On This Airplane: A Cover Reveal and Interview with Lourdes Heuer
This past weekend I had the distinct delight in getting to travel somewhere for a bit of writing getaway. Now I’ve come back home, and it seems rather appropriate that today’s interview and cover reveal should involve the very notion of travel itself. But going from, say, one country to another is an act fraught with implications. Not merely the act of travel, but who gets to travel and for what reasons.
That’s a heady bit of thinking to accompany today’s picture book, ON THIS AIRPLANE by Lourdes Heuer, illustrated by Sara Palacios. Even so, as you’ll soon see, all this and more has weighed heavily on its author’s mind.
The book itself concerns a small group of people on a single plane as they travel. Or, as the publisher puts it:
“A story about coming to a new home and the diverse people you meet on an airplane. For fans of Last Stop on Market Street.
On this airplane . . .
Someone travels solo,
two travel as one,
and four set out.
In this simple and moving book, a young family takes a plane to their new home. While onboard, they encounter all the people you meet on a plane: a bookworm, a businessperson, tourists, crying babies and daydreamers . . . all with their own stories and all heading somewhere special.”
Lourdes Heuer was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine as well:
Betsy Bird: Lourdes, thank you so much for joining me on my blog! ON THIS AIRPLANE is just a joy to read. I noticed that you dedicated the book “For Craig and Wesley who are my home; and for my parents, exiled from theirs.” Can you tell us where this book came from, and whether or not it has any connection at all to this book dedication?
Lourdes Heuer: Betsy, thank you for taking the time to chat with me about ON THIS AIRPLANE, and for your generous reading of it!
My parents fled Cuba with two of my siblings in the late 1960s. My dad is a great storyteller. The story of their flight off the island is one I’ve heard often. If I really think about it, I guess it’s the seminal story of our family life, really. It’s what changed our trajectory. It was me on a different flight from Spain to the United States many years later to bring their plan of family reunification full circle—but I’ve had the opportunity to fly back to Spain. I’ve taken my son there to visit. But my parents have never been back to Cuba. I know the reality is that my father, who is in his late 80s now, will never go back, that he will never see home again. That’s such a tragedy, you know? Yes, there’s no doubt I had my parents in mind as I was writing.
But, ON THIS AIRPLANE is a fictional story—and a much more hopeful one!
BB: There are a fair number of airplane picture books that walk kids through the process of flying, from check-ins and x-ray machines to baggage claims. Your book has a distinctly different take. It’s almost as if you’re able to grow to know a small, impermanent flying community. We never see our main family before their flight except, tellingly, on the cover of the book itself. Why refocus a flight book so specifically on both the journey and the people?
LH: It’s mostly that the manuscript started out for me almost as an incantation. The opening phrase came to me: “On this airplane there is…” along with a series of ways to complete that phrase, and the knowledge that I wanted to repeat that phrase, and so the part of me that loves to play with syntax and language, from the start, for better or worse, sets up that limitation.
And then it became a puzzle to work out. In a picture book, as you know Betsy, that’s a challenge because now you know that the setting is not going to change, and you’re going to have to figure out how to still make things dynamic. I was going to need the people to help me do that, and what ended up happening is that the repetition and language inversions were a way for me to build community and create bonds between the passengers.
And then there is just the fact that it’s a story I’ve lived, of being a kid and having this moment in your life where you are suspended in the air for maybe just a few hours, surrounded by a group of strangers, but your life is going to be completely different after. Those people, that journey: it’s a version of an immigrant story that I really wanted to share.
BB: We’ve had two years here of little to no travel, thanks to the pandemic. For many children, they may have never flown or can’t remember a time when they used to. This book offers them a glimpse into a place that may be new to them. A place where strangers travel over vast distances together. What do you hope kids take away from this title?
LH: Yeah, that’s a conversation I had early on with my lovely editor at Tundra, Samantha Swenson. I remember telling her, pun intended, that my hope was that the book could operate on multiple planes:
One is telling that immigrant story I was just talking about.
Two would be that if you’ve ever enjoyed (or endured) an airplane ride, you would read ON THIS AIRPLANE and have these moments of recognition.
Another is that if you are a kid on an airplane, and you happen to carry this book on board with you, you could read it almost as a “seek & find” and keep yourself busy with it.
But also, that if you are a kid who has never had the experience of flying on an airplane, perhaps because of COVID, or perhaps because let’s face it, that’s an expensive proposition and a privilege for a lot of people, then maybe our book lets you live out that experience, a little.
BB: I just wanted to note that I love the idea of using this as a seek & find book. Now Sara Palacios has done some lovely work on this story. I love, in particular, that final image of the family outside their new home, exuding all the uncertainty and quiet hope appropriate to the moment. Was Sara someone whose work you were familiar with before? What are your thoughts about her book?
LH: I was absolutely familiar with Sara’s work—and absolutely in love with it, going all the way back to her Marisol McDonald books with Dr. Monica Brown. I love her collaborations with Margarita Engle. I’m especially fond of her book with Mitali Perkins, Between Us and Abuela. And of course, I’m excited for our own book together, but not just ours: I’m also looking forward to the other wonderful books she’s coming out with this year, like I’ll Go and Come Back, written by Rajani LaRocca, and Lola Out Loud, by Jennifer Torres.
BB: There’s such a sense of common humanity to this story. The people on this plane act the way real people do. They lower their seats way back and sleep on strangers without permission, and invade personal space. But there are also little moments when they can connect to one another on more human levels. Plus, the same guy that squishes the woman behind him with his seat is also the one that hands her gum when her stomach feels sick. How much of these little interactions were yours and which ones were invented by Sara? Was there anything she put in the art that surprised you?
LH: So many lovely things surprised me, and that was the gift of collaborating with Sara and, really, with the whole team at Tundra. The jacket, for instance. That moment that, as you said, tellingly shows you the family at the airport and you get a sneak peek at some of the other passengers, I can’t take the credit for it (or for the casewrap, which I love so much!).
I might have been the one to come up with the passenger who travels for “important work,” but it’s Sara who builds in this spot-on moment where her presentation notes fly all over the place. And that little interaction you mention with one person handing another a piece of gum? The manuscript read something along the lines of “here is a helping hand,” and it’s Sara who turns that into a moment of redemption for that passenger who earlier in the flight had reclined his seat too far back.
BB: Oh yeah. Cause I was 100% ready to hate that guy.
Finally, what are you working on next? Can you say?
LH: Yes! Thanks so much for letting me share!! I have another book coming out with Tundra later this year, illustrated by Marissa Valdez, titled ESME’S BIRTHDAY CONGA LINE. It’s the first in the Esme! chapter book series, but I just wrapped up edits on the second book, which will come out next year.
I have four bilingual board books in the works with Candlewick that make up the TEENY TIENDAS series, which will be illustrated by Zara González Hoang.
I am in the early stages of the Spanish-to-English translation of an award-winning middle grade novel for Bloomsbury.
And I’m about 10 pages into a middle grade novel of my own, set in a wax museum. I hope I can see it through and finish it!
BB: Ye gods! So nothing on your plate then? I kid! Thank you again for joining us here today.
Thanks too to Samantha Devotta and the folks at Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers for connecting me to Lourdes. And now… the cover!!
Look for ON THIS AIRPLANE to his shelves here in the States October 4th.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network