Welcome to the final post of 2019 friends! And what could be a more special and cool way to usher in the New Year than with a spotlight on a fantastic children’s artist? Canadian author and illustrator Aidan Cassie– who debuted on the children’s literature scene with the delightful Sterling, Best Dog Ever– published her second picture book called Little Juniper Makes It BIG in the summer of this year.
In what can only be described as a happy accident, Aidan and I met at a children’s publishing event this fall. A bit of sparkly dust and kismet must’ve been out in the world that night as I am not able to attend publishing/book events often yet somehow my husband and I ended up at a table right next to…Aidan Cassie! Whose newest (marvelous) picture book I has read just days before! Long story short: I had the fortune of being able to connect with Aidan after meeting at the event, thanks to friends at Raincoast Books. Aidan has very generously given her time in doing this interview and giving us insight about her journey to publication, her art background, details about her home studio, and so much more (including photos!). I hope you enjoy our detailed Q&A, and stick around to read more about Little Juniper Makes It BIG!
You debuted on the picture book scene with the fantastic Sterling, Best Dog Ever. Could you please tell us about that book’s process to publication: how long you worked on it, what your submission process was like, etc.?
STERLING’s publication was a bit of a Cinderella story – submission attempts: one. The story came together rather quickly one summer when I smashed together themes of ‘trying to be something you are not’ with wiener dogs and forks. The premise seemed ridiculous, but I’d had a dachshund who didn’t act like a dog myself, and the warm yet silly story kept pulling me back. With my book dummy created by summer’s end, I researched and prioritized all the agencies of author-illustrators who’s picture books I loved – then I submitted starting at the top of the list. Miraculously I found my amazing agent, Wendi Gu, on that first submission. After a few revisions Wendi found a home for STERLING at FSG/Macmillan where they loved the tale as much as she did.
A year after I’d written STERLING my family decided to spend a year in Provence – we traded homes, cars and even our dogs with another family who stayed in our home on Salt Spring Island. After a summer filled with croissants, castles and cafés, I settled into making the art for STERLING at a wobbly little table, in a thick-walled home, outside a quaint medieval village. By the time it was done, just after Christmas, it was still a year and a half from being on shelves. So, while still in France, I started writing new books.
How did your experience with Little Juniper Makes It Big differ from your debut?
After making STERLING the question came from the publisher: “Have you got any other book ideas?” Fortunately I’d created a dummy-book for Juniper’s story before I’d written STERLING. FSG was excited to take on this story too, about a little raccoon who feels too small for just about everything, until she meets an even smaller friend who sees things from a whole different perspective. Amazingly I also got a contract for a third (then as-yet-unwritten) book from them. A Cinderella story, I know!
Did you always intend to publish as both author and illustrator? Was the option ever presented to you to collaborate as EITHER author OR illustrator on a picture book?
As a narrative artist I’ve always felt like my job title should be ‘illustrauthor’, with the art part first. I write very visually; my note books are a tangled mix of words and sketches. Ever since I got into animation and discovered storytelling through film I’ve been the creator of both the imagery and the words. I try to give just enough of each to allow the story to come together in the space between what is said and what is shown. Though so far I’ve only ever been both author and illustrator, I imagine it would be terribly fun to work on the art of someone else’s story.
Before you got into publishing picture books, what was/is your (educational or work) background in?
I went to university to become an ethologist (studying animal behavior), then switched to an Education degree, but ultimately decided I loved art and story-telling. At Emily Carr University of Art and Design I got a Bachelor of Media Arts in Animation. My film went into many festivals, but I didn’t work in the industry; instead I did character and product design for a giftware company (making cute hedgehog salt-shakers and garden gnome birdbaths). Years later, while I was pregnant, I decided it was time to make a career shift to the most satisfying art form of all: picture books! I feel like all those previous paths helped prepare me for this one – now I get to study animals to create my characters, talk to kids through my books, and make art all day.
There’s a lot of back-and-forth I read on social media regarding the merits of attending versus not attending art school for aspiring illustrators. If you would like to share, I would love to hear your views on the matter!
Well, it was great for me. But then I love tasks, projects, and specific challenges. For others not afraid of ‘the blank page’ or those who’s growth comes best from personal exploration, maybe it would just moderate a voice that was uniquely theirs already. Personally, I found years of focusing on my craft was amazing, but if you had the time and dedication to do that at home without art school perhaps you could get fantastic results too. For me the mentors, the peer group, the idea sharing, the whole learning by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, the critical feedback, and the constant exposure to new thoughts and inspirational work allowed for a pretty blissful way toward creative growth.
What, so far, has been the most surprising thing about working as a children’s author-illustrator?
Most surprising is that I can’t seem to get two books made in a year. The math suggests I could do it as there’s plenty of gaps between book making tasks, but somehow they fill up with research, writing, sketching out ideas, planning author talks and a host of little things. I would love to get faster, but right now a book-a-year seems to be my pace.
What, so far, has been the best thing about working as a children’s author-illustrator?
Hands down – doing what I love: puzzling out all the moving parts that make a story something readers adore (and want to return to), and then delving into that world as I create the illustrations. I also love that I have a super flexible schedule – I work 6-7 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. And that I can do my job, and therefore live, anywhere. And seeing my books getting enjoyed by kids! That’s the best!
Growing up, who were your favourite writers and/or illustrators?
