5 Questions for Kyo Maclear

Interview by Valeria De La Vega

Kyo Maclear was born in London, England and moved to Toronto at the age of four. She was raised in a creative household, her British father a documentary filmmaker, and her Japanese mother an artist and art dealer. In the present Kyo continues to work on novels, essays and children’s books. When she is not writing she’s an academic with a doctorate in environmental humanities and is a faculty member at The Humber School for Writers and associate faculty with the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA.

When I first arrived in Canada to pursue my master’s degree in children’s literature, I was introduced to the work of Kyo Maclear. I was captured by the creativity of her stories and the carefully crafted language that came with them. Kyo’s work ensures quality. Her diverse and multicultural background is translated into her stories. I had the pleasure of talking with Kyo and asking her a few questions about her work and creative process. 

To date, you’ve published fourteen picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, on a variety of topics such as identity, depression, friendship, and family. Could you talk about your journey as a picture book writer? How is writing a picture book different from writing a novel or a graphic novel (two formats you have also tackled)?

I came into picture book writing by accident. I was about to have my first son, and we have a very blended family, very multiracial. I wanted to write a story for my son, in particular about what it was like to be mixed that didn’t talk about it in sociological terms—a book that had a little bit of whimsy and playfulness to it. And so I wrote a version of Spork with my husband, and we made 30 copies and just gave it away to friends and family. Then I forgot about it. But soon, friends were also having mixed-race kids, and I realized there weren’t very many books around for them and so I shared Spork with my agent. This was a few years after I wrote it and she loved it, so she started to shop it around. Spork was first and foremost a labour of love. It was dedicated to our son, Yoshi, and I think that’s why it felt so personal. We ended up doing a video as a family to go with, but it was just a very kind of kitchen table effort.

Picture book writing has a level of conciseness. If you look at a picture book, for example, Where the Wild Things Are, there are maybe 400 words in it. I might even be overestimating that. You’re always working with brevity, saying a lot with a few words, and so that’s very different from writing a novel. The other distinctive thing for me is that it’s a collaboration, and that’s probably what draws me to picture books. I love the alchemy of images and words together and how the two combined create a story. It’s often difficult for me to read my stories without the pictures. I’ve had people ask me to do it on podcasts, and I have to say it is almost impossible. Images carry the story so much, and you’re only getting a fraction of what this narrative is doing if I read the words alone. 

I’ve been really lucky, I’ve worked with a lot of really amazing, intuitive illustrators who get into my stories and inhabit them and take them off in different directions. That’s very exciting, and that’s a collaborative process that seldom happens when you’re in the world of novel writing or nonfiction. I love that.

The words and the images in your picture books work so effortlessly together, and I can only imagine that such a seamless narration can only be accomplished by collaborating with the illustrators. How is this teamwork process? Does it continuously change between books? How do you balance the words and the pictures?

It changes book by book. I’ll start with a manuscript that’s word based with maybe a few notes on art direction, but very few because I don’t want to control the illustrative process. I might put in a few notes where there are blanks where the narrative needs to be explained visually. Sometimes I’ll be paired with an illustrator via the editor, but in the past few years, I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been able to choose who I work with or in some cases I’ve grown the book, from the ground up, in collaboration with the illustrator. 

For example, I work with Julie Morstad, and we have developed things from scratch together, and that’s a beautiful process. The image part of the narration is embedded from the very beginning, and it’s the most rewarding thing for me. I’m doing that right now with another illustrator that I adore named Katty Maurey, who I worked with on a book called This Specific Ocean, and we’re growing a book again from seed. Together we’re going back and forth with images and texts, and we haven’t shown it to anyone yet. It is an enjoyable and playful collaboration. But generally, there’s a conversation that happens between the illustrator and me. Sometimes it’s mediated by an editor, but there’s always a back-and-forth. 

My text is never finished until the very last moment so once the illustration’s roughs are in place, I start to edit the text. Once it’s moved into a kind of final art, I edit it again. When we move to the finished art then I’m editing again. So we go back and forth, and I’m always sharpening the text against the image and looking for places where the words are redundant and where the pictures can really carry the show. 

One of your most recent books It Began With a Page, How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way, is a picture book biography where you worked with Julie Morstad to narrate the life of a groundbreaking children’s book illustrator. Is your process of creating a nonfiction picture book different compared to your fictional picture books? Did you find any challenges along the way?

I’ve done a few picture book biographies that are a bit more untethered to the facts. For example, I did Virginia Woolf and Julia Child, and they are loosely based on the real lives of the people that I was portraying. I had a lot of liberty in those cases to approach it from a very slant,  imaginative way. But with more recent picture book biographies, I’ve adhered more directly to the chronology of their lives and the events that took place. In those cases, I usually go through a research period and typically do too much research because I’m a research nerd. I don’t want it to be plotting and pedantic, so usually I’m looking for the spark, the thing that excited me about the person’s life or the kind of central metaphor of that person’s life. 

