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


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!


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.


Which kid do you relate to most?


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!


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. 

The Little Gardener + an interview with Emily Hughes (part ii)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

I can’t stop thinking about the line Emily left us with yesterday, this one:

They are stories coming from a place of trying to understand, rather than a place where it is understood.


Welcome back, Emily! Hope you enjoy the rest of our conversation. (And a reminder, click to enlarge any images.)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Can you tell us about the design of the art and the text? I love that your pictures don’t have text on them anywhere, and the page turn with the flower is the only time there’s text away from the bottom. What went into those decisions?

There wasn’t much decision making- that was the problem! Often times I like to work with only a bit of text because type is a whole other ball-park in terms of aesthetics. I have a hard time compromising my space for words- text and fonts and size, all that jazz has to mesh in with the artwork, and it’s hard finding the right voice to match the looks.

My work gets pretty dense, so I find it a lot more difficult to find something that is legible, but still yields to the art. In university I preferred to keep my lines simple and punchy and give a whole page of text to one image- it makes you read everything slower, more thoughtfully. However in the world of big print-run publishing, it is a luxury to use up so much paper! I work on the pacing, but the designers at Flying Eye made a lot of the technical decisions and all the book designing- I think they’ve done beautifully.

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What is your favorite piece of art hanging in your home or studio?

I work at home, and my favourite art piece is this ceramic self-portrait bust my Dad made when he was a kid in school. It’s got hair that looks like it was squeezed through a garlic presser- he forgot a bit of hair on the back though, and he made his nostrils with a pencil eraser. It’s a bit creepy, bit primitive cool. Very seventies. Still trying to find the best place to display it.

What are some of your favorite picture books? Both for writing and text and whatever inspires? What is your favorite picture book from childhood?

My favourite old school book is Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand. It is a beauty in text and image- what a fantastic story about the happily peaceful bull. Didn’t want to fight, didn’t want the fame, just wanted the simple pleasures of everyday life. You come across the message of being unique quite a bit in children’s books. Oftentimes it’s a feeling of ‘you’re different’ therefore special, therefore better. I don’t get that passive aggression or hypocrisy with Ferdinand.

For modern, I love Michael Rosen/Quentin Blake’s Sad Book. It isn’t sappy or over the top, it is perfect. No melodrama or silver-linings, just honest. The book feels like it is quietly listening to it’s readers own blues. It brought me real comfort. It is really a gem.

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In terms of illustration, I love everything that is Blair Lent. Dreamy.

What’s next for you?

Lots of good things in store at the moment! I have finished a bunch of projects recently, and am still catching my breath.

I just finished A Brave Bear with Walker Books, and Brilliant with Abrams, and I’m now moving on to a book series with Chronicle for easy readers called Charlie and Mouse which is written by Laurel Snyder.

Oh, and did I mention the ever lovely Everything you Need for a Treehouse by THE Carter Higgins? 
I am excited about it all, and slowly getting better at juggling everything- at the moment I am trying to doodle personal work (if you don’t maintain this, everything goes bad, you don’t evolve!), little brothers, and treehouses. For boys, I’ve been creeping around my high street and local parks to get inspiration, for tree houses I fondly think of the ones my neighbours and I repeatedly built unsuccessfully. Now I can build one without the necessary requirements of having lumber readily available, knowing how to saw wood, and basic physics!

Exciting, busy, new!

Thanks, Emily! It was such an honor to have you here, and I am so, so excited about our future!

Huge thanks to both Emily and Tucker Stone at Flying Eye Books for the images in this post!


The Little Gardener + an interview with Emily Hughes (part i)

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes by Emily Hughes (Flying Eye Books, 2015)

Friends, I am beyond awe with this conversation with Emily Hughes. If you aren’t familiar with her work yet, I guarantee you will fall in love with it, with her, with a storytelling brilliance that is out of this world. Here, she lets us know both where stories come from and why they do.

And a note, you’ll definitely want to click on all of these images to enjoy them at their full resolution.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes Can you talk about where this book came from? And what the process was like for its creation?

Lots of things were swimming around in my head when The Little Gardener was being made. 
I was back home rereading a book I love, The Growth of the Soil, about a simple self-sufficient man dealing with societal pressures that seem unnecessary. He was the symbol of The Little Gardener, he’s not the personality powerhouse Wild is, he is really just a symbol for the everyman, the underdog, you, me, (my brother thinks the 3rd world) our place as a human. It’s not about him, it’s about his vision, his hopes.

