Happy Earth Day! A Talk with Illustrator Debra Frasier About THIS IS THE PLANET WHERE I LIVE
I’ve seen some interesting round-ups recently about children’s books with environmental bents. In this vein, 2023 truly is a boom year. I’ve been impressed by a wide range of children’s books like Restoring: Prairie, Woods, and Pond: How a Small Trail Can Make a Big Difference by Laurie Lawlor, The Last Plastic Straw: A Plastic Problem and Finding Ways to Fix It by Dee Romito, ill. Ziyue Chen, The Forest in the Sea: Seaweed Solutions to Planetary Problems by Anita Sanchez, and more. Now, on the younger side, we’ve This Is the Planet Where I Live. Written by K.L. Going, I had the chance to talk to its illustrator, Debra Frasier, this very Earth Day, about her latest in a long line of books.
Betsy Bird: Debra! Thank you so much for joining me on my blog today! Sometimes we say that a person has gone on a “journey” when they’ve made a book, but in your particular case I think the term applies far better than with most. Can you give us a bit of a run down of what your experience with this book has been from the start?
Debra Frasier: In 2015, I agreed to illustrate the luminous, globally-unifying words of K.L. Going’s manuscript, THIS IS THE PLANET WHERE I LIVE. And then the next six years turned out to be stunners for me—and not in a good way. (Health. Moves. Deaths. Health again.) All through these years, I was working on a book project that ultimately failed completely, so by the time I opened the PLANET manuscript again, I was totally without confidence and cowed by the enormity of this opening line:
Here are the people who share the planet where I live.
Oh, and right about then is when COVID arrived…
BB: That fear of starting and fear of getting something wrong when you work on a creative project hits hard and true, as much for professionals working in the industry for years as it does new creators. How would you advise someone who is in your position, has a job they need to do, and finds themself frozen before they even begin?
DF: Here’s what I think: We carry invisible antennas that know things before we consciously know them. The antennas communicate with us by drawing our attention for unknown reasons.
So first, find a blank journal and begin to collect what is “drawing your attention.” Use no other criteria or judgment. Make your collection physical, with real paper. With this book project the noticeable spark happened for me with a random Instagram post from a textile collector in Istanbul: Embroidered cloth from Uzbekistan. I printed the tiny IG picture as I recognized in the textile image some kind of organic growing energy that I needed. A clue. This is how we find what we do not yet know exists. It is out there. Trust the antennas. Keep looking for clues, add them to the journal. You will build your map, I guarantee it.
Second: After several months of staring aimlessly in my studio, I one day cut a tiny human character out of orange paper. It delighted me. Me. The sad, morose, failed being. But I cut more of these colorful tiny people. Dozens and dozens. So the lesson is: sit with your beloved materials, even if dejected. They will come help you.
Third: A random podcast suggested trying writing a project’s intention. I was very desperate, so I took that advice for this book. After days of going deeper and deeper, I finally wrote, “…let the gorgeous growing magic of the world flow through my hands…” Crazy as that sounds, this naming of the green energy surrounding us is what unlocked the book’s imagery for me. I ended up propping this handwritten card on my studio table and reading it every morning, out loud, and again anytime I returned. It helped me enormously. So to anyone who might be floundering as I was, I recommend working on an intention for the project. (For more on this topic visit the little movie at: https://www.debrafrasier.com/books-things-to-do/this-is-the-planet-where-i-live/)
BB: Debra, you’ll have the distinction of turning 70 when this book is released. Ageism exists in every occupation, publishing included, but we also have a fantastic array of older book creators to turn to that other industries may not. Could you talk a little bit about working in a single field for an extended amount of time, watching it change over the years, and how it fits within your own life now versus when you began?
DF: My first book, ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN, was published by HBJ in 1991, and this gave me a front row seat as publishing began moving from one century to the next. Suddenly I was a 35-year-old-beginner on the HBJ Teachers’ Reading Reception stages with Mem Fox. Lois Ehlert. Ashley Bryan. These were all brilliant performers as well as creators, so from the get-go I knew age made little difference in the making of good story. I had so much to learn from them. Next I illustrated THE ANIMAL THAT DRANK UP SOUND by the great poet William Stafford. We traveled and presented together for a year with that book before he died at 79, in 1993. Talk about learning from an elder! These were the people I truly admired so I entered the field with life showing me that age was a plus.
