Canadian writer Jordan Scott remembers a trip to the river that he and his father took one day when he was still a boy. He was in primary school in British Columbia and his classmates could be cruel about the stutter that made his speech different. They stared. They giggled. His father came to pick him up early and they drove to the Fraser River, which churns through the landscape on its way to the Pacific. He and his father didn’t talk much, but as they looked out at the water his father said something that stayed with Scott. “See how that water moves?” his father told him. “That’s how you speak.”

In likening Scott’s speech to the powerful, unpredictable energy of water over stones, his father’s words released a knotted-up place inside him. Scott, now a poet, tells the story of that day in his new picture book I Talk Like a River, out next month from Holiday’s House’s Neal Porter Books imprint. The story ends with a moment of joy as the child goes back to school the next day and tells the class about the river, his favorite place in the world. The stutter is still there, but his speech is his own, with its own force and distinctive movement. “I talk about the river. And I talk like the river,” Scott’s story ends. “For me,” he explained, “it was really important to have the child go back and talk the way he’s going to talk. There was always this idea that you had to overcome the stutter, you had to speak fluently—that was the goal. The last line was a very important part of the book for me. The defiance at the end of it.”

The story has remained a touchstone for Scott, “I used [it] as a structuring principle for my poetry throughout the years. Once I had kids I would tell them that story as a way to explain the way that I speak. It grew from there. The narrative was strong, and I felt that I could challenge kids with the metaphor.” But it wasn’t the story he set out to publish. He approached Vancouver-based Greystone Books editor Lara LeMoal with another children’s manuscript. She connected him with Hilary McMahon of Westwood Creative Artists in Toronto, and McMahon “gently encouraged me to write this book. She knew that I have written about stuttering in poetry and she was very intrigued by the prospect of a kids’ book. Her comments and suggestions were incisive and instrumental.”

McMahon submitted the manuscript to Porter in a limited multiple submission in May 2018. “I hadn’t had much business with her, I didn’t know her,” Porter said, but his response was immediate. “My litmus test these days is, ‘Do I have to publish this book?’ And the answer was an emphatic ‘Yes!’ ”

“In one of the first conversations I had with Neal,” Scott recalled, “he said, ‘This book is for everyone who has a hard time expressing themselves, who has a hard time speaking.’ The stutter acts as an extreme example of the kind of lack of fluency that we all share, difficulties with expression in social spaces, and accepting that which is perceived as different.”

Porter had a second impulse on reading the manuscript. “I wanted Sydney [Smith] to illustrate it.” Porter and Smith had just finished working on the Ezra Jack Keats award-winning picture book Small in the City, which came out last fall. “It took a little bit of arm-twisting,” Porter said. “He’s a thoughtful guy and he had already begun thinking about his next written and illustrated book. I asked him to take a pause.”

Reading the story persuaded Smith to shift his plans. “I wanted to do it justice,” he said. One of the first things he did was to contact Scott. “I breached that wall, that code of silence between author and illustrator. I knew this was his first picture book. And I had been in touch with Neal and he was fine with it.” The two met in a Toronto coffee shop and talked for two hours. “I brought some sketches. He was very gracious. Some people have a specific idea of what their story is going to look like. Jordan was open to anything.”

An 'Electric Current' of Collaboration

The collaboration became a three-way relationship: writer working with artist, editor with writer, editor with artist. “It was one of the great publishing experiences of my career,” Porter said. “It was inspiring, and it was also a hell of a lot of fun. There was an enthusiastic and electric current circulating among all three of us.”

Scott and Porter pored over the text together. “We’d read passages to each other,” Porter remembered. “It was a lovely thing.” Scott concurs. “It was reminiscent of one of those classic author-editor relationships. I’m interested in minutiae like syllables and line breaks,” Scott said. “The changes that he made really shaped the book. I trusted him.”

Meanwhile, Porter and Smith were in constant touch. “I have such a shaky ego that I need some excitement,” Smith said, “and Neal was definitely a good source of excitement. What was scary, a little bit of a risk, was working with no ink line.” Smith’s expressive black line has been a signature feature of his artwork. His paintings for I Talk Like a River—especially the early spreads that show the boy at home and in school—use murky wash to convey brooding and anxiety. “There’s a lot of liquid,” he said. “It’s loose and washy but it’s also very messy. The panels are off-center; they’re all kind of falling off the page a little bit. Nothing was supposed to feel very confident. There’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know how it happened.”

After Smith got further into the project, he and Porter met in Toronto (Smith has since moved to Halifax). “I didn’t get to meet Jordan,” Porter said, “but I did go up to Toronto when Sydney was still there, and we had a memorable meeting, also in a coffee bar. Sydney had lots of images scattered over this long communal table and we sort of went at it, arranging and rearranging, trying to find the thread through the story—‘This one, not that one.’ ”

Smith felt that the paintings he was doing often turned out better when he didn’t have to rework them. “I found in the past that there’s something really magical about those first sketches. They can embody a lot of the impressionistic, improvisational spirit of art-making and the second version, the third version, loses that. The central image, the painting where he’s standing in the river, there was just one version. And Neal was really open to that as well.”

A striking gatefold spread represents the moment the boy begins to think of himself in a new way. “It’s literally going inside the boy’s head and seeing what he sees,” Porter said. The closed pages show the boy’s face in tight closeup as he looks at the river “bubbling, churning, whirling, and crashing.” Then the gatefold opens wide, revealing the great, broad expanse of the river, its surface glinting in the sun, the boy plowing through the current, freedom and space all around him.

Smith recalled when he pitched the idea of doing a gatefold to Porter, telling him, “This probably won’t work, but I really like the idea of opening up the head of the character.” Porter was initially doubtful: “Do you think we really need it?” he asked.

“Then I saw him at a conference in Pittsburgh,” Smith remembered, “and he said, ‘That gatefold idea... I can’t get it out of my head.’ They decided to go ahead with it. “Once you open it,” Smith said, “it’s such a contrast to the darkness of the face. It’s color and light.”

Scott saw Smith’s painting as a natural extension of his poetic attempts to represent stuttering. “When I first started reading poetry,” the writer said, “poets would signal a stutter with a simple repetition of a syllable—‘s-s-snake.’ I thought that kind of simple graphic representation was not adequate. I’ve always been trying to create the stutter internally. When I opened up the book for the first time and saw what Sydney had done—he took the concept of the stutter and made it part of the landscape.”

“The moment that I fully understood the story,” Smith said, “was when [Jordan and I] were talking in the coffee shop. It’s at the point when the character realizes that they’re not broken, that they’re not unnatural—that they’re perfect the way they are—that it all sort of fell into place. This is beautiful and powerful and liberating. And at that moment I felt ready to take on the book.”

I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illus. by Sydney Smith. Holiday House/Neal Porter, $18.99 Sept. 1 ISBN 978-0-8234-4559-3