Her mem­ory and his imag­i­na­tion

TORONTO’S LAU­REL CROZA AND MATT JAMES join forces again for a se­quel to their break­out chil­dren’s book, I Know Here

Montreal Gazette - - Books - BERNIE GOEDHART For more in­for­ma­tion, visit lau­rel­croza.com, mat­t­jame­sil­lus­tra­tion.ca and mat­t­james.ca.

“I went to school for chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion at Sheridan, but I kind of got freaked out by the process of ed­u­ca­tion.” IL­LUS­TRA­TOR MATT JAMES

A fter see­ing a quirky YouTube video of Toronto artist Matt James in his stu­dio, it comes as no real sur­prise to find the stu­dio is above a bar on Queen St. What is mildly sur­pris­ing is how much smaller and more crowded the space looks in real life.

It is clearly a work­ing artist’s stu­dio. The floor is splat­tered with paint and art­work is scat­tered through­out. There are paint­ings propped up on ta­bles, perched on plate rails against the walls, hang­ing from what looks like a peg­board. Stacks of paint­ings — some of them re­jects, James says — are wedged into open shelv­ing on one wall, and all around, there are the tools of his trade: can­is­ters filled with brushes, a cream­coloured trol­ley with space for pens, inks, paints. There are rough sketches, stacks of art books, pho­tos and, on one small shelf in the cor­ner, what looks like a sil­ver bowl filled with ephemera. Bills? Notices? More sketches?

The bowl is en­graved with the name Matt James. It’s the pres­ti­gious Bos­ton Globe-Horn Book Award he re­ceived for his amaz­ing il­lus­tra­tions of I Know Here, a 2010 pic­ture book by Lau­rel Croza. “Re­mem­ber when Roger asked us what we were go­ing to keep in the bowl?” he asks Croza, who has her own tro­phy at home. “He said he’d keep Chex Mix in his, re­mem­ber? I’ll have to ask him for his recipe.” The two of them laugh, re­call­ing the whirl­wind ex­cite­ment of hav­ing won the chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture award, their trip to Bos­ton, and their fear about mak­ing ac­cep­tance speeches. They talk about Roger Sut­ton, edi­tor-in-chief of the Horn Book mag­a­zine, a highly re­spected lit­er­ary jour­nal de­voted to chil­dren’s books, in com­fort­able, fa­mil­iar terms. James and Croza them­selves, for that mat­ter, ex­ude an easy, al­most sib­ling-like fa­mil­iar­ity with each other, and they are quick to make vis­i­tors feel wel­come.

Hav­ing rus­tled up three chairs, James, 40, and Croza, 57, sit down to talk about their new book — From There to Here, a se­quel to I Know Here. (Both are pub­lished by Ground­wood Books.) It’s been al­most five years since they met — and more than 10 years since Croza first put pen to paper.

She’d en­rolled in a writ­ing class at Ry­er­son, she ex­plained, and the book stemmed from a class as­sign­ment in 2003. When she drove me back to my ho­tel af­ter the in­ter­view, she con­fided that the im­pe­tus for that class came in the wake of her bat­tle with lung cancer. “You don’t have to use it in your story,” she said, mak­ing it clear she doesn’t de­fine her­self by the dis­ease, “but I talked about it in the speech.” In 2002, af­ter surgery, a doc­tor told her: “Don’t wait five years to live your dreams.”

Croza had two things she wanted to do: visit Italy with her hus­band, Mike (which they did), and write. At Ry­er­son, “we were given an as­sign­ment — to go back to our first re­mem­bered place.” They were told to draw a map of the place and to bring it to life by telling a story about it. For Croza, that meant north­ern Saskatchewan, where she had lived as a young child while her fa­ther, a con­struc­tion en­gi­neer, worked on a dam.

They lived in a trailer and, with her brother and sis­ter, she spent a lot of time out­side, in na­ture. “I was 7 when we left there,” head­ing by train to On­tario and then to Mon­treal; she moved many more times as a child — nine times by the time she was 14 — “but that was my first re­mem­bered place.”

The words she wrote about that place “sat in the prover­bial drawer” for years, un­til — at Toronto’s Hum­ber Col­lege — she took a writ­ing course from au­thor Tim Wyn­neJones. Hav­ing read the sto­ries she sub­mit­ted, he asked if she had any­thing else to show him. She did: the much-re­vised text for what be­came I Know Here, an evoca­tive story about home and leav­ing.

