It was mid-March and New York City was grinding to a halt as the scale of the new coronavirus outbreak began to come into view. At a beach in Queens, Caldecott Honor artist Elisha Cooper and Three Lives & Company bookstore owner Toby Cox were swimming—part of a socially distanced winter workout—and talking about the toll that a large-scale shutdown of the city could take on small bookstores. Cox turned to Cooper and said, “Why not send them a lot of art?”

Two months later, Cooper and fellow author-illustrator Ruth Chan are spearheading Kid Lit Art Surprise, an initiative that grew from Cox’s simple suggestion. More than 50 of the nation’s leading illustrators have joined up, sending packages of art for free to independent bookstores, which the stores are then giving away to customers who place online orders.

“If we sound disorganized, it’s because we are,” Cooper told PW with a laugh. “You don’t want artists leading something. We’ve been haphazard but pleasantly so.”

Cooper demurs, but thanks in part to Chan, that haphazardness is not entirely a reality. The duo met last year at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and when Cooper decided to move forward with Kid Lit Art Surprise, he reached out to Chan with her local bookstore in mind. Brooklyn’s Stories Bookshop and Storytelling Lab has become a fixture for children’s author events since the store opened four years ago. Cooper worried about the store surviving a sustained quarantine without its usual lineup of readings and workshops.

Chan jumped into action, contacting 140 authors and illustrators in New York City, and then the two came up with a plan. “It worked out that I love organizing and making spreadsheets, and Elisha is great with keeping things organic and open, especially as the idea for this project continues to grow,” Chan said. “We make a good team.”

Illustrations of pandas—which Cooper said he likes because they are amusing to depict reading books—started arriving at Stories owner Maggie Pouncey’s house late last week, and she began shipping them out with customer orders on Monday. Others are on the way, including alpacas from Chan (her forthcoming book, The Alpactory, will be published next year by HarperCollins) and Apollo 11 astronauts from Brian Floca (author of Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11).

Pouncey puts one piece of art in every package. “I can’t get over it,” Pouncey said. “It is so generous and really special for the customers who will get this art surprise. It’s such a gift.”

Like many booksellers, Pouncey is not having online orders handled by third parties like Bookshop or Ingram because she wants to maintain a direct connection with readers through each sale. That approach is now paying off as she adds a unique piece of art to the orders coming in.

In just a matter of days, the project has grown to include other stores from across the country, from Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle to Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Fifteen indies are now on board, and Chan is matching five to 10 newly enlisted authors with stores that reach out. She keeps a waiting list of stores until there are enough illustrators to ensure that each store gets a good supply of prints.

“Authors and illustrators can write notes or paint whatever they fancy, and bookstores are welcome to use them however best helps them, whether as a gift with a book order, anniversary celebration, or contribution to a cause the bookstore supports,” Chan said. As long as there are illustrators and stores who want to join them, Chan and Cooper plan to keep going.

For Cooper, seeing how other illustrators are responding to the call has been part of the fun, as they share their work on social media using the hashtag #kidlitartsurprise. “Brian Floca’s paintings made me angry they were so good,” he said. “Everyone is taking it on and it’s a real pleasure to see.”

Still, there is a seriousness of purpose to the effort. “As I’m sure is the same for many children’s book authors and illustrators, the independent bookstore was the first place to support my books, and bring people together through those books,” Chan said. “It felt like this project was the least we could do to say ‘thank you’ and ‘we love you.’ And one of the things I miss the most during these pandemic times is wandering into one of the many indie bookstores around me and browsing, petting the store cat, chatting with booksellers, and seeing my fellow authors’ and illustrators’ work.”

Cooper agrees, saying the effort comes down to one simple sentence: “We want to help.”