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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/ Jordan Scott and Syndey Smith Plus Review of My Baba's Garden

Congratulations! The winner of Forest Bath Right Down This Path is:


Mark Ceilley


And now, I have the honor and privilege to interview the phenomenal duo responsible for the creation of I Talk Like A River - Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith.


Jordan Scott is a poet and children’s author.

Jordan Scott's photo

He is also the author of four books of poetry and the recipient of the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, given to a mid-career poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian poetry.

Book cover - boy standing in a river

Jordan’s the author of I Talk Like A River, illustrated by Sydney Smith (2020), a New York Times best-seller. It has won numerous international awards and was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Prize for Young People’s Literature.


Sydney Smith is a children’s book illustrator. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia with his wife and two sons.

Sydney Smith's photo

Sydney’s the author/illustrator of Small in the City (2019) and

Composite image of Sydney Scott's books

the illustrator of I Talk Like a River written by Jordan Scott (2020), Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson (2015); The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart (2016); and Town Is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz (2017), which was awarded the 2018 Kate Greenaway Medal and the 2018 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.


Their newest picture book, My Baba’s Garden, released on March 7th.


Welcome Jordan and Sydney, thank you so much for coming by to talk about yourselves and your newest picture book.


Thanks so much and lovely to meet you.


Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)


JORDAN – I have a full schedule with teaching and parenting so I tend to write during semester breaks: April, August, and December. This has been my creative pattern for the last fourteen years. Outside of these months, I’d say that I’m incubating ideas while hiking, canoeing, walking, cold-dipping, long drives, making breakfast … the whole gambit. Before my life as a children’s author (which I hold very dear and can’t believe that it’s all really happening), I also wrote poetry this way too.


My favorite type of book to write is I guess what you could call poetic-memoir or poetic-biography. I love isolating moments of time, distilling memories, and I take so much joy in working through the ecosystem of childhood that still feels so alive within me.


SYDNEY – I write and illustrate whenever I can but since both of my kids are in school, I can get a solid black of time in the morning. I work in my studio which isn’t far from home where I can be surrounded by books and paints and empty coffee cups.


Sounds like busy, but happy, moments of creativity. What do you each like to do outside?


JORDAN - Ha! Everything! I’m lucky that I live in a place where I can spend most of my time outside. I’ve worked hard, spun webs, and finagled my way into living in a very beautiful part of Vancouver Island where my life is mostly lived outside. I try to swim in the ocean every day and sometimes find myself in one of the glacial lakes near my home. I love the cold water very much. I hike a lot with my sons and backcountry camp starting in the spring through the fall. The best part of my life are the adventures that we dream up together. I also mountain bike (somewhat poorly) with my friend Jeff and have created a hybrid indoor / outdoor gym in my yard. A couple years ago my friend helped build me a woodfire cedar shingle sauna in the backyard. It’s all very delicious. There’s more but I’m rambling now. Anyway, visit Vancouver Island if you can. It’s a magical place.


SYDNEY – I have always enjoyed cycling around my city, especially when I lived in Toronto. Yesterday, my kids and I went for a walk through the woods and found some sleeping giants and ogres living under little stone bridges. But we were ok in the end. The forest or the ocean is an instant recharge for me. It takes a lot for me NOT to jump into the ocean, even in the winter.


It definitely is a magical place. Sounds like you both have a lot in common. Can you share the name of an author, illustrator, and/or a book that made an impact on you as a child?

Book Cover - Alligator, 2 kids, and an explorer in a hotair balloon

JORDAN - Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie altered my life by changing the way I think about language. In this book, language is a site of play, absurdity, sound, and joyous nonsense.

Edward Gorey book cover

SYDNEY – Edward Gorey was the illustrator I kept returning to as a child. I know it may sound trendy as an illustrator but he genuinely intrigued me with his deadpan faces, gothic or Victorian themes and his darkness. He is among many bookmakers where you can sense that he is thinking very little of who his audience is. He is singular.


It is always interesting to discover "new to me" books. Thank you, both. Jordan, what was the inspiration or spark of curiosity for My Baba’s Garden?

Book cover image - Baba and boy walking in grass.

JORDAN – I’ve always wanted to write about the relationship I had with my Baba. There was such so much magic and curiosity in those moments we shared. Those times that I spent with her are constantly rolling through my mind like a technicolor jigsaw puzzle that’s come undone. There’s so much more I can say about our relationship, but I really wanted to talk about how we communicated without language and how she taught me so much about food, worms, and the traumas and joys of being alive.


