The Gypsy Pricess:
Fried Wishinsky profiles Phoebe Gilman

32 pages,
ISBN: 0590244418

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A Girl Not Overcivilized - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Phoebe Gilman
Bright autumn light streamed into her small airy studio as the author and illustrator Phoebe Gilman spoke to me about her art, her books, and her experiences. It quickly became clear how intertwined are these three parts of her life, each strengthening, colouring, and defining the other.
She didn't begin drawing and writing in this room, or in this country. She began in the Bronx, where she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. She attended P.S. 86 (the local elementary school), lived amidst a warm extended family, and learned how to balance her wild nature with the expectations of school and society. "I was a terrible tomboy," she explains. "My aunt would say `Phoebe is worse than the boys.' If we played chicken on our bicycles, I was the one who never chickened out."
But school has a way of tempering wildness and that was the case for Phoebe. She soon learned she was supposed to be quiet and act with decorum. It wasn't easy.
"Girls are overcivilized," she says. "I love Clarissa Pinkola Estes's book Women Who Run with the Wolves. She describes how women in our culture lose that wild part of themselves."
That theme resonated so strongly for her that it became part of her latest book, The Gypsy Princess. The main character, a wild gypsy girl called Cinnamon who is invited to live in the luxury and pampered environment of a palace, confronts that very dilemma.
It is an attractive book that should appeal to many in the picture-book audience. The bright, iridescent illustrations mesh comfortably with the flowing text.
Gilman touches on an important theme in this book: that true wealth is in the acceptance and enjoyment of who you are, not what you have.
Though Cinnamon is happy in the forest, she is dazzled by the riches and pleasures of court life offered her by Princess Cyprina. She leaves all she loves-her home, her old aunt, and her dancing bear-to live in the palace, play with expensive toys, wear elegant clothes, and dance at fancy balls. But life there soon loses its sparkle. The princess soon grows bored with her new companion. And Cinnamon begins to yearn for the freedom and carefree life of the forest. She also misses her old aunt and the marvellous bear. Little by little, she ventures back into the forest. As she does, she leaps exultantly into a lake, washing the perfume and pomade from her hair. Finally, there is a joyous reunion.
A story, like life, has a way of evolving. It often begins with an idea, a memory, or a character, and changes as the writer molds it into shape."Originally," says Gilman, "the story had a modern setting and was about a girl who had a wild gypsy girl in her bedroom. I wrote a page like that and said NO-I'm going to set the story in the once-upon-a-time-time. That immediately gives you much more freedom to create a world. That's when I also decided to make the story about a wild gypsy girl."
But after another rewrite, the story was still not in its final form.
"It was much more autobiographical than it wound up," Gilman explains. "I had the gypsy girl living in the palace till mid-life, losing more and more of herself and her energy. When you become overcivilized all your energy goes into being what other people want you to be."
In this rewrite, the girl finally did get the courage to leave the palace but she never returns to her family. She just wanders for the rest of her life in the woods. "She becomes," says Gilman, "an old woman in the forest."
She credits her editor at Scholastic, Diane Kerner, for suggesting that this version, and this ending, were too adult. "I'd written my adult autobiography," she says with a laugh. "Now I had to write a kid's book."
So the story evolved again. She changed the main character to a pre-pubescent girl of eleven or twelve who is at a turning point in her life. Cinnamon finds her way back to her wild, carefree life in the forest while she's still young. The final book has a hopeful and happy ending.
A picture book, though, is more than plot, characters, and theme. There are other important elements that bring it to life. For Phoebe Gilman, those are research and setting. She read extensively about the eighteenth century for The Gypsy Princess. She found that the concept of childhood was very different then. "Children wore powdered wigs. They dressed as adults," she explains.
As for setting, the forest in the story was modelled after the forest near her vacation place, north of Sault Ste. Marie. Even the drawing of the elaborate gilded palace gate originated from a gate she saw around the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. "When I saw the Parliament gate, I was so excited that I quickly bought one of those disposable cameras and took pictures of it. Then I climbed on top of all sorts of things to get the right angle." After she'd photographed it, her fellow children's book author Linda Granfield, who was with her at the time, asked her, "Didn't you notice the RCMP following you?" But she was so absorbed taking the pictures, she was oblivious to anyone's curious or questioning gaze.
That attention to detail marks all of Phoebe Gilman's work. In her Jillian Jiggs books, she sewed costumes and made stuffed pigs before drawing the illustrations.
Another element that pervades all of her work is the importance and warmth of family. You can see it in the eyes of the gypsy princess when she's with her old aunt in the forest. You can see it in the relationship between Jillian Jiggs and her frustrated but loving mother. You can see it in the camaraderie of grandmother and granddaughter in Grandma and the Pirates. And you can see it with the boy and his grandfather in Gilman's award-winning Something for Nothing.
All these threads and themes have been intertwined in her books but in each one there's been a different twist, of characters, plot, or setting. And that after all is what storytelling is all about.

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