Interviews

Interview with illustrator Vesper Stamper, illustrator of AMAZING ABE

Vesper Stamper’s book AMAZING ABE: HOW ABRAHAM CAHAN’S NEWSPAPER GAVE A VOICE TO JEWISH IMMIGRANTS (Holiday House, 2024) written by the late Norman H. Finkelstein tells the story of Abraham Cahan, who founded the influential Yiddish newspaper The Forward, which provided helpful insights to new Jewish immigrants. Vesper’s detailed illustrations are a perfect pairing for Norman’s engaging text.

I am delighted to learn more about Vesper’s art for this wonderful book. Welcome, Vesper!

What were your thoughts when you first read the manuscript for AMAZING ABE?

I grew up with The Forward in my house, so I was intrigued about the newspaper’s history, but the biggest thing that excited me was that I’ve always wanted to illustrate a book about turn-of-the-century Lower East Side New York! When I was in third grade, I was a model for the cover of All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. The illustrator (whose name I have been trying to find ever since) had a rack of costumes in his studio, and we got to dress up in pinafores and pose outside of one of the buildings. He painted the cover from the photographs. It was the first time I was in an illustrator’s studio and that experience has stayed with me ever since.

Vesper Stamper

Did you have the opportunity to collaborate with Norman H. Finkelstein?

We had some contact through the process, and he was incredibly encouraging and fond of the illustrations. I am very sorry we didn’t get to meet; we had been talking about events we could do for launch. He was a lovely man from the little I knew of him.

Your illustrations provide a detailed setting for Abe’s world. Can you tell me a bit about the research you did for your illustrations?

It helped that my stepfather grew up on the LES, and that I grew up in Manhattan and Staten Island, so the setting was pretty deeply ingrained. I did research by just sketching around town and taking tons of photographs, looking at archival photos, reading Abraham Cahan’s biography, visiting the Tenement Museum (highly recommended!) and working with the archivist at The Forward.

What did your creative process look like for this book? How did you decide on the style, medium, and color palette for your illustrations?

This is the first book I’ve painted entirely in gouache, which was a challenge I set myself, and it was really enjoyable. I always do tons and tons of research drawing. Since architecture was such an important part of this book, my ruler and protractor were really put to work! As far as the palette, I think we tend to have an impression that the world captured in black-and-white photographs was dim and grey, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. There were certain colors I really wanted to highlight—brick red, denim blue, and industrial copper green. I built everything around that, with some pops of lilac and pink to brighten it up.

I love the illustration of adult Abe squeezed into a student desk alongside middle school students. It reminds me of the stories of Rabbi Akiva learning Torah with children. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? A favorite illustration?

I think my favorite spreads in the book (besides the endpapers, which took a million years but were so fun!) are: the family reading the baseball instructions and setting the table for dinner—that warmth of family life had to be so important in those difficult times as newly-arrived families made sense of the frenzy of the city at the time; and the portrait of Abe at the end of the book. I did that portrait from a compilation of photographs and I’m so happy with that piece. Gosh—it’s hard to choose, because I also really love the illustration of the march, as it shows the beautiful fabric of New York, my beloved hometown.

What do you hope young readers take away from AMAZING ABE?

I hope that young readers see themselves on every page of this book! We only get to see Abe as a kid for a short time in the story, so I wanted to make sure to show how important kids were to the life of the city and the newspaper itself. Children at that time had a very difficult life, often forced to work at a young age under harsh circumstances, and I hope it helps readers to look at their lives with gratitude, and to see how kids made their own fun, no matter what!

Thank you, Vesper!

Vesper Stamper is an award-winning author-illustrator of YA historical fiction and picture books. Her debut novel, What the Night Sings, was a Sydney Taylor Book Award winner, a National Book Award nominee, and a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Raised in New York City, Vesper’s dreams of one day illustrating the Lower East Side at the turn of the century were fulfilled when she was asked to illustrate Amazing Abe. She teaches illustration at School of Visual Arts and lives with her family in the Northeast. You can find her at vesperillustration.com.

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