Also unusually, I have worked solely with the same editor since that first book, in a relationship that has now spanned more than three decades. Allyn Johnston, (now VP & Publisher at Beach Lane Books/S&S), was a young editor at HBJ when she unexpectedly ended up working with me. She is a committed naturalist as well and so our interests overlapped in a way that made us a very good team. As anyone who has worked with Allyn learns, she is innately gifted in the understanding of the workings of the picture book. I have had a chance to learn and grow from that long steady working relationship. I once heard someone say, “Allyn never gives up on you,” and that is her gift, too, as another editor might have thrown in the towel with me long ago. I am unbearably slow…
Lastly, I’ve had the enormous honor to accompany individual picture books through generational cycles. Adults who read ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN as children, now read it to their own children. MISS ALAINEUS: A Vocabulary Disaster (Harcourt, 2000) includes a parade that is now hosted by new teachers who were IN a Vocabulary Parade in their own elementary school lives. Despite the mergers between publishing houses (and my titles and I have been through four house transformations, I think), a beloved picture book has a shot at living beyond the maker. Maybe that’s what keeps our field so uniquely open to our elders?
BB: The cut paper technique in children’s books has been used to such amazing effect by so many different kinds of artists, from Ashley Bryan to David Wisniewski. Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to the form originally? What is it about cut paper that works so well in a picture book format?
DF: Scissors. Paper. Glue. Why do I love them? THEY MOVE. Hold off on your gluing and you have an editable image similar to editing text. Hate it? Brush it away. No erasing. And most importantly: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING: just add bit by bit, and slowly build the map! I came to these materials as a kid but learned from these beloveds: Lois Ehlert. (Have you ever seen one of her dummies?) Ashley Bryan. I love endpapers and the endpapers of Ashley and Simms Taback can entertain me for days. I could go on…Scissors. Paper. Glue. To me, these are akin to the magic spell words: abra-ka-dab-ra! This is my thing—I even host a free online school called PaperCamp where I teach cutting skills to kids and teachers. I actually send a newsletter around called: Scissors. Paper. Glue. I am serious about loving these primary materials!
BB: Getting back to THIS IS THE PLANET WHERE I LIVE, this is a project you were handed before the pandemic and is being released on the other side of a worldwide lockdown. If things had turned out differently and you’d finished it before COVID, how do you think the final product would have looked? What do you think would have changed?
DF: COVID was wretched—teachers are my people, and I immediately jumped in to help make it easier with all kinds of online support. The silver lining was that I quickly learned every tech gadget to make helping in the classroom accessible. Suddenly I could beam into schools all over the world—and my then languishing book illustrations for THIS IS THE PLANET WHERE I LIVE took on the ring of REALITY. We are on a planet, connected. COVID made that visceral. Who can forget the Italians singing from their balconies?
K.L. Going’s amazing-blessing-of-a-text ends with this line:
Animals, fields, shelter for friends, every creature alive on each other depends—all on the planet where we live.
Read that line from inside COVID lockdowns and it suddenly rings resolutely TRUE, not just some aspiration in a hopeful children’s book. Everything we face as a planetary species rests on understanding that line. Imagine if this text becomes a play, or circle reading, performed every Earth Day, in every school! What if THIS is the image we start to imagine, the line we internalize from our earliest years?
My hope is that this book offers up one image of connectedness to readers, on which to add another artist’s image, and another, and another, until, just like a paper cut collage, an entirely new image of an interconnected planet arrives in each of our hearts, everywhere.
It could happen—things do grow here, bit by bit—all on the planet where we live.
Great thanks to Debra Frasier for taking the time to talk to me today about this book. Thanks too to Mitch Thorpe and the folks at Simon and Schuster for arranging this interview today. This Is the Planet Where I Live is on bookstore and library shelves everywhere. This Earth Day, be sure to pick it up and give it a look.
And if you’d like to hear more of this in Debra’s own words, check out her video here:
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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