Every once in a while, a picture book comes along that takes my breath away. Today’s picture book is one of those and I can’t wait to share it with you.
Anna Desnitskaya graduated from the Moscow State University of Printing Arts and has been working as a children’s book illustrator, with a predilection for non-fiction, ever since. She is inspired by daily life itself, with all its complexity and diversity, which she conveys in the books she illustrates. Her works have received awards and recognition including The Original Art 2023, The Society of Illustrators; the 2022 and 2019 AOI World Illustration Award; the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Illustrators Exhibition; the 2017 Bratislava Biennale. In 2018, she was Russia’s nominee for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest award for children’s literature. Amid the turmoil in Russia in 2022, Anna and her family made the decision to leave their longtime home of Moscow. After several months in Israel, they now live in Montenegro. You can learn more about her at her agency website or follow her on Instagram.
ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD is her author-illustrator debut, and WHAT a debut! Not only are the characters and locations amazingly memorable, but the picture book is a novelty in itself, flipping from front to back. One story reads from the front to the middle (the female main character), and then you have to flip the book over to read from the back to the middle (the male main character). This choice serves both artistic and geographic reasons. But let me back up and tell you what this book is about. First, we meet Vera who lives on the eastern coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. She is lonely without any friends at school she really connects with (and yet, we see the ghost of someone who might be the perfect friend for her as she imagines). Then, flip the book over and meet Lucas who lives in Chile. He too is lonely without any really friends (and again, we see the ghost of someone who might be the perfect friend for him as he imagines). The incredibly intelligent connections between the two characters who are miles apart with different cultures are left to the reader to find, as is the real end of their story. I literally gasped at some of those connections (that I made myself) and got goosebumps. This book is incredible in so many ways and definitely should not be missed.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing or painting? How did that bring you to this book?
Anna: Since childhood, I loved to draw, especially illustrations for the books I read. After school, I dreamed of becoming an animator and applied to a film institute. However, they didn’t accept me because I was supposed to bring still life paintings for the preliminary review, but I brought a stack of doodled pages torn from my school notebooks. That’s when a relative of mine invited me to work for a year at the illustration department of a printing university. I went, and gradually, I fell in love with the place. After a year, I applied there, studied for six years, and graduated in 2011. Since then, I have been working on book illustrations.
Me: I know you went to school in Moscow for art but have you ever been to the Kamchatka Peninsula? What made you decide to set a story there? What gave you the idea to mirror that story in Chile?
Anna: I’ve never been to Kamchatka, but during the work on the book, I had correspondents from Kamchatka (and from Chile too!) whom I consulted with to make the book as authentic as possible. Why did I choose these two places? I initially wanted one end of the world to be in Russia. At first, I thought of choosing Chukotka in Russia and Alaska right across, but then I decided it would be a bit dull because the climate, time zones, surroundings, and so on in both places are quite similar. I also wanted the second end of the world to be in the other hemisphere to justify why the book turns upside down. So in Russia, I chose Kamchatka, and something in the opposite hemisphere was Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. Since I have friends in Chile whom I could consult with, I chose Chile.
Me: I love the scene where Vera is playing ball with her dog in front of the mountains. It reminded me ever-so-slightly of Alaska. I love how you drew the mountains and your color palette is fantastic. Can you talk a bit about what your illustration process for this book looked like? Did you use traditional or digital media (or a blend of both)?
Anna: I also love this illustration! This view of the village by the mountains was sent to me by a girl who lives in Kamchatka; it’s her hometown, Ust-Kamchatsk. I create illustrations using a mixed technique: I draw the outline by hand with a liner on paper, then scan it, refine the outline on my iPad using the Procreate app, and color it there using my own hand-drawn watercolor textures.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing or illustrating this story?
Anna: I was surprised by various facts about Chile that I gathered from my friends in the country when I was creating the book! For example, that people in Chile drink a lot of cola and cocoa, hardly play badminton, but they play a lot of football. And also, that Chile is the longest country in the world! In the north of the country, the equator is not very far away, and in the south, there are penguins!
Me: Ha! I never thought of Chile as the longest country in the world, but I can see that. You are both the author and the illustrator of this story. What was harder, the writing or the illustrating of it? Why?
Anna: This was my first experience as an author, so writing the text for my book was certainly more challenging because it was something new and uncharted. Perhaps the most challenging part was that when you write such a short text, you don’t need a lot of time to actually write it; you can do it in half an hour. The majority of the work with the text is just looking at it and thinking! It’s different from illustration, where there is a lot of technical work involved, like drawing.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers or illustrators?
Anna: I would advise not to rush and to remove everything unnecessary while working on the book, as if peeling away layers. Sooner or later, the book will become what it should be.
Me: I love the heart warming message that we are never as truly alone as we think. Is making friends an important topic for you? Why is this story something you want to share with kids?
Anna: Honestly, when I conceived this book, what interested me the most was studying how life in two very different places can be similar and why. The story of friendship, hope, and loneliness came on top of this idea and unexpectedly became very important for me and my family. In the middle of working on this book, the war began, and we left Russia. Now, when almost all my loved ones, almost all my children’s friends, are thousands of kilometers away from us, in the farthest edges of the world, this book has become very important to us. It helps me remember that the connection between us remains forever.
I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Anna.
Dear readers, this book was released into the world yesterday. If you haven’t had a chance yet to track it down, I highly recommend it. This is a picture book that doesn’t follow traditional approaches to character arcs or format, but what it does do, will give you goose bumps too. This is a book you will want to read.