Finding Our Place in the Universe
Jen Lynn Bailey & Maggie Zeng
talk about dogs & bears, the woolly arts,
and how we make connections with other living beings.
Jen: At what moment when you were reading the manuscript did you know you wanted the job?
Maggie: Immediately after I read it! I was really interested in the rhythmic rhyming scheme of the story. It left a lot of room to play with fun animal characters and natural landscapes. There was something both soothing and playful about the story that caught my attention, and I’m grateful this was the first book I got to illustrate professionally.
Jen: Ah that’s great - I worked hard on making it smooth yet fun!
What are some of your favorite animals, and which natural landscapes do you like to be in? How did those influence the illustrations?
Maggie: I’m personally a big fan of panda bears, so maybe that’s why I’ve been hearing such an outpour of love for the bear character among readers. (He happens to be my favourite too.) Otherwise, I hold a special place in my heart for my dog, who subtly influenced the design of Ben’s dog, notably the scarf he wears.
When it comes to landscapes, I tend to be someone who enjoys seeing lush greenery, and watching as light travels through trees and plants, almost glowing with life and warmth, is something I find to be beautiful. That’s something I really tried to capture in the book, and in my work in general.
Going on walks can be a big help to collect reference images, even though the bugs I meet on the way scare me :)
Can you name a nice surprise or two in what I added to the story?
Jen: I think my very favorite surprise was the sweet dog wearing the life jacket! You didn’t know it at the time, but my sons have a dog who looks very similar to the one you drew. He loves going camping and canoeing with them, too!
Jen: Another thing you added that I loved were insects like butterflies. It really extends the story and gives kids the opportunity to predict and track what Ben will be up to on the different spreads. For example, when I read to them, they notice the butterflies in the air in one spread, then Ben using the net to try to catch one in the next spread, and finally the butterfly in a jar a little later. They also notice that, toward the end of the story, the jar is empty again, and they infer that Ben has released it. Lastly, and similarly, I love the end paper design and how Ben returns the fish to the water after it lands in his boat. It is a great tie-in to environmental stewardship.
Maggie: That’s great that you mention it, because it was definitely an important point that Ben be more of an observer than someone who disrupts his environment when I was creating the illustrations.
How does your background in environmental sciences influence your work, and what message would you like to say in future works?
Jen: I am a very analytical person who loves to find connections between things. After I wrote the fictional story (which works because of a cause-and-effect connection between the characters!), I knew there was another level that could be explored in the backmatter pertaining to the ecological connection between the animals in the book and their environment. It was important for me to show this other level - my hope was that kids would also find the real connections fascinating and want to explore the natural environment with this in mind.
In terms of messages for future books, it seems that many of my stories end up exploring the connection and/or disconnection between people, nature, and other living things. It's an underlying theme, I think, rather than an overt message I'm setting out to communicate.
How about you, Maggie? Is there an underlying or overt message/theme in your work?
Maggie: Something that I really enjoy incorporating into my work is the idea of family, and finding the people that make you happy, that help you grow as a person, which is why it was such a pleasure to work on This is the Boat that Ben Built, because, like you mentioned, the idea of what connects each living thing to another is a prominent motif in this story. It’s also why themes of home, and finding our place in the universe really speak to me, and I would love to explore it more in future projects. Although I haven’t yet published any of my own stories, I would definitely like to write some of my own one day.
How about you, Jen? Are you tempted to pick up a pencil and start drawing? Outside of writing, are there other artistic mediums that you work with?
Jen: Sometimes I really wish I could be an author-illustrator, Maggie! I am pretty decent at drawing things I see around me, but bringing characters and worlds into illustration form is not one of my skill sets. I’m happy to collaborate for best results! :) Aside from this, yes, I feel like I am always creating something. I am a very avid knitter, for example, and although I’ve been out of the studio for awhile I enjoy pottery as well. I tried my hand at needle felting animals and loved doing that - they seemed to take on a life and personality of their own as I was making them. That was a surprise, and was such fun for me! Is that what it’s like for you as you start drawing your characters? I wonder, do they ever seem to want to do something different than what is written in the story you’re working on? How do you navigate that?
Maggie: It’s great to hear that you enjoy knitting and felting! Personally I’m very fond of crocheting. And I think in a similar way, I love seeing one of my creations come to life, to have something tangible that you can leave behind and claim as something you made. I think for characters too, it’s like leaving a part of yourself in them.
I think overall, when it comes to creating characters for books, I try my best to stay true to the manuscript, though sometimes I have a vision of a character that might be different from what the author or editor have imagined. I think that the best course of action is to discuss the matter and find a happy medium. In general, what I’m looking to do is see how a character will fit within the world of the story, and how to best capture that in terms of their design, expressions and personality.
How do you come up with your characters?
Jen: For character-driven stories I usually begin with a story premise or a concept, actually. My characters start out quite flat, but through revision I uncover layers of meaning in the story and I begin to ask myself questions: what do the characters care about, what do they want right now, and what’s at stake if they don’t get it? These do tend to somehow tie back to my own desires or experiences, past and present, or those I’ve seen people close to me work through. I like exploring the relationship between characters, too - for example, how one character’s strengths or weaknesses might help or hinder another character in the story. This is the Boat that Ben Built was more of an exercise in story structure than character, though I did enjoy playfully highlighting animal traits throughout the text. For example, I’ve always thought that moose look off-balance with their heavy upper bodies and thin legs! “Wobbly and slim” came from that observation. Herons stand still for so long, and they walk quite slowly and deliberately, so “proper and prim” came to mind as I was writing about them. While I did ask myself what Ben wanted (a quiet trip down the river!), he really was an observer in my text, and much of his character development was left to you. It seems to me that we both hoped kids would see themselves as explorers alongside Ben in the story. Keeping Ben somewhat less defined was an important choice to provide them a doorway in!
This is the Boat that Ben Built
published by Pajama Press
@maggie.draws.stuff on Instagram