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ThinkCities takes a village!

Andrea Curtis, Katy Dockrill and Emma FitzGerald

talk about sharing a series and how to capture the best parts of city life on the page

The ThinkCities series of nonfiction picture books from Groundwood Books, about cities and sustainability, was inspired by the urgency for new approaches to city life as a result of climate change, population growth and increased density. The four books in the series highlight the challenges and risks cities face, but also offer hope for building resilience, sustainability and quality of life as young people act as advocates for themselves and their communities.

Author Andrea Curtis worked with three very different illustrators on these beautiful books. Here she chats with Katy Dockrill and Emma FitzGerald.

Andrea: With the ThinkCities series coming to an end, it’s a delight to bring us together to talk about working on these books. Katy, as illustrator of two of the books—City of Water and City of Neighbors—can you remember the moment when you were reading the first manuscript and knew you wanted the job?

Katy: With City of Water, when I saw that Groundwood was the publisher I knew wanted to work with them. Then I saw the title and it just conjured up all sorts of visuals (mainly how much I love swimming!). Once I got into the brief, I realized the book was advocating for how we should be protecting our water sources by adjusting our habits (which is so doable!). The whole package was irresistible, so it wasn’t just one moment, but a series of moments that cemented how much it would mean for me to work on that book. With City of Neighbors, it was twofold. I had already worked with you, Andi, and knew that you really got my vision, and that made it easy to say yes. Plus, I really love my neighbourhood and my neighbours, so it shines a light on things I care about. How about you, Emma?

Emma: For me it was before I even read the manuscript. I received an email from Nan Froman at Groundwood while biking along the Galloping Goose Trail in Victoria B.C., when I was working on Hand Drawn Victoria. I was immediately taken by the theme of the series, as environmental issues in urban spaces are close to my heart. It seemed fated when I found out about the project while in a city that really embraces active transportation.

Katy: How was it for you to work on the series with three different illustrators, Andi? Do you find it’s different in your imagination from what the illustrators created?

Andrea: I really enjoyed seeing how all three of you responded differently to the material using your own unique sensibilities and style. It’s one of the great joys of writing illustrated books—to write something and imagine it clearly and then have someone else, someone whose work you (hopefully!) love and admire, interpret it in their own way. For me, it’s a creative thrill. Seeing thumbnail roughs the first time is the best! Then the colour and detail feels like a gift. I also noticed that as we published more books in the series, there seemed to be an unstated, subtle interplay between the illustrations. I think when you look at them all together they have some really interesting resonances. We created a ThinkCities world together—a greener, cleaner, more equitable and playful world that we might aspire to!

I’m so curious: how was it for you to work on a series with other illustrators?

Katy: I kind of loved the fact that different illustrators were featured in the books. I’d even love more of a collaborative approach with different illustrators within a book! Drawing the second book after Pierre Pratt (A Forest in the City) was a little daunting because I have loved his work for a long time, and wanted to make sure that the book I illustrated would be as playful and fun and thoughtful. It’s one of those things that you look at and admire the other illustrator’s work, then you go about your own ideas and process. I used the same approach with the last book in the series. I saw what an amazing job Emma did with the street/cityscapes and cyclists, then turned my attention to sketching and thinking about how to make City of Neighbors come alive.

Andrea: I see now why there are so much resonance between the illustrations in the books! It’s such an interesting style of collaboration. Speaking of collaboration, I’ve often wondered what illustrators make of the semi-transparent wall between illustrators and authors of picture books—meaning we don’t tend to work together in an especially direct way. Do you think it’s necessary?

Emma: I do think there is some benefit to having the publisher as an in-between, as it helps the process move along smoothly. However, I am grateful to have still had the chance to get to know you, Andi, as the process progressed and we moved into promoting the book. I was also lucky you sent a large number of source documents early in my process: PDFs of images of transportation all around the world and throughout history that you gathered in your research. I printed these out and put them on the walls to help me in those initial weeks of working on the project.

Katy: It’s interesting you mention the wall between the author and illustrator, as I don’t know any different! I guess the same could be said when I illustrate an article, because I don’t work with the author there either, just the designer. Of course, I appreciate the author’s keen eye on my visuals, and for me it’s important that I get that kind of feedback, which might be missing if they weren’t part of the process. It’s also important to me that the author feels that their words are being visually represented in a way that’s true to them.

Andrea: Do you have a favourite spread in the ThinkCities book/books you illustrated?

Katy: In City of Water, I really like how the water tower spread came together. I was taking inspiration from all the water towers I saw when I visited NYC (which was so interesting because we don’t have many in Toronto). And in City of Neighbors I had a lot of fun drawing the people and settings for the spread about public bench projects and Bryant Park.

Emma: For me, it’s the spread depicting kids going up a gondola to get to their soccer game in Columbia. I was able to really draw on memories I had from traveling in Brazil and Ecuador and apply them to the text. As much as I can work from research, sometimes having a specific memory or experience can really help.

Andrea: I couldn’t pick a single spread out of all four books (I love them all!) instead, it’s the feeling of a modern, elevated Richard Scarry Busytown that you each helped create for the series that is my favourite. You make the sustainable city seem beautiful, possible and even fun!

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