Everything You Need For a Treehouse + an interview with Emily Hughes

Treehouse

by me and Emily Hughes (Chronicle Books, 2018)

It’s here! It’s forty pages of beauty and magic and even though I wrote it, it feels new to me every single time I take a look.

There’s just something about a treehouse. I never had one, did you? But thanks to this book, now I’ve got a collection of the dreamiest treehouses of all time.

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You can have them too! This book is for all of us, and it’s out today.

Making picture books is a little bit collaborative and a lot bit not, and I had a lovely time chatting with Emily about her experience with this book. Enjoy!

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Emily, how did you come to illustrate Everything You Need For a Treehouse?

I went about looking for the precise answer first, through the trenches of a rarely straightened inbox. I was jolted upon finding the very first message. The subject line the same as the title atop the dust jacket; Postdated September 04, 2014.

2014, how strange it sounds. It rings so long ago and weary compared to the newness I feel.

The wonderful, fab, trusting Taylor Norman at Chronicle sent the brief to the equally wonderful Stephen Barr, my agent. Designing tree houses without the tether of a storyline sounded dreamy. The reading leads with sensory nostalgia, which has given way to freedoms of interpretation. I will add that the book may, in all its glory, be thrown aside by a child because it is so evocative. The desire to create one’s own space is immediately set aflame.

At least, I felt that upon reading, and I said yes immediately.

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You created an enchanting menagerie of treehouses. Was this a first instinct for you, to dream up all kinds of treehouses? Or did you try other visual stories first?

Instinctual. Only because I have built up experience consistently recreating Bongo’s Dream House (as found in my Mom’s copy of Life is Hell by Matt Groening) throughout my childhood. I would say I’m a one-trick pony and my trick is trees. To draw variants/hybrids of both required intense recall of my eight year old self.

Not wanting the constrain of continual characters, it was environment that dictated the visual narrative. I tried to keep the story stateside, though I strayed off the path a bit with the library scene, whoops!

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What was your process like for making this book?

As you can see with the sketches, they start off very bare! They usually are quite small in size. I do the same drawing repeatedly with small fixes each time—going through droves of paper. I get nervous when I start on the final image. The more I can get the drawing understood by muscle memory, the more confident I feel when I work on the final piece (I’m still nervous, though!)

I use some references, but try to not look at them while I work. For the Garden scene, I looked at pictures of the Schoenbrunn Palmenhaus I took when I was in Vienna a few years ago. I remember being in awe of it, I wanted to capture that feeling somehow. I adapted it to be a bit taller, which is ridiculous. I thought it would be far too silly to be built that way in real life, but that was my little twist to separate it from its reality.

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I was trying to figure out a layout for the chilly sleeping bag scene— I usually work on this scale. I was trying to figure out a chateau-type mountainous home. In the end, I was inspired by a treehouse I kept coming back to, one made completely out of recycled windows by Nick Olson and Lilah Horowitz. I tried not to look at their actual house while drawing it, but I was very much inspired. The scary story treehouse is from my own imagination, but when you have a reference, there’s more dimensionality to be gained!

I would try to find a few strong words from each page and run with that, not intending to illustrate all the text literally. These key words dictated what the illustration would entail.

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This is what a usual draft sketch looks like for me. Here I was drafting for the ‘secrets and shared smiles’ treehouse. Words carry a lot of feeling. I make a lot of these mood boards; they are based on what words Carter used on the page, or what words those words evoked for me.

What does a secret or whisper feel like? To me a secret has that same warm feeling as coming home to a dry house on a rainy day. Safe, small, with the blinds down. The patter of the outside world goes on while the private interior makes a hum, has a soft glow. No one asked, but here it is—and the feeling dictated the drawing.

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Which treehouse would you pick to live in forever?

‘Forever’ makes me afraid! I don’t think I could live anywhere forever, even in the most elaborate, fantastic home.

However, if it was enforced, it would have to be the ‘chilly so high…pinpricked canopy’ treehouse. Practicality wins here. The slumber party possibilities, snacks, bootleg Tintin, electrical outlets, say no more.

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Which kid do you relate to most?

Emily:

I take back what I answered in the previous question.

In a way, I do forever occupy one of the treehouses, and it is the very one I like most. In the drawing I’m on the far right, drawing through the condensation on the windows.

In this book I counted 205 children. I think (I’m not good at counting). This count includes shadows of children, appendages of children, endpaper children, book jacket and cover children, so there were lots to choose from.

‘Safety drill boy’ on the ‘blueprint’ page, the boy with the caterpillar on the ‘begonias’ page, and the girl in the red jumper climbing to see the ‘sun speckles up close’ are favourites of mine.

I say that with trepidation as my siblings, parents, friends and housemates are scattered throughout the book!

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Carter: Oh, this is hard. But I’m really into this girl who is steadying the ladder for a friend, and doesn’t even notice that she’s stepping on her other friend’s plans. Kind of oblivious, but always ready to help. Or the kid with the squash on his head. Or this hair salon situation.

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Do you have a favorite Easter Egg in the book?

