Canadian artists Terry and Eric Fan often draw ordinary objects in surprising places: a whale in a teacup, a submarine among the clouds. Their new picture book, It Fell from the Sky, due out from Simon & Schuster this September, starts with a group of insects gathered in puzzlement around a glass marble that has landed in the grass. The picture is rendered in shades of twilight gray. Only the marble appears in color, its veins of yellow, lime, and turquoise swirling, the leaves of nearby dandelions arched behind it. PW has the first look at the cover and spoke with the Fan Brothers about their new collaboration.
“All of our books start as standalone images. It’s like a well of ideas that we can draw from,” Terry said. “[This one] was a t-shirt design of a marble that had fallen into a garden.” The siblings collect vintage marbles themselves, and they’d been considering writing a story about a marble. The one on the cover was chosen from their collection.
“The main theme is greed,” Eric said. “The spider takes the marble and starts charging admission and he loses all his friends.” But there’s more going on. “It’s like Flatland,” he went on, referring to Edwin Abbott’s 1884 fantasy novella about a two-dimensional world. “The insects occupy Flatland, and when they encounter this object from another dimension, they don’t have anything way to understand it. Their explanations for it speak to their own wishes and perceptions. It’s their way of providing an explanation for an unsolvable mystery.”
The insect characters are portrayed naturalistically, but they’re dressed as Victorian spectators. A rhinoceros beetle wears a black top hat. A grasshopper holds a magnifying glass up to the marble. “We wanted to suggest the Age of Reason,” Eric said. “It’s an appeal to philosophical and intellectual humility.”
Longtime collaborators, the brothers developed the artwork and the story together. They live close to one another in Toronto, and they often toss out ideas and work out story details during walks. They send images back and forth to each other, working and reworking them. They’re used to giving honest feedback—and taking it. “Artists often can’t conceive of working with another person,” Terry said. “But we really share an aesthetic. We have similar styles. They’re not exactly alike, so when we work together we bring different things to the table. It’s developed into a third style, like what happens when a band gets together. We do have to set our egos aside when we’re working with one another. It’s not all roses. There is friction. It’s about stepping back and not letting your ego consume you.”
Digital tools gave them a way to enhance and sharpen the original picture of the fallen marble. “We still do stuff traditionally with pencil,” Terry said, “but this was the first book where we used more digital than pencil. We tend to use Procreate [a digital illustration app] even with pencil. It gives you a very large canvas that allows you to work on all these little details. Even in the past couple of years, the tech has taken great leaps forward. You can create your own brushes and pencils and your own texture. It’s pretty amazing. I don’t think people realize how far it has advanced.”
Editor Justin Chanda and art director Lizzy Bromley helped clarify and strengthen the story. “When we brought The Night Gardener, Lizzy was the first to see it and respond to it and she brought it to the editor at the time. She’s been a champion for us, along with our agent [Kirsten Hall]. We wanted S&S to have the first look at this book. They helped sharpen the theme of the spider losing support and losing his friends,” Eric said. “They do the whole ‘kill your darlings’ thing when they see something that’s in the visuals already. Sydney Smith says, with a picture book, if you take away the pictures it should be hard to understand. The words and the pictures should each be telling a story that’s a little different.”
Although the pandemic means that the prospect of school visits is still up in the air, Eric’s Twitter timeline is filled with photographs of classrooms using the Fan Brothers’ previous book, The Barnabus Project, as inspiration for inventive assignments like writing alternative endings or building pet factory mock-ups. The title appeared on many 2020 “Best Books” lists and continues to pile up mentions. “It makes up for not being able to be in classrooms right now,” Eric said.
He reflected on the way that readers respond to their books. “The truth is that we’ve never really written books with any specific target audience in mind. Basically, we write the stories that resonate with us, and hope there are other likeminded people, young and old alike, who will find something interesting in them as well.” About their newest book, he added, “We live in an age driven by materialism, so the counter narrative of generosity can sometimes get drowned out. What we hope readers will take away from this story is the value of art being publicly accessible, and the idea that philanthropy and sharing are ultimately more gratifying than selfishness.”
It Fell from the Sky by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 Sept. 28 978-1-5344-5762-1