Shared Rituals and Easter Sugar Lambs: A Dual Interview About My Baba’s Garden Dual with Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
Recently I was speaking to a group of students at the Butler Children’s Literature Center at Dominican University about the upcoming Bologna Children’s Books Fair. We’ll all be traveling there and I was giving them some advice upon arrival.
“Oh! And do not miss the panel of judges discussing how they came to decide on this year’s winners of the Illustrators Exhibition. Sydney Smith from Canada is one of them!”
At this point the entire conversation turned into a recounting of Mr. Smith’s life and works, including the brand-spanking new My Baba’s Garden, out this year. It didn’t even occur to me to tell the students that I had the great and grand pleasure of hosting Mr. Smith as well as his collaborator Jordan Scott about their latest book together on this site today.
Some of you may have admired the previous Scott/Smith collaboration I Talk Like a River. It was only one of the best possible books of 2020, garnering a New York Times Best Illustrated honor as well as a Schneider Family Book Award and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Because its creators are inconveniently Canadian, they did not win any Caldecotts, but rest assured that they would have if that pesky rule about American citizenship weren’t part of the process.
This year, they return with a companion piece, in a sense, to their previous title. My Baba’s Garden follows the almost wordless relationship between a boy and his grandmother. The publisher describes it in this way:
“Inspired by memories of his childhood, Jordan Scott’s My Baba’s Garden explores the sights, sounds, and smells experienced by a child spending time with their beloved grandmother (Baba), with special attention to the time they spent helping her tend her garden, searching for worms to keep it healthy. He visits her every day and finds her hidden in the steam of boiling potatoes, a hand holding a beet, a leg opening a cupboard, an elbow closing the fridge, humming like a night full of bugs when she cooks.
Poet Jordan Scott and illustrator Sydney Smith’s previous collaboration, I Talk Like a River, which received a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award expored a cherished memory shared between a father and son. In their new book, they turn that same wistful appreciation to the bond between a boy and his grandmother. Sydney Smith’s illustrations capture the sensational impressions of a child’s memory with iconic effect.”
Today, we talk with these two creators about their work:
Betsy Bird: Thank you both, so much, for taking the time to talk with me today. Jordan, let’s begin with you since this is your story. The reception to I TALK LIKE A RIVER, your previous collaboration with Sydney, was incredible and much deserved. Now you’ve returned to us with MY BABA’S GARDEN. Was this a book that you’d intended to write for some time or did the idea to write it come to you later?
Jordan Scott: I had the idea for MY BABA’S GARDEN before I TALK LIKE A RIVER. I was always fascinated by the time that I spent with my Baba and the ritual we developed around worms. When I lived in Vancouver, I would pick up worms from the sidewalks on rainy days and was often approached by people who had similar obsessions. I knew that there was an idea for a book in those moments because I realized it was a shared ritual.
BB: I love that phrase, “shared ritual.” But let’s include Sydney in this conversation as well. Sydney, considering the fact that you worked with Jordan before on I TALK LIKE A RIVER, how did you come to be attached to MY BABA’S GARDEN?
Sydney Smith: It was the past success that reassured me we should continue with this collaboration. I have been around the block enough to know that when you find good people who bring out the best in you, you hold on to them. My Baba’s Garden was another interesting challenge for me, not having a strong relationship with a grandparent, but I could tell right away it was more than a “me and my grandma” story. It was about two people sharing respect and caring for each other regardless of age.
BB: And certainly we’re seeing all kinds of stories about grandparents and grandchildren in 2023 already (like THE RED TIN BOX, JUST LIKE GRANDMA, MAMA SHAMSI, QUIET TIME WITH MY SEEYA, etc). Jordan, much like I TALK LIKE A RIVER, the story behind MY BABA’S GARDEN dips into a specific period in your own life. Do you see the book as a companion to your previous title that speaks in conversation with it, or a title that stands entirely on its own?
JS: That’s a great question. In some ways I can see how there’s a continuum of communication and silence. Time spent with my Baba was like those days by the river with my dad as they both were a balm for my stutter. In both moments I was allowed to be quiet, and I learned so much about myself and others in those silences. There was a language barrier between my Baba and I so much of the time we spent together was learning through gesture and touch. As someone who didn’t like to speak, I reveled in these moments. I felt safe and loved.
BB: That comes through in the writing. That sense of safety and security, which is so appealing on the picture book page. Sydney, let’s look at that connection a little more. Both of Jordan’s books have an autobiographical foundation. With I TALK LIKE A RIVER I didn’t think as much about how the characters were rendered, since you kept everyone at a kind of distance. Here, however, there’s this incredible image of Baba’s face in the light of a rainy day. And it got me to thinking, for the first time, about the real people behind the book and whether or not Jordan shared photographs with you of his life and relatives or not. Were there any points of reference here or did it come entirely out of your own brain?
