The Tree in Me: An Interview with Corinna Luyken
March 18, 2021 § 5 Comments
I am thrilled to welcome picture book creator, Corinna Luyken, to the blog today! I have long dreamed of hosting authors and illustrators in these pages, but I want to do it in a way that ties into my mission of creating lifelong readers by nurturing a culture of reading aloud in the home—even after kids are reading by themselves. Corinna isn’t just one of our family’s favorite author-illustrators; as a mother, she’s also deeply invested in reading to her tween daughter. What I hope will feel different and inspiring about this interview is that, in addition to talking about her creative process and her newest book, I ask about the ways in which she has nurtured her own daughter’s reading journey—and even what some of their favorite read alouds have been. (As a result, I now have an even bigger #tbr pile.)
Earlier this week, I did a deep dive into Corinna’s exquisite new picture book, The Tree in Me (you can find my post here), and that’s what we’ll predominantly be talking about today. But I wanted to mention some of our previous favorites as well. I believe Corinna has the distinct honor of appearing on this blog more than any other creator! Her debut picture book, The Book of Mistakes, is still one of my children’s all-time favorites. It gave us language for framing our mistakes as beginnings, not endings. She followed that up by illustrating Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, written by Marcy Campbell, which I chose for my Favorite Picture Book of the Year post in 2018, and I still tear up every time I read it. My Heart was the next book she both wrote and illustrated, and for its metaphorical musing on empathy and connection, it is a kind of companion book to The Tree in Me.
My children have always been drawn to Corinna’s art—in particular, her bold, expressive use of color. (I especially love what she says about color in our interview—specifically, her answer to a question my daughter wanted me to ask: “What is your favorite color?”) But, increasingly, I also find myself appreciating her touch with the written word. She doesn’t simply choose her words carefully, she gives them a rhythm that translates beautifully into reading aloud. In sum, she does what many strive to do and few succeed: she invites reflection. In a fresh, unexpected, and pared-back way, her books speak to something essential about the human experience; we can’t help but be a tiny little bit changed when we come to the last page.
Me: Welcome, Corinna! I am so grateful to you for being here today—it’s a dream come true! Let’s start with the challenge of creating during these crazy, uncertain times. I’ve read that you are inspired to create by the “messiness of life” (which I love, by the way). Life has certainly felt a fair bit messy this past year. Can you talk about how you’ve sustained your creativity through the pandemic? How has your inspiration for writing and illustrating evolved during this time?
Corinna: It’s certainly been a messy year. I have to remind myself to be kind—kind to myself when it comes to judging my art making as well as my parenting, kind to my family, and kind to everyone I encounter when I go out into the world— we all need it so much these days.
One thing I’ve noticed is that, in spite of it being much harder to focus, I’ve also become more aware of the tremendous relief that occurs when I am deep in creative work. Quite a few books have been written about this state of “flow.” And throughout the pandemic and other upheavals of the year, it’s been harder to tap into. But the flip side is that now, when I am in that state, the relief is so much more palpable. On days when my head is buzzing with the stress of everything…once I begin to draw and lose myself in the work, I usually emerge less stressed. Which is something to be grateful for. With everything else that is going on in our world right now, I am also grateful to have work that can speak directly to the next generation. Also, it helped that the book I was working on through the first part of the pandemic felt like a meaningful project. (More about Something Good, by Marcy Campbell, later.)
Me: Themes of strength and resilience run through countless children’s books—and yet, the metaphor of a tree feels entirely fresh in your hands. Where did the idea for The Tree in Me come from?
The Tree in Me is a book I’ve wanted to make for a very long time. It has roots in a book I read in high school: Peace Is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh. In the book, he describes a mindfulness practice where you start with one thing (a table, an orange, a tree) and you ask, what is this table made of? Your first thought might be that it’s made of wood, nails, and glue. But the next question is: what is the glue made of? What about the wood? The nails? These questions lead to more questions: Who mined the metal to make the nails? Who worked in the factory that made the glue? Who grew the food to feed these workers? Who taught them what they knew? This chain of questions is called looking deeply. And it doesn’t take long before you realize that without the sun, the wind, the rain, the mushrooms, the bees, and the rest of the forest, there would be no tree; there would be no table. Likewise, without a community of other people, there would be no carpenter; and again, no table. And so, the idea is that if you look deeply enough, you will see that everything in the world is connected to everything else.
This practice changed the way I saw the world and my place in it. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to make a book that was about looking deeply and seeing connection. In one way or another, perhaps all of my books so far have been about perception and different ways of seeing. With The Book of Mistakes, it was zooming out that created an opportunity to see things differently. With The Tree in Me, I wanted to do the opposite—to go deep within, and to see how that might shift our perspective.