You created such a wonderful, loving tribute to her. Sydney, what was it about the My Baba’s Garden manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?

Book's Cover page - Boy and Dad getting into a car before dawn.

SYDNEY – The manuscript charmed me from the start but I was mostly excited to work with Jordan and Neal again. We had such a good experience with I Talk like a River, I didn’t want the party to end. My Baba's Garden was different and rightly so. It wouldn’t have been sustainable to continue making books with such high intensity and emotion although I believe Baba has quite a bit of emotion. It’s just quieter.


I love that you got to work together again. Sydney, what is your favorite medium? What do you find most challenging about illustrating picture books?


SYDNEY – I have used ink and watercolour in the past and I have felt comfortable using them consistently but since I Talk Like a River, I have been mixing media and anything I can to explore and play more with all of the paints and inks around me. I have reached a point in my practice where I plan a little less to make way for happy accidents and give the paintings a chance to breath and develop on their own.


If you plan on painting a picture of a dog and you paint a picture of a dog then you have a painting of a dog. But if you leave yourself open for anything, something could happen that is far better than anticipated. It requires letting go of the reins and being present and focused on the act of painting. That can be the most challenging part of illustrating picture books.


Ooh, I love that image of your creative process. It's definitely working, though I imagine could be a bit scary too. Jordan, how long did it take from the idea for My Baba’s Garden to its publication?


JORDAN – Probably a couple of years. I wrote several versions of this book over a year until I felt I had it right. The manuscript then went through a lot of formative and important changes when Neal and Sydney got involved.


Sydney, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in My Baba’s Garden? Could you share one or more with us?


SYDNEY - I definitely love to incorporate details that add context or subtext to the established narrative and I’m sure everything I do has its own signature but I would hope it ultimately serves the original material. I grew up with friends who built their own houses in the middle of the woods and lived modestly. Their homes were magical and mysterious. The image of Baba in her kitchen reminds me of those memories.


That is such an intriguing image. Jordan, when you first saw Sydney’s illustrations did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

Book cover - on left portrait of boy, on right portait of Baba

Text © Jordan Scott, 2023. Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


JORDAN – Sydney would text me ‘draft’ images at random times throughout the day / week. Let’s just say that for each text I knew exactly where I was. I mean, how could you not!? Sydney is just an absolute master of the form because (in my humble opinion) every image is vulnerable and porous. His paintings reflect and deepen our emotions. They are meant to read in the truest sense and I’m constantly blown away when I witness what he dreams up. I have too many ‘favorite’ images in the book, but I carry the kitchen scene in my heart. I also think the back cover (when you remove the jacket) is stunning. This portrait of my baba is everything.


That is a stunning book cover. Sydney, is there a spread of which you are especially proud? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread of Baba in kitchen.

Text © Jordan Scott, 2023. Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


SYDNEY- I think the spread in which Baba is first introduced. The one I mentioned earlier. Baba is standing in her kitchen and the sun is illuminating through the steam of a pot on the stove and the whole scene captures the feeling as best I could. Sometimes I abandon illustrations too early and this was one that was almost rejected. A friend called me on the phone and I was distracted enough that I continued to fill in the painting without forcing anything.


I think it turned out amazing! It touched Jordan as well as myself. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


JORDAN – I am putting the final touches on another book with Neal Porter Books / Holiday House Books titled Angela’s Glacier which is illustrated by the extremely talented Diana Sudyka.


SYDNEY – I always have faith that Jordan, Neal and I will continue making books together, and I will always be here for that. In the meantime, I wrote and illustrated a book coming out this autumn called Do you Remember? It is a very personal story about a boy and his mother on the first day of a new life.


These sound intriguing. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

10 Adventures image of Strathcona Provincial Park

JORDAN – Strathcona Provincial Park and Pacific Rim National Park. I really want to visit The Great Bear Rainforest and Yellowstone National Park.


Government of Canada photo of Kejimkujik National Park

SYDNEY – I grew up near Kejimkujik National Park in Nova Scotia. It has so much; canoeing and camping, hiking and swimming, it has always been a magical and mystical place. It is a special place for me and my family.


Thank you, Jordan and Sydney for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with both of you.