On Wynne-Jones’s ad­vice, Croza mus­tered up her courage and sub­mit­ted the text to Ground­wood for con­sid­er­a­tion. Six months later, she emailed them to ask about her man­u­script — and re­sub­mit­ted it when it ap­peared to have gone miss­ing. “I’m glad I sent that email,” she grinned, turn­ing to James.

He, in turn, found var­i­ous out­lets for his cre­ativ­ity as he was grow­ing up, turn­ing es­pe­cially to mu­sic and art. (He plays gui­tar and sings in a band, the Très Bien En­sem­ble, “with guys I’ve played with since I was 15” — one of whom is bassist for crit­i­cally ac­claimed rock­ers the Weak­erthans.)

“I went to school for chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion at Sheridan (Col­lege), but I kind of got freaked out by the process of ed­u­ca­tion. This wasn’t for me,” James said. He went back to paint­ing just what he felt like paint­ing, and sell­ing his work at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. “I was that guy who sold paint­ings at out­door shows.”

And people bought them. One of them, Jackie Kaiser, be­came his lit­er­ary agent and sub­mit­ted sam­ples of his work to Ground­wood, where they put him to­gether with a text by Pamela Porter. The re- sult­ing pic­ture book, Yel­low Moon, Ap­ple Moon, ap­peared in 2008 and was short­listed for a Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award — not bad for an il­lus­tra­tor’s first kick at the can. Two years later, Ground­wood sent him Croza’s text.

“I loved Lau­rel’s words,” he said, “and I loved that the story was in line with things I like to il­lus­trate — a frog, a fox, a moose, a Cana­dian story.”

Un­like Croza, James has not moved far from home. He grew up in Wood­stock, Ont., was born in Lon­don, Ont. — “The hospi­tal was there. We used to call Lon­don the Big Wood­stock” — and now lives in Toronto with his wife, Re­becca, and their two sons: No­ble, 6, and Julius, 2. In fact, he adds: “My par­ents still live in the house I was raised in. My kids know Daddy’s room.”

As a child, James loved to go camp­ing. He has a feel for the out­doors, and could re­late to the set­ting of Croza’s story. He also cap­tured the wild­ness and spirit of the chil­dren in the book.

“Be­cause the story is based on real mem­ory, it’s sort of like pho­to­graphs in my mind,” Croza said. “The im- ages I had are real­is­tic. When I got an email from Patsy (Al­dana, pub­lisher at Ground­wood) say­ing that Matt would do the il­lus­tra­tions, my hus­band and I drove off to the Markham book­store to check out his book. I was so ex­cited.”

“Re­ally?” James said, clearly sur­prised. “You drove to the Markham book­store to check me out?”

Croza and James had never met; she had no idea how the process would evolve. “I thought I’d be edited first and then Matt would do the art.” But he was al­ready hard at work, and by the time Croza was called to the Ground­wood of­fices in 2009 for a meet­ing with sales staff, large coloured proofs of the paint­ings were spread across a ta­ble.

“I don’t re­mem­ber be­ing co­her­ent at all (at the meet­ing),” said Croza, who in­stantly rec­og­nized the lit­tle girl in her book, even though she looked un­like the pho­to­graphic im­ages in the au­thor’s mind. “I was gob­s­macked,” she said. “Patsy must have thought: ‘This woman wrote a book!?’ I couldn’t even string two words to­gether.

“It re­ally wasn’t me any­more (in that book). It was Matt and my char­ac­ter. It was our book.”

James laughed. “That was the sub­ject on the email you sent me: ‘Our book.’ ”

Croza was so en­am­oured with the paint­ings that she bought some of them. “You came over to the stu­dio with straw­ber­ries and half your fam­ily!” James said. (Croza has four chil­dren — three daugh­ters and one son, rang­ing from 22 to 30 years in age — and two grand­chil­dren.)

She nod­ded: “I came bear- ing fruit.”

He laughed again: “And cash. Fruit and cash. And you brought your grand­son.”

Croza grinned: “Keaton. Yes.”

Serendip­ity brought these two to­gether. It re­sulted in a book that was im­me­di­ately em­braced by read­ers, and hon­oured not just in Canada but south of the bor­der. In ad­di­tion to the Bos­ton GlobeHorn Book Award, it re­ceived the 2011 Ezra Jack Keats and New York Pub­lic Li­brary New Writer Award. Closer to home, it made the short list of the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award and re­ceived a slew of other honours, in­clud­ing the Mar­i­lyn Bail­lie Pic­ture Book Award. And now there’s a se­quel.

