Andrew Larsen’s picture book Gifts from the Garbage Truck: A True Story About the Things We (Don’t) Throw Away (Sourcebooks eXplore, Sept.), illustrated by Oriol Vidal, details the career of Nelson Molina, a lifelong resident of East Harlem and curator of “Treasures in the Trash.” During his 34 years working for the New York City Department of Sanitation, Molina rescued 45,000 discarded items, cleaned them, and shelved them at the facility known as the Manhattan 11 garage, where they remain on

display. Larsen spoke with PW about upcycling, action figures, and the anthropological significance of garbage.

Where did you first hear the story of Nelson Molina and his collection?

I first heard about Nelson on social media, on Humans of New York, and I was blown away. I figured I’d type in his name and there’d be five different books about him. Somebody had made a short film, and he’d done a ton of media. But no one had written a children’s book, and that’s how it all began.

How did you develop Molina’s story as a picture book biography?

I knew I couldn’t write a story about him and not get his blessing. I reached out to him, and I ended up finding my way into the story through that chat. He’s a charming guy who’s happily retired. He said I had to get in touch with someone specific at the New York City Department of Sanitation, because when he’d done his collecting, he was under their employ. So I went through a bit of a bureaucratic maze, but it all worked out.

How did Molina come to write the foreword to Gifts from the Garbage Truck?

I had talked with my agent, Fiona Kenshole, and we weren’t sure how Nelson was going to be involved. Then, when I signed with Sourcebooks, they suggested him doing a foreword in his own voice. It’s a lovely piece of writing that gives a sense of who he is.

You live in Toronto and publish primarily with Canadian presses. Why did you go with an American publisher this time?

I ended up with Sourcebooks because they’re so good at understanding commercial appeal and getting stories in kids’ hands. I also felt a great deal of connection with my editor, Anna Sargeant. She comes from an educational background, and I do a lot of stuff in schools. She helped me to make a good story even better.

The narrative opens with Molina growing up in El Barrio, restoring and sharing found items. Did he really start so young?

He really did. He came from modest beginnings: his dad, a merchant marine, was often away, and there were six kids in his family. There wasn’t a lot of money for Christmas presents, and Christmas wasn’t as elaborate as it is now. I didn’t ask him this, but I think it would have made him feel like a provider to his siblings.

Besides garbage trucks, what other elements made you feel Molina’s project was promising?

I see it as a STEAM story, because at heart Molina is an artist. He sees beauty where a lot of us don’t, and his collecting is an act of curating. It’s almost like he’s an anthropologist, showing us how people live these days: what we acquire and what we get rid of. Hundreds of doorknobs. Old typewriters. When you see his displays of action figures, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, or Furbys, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is our culture.”

He sees beauty where a lot of us don’t.

What are you working on next?

I’m hoping to go to New York in September, to do a launch at the Treasures in the Trash collection. I also have Sally’s Snow Day [Orca, Oct.], illustrated by Dawn Lo, the third in a series about our puppy Sally. And I’ve got a book coming out next year with Kids Can Press that I’m writing with my eldest kid, Bells Larsen. The working title is Gray, and it’s a story about someone who’s eight or nine years old, talking with their parent about who they are. It’s meant to be more of a mirror than a window, so that certain readers will read it and think, “That’s me.” I’m proud to be working with my kid on an important book. The journey has been a good one.

Andrew Larsen will participate in the evening author reception on Tuesday, June 11, 5–6:30 p.m.

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