Jason Chin is the author and illustrator of several nonfiction picture books about natural ecosystems, including Redwoods (2009), Coral Reefs (2011), Island: A Story of the Galapagos (2012), and his most recent, Grand Canyon, published this month. PW spoke with Chin about where he finds inspiration, the creative process he undertakes when diving into a subject, and what readers might expect from him next.
You seem to be firmly rooted in the nonfiction genre that explores the natural world. Where does that interest come from?
I guess it’s kind of an evolving interest. I’ve always been interested in science and the natural world. Redwoods was kind of a happy accident. I was reading about redwood trees one day on the [New York City] subway, and the article captured my imagination. It stuck with me, and later on I started to work on a book. It was a book about one species, but it was really about the environment that species created. That fascinates me, the way systems interact in an ecosystem. All the connections make the species that live there that much more special.
You worked as a bookseller and an illustrator before releasing Redwoods. Was there a pivotal moment that made you realize you wanted to tell your own stories?
I studied illustration at Syracuse University, and after I graduated I moved to New York City and got a job at Books of Wonder, the famous children’s bookstore. I’d graduated with the idea that I could maybe be a portrait painter or, in the far reaches of my imagination, could work in comic books or animation. But those two fields really didn’t grab me. I went to work at Books of Wonder and almost immediately learned that I really loved the art form of the picture book. I was exposed to many types of picture books and ways of making picture books. It was a second education!
While there I started doing my first illustration jobs and, after illustrating four or five books for others, I really wanted to try my own book. I came up with several ideas for stories, but they really weren’t very good, not very original or compelling. What I was doing, in retrospect, was trying to come up with stories I wanted to make pictures for. I didn’t have a story I really felt I needed to tell. It wasn’t until I was on the subway reading about redwood trees that I felt like I had something I wanted to share that went beyond me just wanting to illustrate it! I had another motivation—I was living in New York and was aware there were a lot of kids who grew up in New York who never got a chance to go for a walk in the woods, so transporting a kid from a city to the forest would be a good thing to do.
What illustrators and authors have you looked to for inspiration?
Going back to high school or middle school, or even elementary school, N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. They would probably be my first inspirations. And then there was Trina Schart Hyman. I lived in the same town she lived in, and she really helped me, she was my mentor in high school. She was forever steeped in the artwork of Pyle, lots of adventure stories and knights in shining armor. The other interest for me was Ed Young. I love his work. I never understood it the way I understand Trina’s, but I have always been attracted to it. I wish I could make images like him!
Moving forward, the artists I love to look at and learn from are the picture book greats! William Steig, Ezra Jack Keats, Barbara Cooney. There are so many others.... I look at [Cooney’s] work and think, “This is the best. This is so good!” They may not be related to my type of artwork, but I want to learn from them. Steig, Keats, and Cooney—they are artists and also genius storytellers. Right now I’m trying to and learn from those who are the best at storytelling.
How do you decide on your book subjects?
I’m always reading nonfiction books and science magazines because of my own curiosity. In terms of what a book would be or could be, I try to wait until I have a spark of inspiration. If I were to sum it up, what I try to capture in my books is my experience of learning. With Grand Canyon, I had this vision of an origin story—a kid walking alongside a river and watching a canyon being carved, super fast-forward. I thought it would be simple, but where I got into trouble, when I really started researching it, the science didn’t support how I wanted to do the book. So I had to go back and rehash this concept. I’m really happy I did because I delved much deeper into research, and I think the book is much better than it would have been. When I’m reading about science, it’s not uncommon for my mind to wander and get distracted; something I read will spark my imagination, and sometimes that turns into an idea for a book.
Can you talk a bit about your research process, both for the text and the art?
I did the most research for Grand Canyon. I had a simple idea for a story—the biography of the Grand Canyon. The river starts carving it in the beginning, and at the end it’s what we have today. But it wasn’t that simple! On display at the Grand Canyon are three really important scientific areas: geology, ecology, and paleontology. And in order to do a book that does the Grand Canyon justice, I’d have to learn about all three of these and wrangle them into a single book—when each could be a book on its own! That became the challenge for creating the book, to delve deep into these areas of science that I wasn’t that familiar with. First, I started reading anything I could find, like field guides with good explanations, and then I moved onto more specific books. I reached out to scientists—a biologist or naturalist, two geologists, and a paleontologist. They were very helpful. There was also an image research component, which was very, very time consuming, trying to find images of the fossils and creatures I wanted to show in the book.
Is it a requirement of yours to visit each place you write about?
I always visit the place I’m writing about. I’d feel guilty if I wrote a book about a place and hadn’t been to the place. I would not have been able to have made the images in Grand Canyon without having experienced the place firsthand. I take lots and lots of photos and draw and paint on location if I have time. The Grand Canyon was tricky because it’s so big. I spent a lot of time getting from here to there, so there wasn’t as much time as I would have liked to just sit and draw. When I came home and looked up a visual reference, an image, it was so much easier to interpret and paint.