“People kept ask­ing me what hap­pens to the lit­tle girl in Toronto,” Croza said, adding that for a long time, she had no idea. “Then one day, it hit me.” The re­sult — in which the lit­tle girl de­scribes dif­fer­ences be­tween her new home and the old one, and makes a friend with whom she goes bik­ing — is a won­der­ful com­pan­ion vol­ume to the first book. “There re­ally was an Anne, but she was in Mon­treal. We had moved again by then,” Croza said of the friend. Asked if they re­mained in touch, she said no; her child­hood pal would not rec­og­nize her­self in this book.

By now, au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor were friends. “We were sit­ting in the air­port in Win­nipeg,” Croza said. “We’d been nom­i­nated for the TD (Cana­dian Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture) award and Matt had just read the man­u­script of From There to Here.” He noted two sim­i­les that seemed forced, some­thing Croza ac­knowl­edged. “I just so badly wanted a ptarmi­gan and a sol­dier in the story. I re­mem­ber chas­ing ptarmi­gans through the bush. I wrote that the trailer sat roosted like ptarmi­gans.” She winces slightly. “I took them out.” It now reads: “The trailer sat roosted right along­side the road, cur­tains open. No­body locked their doors.”

Again, James pro­duced il­lus­tra­tions that per­fectly com­ple­ment Croza’s spare text. One, in par­tic­u­lar, will touch a chord with any­one read­ing the book. It’s an im­age of the lit­tle girl as she leaves her home in Saskatchewan, head­ing east to Toronto, her fore­head pressed against the win­dow of the train. James does not do cute; there’s a prim­i­tive edgi­ness to his art and the lit­tle girl is no beauty, but her eyes ap­pear to be welling up and there’s a gen­tle poignancy to the face. Croza loves the paint­ing, but James won’t sell it. He loves it, too, and wants to keep it.

Croza made changes to the text of her sec­ond book even af­ter the man­u­script had been sub­mit­ted to Ground­wood. “For one thing, Matt was tak­ing his time do­ing his North­west Pas­sage book,” she said, feign­ing im­pa­tience about the pic­ture book based on a Stan Rogers song that earned James the Gover­nor Gen­eral’s Lit­er­ary Award for il­lus­tra­tion last year. “So I kept fid­dling.” Hence the bi­cy­cles for the lit­tle girls: “I wanted to keep them mov­ing for­ward.”

That’s James’s cue to pull out one of his re­jected paint­ings, a colourful acrylic on Ma­sonite show­ing two lit­tle girls smil­ing from ear to ear as they ride down a city street. “They’re smil­ing a bit too much,” he said. “They’re like two lit­tle stoned kids bik­ing through Toronto.”

Croza doesn’t give her main char­ac­ter a name, but says the lit­tle girl’s story is done now; there won’t be a third in­stal­ment. “I like where she is.”

Not nam­ing the main char­ac­ter is in keep­ing with the way Croza writes. As James pointed out, when we’re told that her sis­ter Kathie col­lects frogs, “it’s never the green frog. There are no de­scrip­tors. It’s all left up to the imag­i­na­tion of the reader. And that’s very free­ing for the il­lus­tra­tor.” It al­lowed him to paint his bizarre alien frog — “and I think that’s why the story works with such weird im­ages.”

Croza, who’d wor­ried about be­ing in­ter­viewed (“It’s the first time for me”) and hav­ing her pic­ture taken (“I’m very photo-pho­bic”), has her own ex­pla­na­tion for why the col­lab­o­ra­tion works. “We’re both kind of awk­ward,” she said.

Now that her sec­ond book is mak­ing its way onto book­store shelves, Croza con­fessed: “I still find it very sur­real. Don’t you?” she asked, turn­ing to James.

“Sadly, I’m kind of get­ting used to it,” he said. “I’m on my fifth book now (The Pirate’s Bed, by Ni­cola Win­stan­ley). But I cer­tainly didn’t ex­pect to have this ca­reer.”

From There to Here By Lau­rel Croza Il­lus­trated by Matt James Ground­wood Books, 28 pages, $18.95

PETER POWER/ FOR THE GAZETTE

Au­thor Laurel Croza and il­lus­tra­tor Matt James re­visit I Know Here’s well-trav­elled main char­ac­ter — based on Croza’s child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences — in From There to Here.

GROUNDWOOD BOOKS

I Know Here gar­nered a num­ber of awards for Laurel Croza and Matt James. From There to Here is the pair’s se­quel to the pic­ture book.

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