Abecedarian Movement and Dance: A Q&A with Corinna Luyken About ABC and You and Me!
Do bloggers have interview bucket lists? I kinda do. Not one that I’ve ever written it down but on occasion someone will offer me the chance to ask an author or illustrator of children’s books some questions and I’ll think, “AHA! I knew I was missing someone!” That’s how I felt when I was given the chance to speak with Corinna Luyken anyway.
But interview subjects are one thing. Whatever book it is that they’re promoting, that’s gotta be pretty special as well. As it happens, I’ve a sweet spot in my heart for a good alphabet book. Plenty of them come out every year, but which ones are of the highest quality? Which ones do stuff you haven’t seen before? Which ones are the most interesting?
ABC AND YOU AND ME is a book designed to be a little different than the pack. Just to give you a sense of it, here’s the description:
“Can you wiggle your wrists? Can you twist from your hips? Can you lean without bending your knees? Well then, follow me!
In this original ABC book that encourages readers to sit up and move, kids and grownups use their bodies to make the shapes of each letter (and observant readers will notice details on each page that represent those letters). Gloriously illustrated by the acclaimed creator of The Book of Mistakes and My Heart, this is a terrific new way to learn the alphabet.”
I cannot even begin to imagine where one gets an idea for a book of this sort. Fortunately, I don’t have to imagine it. I can ask the woman herself in person:
Betsy Bird: Corinna! Thank you so much for joining me on the blog today! And what an interesting book you’ve created. Now I should say from the start that there certainly have been alphabet books where each letter is a person’s body, but you’re doing something different with ABC AND YOU AND ME. Seems to me you’ve worked in elements of a larger conversation about mindfulness and movement. Where did this book originally come from?
Corinna Luyken: Betsy, thank you for having me on the blog today! It’s an honor.
The very first version of this book (called BIG A, little z) was something I sent out to a handful of editors in 2008, nine years before my first picture book was published. The idea came from my love of drawing people and my training in dance improvisation. Later, as I became a parent and watched my own child learn the ABC’s, the look of the book started to shift. But the earliest versions (all the way up until 2021) didn’t have any of the movement/dancing pages. Over the years, it’s been a slow process of shaping the original idea (an adult and child making the big and little versions of a letter) into something that felt like it could be a book. But from the earliest beginnings, it has always been about movement— about kids and adults moving together.
BB: Having just lived through a pandemic where a whole generation of kids had to sit still in front of screens and learn, this feels like an almost natural response. Was that part of the impetus? And how do you see people using your book?
CL: I always imagined that the book would invite movement. But the pandemic is definitely one of the reasons why I returned to the project when I did. The timing felt right.
In classrooms we tell kids to sit still, to show us that they are paying attention. But many people (not only kids) learn better when they are allowed to move. These days, things like wobble stools and standing desks are more likely to be found in both classrooms and offices (I’ve got both in my studio). But the pandemic added another layer to all of this. It showed us firsthand the effects of spending too much time sitting in front of a screen.
My hope is that the book will make people want to put the book down, to get up, and move. To stretch or bend or wiggle.
I had an art show recently, in conjunction with the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, that featured a few of the letter people on the gallery wall. There was a cozy rug on the floor, and it was wonderful to see people of all ages (even teens!) lining up in front of the projection, trying to make the shapes.
BB: When I initially saw ABC AND YOU AND ME I had to flip a couple times between your name and your website, just to make sure I was thinking of the right person. You’ve performed a rather radical change on your artistic style, though it still bears many Luykenian hallmarks. What made you decide to go with such a clean-lined take?
CL: Since the first draft of ABC almost 15 years ago, this book has gone through soo many style variations. The first few versions were watercolor and ink, a bit like the art in THE BOOK OF MISTAKES. But the patterned clothing and rainbow of colors made some of the letter shapes difficult to see. After that, I experimented with printing the clothing in solid blocks of color, using a cut-paper printmaking technique that I used in MY HEART. From there I eventually I traded out the color for solid blocks of dark grey. All of these changes were about simplifying the body-shapes so that the letter-shapes would be easier to see from a distance.
