These are dark times, but I suspect they are times of great change. No one could have predicted that 2020 would be the year of COVID and a great awakening. We keep looking forward to the rest of the year with dread. “What’s next? Murder hornets? Godzilla?” But maybe we need to look forward with hope. Will we or our world remain the same after all of this? It’s hard to say. I think it was Elie Wiesel who said “Even in darkness, it is possible to create light.” (And who better to say something about darkness than a holocaust victim almost swallowed up by it?)
It is in that vein that today’s book came to me. It is a light in the darkness and I cannot wait to share it with you.
Aidan Cassie is the author-illustrator of the award-winning picture book STERLING, BEST DOG EVER, as well as LITTLE JUNIPER MAKES IT BIG and, coming out next week (on June 16, 2020), THE WORD FOR FRIEND. She attended the Emily Carr University of Art and Design and Edinburgh College of Art where she studied animation and earned a Media Arts degree. She lives on a small artist-covered island in the Salish Sea off Canada’s west coast. You can learn more about her at her website.
“The Word for Friend” is about a little pangolin who has moved to a new country (not just a new town or a new school). No one around her speaks her language and although she loves to talk, she shuts down. There are moments in this story that made me tear up. I’ve had students just like this in my classroom (for example, straight from Peru without a single word of English, etc.). I recognized their plight in this story and absolutely adored the character of Kemala. She is so sweet and unique! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character or a story quite like this one before. I loved the world development and even the background cast. Every single animal character is huggable and distinctive! There is so much to see here, as well as to read. This is a book I will keep on my classroom bookshelf for many years to come. You can see the book trailer here.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting? How did that lead to where you are now as an illustrator?
Aidan: Evidently the journey started before I could walk. I’ve always loved drawing and, like the little girl in my first book, Sterling, Best Dog Ever, I was obsessed with getting a dog and drew them constantly. But ‘artist’ felt an impossible career direction as a young adult. I tried degrees in science, then education, before I eventually returned to my love of story-telling by doing an animation degree where I made a wordless, pencil-illustrated film, Sitting Next to Bernie. Learning to visualize in 3D set me up well for an illustration career designing sweet characters for giftware lines. After almost a decade of character and product design I finally transitioned into both parenthood and making picture books as two full time jobs.
Me: What did your illustration process look like for this book? Are you mainly a traditional artist, a digital artist, or a combination of both?
Aidan: I usually sketch tiny book spreads on recipe cards while I’m writing my stories on computer. Sometimes I’ll use a story board sheet too, but I like that I can easily move around recipe cards. Those little drawings are then scanned and digitally inked to get assembled into a digital book dummy. Once I am happy with the words (which I can only really finesse when they are physically beside the images in a book layout program) I send it off as a PDF for my agent and prospective publishers. If the book gets picked up by a publisher, those rough sketches are cleaned up and digitally painted using my Cintiq (a tablet/screen hybrid). Except for some hand-painted textures I create, I’d call myself digital.
Me: This story is such a unique one: a pangolin with a love of puppets moves to a new school and doesn’t speak the language of everyone around her. That almost broke my heart. What gave you the idea?
Aidan: We recently moved to France for a year for an adventure. That September we dropped our daughter off for her first day in an all-French public school. Not even her teacher spoke English. Though I cried as we walked away, she was incredibly resilient. So, it’s not her story, but mine.
I chose an animal that felt like me for the main character; one that wanted to hide away. As an artist I’m pretty good at Pictionary and I found I could sometimes draw things better than I could say them. I wanted this pangolin character, Kemala, to have a wordless art form that helped her learn the language too, shadow puppets seemed perfect. I also wanted her to have a bold friend who didn’t mind looking silly making mistakes and would inspire her, as I was inspired by my own kid’s bravery. In the end I never got very good at French, though my braver daughter is fluent.
Me: Your story text is as gloriously wonderful as your illustrations. Which was harder: writing the story or illustrating it? Why?
Aidan: I am thrilled that the writing feels as strong as the imagery; it is far harder for me to write! Once I have the concept, the synopsis, I jump straight into creating the visual story before writing out a manuscript. With the story structure and rough images in place I can finally face the real work: the words! The fun comes once it is under contract and I can lose myself in the characters, scenes and details of the final artwork.
Me: I love the world you have built in this story. I love all the creatures (and their expressions) and the settings. How long did it take to create this world? Did you have a particular “real world” location in mind?
Aidan: Thanks! I tried to leave the location a bit vague because I wanted it to feel like the story could unfold anywhere (though the west coast maples, markets of France and stones of Marrakesh may have worked their way in). That “other language” of the book, Esperanto, is also not associated with a particular place and is intended to make the location feel unusual, foreign and new. But as a world, it is the place I’ve been building and imaging since I was a kid – one where you can chat with woodland animals that have tiny homes in trees and somehow blend their wild natures with their very civil community. I guess I’ve always been an extreme ‘anthropomorphizer’!
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Aidan: When I started writing I initially selected a pangolin as my main character because of their tendency to roll into a self-armored ball when afraid, and because they are ridiculously cute, and, importantly, because I wanted to cast a character that needed some worldwide conservation attention. Pangolins are the world’s most trafficked mammal (sadly, many tens of thousands poached per year). As a result, all species of pangolins range from threatened to critically endangered. So the biggest surprise came in February when a possible link was found between some viruses that pangolins carry, and COVID-19.
I can only hope that this potential link brings their plight into the spotlight, reduces poaching and it does not result in any culling of these vulnerable, amazing animals.
Me: Oh dear! I hadn’t heard that. Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
- Read oodles of contemporary picture books and reflect on all that works well (and all that does NOT)
- Have more than one manuscript ready when you submit your first book (if they like it, they will say “what else have you got?”)
- Consider hunting for an agent instead of going to publishers directly. While agents do take a percentage, they will open doors you cannot, and will likely secure contracts that are stronger and more generous to you too
Great advice! Thank you so much Aidan for stopping by my blog. And dear readers, this is a book you must read. Please help to share the love and light in these dark times.