My friend, local author Fred McKissack, knows that I love his turns of phrase, his knack for dialogue, his solid storytelling instincts, and his reluctance to believe any compliment that I try to pay him.
But one cannot discuss Best Shot in the West, the new book he co-wrote with his St. Louis-based mother, Patricia McKissack, without lavishing praise upon its illustrator Randy DuBurke.
It is (expletive) phenomenal, McKissack says of DuBurkes work. Unbelievably phenomenal. I have never seen such a beautiful book.
Best Shot in the West ($19.99; Chronicle Books) is a graphic novel that recounts the life of former slave turned cowboy turned train porter Nat Love, aka Deadeye Dick.
The book is scheduled to be released on Jan. 18.
McKissack says Love is not exactly a known figure in African-American history.
But when you see lists of black cowboys, his name is always there, he says.
Best Shot in the West is based in part on Loves 1907 autobiography, Life and Adventures of Nat Love, McKissack says.
Racial discrimination did not loom large in Loves book, McKissack says, perhaps because (and this is just conjecture on the part of the columnist) Loves adeptness at frontier tasks and his alacrity for leaping into various frays made his race a moot point.
McKissack says he was inspired by Loves ability to literally roll with the punches.
There was no time or place for the timid, he says.
Best Shot in the West is in some measure a work of history, but it does not eschew the juicy mythologizing that put the wild in Wild West.
McKissack says he joked with his mother, Why dont we make this as Saturday afternoon/dime store/pulp fiction as we can?
His life story lends itself to that, he says. He is a true character.
McKissack says working in the graphic novel form for the first time was a little intimidating.
I had to write and think more visually, and allow the dialogue to wrap around the action. It wasnt hard, but I just wanted it to do right by the medium.
Adapting a life to any essentially visual medium with its requisite finite edges requires some hard artistic choices, McKissack says.
Its hard to whittle down someones life even if you have 135 pages, he says. I could spend 135 pages on my freshman year in high school.
Many graphic novels these days are written and illustrated by the same person, McKissack says.
In this instance, the McKissacks had to prepare a meticulous narrative blueprint that was then sent on to DuBurke, who lives in Switzerland.
McKissack likens it to putting together a shooting script for a movie.
Seeing DuBurkes illustrations for the first time at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference in Chicago in November was close to unwrapping a Christmas gift, McKissack says.
It was heavenly in a non-sacrilegious sense, he says.
DuBurkes illustrations are reminiscent of sepia-tone photos, but they also may remind readers of those nearly vanished memories that we all try from time to time to rescue from oblivion – memories filled with shadows, indistinct faces, furious motion and bursts of startling clarity.
Best Shot in the West has received a starred review from Kirkus (a Kirkus star is bestowed on books of remarkable merit).
Publishers Weekly also praised the book while adding that a bit more history might have been welcome.
Of course, people are going to say there could have been more of this or that, McKissack says. Its a story. What I want to ask readers is, Did you have fun?; Did the illustrations blow you away the way they blew me away?; Could you imagine this person?
Even though Best Shot in the West is technically McKissacks follow-up to his well-received novel Shooting Star, both projects were worked on more or less simultaneously, McKissack says.
Shooting Star was recently chosen by Ivy Tech as the focal point of a Community Book Read.
One or more scholarships will be awarded for the best creative responses to the book.
For more information, visit www.ivytech.edu/northeast/read.