The Quiet Place is the sixth picture book by husband-and-wife collaborators Sarah Stewart and David Small, whose 1997 The Gardener was a Caldecott Honor book. (Small won the Caldecott in 2001 for So You Want to Be President?, written by Judith St. George.) The Quiet Place, due on September 18 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Margaret Ferguson Books, centers on Isabel, a girl who moves from Mexico to the midwestern U.S. in 1957. In letters to her aunt in Mexico, she writes of her family’s adjustment to their new life and land, and of using large gift boxes to construct a “quiet place for me and my books.” The elaborate reading refuge and play space she builds is revealed in a double-gatefold spread at the end of the story. From their Michigan home, Stewart and Small talked to Bookshelf about their latest book and their many years of collaboration.
Is this story based on a real-life girl, or is it entirely fictional?
Sarah Stewart: The story is made up, but the kernel of it is the life story of Abby Aceves – to whom we dedicated the book. She is a very close friend who was nine years old when she came to this country from a tiny mountain village in Mexico. It was the 1950s; her father had been working on a Texas ranch and his boss was aware of his skills and intellect and helped him find a good full-time job in Gary, Indiana. Abby’s father then brought his family to live in this country, and his former boss, who treated them with respect and great kindness, would come to visit the family, appearing suddenly like Santa Claus, bringing boxes of gifts. Abby and her brother saved those boxes and made houses out of them. And later, as an adult, Abby visited our village here in Michigan, fell in love with a building, and decided to buy it and open a restaurant. She is a lifelong cook and had a vision, and turned that building into a beautiful place. She has done the same thing in her own home.
David, when you read Sarah’s story, did you know immediately how you would illustrate it?
David Small: Abby is a friend of mine as well, but I didn’t know much about her past. An illustrator has to find himself in a book, and in some of her previous stories, Sarah has presented me with totally unfamiliar worlds – though I eventually find myself in the story. In this case, I knew the environment and knew the characters somewhat, so it was much easier. Sarah and I spend several months each winter in the central mountain district of Mexico, and my studio is filled with Mexican art. I love the simplicity, directness, and humor of it.
And though I’ve never lived in Gary, Indiana, I grew up in Detroit, so I’m familiar with that sort of landscape. The contrast between where Isabel is coming from and where she ends up is the driving force behind the pictures. And of course there is that burst of color in the gatefold at the end – when we see the special place she has created. To find myself in the story, I made Isabel an artist like myself.
SS: And I loved that! It was a surprise for me – and a gift. The gatefold was also a gift from David to me. I know that a lot of writers, when they finally see a finished book, are disappointed at the way an artist has interpreted their words. We’ll be married 32 years in September – a week after the book comes out! – and David knows me through and through. And he always translates my words into art in ways I find deeply profound.
The book’s title, The Quiet Place, seems especially apt, since at times, especially in the wordless spreads, the pictures seem to take over the storytelling.
SS: As they should! I like that about this book. The title also refers to the way that Isabel needed the space around her to be small and quiet: in her quiet place, she finds herself. I live like that here. If I’m not out in my garden, which provides a balance for my intellectual war, my struggle with words, I’m in my tiny third-floor study where I write, surrounded by nothing but silence.
Sarah, at what point do you show a story to David?
SS: David says I have a new idea for a story every 15 minutes! I think that maybe one in a thousand should be written down. I read everything to him before sending it to our agent, Holly McGhee, to send on to Margaret Ferguson. If he doesn’t like a story, it just goes into a drawer. I’m not so much interested in getting published as I am getting out what I am thinking. Many of us write to organize out interior lives, and that’s what I do.
In terms of your collaborative process, once your publisher accepts a manuscript and David begins creating the art, is there much discussion between you?
SS: No. David takes it and runs with it and locks the door of his studio. I don’t have anything to say about it, and I think that’s how it should be.
DS: People often imagine us sitting at the same table, passing things back and forth. But I work in my own space, and it is a totally different space from Sarah’s. I don’t interfere with her writing and she doesn’t interfere with my art. In that way we have a traditional writer and illustrator relationship, since the two are often thousands of miles apart. I withhold the art from Sarah until I’m pretty sure of what I’m doing.
SS: I think this is what makes our marriage the wonderful partnership that it is. David will call me, or unexpectedly say over lunch or supper, “Darling, I think I have the pictures.” And he invites me over to his studio, and the art is up on one wall. And it’s a total surprise and it’s time for goosebumps – what’s that wonderful French word, frisson? And he asks me if I see anything that bothers me or that needs some variation. But, oh my goodness! David’s art is a gift to my words. He makes the story broader and deeper. I think all the great illustrators do that for books.
David, you’ve obviously written and illustrated your own books, and illustrated many stories by other authors. Do you find that you have a different mindset or modus operandi when illustrating Sarah’s words?
DS: I guess so. I prefer that people not send me stories that are like Sarah’s. The fact is that I don’t think I ever would have illustrated stories like hers if she hadn’t begun writing them. They are kind of “no place like home stories” that are gentle, human, and real. I always thought when I got into my career that I’d do nothing but humorous stories, ones that have an element of fantasy. I gravitate toward those and have written them myself. But, when I think of my books with Sarah, I think of what someone – and I think it was Margaret Ferguson – once said. And that is, the thing that makes books strong is having two very different points of view. I think ours is an interesting marriage of text and pictures, with the text coming from an optimist and the pictures coming from a cynic.
SS: It works!
DS: Yes, it works.
The Quiet Place by Sarah Stewart, illus. by David Small. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Ferguson, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-374-32565-7