Emily: I have many! I won’t include many, but here are my most favourite:

On the ‘should the shadows ever growl’ page, there is a creepy little face hidden among the lilypads. My Mom thought it was too spooky, but I’m happy it got through.

My parents are the two children in the tree on the cover.

On the last page, something from every one of the former pages is in the apartment complex. So maybe none of those treehouses exist?

It’s up to the reader.

Carter: When my dad was young, he and his brothers had a treehouse in their backyard, which famously only had three things: a telephone, a dictionary, and some baseball cards taped up. That’s what the old, green phone represents. I love it so! Can you find it?

Is there anything else you want us to know about this book?

Working on this book got me thinking about the privilege required to have a literal treehouse.

At the start of it, you need land.

On the land you need a tree, preferably one planted long ago, strong enough to support you.

If you want a treehouse that is the kind you see in the backs of magazines, you may need the help of a Mother, Father, Uncle, Grandmother—and sometimes these people don’t have the luxury of time to devote to these pursuits, even though they may very much want to. Instead of using money to build a treehouse, you could find/borrow all the materials needed. However, hunting for enough material also takes a long while, some kids may be needed to be helpful at home.

Land, and time are the main reasons why idyllic treehouses are not accessible to all.

I was jealous of kids who had beautiful treehouses. To make it look perfect, they often had help from an adult. Many of those kids who had a ‘perfect’ treehouse didn’t even play all that much with them. That’s at least what I lamented to my Mom. It is jealousy talking, but I think it was because it was perfect, and because it wasn’t all theirs that they didn’t appreciate it as much as I thought they should. My neighbours, Brother, Sister and I dreamed up ways to have one.

We didn’t have a treehouse, but we had spaces, and luckily enough, we had time. Space can be found anywhere—an empty box is space. We burrowed in the grass, we collected rocks to build a ‘wall’ but it was only a foot tall. We hid in my neighbor Gene’s downstairs room and called it the ‘devil’s club’ where we only drew pictures of little devils. We would dream and dream—about how we’d decorate our own treehouse, or even a little plastic Home Depot shed all our own. That was the key thing missing from people who had treehouses built or gifted to them, at least I have willed myself to believe.

The scheming and yearning was the most fun.

In the end I want to say to kids is this: The longer it burns in you, the more you draw it, the more you dream it, the more time spent trying to create it, the more you have it. Even moreso than someone who actually owns it, but does not have the love behind it. I’m not saying this in the rash wave where you love it/want it more than another person, so you can lay claim. It is that ownership of a dream or feeling internal is often more powerful than ownership itself.

I asked people online and friends in real life about their treehouse attempts. Every vignette in the endpapers are based off real-life stories that people shared about their results. I think they are all so creative and special—far more resourceful, interesting and ingenious than ideas I spent weeks working on.

A couple of the treehouses in the book would be possible to build, but the best of them can’t exist, at least not in the places they have been set. They are for no one to possess physically, but it is all ours in fantasy.

If you only have a box and tape to recreate a drawing, or to build on a dream, that is enough and beyond.

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PS—Are you interested in a signed copy of the book? If you place an order with my local bookstore, I’ll stop by and sign it for you before they ship it. Just click here. 

8 Comments

  • Posted April 10, 2018 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Wow! This book looks so enchanting! I know my daughter would have spent hours pouring over this when she was young. Now that she’s grown, I have a feeling she would still. Might make a great birthday gift!

    Congratulations!

  • Suellen Franze
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Congratulations, Carter! I’ve ordered my copy from your local bookstore so I can get a signed copy 🙂 I can’t wait to see it. Your interview with Emily Hughes is fascinating. Love from Suellen

  • Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to reading this one and have put it on hold at my library. My dad built my sister and me a tree house when we were little (I have memories of helping hammer nails into the ramp leading to it). We had the perfect piece of land for it, my dad was resourceful (he scrounged to recycle windows, shingles, door knob, etc) and a very skilled craftsman. Our property backed to a ravine and an old tree grew from the ravine so its trunk split into heavy branches right about level to our yard. My dad built a ramp from the edge of our back yard to the tree and built the house right in the branches of the tree. We walked across the ramp, used a key to open the door, and stepped through the split in the branches, through the door, into the house. The entire back wall was a big window that looked down to the ravine below. I’m not sure my mom ever made the trip into the house since she was so afraid of heights! I’m looking forward to seeing how Emily imagined all the houses in this book. Congratulations to both of you!

  • Posted April 10, 2018 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Oh, Carter! So happy to be able to finally see this book! Thank you for sharing the conversation with Emily – I admire her work so much!

  • Posted April 10, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Ooh, very much looking forward to this ‘climbing’ into this wonderful book, and hanging out for a good long time.Congratulations!!

  • Posted April 10, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    This looks fantastic. I love so many of the creative tips. I will be using some of them for sure. So many wonderful personal touches.

  • Kim Pfennigwerth
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    Congratulations and Happy Book Birthday! Wonderful interview and loved seeing the art process!

  • Corinna
    Posted April 10, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    love love love love love this!!!!