Over the years, I’ve tried a few times to make a book about the inter-connectedness of life, but they always felt forced. More recently, I was thinking about how young children can see some of these connections more easily than adults. Because the practice of looking deeply is basically an imagination exercise. And children are imagination experts. I was thinking about all of the things that my daughter has taught me, and all of the things that I’ve forgotten, that I might have known or understood better when I was a child. I was also thinking about how difficult it can be for me to play pretend with her… how quickly I tire of the game. I’ve always felt a little sad about that. And that sadness got me thinking about what the world might be like if grown-ups were a little better at imagining and seeing connection; a little more willing to let children be our teachers.
Me: That’s beautiful. As a parent, I, too, have often observed how much easier it is for our children to surrender to make-believe play, as if their lines of where things start and stop are not nearly as fixed as ours. What is your hope for the book?
Corinna: I like to think of it as an invitation—an invitation to look deeply, an invitation to imagine, and an invitation to celebrate all of the connections that make life possible.
Me: When I was thinking up questions, my daughter naturally wanted in on the action. She pointed out the difference in your artistic style from The Book of Mistakes to The Tree in Me—the former is tighter, with finer lines and more detail, whereas the latter feels looser, more impressionist, perhaps. We both wondered, has this evolution happened consciously? How have you seen your style change from book to book? And what might we expect in the future?
Corinna: Yes, in many ways this has been a conscious decision and evolution of style. It comes from my love of experimentation and play, which is such a joyful part of art making for me. I’m always trying to loosen up a bit when I draw, because I find the energy of a first sketch is often more honest and satisfying than the final art. And I love experimenting with different mediums to see how shifting from ink to printmaking or pencil can change the quality of the line and thus the feeling of the art.
However, the most important thing to me is that the style of the art serves the story. Because of this, I begin each book with a period of experimentation where I give myself permission to make a lot of art that I might not like. The goal in making all of this art is to find the approach that best represents the spirit of the book. Over the years, it has also become more important to me that there is some flexibility to the medium, so I don’t get too tight or “stuck” when I make the inevitable mistakes.
That said, my next author/illustrator book (The Arguers, 2023) will have a style that is much more similar to The Book of Mistakes. And the book I am working on right now, Patchwork, written by Matt de la Peña (Fall 2022), will probably have a mix of both styles—some tighter ink lines combined with loose/rough/impressionistic gouache. With Patchwork there is an opportunity for the art to expand the reader’s sense of what is beautiful. And I have ideas about how the art might be a bridge between what we easily think of as beautiful (like tidy ink lines) and things that are more worn/mismatched/broken. But I’m still in the experimental stages of that book, so don’t know quite how it’s all going to shape up.
Me: Yippppeeee, more books coming, I can hardly wait! I’ve always loved how you play with color in each of your books. The Book of Mistakes and My Heart have that unmistakable yellow, and that neon pink in The Tree in Me is positively electric (it makes me want to carry the book everywhere). Can you talk about the role of color in your creation process?
Color is my first love. It’s the entryway into all of my projects, the first thing I try to sort out when I’m starting on a new book. It’s always connected to the emotional core of the story, and it’s also the element that brings me the most joy when I’m deep into a project.
With The Tree In Me, I didn’t use any green in the final book because I didn’t want it to be read too literally. (Also, I’ve been wanting to make a book with neon pink for a long time.) My hope is that using fluorescent pink (which we almost never see in nature) and mustard yellow will place the book in a more liminal space—in between the outside world and an interior one. A place where everything that has made us can exist all together, all at once.
Me: OK, my daughter is dying to ask, what is your favorite color?
Instead of a favorite color, I usually have color combinations that I’m in love with. These change from season to season and book to book. (Though my love for yellow never goes away…this probably has something to do with living in the Pacific NW, surrounded by so much grey.)
When I was working on The Tree in Me, neon pink and mustard yellow were some of my favorites. But right now, I’m loving the feeling of a very pale grey-lavender next to a deep rust brown, or a blue sooo dark it’s almost black; and also, the way a very pale peach, yellow, or mint can make those colors shine! In fact, I’m in the midst of trying to figure out how those colors might live together in the book I’m working on now (Patchwork).
Me: Favorite combinations instead of single colors. I LOVE that answer. I’m totally stealing that the next time someone asks me my favorite color. So, switching gears a bit, I know from following your lovely Instagram account that you have a daughter with whom you enjoy sharing books, and you and I have often found ourselves drawn to similar favorites. Can you talk about the role of reading aloud in your daily life? How and when do you make time for it, and is it something that has evolved as your daughter has gotten older?
