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
“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
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.
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.