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.

brainstorm001 gardeny 1

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!


Dragon and The Dangerous Princess – A Blog Tour! (with Dashka Slater and Jim Averbeck)

Raise your hand if you are way not finished with holiday shopping! Raise your other hand if you love books!

Now wave those hands Rocky style cause I’ve got something fantastic for you.

Allow me to scoot over and introduce you to Dashka Slater and Jim Averbeck. They are pals and they are awesome. I asked them some questions, and now I really hope they have room for me in their friend brigade.

Carter: Because this has been Picture Book Idea Month, I have been obsessing over tiny seeds for picture books. I’m curious where your ideas come from and how you cultivate them?

Dashka: A lot of my ideas for picture books tend to come from children. DANGEROUSLY EVER AFTER is based on an idea my son had when he was six, while THE SEA SERPENT AND ME is based on a story I wrote when I was ten. BABY SHOES and FIREFIGHTERS IN THE DARK were both inspired by my son’s obsessions when he was small. Lately, a lot of my ideas have centered around the form of the picture book itself — I’ve gotten increasingly interested in the tactile experience of the book, the interaction between art and text, and the possibilities that uniquely arise from things like trim size and page turns.

Jim: My ideas come from a number of places. Some of them have come from dreams. Some of them have come from conversations. OH NO, LITTLE DRAGON came from the name of a tour guide in China, which got me thinking about dragons, and a shower I took while there, which made me think little dragons would have a great reason for hating bath time.  Some ideas have come from assignments. (IN A BLUE ROOM and EXCEPT IF both fall into this category.) My critique group always gives an assignment around Christmas time. This year the assignment is to write a picture book using one of the following as inspiration: “One Word,” “Things I Hate,” or “I’ve Been Thinking About Laughing.”  I wonder what stories will come from these?

Carter: What is your favorite picture book of all time?

Jim: That’s a tough thing to choose. But the one I find myself going to when I need to remember what a picture book should be is Maurice Sendak’s OUTSIDE OVER THERE. It has an incredible, lyrical story that sound so good when read aloud.  And then there’s KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes.  When I got that, I threw it down in front of my critique group and exclaimed, “If the is any justice in this world, this will win the Caldecott this year!”  It did.

Dashka: It’s hard to choose just one, because there are the ones that were childhood favorites and ones that are adult favorites. As a child, I loved A LITTLE HOUSE OF YOUR OWN by Beatrice Schenk De Regniers, which struck me as one of the truest books I’d ever read. It addresses the reader very directly about the need to have a little house, and I felt entirely understood by it as a child. It has lovely pen and ink illustrations, very simple. As an adult, one of my favorites is KING BIDGOOD’S IN THE BATHTUB by Audrey and Don Wood, which seems to me to be a perfect book — beautifully illustrated, very funny, and wonderful to read aloud. Another favorite is FISHING IN THE AIR by Sharon Creech, illustrated by Chris Raschka. A book that succeeds on so many levels, it’s almost miraculous.

Carter: Do you have a favorite word? (I really think you can learn a lot about someone in this very important question.)

Dashka: Ragamuffin.

Jim: Curmudgeon.

Carter: (Eyeball.)

Carter: Who do you consider your greatest creative influences?

Jim: Sendak, Bradbury, Schulz, and Mary Ann Meyer, my high school art teacher.

Dashka: Maurice Sendak, E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Zolotow and the film-makers Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Carter: What are you most excited about for 2013?

Dashka: I’m eager to finish my middle grade novel. “Finish,” means “cut like hell” as I’ve never written anything that didn’t start out much too long. So the book is ready to go on a major weight loss regimen, from which I’m hoping it will emerge lithe, sinuous and irresistible.

Jim: I have another picture book coming out in 2013, called THE MARKET BOWL.  It’s especially dear to me because it takes place in Cameroon, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer.  The Peace Corps has three goals: Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. So THE MARKET BOWL is my third goal fulfilled, at least a little. The book was a Junior Library Guild selection, so it is quite an honor to be able to fulfill my third goal obligations in this way.
I am also excited begin working with my editor on my first novel, A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT, for the middle grade audience.

Carter: What is your work space like and what is your favorite thing about it?

Jim:  I work in two places. I write at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco.  My favorite thing about it is that it is a library and that it is in San Francisco.
When I illustrate I work in a little 6×8 foot space in my house. It had lots of storage for books, art supplies and toys, and way too little space to work. My favorite thing about it is the tech:  I have a very fast computer, which helps when I am working on huge files in Photoshop. And I also like the way you really can be in a little space in your home, but still be connected to the world via the internet and social media.

Dashka: I write from a large bird’s nest lined with moss and precious gems. My favorite thing about it is the parfait bar on a nearby tree limb and the team of masseurs.

Carter: If you weren’t a picture book writer/illustrator, what would you be?

Dashka: Extraordinarily irritable.

Jim: A novelist I hope.  At least, if “independently wealthy” is already taken.
… though I plan to be both.

Carter: What color is your day today?

Jim: Today is brought to you by the color Cerulean.

Dashka: I’d love to say it was sea green, but alas, it was typography gray.

Seriously, how fun are they? Hey Dashka and Jim, if you’re ever in Burbank…

I’ll properly highlight their books in the coming weeks, but I wanted to tell you about something really special for the holidays. Along with a few other stellar authors and illustrators, Dashka and Jim are providing signed bookplates designed exclusively for their books. You can buy their books from your favorite local bookstore, or anywhere else you’d like, and they will mail you a signed bookplate to stick inside. Cool, right?

All the information and a peek at the beautiful bookplates are here. (Remember Backseat A-B-See?)

I love, love, love this idea. If you are gifting picture books, (and why would you not be!) check this out for sure. Huge kudos to this bunch of authors and illustrators for connecting with readers like this. Now…to shop.

Dangerously Ever After (Dial Books for Young Readers, September 2012)

By Dashka Slater, Illustrated by Valeria Docampo

 Princess Amanita laughs in the face of danger. Brakeless bicycles, pet scorpions, spiky plants–that’s her thing. So when quiet Prince Florian gives her roses, Amanita is unimpressed . . . until she sees their glorious thorns! Now she must have rose seeds of her own. But when huge, honking noses grow instead, what is a princess with a taste for danger to do?

Oh No, Little Dragon (Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, August 2012)

Written and illustrated by Jim Averbeck

With a PHOOSH and a Grrrrrr and a CANNONBAAAALLLLLL! Little Dragon tears through his day (and the house). But even when he gets a little too rambunctious, there’s no OH NO! that Mama’s kiss can’t fix.