But it was tricky, because I didn’t want to lose the fine details in the early drawings that would invite the reader to spend time studying the people (folds of fabric, swooping gestures of arm or leg) up close. So, it was a balancing act.
Ultimately, although (or perhaps because) this project has a different look than I originally planned, it feels like the right choice for the book. The more books I make, the more I realize that bookmaking is like this— you might start with an idea in your head, but it is in the making, the physical moving of your body though space and time, that the project takes shape.
BB: One of the reasons I gravitated immediately to the book was the range of body types and abilities you’ve worked in. This isn’t a book that fat shames or has an ableist or ageist take on bodies moving. I think for some people there’s a lot of shame associated with moving in the ways shown in this book. Is that something you consciously wanted to tackle?
CL: Absolutely. Before taking a dance improvisation class my freshman year of college, I had zero experience dancing. I had trained in aikido and done some gymnastics and yoga, but never dance. And it was really something that I didn’t think was for me. I wasn’t graceful. I could barely keep up with the simplest of choreography. In fact, I had an instructor call me “the ugly duckling” at one point during my senior year. And it was true— I was awkward. I was self-conscious. And I was always the least skilled dancer in the class. And yet, I found that I absolutely loved dance improvisation. I loved the space that it created for exploring movement, mindfully. And so, for four years, I kept taking dance classes— not because I was great at it, but because I loved what dance improvisation was teaching me about being an artist as well as a human being in a body, in the world.
So, all of that— the love as well as the awkwardness and self-consciousness, is in this book.
BB: I noticed that you dedicate the book to “little q and big M.” Are there any real people in this book or are they all conjured fantasies of your own brain?
CL: Big M is my husband, MacLeod, and little q is my daughter. Quinn was born in 2009 and has quite literally grown up with this book. She is also the kid on the copyright page— reading a book while doing a handstand (she actually reads this way, often with her toes touching her head).
There is also a drawing of a dad holding a baby that is loosely inspired by my agent, Steven Malk. But those are the only real people in the book. Early on, I thought I might sneak in a few other faces of friends’ kids. But I have too many friends with names that start with the same letter (S! A! Z!) and it became clear that overly controlling the characters was weighing the project down. So almost all the people are creations of imagination, pencil, and paper.
BB: With each letter you make sure there’s some animal or object interacting with the people that starts with that letter. I was actually reminded of Animalia with some of your choices. And, helpfully, you have a little Key at the back of the book to explain the official name of each thing placed with each letter. Did you have a difficult time deciding what to include? Did anyone help you with suggestions?
CL: Most of the choices were easy, and I was able to choose from things that I love to draw. Like iguanas! (I had a pet iguana as a kid.) The lily and the laurel leaves are tributes to my art director (Lily Malcom) and editor (Lauri Hornik.) But the item that gave us the most trouble was the little i. The dot over the “i” made it super tricky. I had a zoom brainstorming session at one point with Lauri and Lily, but every idea seemed to have a reason why it wouldn’t work. Eventually we circled back around to a very early sketch with ice cubes that felt like the best solution.
BB: Finally, what’s next for you after this? What else do you have coming up?
CL: This fall I have another book coming out with Kate Hoefler, IN THE DARK (Knopf). It is possibly (or possibly not) a story about witches. But it is definitely a story about perception and misperception, darkness and light, art and beauty, and connection. The book opens vertically and the whole story is told in shades of purple, green, orange, and black. I used SO much black ink making the book— it was incredibly fun.
And I’m currently working on my next author/illustrator project, called THE ARGUERS (fall 2024 Rocky Pond Books). It’s about a group of people that are very good at… arguing. They argue with doorknobs, with stones, with flowers—and with each other. This is another project that has been many years in the making. And I’m excited to finally be finishing it up. It turns out that drawing people arguing is a joy!
Dang, this is a fun book! And I can’t thank Corinna Luyken enough for taking the time to talk with me today. Thanks too to Tessa Meischeid and the folks at Penguin Young Readers Group for the suggestion. THE ABC OF YOU AND ME is out June 6th from Rocky Pond Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Filed under: Interviews
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.
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