Corinna: Yes! I’ve noticed those similarities, too. In fact, I’ve started adding all your recommendations to our to-read list because they are always spot on.
I read out loud to my daughter every night before bed. It’s a ritual that we’ve shared for as long as she’s been able to sit and listen to a book….so almost 11 years. It’s such an important part of the day for both of us. We do it no matter how busy the day, even if it’s just for ten minutes. It’s our winding down, an opportunity to snuggle and connect no matter how busy the rest of the day has been.
Me: Isn’t it amazing how much connection can happen in just ten minutes?! I feel the same. Reading aloud is like a collective breathing out. What are you and your daughter reading at the moment, and what are some of your all-time favorite read alouds?
Corinna: We just started reading Raybearer a few nights ago, and we’re already completely hooked. Right before that we read Root Magic, which was wonderful. Other books we’ve loved reading together include Other Words for Home, The Parker Inheritance, The Night Diary, Circus Mirandus, Merci Suarez Changes Gears…there are so many!
I also have a whole stack of books that I’ve read recently because she loved them so much and insisted I read them, too. These include Roll With It, Out of My Mind, The Dark Lord Clementine, The Kiranmala series by Sayantani Dasgupta, Where The Mountain Meets the Moon (the whole series is amazing), George, and The Mighty Heart of Sunny St James. Right now, we are both also in the middle of the Wings of Fire series, which she adores. I just finished book ten, and they keep getting better with each book!
Me: Gah! So many good ones. The language in Raybearer…amIright? I love the diversity across your choices, too. How do you intentionally nurture a love of books and reading in your family? What’s one thing that has worked well in supporting your daughter’s reading journey? What’s something you realized wasn’t working at all?
I think all of those years of reading picture books every night before bed helped a great deal. And creating a connection between reading and shared family time has been important. (We read the Harry Potter books out loud as a whole family. That was such an exciting/engaging story, and it really got her hooked on reading together as a family.)
I think it also means a lot to her that I am willing to read books that she recommends. It gives me insight into what she cares about, as well as the kinds of issues she’s struggling with, and it’s another wonderful way to connect over books.
Also, I support/encourage her reading graphic novels. I don’t think the specifics of what she is reading are as important as the feeling that reading is an activity that belongs to her. We did go through a long period where she was reading the same graphic novels over and over (and over) again. That was fine for a while, but eventually we agreed that she should have one novel that she is also making her way through. At school, they used to read for 20 minutes quietly in class after lunch recess, so we’ve started doing that at home. It’s nice because it feels less like me telling her what to read and more like we are borrowing some of the structure from her old school day and bringing it to our home school life.
Me: I’ve also started reading some of the middle-grade books my daughter recommends, and I can tell she’s pleased as punch that I respect her opinions enough to make time for those books. She loves asking me what part I’m on, and then smiling slyly when I try to predict what’s going to happen! OK, back to your books. I know you’ve got another collaboration with Marcy Campbell coming this fall (and given my love for Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse, I am over-the-moon excited). Can you tell us about that, as well as what else we can look forward to in the near future?
Corinna: Something Good is the story of something bad being written on a bathroom wall at an elementary school, and the way in which the community responds (with shock, suspicion, worry, more cruelty) and then ultimately comes together to begin to heal. It’s a book about connection, community, and transformation. This is the book that I spent a large part of the pandemic working on…and I was grateful to have a project that felt meaningful to work on during such a challenging year.
Me: I’m stealing this final question from an interview I recently heard with Christina Soontornvat, another favorite children’s author, who talked about the question she asked everyone she interviewed for her non-fiction book, All Thirteen. What’s one thing you don’t get asked enough that you wish people knew about you, your creative process, or your books?
Corinna: I have a quote by Paul Klee up on my studio wall—“art does not reproduce the visible, rather it makes visible.” And Edgar Degas said something very similar: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” This is something I like to think about when I make books. There are many beautiful books in the world that are primarily interested with reproducing or recreating the world around us, as it is. (And I‘m not saying that those books are not art!) However, the longer I make books, the more I realize that those are not the books that need me to be part of their making.
What I’m interested in has everything to do with perception, and the ability of art to alter people’s perception of the world around them, in an expansive way. I’m interested in what art can make visible, that we might have otherwise missed. All of my books do this in one way or another. Often, this means looking at the world with our hearts and an open mind, instead of with only our eyes.
There is magic in picture books—in the interplay between words and pictures, in the way that they are meant to be shared—that allows them to do this in beautiful and surprising ways. And through picture books we get to share this magic, this expansive sense of possibility, with future generations—and that is endlessly exciting to me.
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The Tree in Me is published by Dial Books for Young Readers. All opinions are my own. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases through the links above, although I prefer we also shop local and support our communities when we can.