Author / Artist Rosalyn Schanzer [elan magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Book cover, “Gold Fever,” by Rosalyn Schanzer
If American history has never tickled your fancy, you haven’t read one of Rosalyn Schanzer’s illustrated picture books.
Written for children in elementary and middle school, her hardbacks are filled with so many interesting facts and such incredibly detailed artwork that they’ll appeal to all ages.
Take Rosalyn’s most recent title, “John Smith Escapes Again!” The National Geographic Society released it last fall so students could use the information-packed text when learning about the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007.
Not only are the illustrations dynamic and engaging, but also Rosalyn’s story puts Disney’s version of Pocahontas to shame. Did you know, for instance, that as a young man John Smith was tossed into the briny deep and became a pirate? Or that he later became a wretched slave? Or that he didn’t have platinum blond hair—as he did in the Disney version—but a mane of dark brown locks and a thick brunette-colored beard?
Of course, a brave and beautiful Indian girl named Pocahontas did rescue Smith from certain death, though she was never his girlfriend. Still, odds are good that Smith, who Rosalyn says was perhaps the greatest escape artist of his time, could probably have wiggled his way out of a dangerous situation all by himself.
Rosalyn also discovered other little-known details, including the fact that on his last trip downriver in Virginia, Smith fell asleep with his bag of gunpowder on his lap. In a twist of fate, a fellow sailor apparently lit up a pipe-and a stray spark
blew onto the gunpowder, igniting it.
Smith awoke with a start, jumped into the river and put out the flames, but he had to go all the way back to London to get medical treatment. Though he did make a single expedition to New England in 1614, terrible luck at sea and a lack of new backers kept him from returning to his beloved America.
And that was a real shame, Rosalyn acknowledges, for it was John Smith whose books first kindled the Great American Dream.
“He believed that America was the one place on earth where everyone, no matter how lowly their status, could make a better life for themselves if they were wiling to work hard,” she says. “I have to admit, after spending about a year creating this book, John Smith has become a hero of mine.”
Although falling for her characters isn’t a prerequisite for Rosalyn, she is a stickler for getting the details right. When preparing to write and illustrate a book, she puts on her detective hat and doesn’t rest until she lays eyes on nearly every word her protagonists have written themselves and the best of everything written about them.
Smith, for example, wrote several books about his adventures. Rosalyn also combed through the works of his most scholarly biographers.
Ditto for her other subjects, including King George III and George Washington (for her 2004 title, “George vs. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides,” published by National Geographic) and Benjamin Franklin (in “How Ben Franklin Stole the Lightning,” published in 2003 by HarperCollins).
In her 1997 bestselling book, “How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis
And Clark,” a work that won a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year—Rosalyn had to track down an award exact replica of the keelboat used in the famous journey. To do this, she conferred with experts at Fort Clatsop in Oregon, the final western outpost of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“Other illustrations I’ve seen depicting the Lewis and Clark boats showed canoes made of birch bark, but my research showed that the explorers would never have used any such thing,” she says.
In fact, Rosalyn will go to incredible lengths to get everything just right. Consider Gold Fever! Tales From the California Gold Rush (National
Geographic Society, 1999). She traveled to every California gold mining site she could find and took over 600 photographs of gold nuggets, saloons, unusual mining equipment and various odd items and interesting bits of scenery that would help make her pictures both accurate and interesting at the same time.
“When I create the images, I want to get every shoe, every party dress, every uniform exactly right for the time period,” she says, noting that she gets frustrated when she glimpses inaccurate details in other historical books. “I think it is the job of a historical illustrator to exactly replicate all the little things. Otherwise, how will kids know what life really looked like all those years ago?”
Of course, Rosalyn is never one to pass on taking a great trip. Her thirst for a good adventure has taken her to Belize where she swam with sharks, to Alaska where she kayaked with whales and to the Amazonian jungles of Peru where she fished for piranhas.
Just this February, Rosalyn and her husband Steve checked out volcanoes and gigantic marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. Rosalyn’s travels provide a stark contrast to her early day jobs. In the start of her career she sat in a small cubicle illustrating cards for Hallmark. Then in 1972, shortly before following Steve to Northern Virginia for his job at a think tank, she began illustrating children’s books.
It proved to be the perfect thing to do while raising her two children (her son Adam is now 32 and daughter Kim is 27).
In 1993, Rosalyn decided it was time to craft her own stories. One of her first releases was “Ezra in Pursuit: The Great Maze Chase” (published by Doubleday). It was the story of a boy and his dog chasing three bank robbers through the Wild West. By 2000, she was ready to tackle a topic near and hear to her heart. She wrote “Escaping to America: A True Story,” which is the true tale of her own ancestors, Jewish immigrants who escaped from war-torn Poland in 1921 to seek a better life in America.
“This book featured illustrations of my father, then a young boy, as he struggled to find his way to a new environment,” explains Rosalyn. “It was very exciting to get inside of my family’s heads.”
Of that book, the famed Kirkus Reviews noted: “Steerage has been described in many books, but never so dearly for this younger age group. Schanzer draws pictures as well as words with her art.”
Rosalyn admits that having an esteemed literary publication pay her such compliments is a nice little boost to her ego. “I never really considered myself a writer or a historian, but looking back at my body of work, I guess that I am,” she says.
“Ultimately, I just want to make the books so much fun and so interesting that my readers will get caught up in the story. I’d like to bring the past to life, and if I can, then I’ll consider my work to be a success.”
For more visit: www.rosalynschanzer.com.