“I’ve finally found my own voice,” author-illustrator Christian Robinson says, explaining the genesis of both a project more than a year in the works, his latest picture book, You Matter (S&S/Atheneum), and a more spontaneous endeavor, a video series called “Making Space.” The series was prompted by Robinson’s desire to provide comfort to families that might be overwhelmed by the impact of the new coronavirus on their lives. “Making Space” debuted on Instagram in early April; You Matter will be released on June 2.
While You Matter is only the second picture book that Robinson has created both text and art for, he has illustrated 15 critically acclaimed picture books in total, beginning in 2012 with Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renée Watson. Most notably, Robinson illustrated Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street, for which Peña received a Newbery Medal in 2016; Robinson’s illustrations received a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor award. The first picture book that Robinson both authored and illustrated, Another (S&S/Atheneum), which received a starred review in PW and was named a PW Best Book of 2019, is a wordless picture book about the dream journey of a girl and her cat.
“It’s a lot more work writing than illustrating,” Robinson admitted, “but I love telling stories—visually, and now with words.” He explained that You Matter, which received a starred review in PW, came about because he asked himself this question: “What is it that I most want to say? And the answer is ‘you matter.’ That is something I am always trying to say in everything I create.” The book’s message is that, however inconsequential, things matter to those who experience them, and what happens to any of us, and to our world, affects all of us.
According to Justin Chanda, senior v-p and publisher and Robinson’s editor, Robinson isn’t exaggerating in his claim that writing You Matter was more laborious than illustrating it. “The original title was Small Problem; the final book is very similar to, but also very different from the original,” Chanda said. “Christian’s new to writing, but not to illustrating. The illustrations remained the same. What changed was the text. It’s totally different.”
Describing the editorial process as “more of a conversation,” and “one of the most unique processes I’ve ever been through” in his more than 20-year career in publishing, Chanda recalled “long philosophical discussions” between the two of them “about the things that really matter in life, and how everything is interconnected. As soon as we figured it out [that all humanity is united], a book was born.”
Creating Art During a Pandemic
Locked down with his rescue greyhound, Baldwin, in his Sacramento home during the second phase of California’s four-step reopening process, Robinson may not be venturing forth any time soon to promote You Matter. He admits that the cancellation of his tour is disappointing, as he enjoys “going out on the road, showing my work, and seeing how it connects” with his audiences. But, like so many other authors and illustrators during the coronavirus outbreak, Robinson is using technology to amplify his work by demonstrating his creative processes.
“Making Space,” Robinson’s video series, debuted on his Instagram account, @theartoffun, on April 4, and a new episode has been posted every week since then; there are seven episodes to date.
Each "Making Space" episode is between six and nine minutes and features a different theme, such as gratitude, friendship, and perseverance. In them ,Robinson demonstrates a simple art activity inspired by that theme, repurposing common items found around any home. Several episodes feature special guests and all end with Robinson rewarding one engaged viewer with a book that relates to that week’s theme. Most, though not all of the books given out are illustrated by Robinson..
Robinson also emphasizes each week that the book will be purchased from an indie bookstore, either a California indie that he shops at—Capital Books or Underground Books in Sacramento or Copperfield’s in Petaluma—or else an indie selected by that week’s winner (who is picked from those posting comments).
“I want to get my books out there, and I also want to support independent bookstores,” Robinson said of his strategy in deciding which book to spotlight each week.
In the first episode of "Making Space," Robinson introduces the project by explaining that he believes that “creativity has the power to heal” and that “everyone has that creative spark within them” and that, “hopefully,” the series will encourage his viewers to explore their inner artist. That episode received almost 10,000 engagements, including nearly 200 comments.
“If we can’t go outside, let’s go inside, into our imagination where anything is possible,” he says in the video, adding in an interview with PW that his memories of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood inspired him to do something in response to the national shutdown.
“I was noticing all the helpers—the first responders, doctors, teachers, and even parents, who have so many new roles,” he said. “What could I do to contribute? Creativity has given me comfort during hard times.”
On Mother’s Day, May 10, the theme of "Making Space" was “caregivers.” Robinson demonstrated how to create a bouquet of flowers, using a paper bag, a fork, a spoon, and a toilet paper roll, along with paint. Robinson’s color palette—fuchsia, sea foam green, and white—were selected by his grandmother, who is shown speaking with him at the beginning of the episode through telephones made of tin cans and string.
The inspiration for that week’s project and its timing, Robinson explained, was a picture book that he illustrated, Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, a tale about how a French bulldog and a French poodle learn the meaning of family. After promising a copy of the book to that week’s winner, Robinson called DiPucchio with his ersatz telephone and the two discussed the variations of family and what it means to be a caregiver.
“Not all families look exactly the same,” DiPucchio told Robinson in the video. “Family is really a feeling of belonging; families are places where you feel loved and accepted. And that goes for caregivers too. Caregivers aren’t just moms and dads and grandparents: caregivers are anyone who loves and accepts us unconditionally.”