Hiking into the canyon is one of the experiences I’ve treasured, because when I looked at it from the rim, it was breathtaking. It looks like a painting; it doesn’t look real. You just can’t comprehend the space you’re looking at. Having hiked down to the bottom and back, and then looking out from the top, I had a much better appreciation for what I was looking at. My hike absolutely informed the paintings. My goal for all the paintings was to describe for the viewer the space – I couldn’t have begun to do that until I understood that space myself. How that cliff that may look so small from up here is really 300 feet tall, for example.
And I wanted to use the structure of the book to surprise. All the images are the same, in double or single spreads, a regular structure, and then you get to the gatefold at the end. Hopefully it breaks that structure and captures some of the experience of standing on the edge.
Are there any memorable facts about the Grand Canyon that didn’t make it into the book?
Oh man, I crammed a lot into this book! Usually there are some facts that don’t make it into my books.... One example [in Grand Canyon] is in the back matter where there is “The Story in the Rocks.” The hardest part was to figure out how to explain it on a single page. It’s about how these rocks got here and how the canyon was carved through them. I ended up having to make it very, very succinct. I would have liked to have included a little more detail about how it all came together; there were a couple of steps I kind of glossed over because there just wasn’t room for it all. But
Your illustrations are photographic in their realism, drawing readers into the wonders of nature. Watercolor and gouache appears to be your favorite media—why?
Coming out of school, my favorite medium was oil paint. You can do anything with it. But it’s impractical, it’s toxic, and it doesn’t dry fast. It’s much more practical to illustrate in watercolor. It’s a nice fit for me because it is unforgiving, a little riskier—like jumping off a cliff, “Okay, here we go! Let’s see what happens!” Because it’s unforgiving, it forces me to really think through what I’m going to do before I do it. If I plan well enough, I can create in a free manner, I guess, without hesitation. If I don’t plan ahead and jump into a painting, all this experimenting will be going on in the painting itself. I also work it all out ahead of time with sketches. But gouache helps, it’s a little more forgiving!
Your books often place children in the middle of environments in imaginative, fanciful ways, sometimes on tangential storylines of their own. When you are illustrating another author’s work, as you did with Miranda Paul’s Water Is Water, how much freedom do you have to creatively ad-lib or tell side stories in the scenes you depict?
Water Is Water is the first one I’ve done for another author in a long time. It was a wonderful text to work with because it was open-ended. The text is descriptive but not prescriptive. I was free to invent whatever story or images I wanted to go with it. [The book] goes through a year, so I decided[to make] roughly four spreads for each season and turn those four spreads into a four-part story. It was fun! When I read books, I want there to be a story. I’m more engaged when there is a story to follow.
There seems to be a rapidly growing market for children’s nonfiction. Have you noticed greater engagement from readers and booksellers recently?
Redwoods came out during the push for the Common Core curriculum, which included a requirement for more nonfiction books in the classroom. In my understanding, the Common Core really pushed publishers into creating more nonfiction picture books. I don’t really know what it was like before that push, so I’m not sure I can compare before and after. I do know that when I do school visits, a lot of teachers and librarians say they really appreciate that as an author/artist, I can talk about nonfiction research and science.
Which part of the book-creating process do you look forward to most: researching, writing or illustrating?
I like the illustration part a lot, but I do really like the book dummy phase, where I’m figuring out the storytelling and the pieces of the puzzle to make this book work. I write first, then I storyboard, outline all the pictures, and then go through a bunch of revisions on that, and then I work them up into a full or half-size book dummy that I can read. Throughout this process I’ll be revising; if you change a picture, then maybe you need to change the text, or you change the text, you need to change the picture. After the storyboard and plan for the book is done, then I move into refining each image. That can take two sketches before I can go to the paper, or it could take 10, trying to figure out all these requirements to make an image do all that it needs to do. In Grand Canyon, for example, the image needs to show her [the main character] on this side of the rock, it needs to show this animal, it needs to show the sky and time of day, I need to find a place to put the fossil, to figure out what her emotion is going to be and how close is she going to be to the fossil, make sure the scale is correct, and that there’s room for the text.Sometimes it takes many tries to get all the pieces to fit. And on top of all that, it has to be an attractive image!
Can you give us any hints about your next book?
I’ve been reading a lot about planetary science, the Big Bang and cosmology. That’s where my interest is lately. Probably I’ll return to [the subject of] space for a future book. I’ve illustrated a book called Pie Is for Sharing by Stephanie Ledyard, which comes out in 2018. It’s fiction, it’s a poem or a list book, and it’s about sharing, about community and pie. I’ve illustrated it using a group of kids at a Fourth of July picnic, and I am excited about it because it’s an all-American book. There are sparklers, American flags, it’s multicultural, it’s all-inclusive, and I wish it were out today!
Grand Canyon by Jason Chin. Roaring Brook/Porter, $19.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-59643-950-4