It is decidedly the illustrators that stand out for me. As a kid I’d pour over the detailed works and worlds of Arthur Rackham, Kit Williams, the “Gnomes” illustrator Rien Poortvliet, and the ever-fascinating creations of M.C. Ecsher. But when it came to children’s books, I’m afraid my taste was pretty pedestrian; I loved Lowly Worm and Richard Scarry’s detailed and labeled worlds, the Berenstain Bears, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.
Who are currently some of the illustrators (picture book or other) whose work you love to follow?
I’m so spoiled for choice, what a wonderful field I’m in! My ‘Top 10 Author-illustrator Crush List’ would have to include Birgitta Sif, Carter Goodrich, Emily Gravett, Shaun Tan, Corinna Luyken, Brendan Wenzel, the ‘Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen team’ and Ryan T. Higgins.
I always love hearing about and learning about children’s authors/illustrators writing spaces. Can you tell us a little bit about your work space- and what you especially love about it!
Oh I LOVE my home-studio. I work on Salt Spring Island where my dog, Sooka, and I are regularly distracted by the passing wild life bounding, flying and slinking by. I often keep my blinds closed to the beautiful forest view while working so I can focus, to Sooka’s chagrin. I love my three big cork boards (to storyboard my ideas on recipe cards), my oodles of picture books, my clean-ish computer desk and my a messy art desk, and, importantly, I love that my studio has doors that close. I do like solitude.
Looking back on 2019, what have been some of your pop culture highlights (in books, podcasts, music, movies, television series)?
At the BC Book Prize gala I picked up Esi Edugyan’s remarkable novel, Washington Black. While illustrating my books I love listening to Matthew Winner interview other KidLit bookmakers on The Children’s Book Podcast. My teen daughter introduced me to the intoxicating sound of Billie Eilish (though she thinks I’m too old for it!). One Child Nation was a stellar recent documentary, and as to TV, too much to list, but my teen and I love watching The Good Place together.
Do you have any projects set for release in 2020 that readers can look forward to?
I do! THE WORD FOR FRIEND is coming out this summer, and I just received the ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) today! It is my third book with FSG/Macmillan and was inspired by some of the challenges I had that year we were in France. It is the story of a little pangolin who, like me, discovers that moving to a new country can be isolating and made even more daunting without a common language. But she has a very creative friend to help her discover the universal language of friendship.
Thank you so much, Aidan!
You can find Aidan Cassie online:
Now let’s take a look at Little Juniper Makes It BIG:
Aidan Cassie, the creator of Sterling, Best Dog Ever, employs her pitch-perfect humor and heartwarming illustrations here again to help little ones love themselves at any size in Little Juniper Makes It BIG.
What Juniper lacks in size, she makes up for in heart. And her heart is dead-set on growing up and getting taller. She’s tired of having to reach for the cookie jar or use a stepping stool for the toilet. Everything in Juniper’s world seems to be made for adults. Ugh! Juniper is industrious, however, and builds several silly contraptions to help reach her goals. But it isn’t until she makes a fun new friend at school, Clove, who is even smaller than Juniper, that she is able to see her world from a new perspective – and appreciate all sizes, big or small.
Juniper was little. Too little, she thought…
Like all clever children, she found unfairness most annoying.
After an accidental fall into the toilet at home, a young raccoon named Juniper grumbles about being “too little”: “Adults only build things in adults sizes…If kids made houses, we’d make them so they fit properly”. While mommy raccoon reminds Juniper to be patient and that she is indeed growing bit by bit every day, Juniper is frustrated and focused on the fact that “everything’s been too big for” her her “whole entire life”. So, being a clever and resourceful little raccoon, Juniper devises “a cunning plan” to help herself get to things- important things like cookies- in harder to reach places. Those plans, unfortunately, do not work out so well. At school, however, Juniper feels pretty “average”, especially next to a new classmate- a terrifically tiny, adorable and bright grey squirrel- named Clove. When Juniper and Clove make plans to get together and work on “un-smallness” over the next weekend, Juniper can barely contain her excitement. Only, when Juniper gets to Clove’s home, she finds that she -maybe for the first ever- is in a place where she’s actually “adult-sized”…and it doesn’t feel all that promising. By spending some time with Clove and Clove’s perfectly sized squirrel world, Juniper finds herself considering that maybe she, Juniper, is kind of perfect- just right– just as she is.
There are picture books whose story and art do indeed make you smile, grin and sigh with joyful, beaming feelings, and Little Juniper Makes It BIG is one of those rare reads. Aidan Cassie has delivered a wonderfully smashing, sweet and uplifting tale. The story itself is strongly written: direct and compelling for both younger and older readers, with a clear, heartwarming message of self-acceptance (that never feels like a heavy “message”!). And the art! Oh, the artwork is marvelous, absolutely full of warmth and charm. The characters of Juniper and Clove, their families, schoolmates, as well the details of Juniper’s and Clove’s surroundings are so gorgeously and brightly done (you might just want to take a dive into the pages!) Overall, Little Juniper Makes It BIG is beautiful read with lots of heart. Exceptional storytelling and artwork make Aidan Cassie’s sophomore picture book a standout and sure to appeal to readers who enjoy the work of authors and illustrators such as Teagan White, Jan Brett, Lesley-Anne Green, Emily Gravett, and Charles Santoso.
Warm wishes to you all for a lovely and safe New Year, and thank you all for supporting my site through the year!
I received a copy of Little Juniper Makes It BIG courtesy of Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Raincoast Books for helping organize, and to Aidan Cassie for her generosity and time. Photos and illustrations are courtesy of Aidan Cassie.