a writer and artist. Moving to Pittsburgh has helped me to remember that thing so many New Yorkers forget -- that the world does in fact extend beyond the New York City limits, and that interesting subject matter abounds wherever one happens to look.

Q: Much of your work centers on biographies of famous black and Latino athletes. Why have you fixed your gaze on people of color?

A: Most of the athletes I have written about have been baseball players. Baseball is one of my lifetime passions. However, growing up in the '60s and '70s, I had never heard of the Negro Leagues or about the various Latin American leagues. I had never heard of any of the remarkable African-American or Latin-American players from the era of segregated baseball. They were completely omitted from the history books available to me at the time.

Where I grew up in Texas, my classmates used racial epithets on a regular basis. In my neighborhood, people would not sell their houses to African Americans. In my all-white public high school, during lunch hour, students thought it funny to label some other random student "Jew for the Day." As a nonfiction children's book writer, I see it as my job to educate children about historical figures who are either under-reported in the curriculum or else who, like Muhammad Ali or Roberto Clemente, were mavericks in standing up to a racist culture and carving a path for other members of their respective cultures. If I can make a difference in raising the tolerance and knowledge levels of today's children, then I feel as if I'm doing my job.

Q: How do you decide which personality to write about?

A: As I say to the kids when I give classroom presentations, I write about people who matter to me and who matter to the world. I worshipped both Clemente and Muhammad Ali as a kid. And, clearly, they are both iconic figures, worthy of any number of biographical treatments. Incidentally, I don't use the word "iconic" when talking to the kids!

Q: Has any one person in your books had more of an impact on you personally than others?

A: I become obsessed with each person I write about for the duration of the writing process. For that period, that person becomes my hero.

Q: Have you met Muhammad Ali?

A: No, I have not met Muhammad Ali. I think of him as a distant, almost unapproachable prophet, as is reflected in my biblical treatment of him in the book.

Q: Why do you write for children? Have you written for adults?

A: You might say children's book writing (and illustrating) is the family business. My mother (who appeared in this section a year ago) is the very successful children's book illustrator and author, Jeanette Winter. She asked me to write the text for one of her books in 1992 -- "Diego" -- and the book did very well, enabling me to pursue a career writing picture-book biographies. Also, before 1992, I had worked as a children's book editor for several years. My educational background is in poetry writing -- specifically, for adults. I have published a few volumes of poems -- "Maine," "Amnesia," "Book Reports" and "The Continuing Misadventures of Andrew, The Headless Talking Bear."

Uhhhm, my adult books are very different from my children's books! However, I write for children not simply to pay the bills but because it is the best way I have found to reach a very large audience as a writer.

Q: How do you research and prepare to write a children's book?

A: I usually buy or check out several books on the subject and immerse myself in the subject matter for a good while before I start writing. Recently, as part of my preparation for writing a book on Hildegard von Bingen -- 12th-century German composer, nun, mystic and migraine sufferer -- I immersed myself in her music, listening to it all the time, all day long, for months. I did not, however, invest in a hair shirt.

Q: Is there a thematic strand running through your work? What message do you want children to get?

A: Interesting question. It was pointed out to me recently by an editor that all my books seem to contain a subversive subtext that could more or less be summed up as, "Don't be afraid to challenge authority." That may be true, but it's not "the message" that I am necessarily trying to get across -- at least not the only one. I want children to be compassionate towards those who have suffered unjust treatment and to admire those who have had the courage to "be themselves" in a world that promotes conformity, and to inspire my readers towards decent, tolerant, courageous and independent behavior in their own lives.

Q: Can you say a word about your next project?

A: My next project, coming out this May, is one that I hope will go over well here in Pittsburgh: "Steel Town." It's set in an unnamed steel town during the 1930s and is a chronicle of one day in the life of such a town. Terry Widener's gorgeous illustrations, many of them depicting scenes inside the steel mill, are luscious, dark and evocative. I am incredibly excited about this book, not just because it's more or less inspired by my current home town, but because I think it's the first of its kind: a picture book solely celebrating workers.

Monessa Tinsley is a Post-Gazette staff writer.


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