For example, Julie Morstad and I did a book called Bloom, which was about a fashion designer named Elsa Schiaparelli. For me, the key moment was when as a child, Elsa was told that she was ugly by her mother, brutta in Italian, and so she wanted to plant seeds in her face and create a beautiful garden. She put seeds in her nose and ears and a mouth and tried to grow plants. That moment stayed with me because it was so surreal. It was sad on the one hand, but it was also imaginative. It was a beginning, I think, of her surrealist imagination. For me, the metaphor became blooming, seeds, plants and flowers, so I found that only by really sloshing around in the research. The same goes for It Began With a Page which is the story of a trailblazing Japanese American illustrator-author. In that case, the central metaphor was the image of a blank page and the idea of breaking the mould or template of what a story could be because she was such a rule-breaker. I wanted to play with that idea: “it began with a page bright and beckoning.” And so that became a central metaphor for that book. 

In Story Boat, you and illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh tackle one of the world’s current issues: refugees. Now we’re faced with a new issue, a pandemic. How do you write for children in today’s world? How do you see this pandemic manifesting in future picture books?

One thing I do is I don’t condescend to children. I believe children have fearsome emotions in terms of what they can incorporate when they see things happening in the world. They’re surprisingly empathetic and intelligent about what should be going on and what should be happening instead. When they see injustice, they’re usually able to name it quite readily, and children don’t have the same justifications or kind of convoluted mental processes that adults have about justifying, they’re actually incredible moral actors in the world. There’s so much to learn from children in their ethical ways being in the world and also their imagination. 

I don’t try to do work that’s explicitly political, but I do think the world is charged with politics. I feel like a lot of my work deals with emotions that are tied to the social world as well as the personal world. I deal with some large themes, but I don’t think that it’s anything that children can’t encounter or face. I try to do it in a child-appropriate way.

For example, Story Boat is a story of refugees. On the one hand, children might not understand the kind of geopolitics behind the current crisis around the world and migration. Still, I think they do understand what it means to lose your home and what it means to long for safety and comfort. I start with those basic desires and needs of children, and I take it from there. 

I always want to connect and portray the imaginative world of children, even when the story is a little bit maybe weighty. For example, The Fog is an allegory of climate change. I try to be a bit whimsical so that there’s an entry point that’s a little bit fantastical, and that allows our children to feel invited into the kind of storytelling.

In terms of the pandemic, I don’t know how it’ll work its way into my picture book telling. I do know that I’m thinking a lot about children right now. My children are teenagers now, but I have nieces and nephews that are small, and I hope that children find solace and inspiration in books. And I hope that even if my books don’t directly deal with a pandemic, maybe there’s a book that I’ve written that might be a little bit of comfort to a child in the situation. I’m always inspired by writers and illustrators who tackle things that address the kind of wilful and willfulness of children. And so because I do think even as a child, I remember feeling comforted when I found my world reflected in the books I was reading. 

You have such a varied collection of books, how do you know that a story is worth pursuing? Where do you find your inspiration? And what is next for Kyo Maclear?

I have folders with little seeds of ideas, and I’ll work on them gradually over time. Eventually, one of them will just kind of lift; it’s intuitive. I just know that the story’s ready, and I’ll start to work on it in a more focused way, that’s usually how it happens. But I always have little notebooks and seeds of ideas, and sometimes they don’t amount to anything, and sometimes it would be like two or three years later, and it’ll eventually spark something. I never dismiss those seeds of ideas. The seed for Spork was tiny. It was a small incident where somebody gave me a spork at a music festival, which kind of sparked this story idea. I also find my inspiration in the work of the illustrators that I admire and work with, and sometimes, through conversations. 

I have a few picture books in the pipelines that will be published in the next few years. One that I’m thrilled with it’s called The Big Bathhouse, which is with a wonderful illustrator named Gracey Zhang. It’s about a childhood experience I had of going to Japan in the summers and going to the bathhouse with all my female relatives. It celebrates bodies, body types and also ageing, being women of different ages and being all together and doing that in a way that’s playful. I’m also working on another thing just very slowly with the illustrator I mentioned Katty Maurey, and we’re just playing right now—we’re kind of like in a laboratory experimenting with the story. So that’s early in the process, but it’s fun, I like being at that stage.

Our reviews of Kyo Maclear’s books:

It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way, Review by Valeria De La Vega

Story Boat, Review by Lauren Hathaway

Valeria De La Vega holds a Masters degree in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She is a Colombian living in Canada who is interested in stories that encourage empathy. She is drawn to narratives of immigrants, being Latin American, and stories she can relate to her country’s history.

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