Archaeologist, Classicist, Teller of Tales

<i> See is West Coast correspondent for Publishers Weekly. </i>

The painting of a Mexican angel resurrected from a local junk store dominates Deborah Nourse Lattimore’s living room. A cello sits in one corner. Art books abound. On one wall is a reproduction of the Rosetta Stone; on another is an original Leonard Baskin lithograph of Odysseus from her former father-in-law’s acclaimed translation of “The Iliad.”

Out back in a converted garage, Lattimore composes her own artistic magic.

Here, all is in disarray. An old shag rug lies underfoot, while florescent bulbs hang overhead. Rejected and crumpled drawings form a haphazard pile. In another corner, stacks of treated paper await Lattimore’s careful attention. Above her drafting table, several watercolors of a little girl evolve progressively from a sketchy cartoon to a final work owing much to the styles of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. This study is for an upcoming book with the working title “Frida: The True Story of Zorro"--another in Lattimore’s series of historically based, gorgeously illustrated children’s books.

“There aren’t enough books that concentrate on the differences between ancient cultures,” says Lattimore, a native of Los Angeles. “Ancient cultures explain a lot about how modern people turn out. I’m tired of other cultures, ancient religions and strong women being ignored. For “Frida,” I want the look of early California, but I also want it to be an adventure story about an 8-year-old Latina who’s witty--not just a little senorita who dresses nice.”


Four years ago, after 35 aborted attempts, Lattimore sold her first manuscript. Six published books later--and more in production--she sometimes has trouble focusing on what to work on next. “I have 50 ideas on my studio wall,” says Lattimore. “I jot them down on menus, napkins, concert programs.” Her books are a reflection of her own eclectic interests. “Why There Is No Arguing in Heaven” is based on “Popol Vuh, the Mayan Book of Wise Council,” one of the few books not burned by the Conquistadors. “The Flame of Peace” tells the story of Two Flint, who brings the sacred fire to the temple of the Aztecs. “The Sailor Who Captured the Sea” is a kid’s version of the Book of Kells. In each case, not only is the art accurate to the period and style of that culture but even the end papers become a way of transmitting information. For example, the Mayan and Aztec books have illustrative “keys” explaining each culture’s stone designs and pictographs.

Lattimore’s topics are obviously meatier than those usually found in picture books. To arrive at a product that will be appealing and accessible to both kids and adults requires considerable time and research. For her next book, “The Winged Cat"--based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead--Lattimore spent two months poring over texts in ancient Egyptian and traveling to the Field Museum in Chicago to ponder a diorama on the stages of mummification. “I thought for a long time about how I could get mummification in there without it being too scary,” she recalls. She settled on using a cat instead of a human being.

The next three months were devoted to writing the 1,500-word text. (The text for most picture books runs between a scant 750 and 1,000 words.) Lattimore then experimented with several painting techniques to create the look of papyrus since real papyrus couldn’t go on a laser roller--the contemporary children’s illustrator’s best manufacturing friend, which scans original art in full color to yield a richer and more full-bodied finished product. Eight months later, she completed the 48 pages of art.

“My number one rule is that I absolutely have to simulate the look of whatever ancient culture I’m working with,” says Lattimore, who received her B.A. from UCLA in art history and Egyptology, and did graduate work in Near Eastern languages and pre-Columbian, Egyptian, and classical art history. Eschewing white paper--"unless I make it white"--she invents backgrounds appropriate to each culture. For “Frida,” Lattimore quickly applied an acrylic-based modeling paste like finger paints to simulate the rough surface of Mexican stucco. Happily, this paste is bendable and therefore amenable to the rigors of the laser roller. This “stucco” background took just seconds to create, but others are extraordinarily time consuming.


For “The Dragon’s Robe,” Lattimore spent three weeks just preparing the paper, first hand-grinding and mixing Chinese ink, then applying it with a thick house- painter’s brush to simulate the look of ancient silk. (Lattimore did the drawings in the style of Hui Tsung, the last emperor of the Northern Sung Dynasty, who, she says, was a “terrible emperor but an incredible artist.”) To create the look of Minoan frescoes for “The Prince and The Golden Ax,” she used sea sponges, constantly misting the watercolors with a spray bottle. She went over the paper for the Aztec book six times with potato prints to evoke the look of deerskin. With this much attention spent on the preparation of the paper alone, it’s not surprising that Lattimore’s original art work has soared in price to $1,000 to $5,000.

Lattimore’s multicultural “salad bowl” approach has made her the darling of conscientious educators. Her books have been adopted by several boards of education around the country, and textbook publishers are producing study guides to go along with her books. She is also hot on the school circuit, charming young students as she teaches them how to write their own stories in hieroglyphics. “Kids should know how to write an ancient language,” she says. “Think of what could happen if you taught African-American kids how to write Ife, Benin, Ashanti or Yoruba. It would give kids a sense of their own cultural richness. It would give them a sense of self-esteem at a time that’s so critical for African-American children. Besides, it’s fun to look back and find something nice about your family, to know where you’re from.”

Now, in addition to the picture books, Lattimore is working on a nonfiction children’s series on ancient history around the world as seen through art. In these books, Lattimore will explain, for example, how an object was made and used, and provide activities such as how to make your own Law Code of Hammurabi by rolling out clay and using the edge of a popsicle stick to make cuneiform characters. “I always thought it would be fun to have a portable museum,” says Lattimore. “I always look at a statue of Quan Yin and think, who was she? What was her story? Why does Ganesha have a long nose? Why does Shiva have six arms?” It’s these questions--so much like the relentless “whys” of her young audience--that have made Lattimore an ideal person to teach kids the joys of both history and art.