There are a lot more nuances to that, but that is what it is in a very small nutshell. 
The process for Gardener was an outpouring, I drew and drew and drew. Because the images are so dense it was a meditative book to make- almost like making a mandala. The story process took a while, but with the images I worked on steadily through, and luckily they worked out with little drafting. That isn’t the usual, but this one felt natural to make, intuitive.

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Why do you think your stories are best suited to the form of the picture book? What can you do in this form that you might not be able to in another?

If you look at my bedroom, my backpack, my email inbox, my general manner, you would be able to figure out a good deal about me. Totally scatter-brained.

It is an affliction that makes it tricky to get work done in general.  What makes children’s books an appealing medium for me is that there is text to dance with. There is the written skeleton to adhere to- oftentimes my stories have layers that I have built up depending on where I am or what I’ve been thinking of while I work. There is not just one story being told in The Little Gardener. Having text keeps my brain focused when there are other ideas floating about. Because I also draw, I am able to tell the other story lines as well- they are quieter, but are still present for others to interpret if they have patience. It is a good compromise for me.

Narrative has always been an interest, I think telling stories is what I like to do- so the things I’d compare it to would be film, theater, animation, etc. I like doing illustrations for picture books because it’s 2D and doesn’t move. However, if you are really invested you can move them within your head and expand it’s boundaries to a world you truly are interacting with. The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

One of my favorite things is the cola can that says MADE IN HILO, HI on it. I know that’s where your roots are, and I wonder how that home has shown up in the work that you do? Or if there are other easter-egg-y things that you stick in your work?

Good spotting! Hawaii is always present in my work. I left home for university in England when I was 17, and at that time I was eager for new experiences. Nevertheless, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I miss the Big Island always. Drawing things from home is indulgent for me- it is time spent reminiscing, it is a means for me to keep connected, grounded.

The cola can was initially modelled after a local company- Hawaiian Sun. The label looks nothing like the original (and I used the non-existent ‘cola’ because I thought it would be easier to translate), but the sun made a symbolic appearance. Those cans are always around- refreshments after soccer games, trips to the beach, the park with cousins. It reminds me of happy outings. I’ll add this bit to my advertising resume…

The house that the humans live in is based on my family home. It’s a plantation-style house that my Grandmother grew up in, as my siblings and I have also done. It’s a special place.


The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

In the scene where the gardener is chasing away the snails, there’s a ‘rubber slipper’ (you guys would call it ‘flip flop’- Hawaii’s preferred footwear of choice) strewn about. It even has the ‘Locals’ tag on it which is the same kind you get at the grocery store. There’s lots of little things from home hidden. I like having the sentimentality there, even if it’s for my own benefit.

It seems like the girl in Wild and this little gardener have some sensibilities in common, like the hope and comfort in this un-tapped-into nature. Are there big-picture-stories you are drawn to creating, both in text and in art?

There are a lot of stories I’d like to tell. I think I start off with a general character and theme and it evolves- the writing is the last part, I think the feeling needs to be understood first. 
In my journal these are a few themes I’d written that I want to explore:

Does ‘evil’ exist? Really?

You can, will, should feel every horrible emotion and that’s fine

Kindness trumps all

Looks vs Expectations

It’s all chance for me I think- I might read something, or watch something, or sit blankly staring at the wall even, and most times it is nothing but a murmur. But once in a good while something speaks up.

As for Wild and Gardener, nature serves as a backdrop because it is an ideal to be in sync within our most natural of habitats. Something we all still strive for- a place where we’re needed.  Wild is about acceptance and tolerance, issues I was trying to practice myself. Gardener was about keeping hope alive when I was faltering with my own.

They are stories coming from a place of trying to understand, rather than a place where it is understood.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

Carter, here.

You guys. I keep reading these answers over and over and feel like it’s such a gift to get this glimpse into a storyteller’s heart. Because Emily is fascinating and brilliant and our conversation gave me so much to wrestle with and enjoy, there’s more! Come back tomorrow for the second part. More pictures, more process, more book love.

Whatever you do, get your hands on this book as soon as you can, for hope and home and heart.

Huge thanks to both Emily and Tucker Stone at Flying Eye Books for the images in this post!