We interviewed Mac Barnett, award-winning author of children’s books, and Isabelle Arsenault, award-winning illustrator/author of children’s books, about their first collaboration: Just Because.
Mac and Isabelle: You are both already award-winning creators in the picture book field, yet this is your first time working with each other. How was the experience? Any surprises? Challenges?
Mac: I think Isabelle is one of the best illustrators working today, and I've been wanting to make a book with her for almost a decade. Honestly, it was a thrill to deliver this manuscript to her hands and see what she did with it.
And of course there should be surprises—lots of them—when a manuscript gets illustrated. A picture book text is an unfinished thing. It's not a story until the pictures are there. One of my favorite things Isabelle added to this book was the story of a distracted father who becomes gradually engaged in his daughter's wonderings. Isabelle conveys that whole arc in just a series of poses.
Isabelle: It's always challenging for me to be working on a picture book. I want each book to be the best as they can possibly be. Working with the best authors raises the bar even higher. But at some point, you have to let go, find a way to relax and enjoy what you are doing in order to make the magic happen.
Mac: Did you know Isabelle would be illustrating your manuscript during any part of your writing process or was the text complete first?
I sent Isabelle the manuscript after I finished, and before we went to the publisher, but I had no idea whether she'd say yes. Honestly I don't know who else could have done this book. Isabelle is equal deft at conveying the quiet intimacy of the domestic scenes and the wild lushness of those spreads where the girl's questions are answered.
Isabelle: Was there any back-and-forth communication between you during the illustration stage? If so, is that an unusual or typical dynamic for you during your illustration work?
We were not really in touch with each other during my part of the work—which is something usual in the picture book industry, and an approach I feel comfortable with. I enjoy having the opportunity to give my personal take on a story, and when there are too many dialogs or interactions between the creators, sometimes I feel confused, and I try to please everyone but me . . . This was not the case here. I felt I could go wherever I wanted with Mac's story and that was great.
Mac: Are any of these questions in the book from your own childhood curiosity? Do you think kids today ask different types of questions than when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, I read a lot of books that took a scientific approach to answering questions. I loved these these books, but I also had an imagination that tended to the mythic and fantastical. I think we need both science and storytelling to figure out our relationship to the cosmos.
Isabelle: How was the decision made to leave the center spread, with all its overlapping question circles, free of any your pictorial illustration?
The page-breaks were already suggested in the manuscript I received from Candlewick. I think it was also mentioned there that this spread could be just text or speech bubbles overlapping, reflecting the ton of other questions the kids had in mind. To me, this spread was sort of a chain reaction—questions bringing another question. But also visually, the different coloured circles together like that reminded me of molecules. I also liked the simplicity of these shapes in opposition to the more detailed illustrations on the following spreads.
Mac: The title "Just Because" is so apt for this story of tough-to-answer questions. Did you assign your manuscript this title or did that come from the publisher or their marketing team? Who usually titles your books?
I titled it! I come up with the titles for all of my books (although sometimes Jon Klassen and I will work together on figuring out a title and cover for our stories).
Isabelle: Which spread/text in the book was the most challenging to illustrate? Was there one that seemed to come to you almost intuitively right away? Do you have a favorite illustration or detail?
The first spread featuring the fish playing guitars was the most difficult . . . I had to start over and over again. I made maybe ten versions? At some point, I decided to just skip it and go to the next spread with the flying fish. That one was so much easier and really helped me nail the style for the rest of the book. When I finished the last spread, I went back to the fish playing guitars illustration and gave it another try. It came out very easily this time! My favorite spread is therefore the flying fish one, because it made me feel so relieved after my fish playing guitars struggle.
Mac and Isabelle: If it's not too personal to ask, we are curious about your dedication page. Are these dedications related in any way to the content of the book and its universal appeal?
Mac: Oh, I'm glad you asked about this! I never get asked about dedications, and they're often fertile ground for interviews, I think. This book is dedicated to my goddaughter, Momo. I've never been a godfather before, and I'm nervous about it. But I'm excited to answer any questions she has for me, as best as I can.
Isabelle: I dedicated this book to my father, who was to my eyes a real genius! When I was a kid, he had answers to all the questions my brother, my sister and I would have. He never underestimated any questioning and always took time to answer at the best of his knowledge. Politics, geography, history, sciences, arts—there wasn't a field where he would be stuck. A real human encyclopedia! Today, as a parent myself, I feel I'm not even close to answering half of my kid's questions without double checking on Wikipedia first—like the father in our book, I compensate with my imagination!
Thank you, Mac and Isabelle, for a thoughtful and interesting inside look at your process and your work on Just Because.
For more on Mac Barnett:
For more on Isabelle Arsenault:
Just Because. Text copyright © 2019 by Mac Barnett. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Isabelle Arsenault. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.