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What exactly is a Secret School?

In their new non-fiction collaboration,

Heather Camlot & Erin Taniguchi

talk about the smugglers and spies

and people who risk their lives for books.

Erin: What made you start researching Secret Schools as the subject matter for a book?

Heather: I was doing research about Guernica – the Spanish town and the artwork by Picasso -- for my previous nonfiction book, What If Soldiers Fought with Pillows? I came across a secret school in Spain teaching the Basque language. I knew there were secret schools in the Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust as well as for the enslaved in the United States during the 1700 and 1800s, and I started wondering how many others there were. The more research I did, the more I discovered -- so many in fact that in the end the Basque secret school didn’t make it into the book.

Heather: At what moment in the manuscript did you know you wanted to be a part of the project?

Erin: The subject matter of Secret Schools really intrigued me. I didn’t know very much about secret schools throughout history before reading the manuscript, so it was very interesting to me. I also think it is important information to be shared with people, and to have more historical context around education.

Heather: This is your first children’s book! Why did you want to try this medium?

Erin: I’ve always wanted to illustrate books, whether it is the cover or interior. When the opportunity came to work on Secret Schools, I jumped on it, because I had never illustrated a book before, and thought it would be a great learning experience and a lot of fun! I usually work in editorial, which are mostly single illustrations, or a single illustration and a spot illustration. With the book, it was a whole series of illustrations (I think over 30 total), so it was a welcome challenge for me to work on a bigger project.

Erin: What is your favourite spread in the final book?

Heather: Ugh, tough question! I think, at this particular moment, my favourite spread is Mother Tongue, the profile of Ecuadorian Indigenous activist Dolores Cacuango. There’s something about her fist in the air with the single hut and the mountains in the background that demands attention. It’s quite striking, Erin!

Heather: What is your favourite spread in the final book?

Erin: The story titled “The Fine Print”, about book smugglers that smuggled educational books into Lithuania. It was interesting to research reference images, and learn about the book smugglers. I wanted to illustrate the connection between the book smugglers and the children that were learning about their Lithuanian culture because of the books the smugglers brought in.

Heather: What did you learn about illustrating children’s books during this project?

Erin: I learned it is a long process, with a lot of back and forth with feedback and revisions between the art director, designer, author, and other people at the publisher. There is a lot of collaboration between many people to create a children’s book.

Erin: Where and when do you do your best work?

Heather: Honestly, when I’m walking, either alone or with my dog. Whether I’m listening to music and a lyric strikes me, or I’m checking out the scenery and curiosity calls out. I tend to get lost in thought. I usually have to pull out my phone to record bits of ideas, scenes, dialogue, etc., otherwise I’d forget them by the time I got home.

Heather: Who is your favourite children’s illustrator and/or children’s book?

Erin: I really loved the Beatrix Potter series around Peter Rabbit as a kid. The illustrations are beautiful. The stories were fun to read too, with the mischief the characters got up to.

Erin: How about you? Who wrote some of your favourite books from childhood?

Heather: I wasn’t a huge reader as a child. I had the typical books, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, and the like, though my all-time favourite remains There’s a Monster at the End of the Book by Jon Stone, because, well, Grover. As a teenager I was in the lowest English class, and in Grade 8 we got to see the movie version of every book we read, from The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend, to 1984 by George Orwell, which I’m sure inspired my love of film – and writing dialogue. High school is also when I was introduced to John Steinbeck, whom I continue to adore to this day.

Heather: What was the hardest part for you, and the most fun part of making this book?

Erin: The hardest part of the illustration process for me is the initial concepts, the first round of rough sketches. It’s a good challenge to have, deciding how to illustrate the story, or which parts of the story to pick out and illustrate. The fun part of the illustration process for me, is creating the final illustration, when I am at the carving lino part in the process. I carve my illustrations by hand in linoleum, then print them by hand, and color and finish them in Photoshop. I find carving lino very calm and meditative, as you use repeated motions when carving the lino.

Erin: What was the hardest part and most fun part for you?

Heather: The hardest part was finding out information about more modern secret schools like the one in Jakarta I mentioned earlier and Elon Musk’s Ad Astra even though it’s now closed. The spy schools by virtue of being spy schools were pretty tough too. The most fun was the research. I love, love, love doing research and falling through that rabbit hole of information where one nugget leads to another. I’d be perfectly happy researching all day long!

Heather: Which Secret School intrigued you the most?

Erin: The spy schools intrigued me the most. The story “X marks the spot”, about the Canadian spy school, Camp X, I found really interesting; the school was so secret that it was said that even the Prime Minister knew little about it. It was interesting learning about the combat skills students learned, and the telecommunications centre that was at Camp X.

Erin: Which Secret School intrigued you the most?

Heather: Okay, this question is harder than the favourite spread one! Because I really didn’t know much about secret schools when I started, each one was intriguing. If I had to pick, which is what you’re asking me, I would say, gah… the Jakarta school for the children of suicide bombers because it’s just such incredible mission, the Camp X spy school because it’s Canadian history, and the Lithuanian secret schools because of people risked their lives to smuggle books.

Let me repeat – they risked their lives for books!

Secret Schools was published by OwlKids 2022

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