In a year of extraordinary hardship, children’s authors and illustrators have continued to do what they do best: to engage and entertain young readers and their families through stories. A number of picture books have directly addressed the challenges of the pandemic, while also paying tribute to the everyday heroes who have emerged in its wake. Looking ahead at 2021, LeUyen Pham’s forthcoming Outside, Inside reflects the solace she felt while going on daily walks in her Los Angeles neighborhood during quarantine. And next spring, from the opposite coast, Caldecott Medalist and longtime New Yorker Brian Floca will offer his picture book ode to the resilience of this city—and all cities—and to essential workers. Keeping the City Going, the cover of which is revealed here for the first time, is due out on April 27 from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy.
Floca, who has lived in New York for two decades, told PW that his new book originated in the form of everyday observations and drawings. “I started at the end of March or April, doing sketches of what I was seeing in New York, the city where I have lived for a long time but that suddenly felt like a new place. It’s been very strange and disorienting for everyone.” The focus of these illustrations gradually evolved. “At first,” he said, “I was drawing discarded gloves and masks, and Civil War monuments, which was a bit depressing. Then I began looking at vehicles: ambulances, trucks, and delivery people on bikes. It struck me that, while so many of us are hunkered down, these are the people who are still going to work.”
At around the same time, many of Floca’s friends and fellow creators were making read-aloud recordings of their picture books to share online. He followed suit with a digital reading of his previous book Lightship (Atheneum/Richard Jackson, 2007). (As he states on his website, “For what is Lightship about, after all, if not a small group of people agreeing to keep themselves cooped up together in isolation from everyone else, all for the sake of the public good?”) Still, he wondered what more he could do for readers. Realizing that he had fresh material, Floca said, “I started compiling my sketches [of the city] for a ‘straight-to-video’ version of a book reading. I scanned the drawings and animated them as best I could. I wanted to address what I was seeing in an honest, reassuring, direct, simple way.”
'Turning the Key'
The resulting video is a sort of seven o’clock cheer: a resounding thank-you to the frontline workers who show up each day for their communities. When he was ready to post it online back in May, Floca said, “I wasn’t sure if I had the start of a picture book or not,” but he reached out to Caitlyn Dlouhy, his editor at Atheneum (following the death of his longtime editor Richard Jackson last year), with a PDF of the art and a rough cut of the video. “That turned out to be enough for us to start talking about how a book might work, and we sort of took it from there,” he said. “We pulled in Michael McCartney, my designer for the last 15 years. I don’t remember when exactly we turned the key, but pretty soon we were making a book.”
Keeping the City Going features images of vehicles and the people who operate them, an element that ties in with some of the author’s previous books, such as Locomotive (2013), Moonshot (2009), and Racecar Alphabet (2003). Floca said of his fascination with things that go, and their appeal for children, “In addition to the knobs and dials and bars and other gadget-y aspects that are fun to get lost in, I think especially when we’re young we see vehicles and we like their size, their sense of agency. They can take you places. And they also help people.”
Although transportation is a familiar subject in his work, Floca explains that Keeping the City Going crosses new terrain as it’s his most personal project to date. “I’ve been fortunate so far in not feeling directly affected by the worst aspects of the pandemic, but this is certainly the first time I’ve made a book based on what I see around me on a daily basis,” he said. “Walking to the studio each morning was like prep for the day’s work ahead. I’ve lived within this book in a way that I haven’t before.” He also reflected on how “writing about something that is touching people on a really profound level, even as I write it, comes with a sense of meaning and responsibility. There’s a lot of questioning about how you can do that and be respectful and get it right.”
Keeping the Artist Going
When asked what has sustained him personally and creatively through this difficult year, Floca credited having “a lot of FaceTimes with my parents” and the companionship of his studiomates. He has continued going to his workspace in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn—within walking distance of his home—along with children’s book creators Sophie Blackall, Doug Salati, and Rowboat Watkins. “I was kind of at loose ends at the beginning of this,” he said. “But having friends and colleagues around me, being able to dig into writing and drawing, and trying to do something with my work that felt relevant are all things I’m grateful for—and which allow me to still feel connected to myself, the world, and the people I care about. It’s been a real balm and harbor.”
Floca also expressed his appreciation for author-illustrators Elisha Cooper and Ruth Chan’s KidLit Art Surprise initiative, which has given artists a way to support independent bookstores across the country by sending small drawings that the stores can share with customers however they wish. “It’s been hard to know what can be done, what should be done this year, but that campaign gave a lot of us illustrators a way of engaging with the events of the day,” he said. “Hopefully the drawings have been a help for the stores. Certainly the chance to make the drawings has been a help for illustrators, in terms of giving us something positive to do.”
As for the connections he aims to foster through his new book, Floca said, “I hope, especially for young readers who have been stuck at home, it will give them a reassurance that the world is still working, and an awareness of why that is and what it means for our relationships with each other.” He continued by citing the advice of children’s television host Fred Rogers (originally from Rogers’s mother) to “look for the helpers” in times of distress. “Everyone has become a helper now,” Floca said. “I want kids to see the essential workers who are keeping the city going and to think about who those people are and what we owe them.”
Keeping the City Going by Brian Floca. Atheneum/Dlouhy, $17.99 Apr. 27, 2021 ISBN 978-1-5344-9377-3