To find out more about Jordan Scott, or contact him:

To find out more about Sydney Smith, or contact him:


Review of My Baba's Garden


Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith have teamed up once again to create a stunning, touching picture book about a special loving relationship between a boy and his grandmother.

Book cover image - Bab and boy walking in grass.

My Baba's Garden


Author: Jordan Scott


Illustrator: Sydney Smith


Publisher: Neal Porter Books/ Holiday House (2023)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Intergenerational connection, communication, and family.


Synopsis:

The bond between a child and his grandmother grows as they tend her garden together.


A young boy spends his mornings with his beloved Baba, his grandmother. She doesn't speak much English, but they connect through gestures, gardening, eating, and walking to school together. Marked by memories of wartime scarcity, Baba cherishes food, and the boy learns to do the same. Eventually, Baba needs to move in with the boy and his parents, and he has the chance to care for her as she’s always cared for him.


Inspired by memories from poet Jordan Scott’s childhood, with beautiful, dreamlike illustrations by award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith, My Baba’s Garden is a deeply personal story that evokes universal emotions. Like Scott and Smith’s previous collaboration I Talk Like a River, winner of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, My Baba’s Garden lends wistful appreciation to cherished time with family.


Opening Lines:

My Baba lives in a chicken coop besides a highway,

behind a sulfur mill

shaped like an Egyptian pyramid,

bright yellow like a sun that never goes to sleep.


My dad drives me there every morning.

It’s still dark as we drive along the sea. I watch the

sun come up. The mountains look like whale bellies.


What I LOVED about this book:

It is so cool that the opening page and introduction to Baba is through the boy's own drawing. On the previous dedication page, a line of cars navigate an early dawn road next to a bay. Then we see Baba through the boy's eyes and art. Which we learn he is holding, sitting in the back seat of one of those cars, as he father drives to Baba's house.

Internal spread - picture of Baba and boy holding hands, standing between her house and the sulfur mountain. With a row of cars beneath their feet.

Text © Jordan Scott, 2023. Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


Our first glimpse of Baba and the inside of her house is simply magical.

Internal spread of Baba in kitchen.

Text © Jordan Scott, 2023. Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


My Baba hums like

a night full of bugs

when she cooks.


The interplay of the sunlight, strategic spots of red (curtains, stove element, her slippers, a checker towel) and bright colors of jars of food draw the eye around the lovingly detailed and cozy kitchen. And Jordan Scott's gentle loving description of Baba leaves us with a charming and poignant simile. And a smile.


Interspersed with beautiful illustrations of Baba's house - "crammed with food" and full of mementos - we learn of their almost wordless interactions, breakfast routine (including a tradition of kissing and replacing spilled food), and her earlier experiences with food scarcity. And we witness a special loving relationship.


If it rains during their morning walk to school, Baba slows to rescue "wet worms with no earth beneath them," putting them in a jar with dirt ("she keeps in her pocket") and later the two of them tenderly fill the garden with the worms. In this way, Baba passes on a love of food, gardening, and nature to her grandson. The mosaic collage of wiggly worms is mesmerizing. Maybe because I remember as a child, and with my own children, saving worms on rainy days from sidewalks and driveways.

Internal spread - mosiac collage of worms on left. Baba picking up worms in the rain on the right.

Text © Jordan Scott, 2023. Image © Sydney Smith, 2023.


A poignant image of changes reflected as dark shapes in a window, signals Baba coming to live with them and her "chicken coop home" becoming a high-rise. Now, the boy brings Baba breakfast and we glimpse a corner of his earlier drawing hanging on her wall. Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith do a fantastic job of bringing the story around in a full circle with stunning wordless images and sparce poetic text full of understanding and love.


In the author preface, Jordan Scott describes his own relationship with his Polish Baba, on whom he based this story. It is a wonderful tribute to his grandmother and all such special relationships. One that will hopefully encourage everyone to cherish their entire family.


Resources:

- draw a picture of you and a grandparent or other family relative. Can you include their house and how you visit them?


- do you have a special activity - walking, reading, cooking, or maybe gardening - that you do with a grandparent or other family member? What do you like most about this time?


- what plant would you choose to grow in your own little garden or in a pot? Tomato, strawberry, lettuce, herb...


- pair this with Drawn Together by Minh Lê, illustrated by Dan Santat and Grandpa Grumps by Katrina Moore, illustrated by Xindi Yan - for two other books on making connections with grandparents across language barriers.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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