SS: There were no photo references to work from except for maybe some descriptions and maps of the area. Neal Porter had an amazing photo of his grandmother that was very close to what I imagined. I spoke to many Polish friends regarding their relationships with their grandmothers and it was so amazing to hear some of the details they shared like the religious paintings they had on the wall, the type of teacups they drank from, or the little Easter sugar lamb that would sit on a shelf in their kitchen. The characters in the book were rendered loosely and without much detail or characterization, except for that image you speak of. I painted it and thought about leaving it out because it looked too worked and detailed, but it makes sense in the moment that you see Baba as a real person, not a vague character. So in it stays.
BB: So glad it does. And I must admit, I didn’t expect your editor Neal Porter’s grandmother to make a cameo in our discussion, but I’m glad she did. Jordan, when you think about it, the book looks at just a snippet from your own life. Did you know right from the start how much of this story to tell, or even what form you wanted it to take? Were there elements you cut out that you initially wanted to include, either at your own advice or your editor’s?
JS: This book was most definitely a collaboration with Neal Porter and Sydney Smith. The story itself went through many drafts and they both were instrumental in shaping the narrative. Sydney suggested the wordless sequence (which previously was text) and I think it does wonders for the book. Neal had many wonderful suggestions around characterization and significantly changed the editing for which I am grateful. The three of us work very well together. I love the process very much.
BB: And we love the end results. Just to continue this thought, I’m still thinking about this autobiographical bits in your writing. When we are children we have little to no sense of what our parents, let alone our grandparents, have gone through in their lives. So at what point did you fully comprehend your Baba’s whole story?
JS: I think it was early on if I remember correctly. My Baba had too many eccentricities that it was hard to not ask questions. The representation of food in the story is true. She’d also save all her bits of soap under the sink to make new ones and take hours at the grocer examining produce. I noticed all of this and asked many questions. My mom did a wonderfully careful job telling me stories about my Baba’s life: the older I grew, the more she revealed.
BB: That’s lovely. Now I’d like to dip a little into the artistic side of things. Sydney, part of what I’ve always admired in your work over the years is your interplay between industrial and natural environments and how they mix and meld together. In this book you were called upon to create a house in a chicken coop, a magnificent garden, and a sulfur mill, amongst other elements. One page is dedicated entirely to a grid of images of worms. Do you intentionally seek out projects and books that allow you to play with both city and country elements?
SS: This comes as a new observation to me. But it makes sense. Where I live, we are surrounded by the natural beauty of the ocean and forests but the harshness of industry cuts through it all creating poetry. I enjoy seeing families in stories living in apartment buildings, driving down busy highways and surviving amongst the brutalism of urban sprawl. It’s in these environments that we see the glimpses of the natural world even brighter. Also, when I was young, I moved from country to city and that transition definitely had a lasting effect on me.
BB: Right? When I asked the question I was thinking of your work with SIDEWALK FLOWERS (is there any better example of nature and humanity coming together?) and the contrast between a kid’s summer above and the coal mines below in TOWN IS BY THE SEA. And you’ve always done such lovely things with light, this book being no exception. But where I TALK LIKE A RIVER had so many scenes of sunlight on water, here you had to come up with multiple rainy and cloudy days on the page. Does rain present any particular challenges when illustrating or do you enjoy rendering it in different ways?
SS: Thank you! Rain is almost as fun as painting light on water. Rain is so expressive and, like most water, is always moving. It is unsettling to see a static image of ocean waves or raindrops in the air. Instead, artists take liberties and express the feeling it gives us or the movement it makes. It’s more fun to try to capture the spirit of something like water. Light reflecting off water is a very satisfying effect. It seems to be universally evocative, and I am so happy that I was given a chance to play with it.
BB: Oh, I love what you do with water, yes! And while I’m at it, I’d love to know a little bit more about your process. Do you create a rough dummy of the books you illustrate and show them to your editor, or do you shoot straight to a final product when working on a book like this?
SS: Neal Porter, our editor, is very patient with me. Sometimes I try to sketch out a rough draft before I dive into finals, as is standard practice. But I often get too excited and dive straight into the paint. The excitement of painting without a sketch, without a plan, oh boy. That’s where magic really exists. It can be a transcendent experience. It can also be a disaster. I end up with stacks of drafts and unused paintings.
BB: Oh, well if you ever need a place to put those *cough* I’m sure I could help you out.
Okay, final question for the both of you. Can we hope to see more picture books along these lines coming from you in the future? And what else are you working on?
JS: Sydney, Neal and I are working on another book that’s a collaboration with the very talented, Ryan Knighton. That’s all I can say for now!
SS: There is a book I wrote and illustrated coming out from Neal Porter books/ Holidays House this fall. It’s a very personal book that is different than anything I have ever done. It’s called “Do you Remember.” I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on it.
BB: Expect me to badger you about it in Bologna, then.
Folks, an interview like this one does not spring out of the ether, and so I’d like to thank Jordan and Sydney as well as Sara DiSalvo and the folks at Holiday House for helping to put all of this together. My Baba’s Garden is out March 7th so look for it on bookstore and library shelves everywhere at that time. A doozy it is. A beautiful doozy.
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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