Author-Illustrator Interview: Evan Turk

By Traci Sorell

Getting a sneak peek at a beautiful picture book before it’s printed always brings me joy. When the book combines poetry and breathtaking images, my joy increases and my heart sings.

That’s what happened when I saw Evan Turk’s You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks (Atheneum, 2019).

I’m in complete agreement with its five starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Shelf Awareness and BookPage.

So let’s dive in and learn more about how this stunning book and some of Evan’s other acclaimed works came to be.

Evan, You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks showcases so many beautiful national parks. I know you have a personal connection to many of these places. Tell us what prompted you to write this book.

I was inspired to write this book largely out of my own childhood. I grew up in Colorado, and my dad has worked for the National Park Service for 40 years, so a lot of childhood trips were spent visiting the parks in the west. It was such a big part of my childhood and I think it really shaped how I saw myself, nature, and the country.

I lived in New York City for about 10 years, and then my husband Chris and I started to feel like we wanted to get out of the city. I think me wanting to be around nature again was a big part of that, and we ended up moving to the Hudson Valley, about an hour north of the city.

I started drawing my new home, and the nature around us—trees, plants, animals, the Hudson River in all four seasons—and did that for an entire year.

Around the end of that project, I started thinking more broadly about the idea of having a home in nature, and what that means, which really led right into the idea of thinking of the National Parks as a home for all of us. So one day walking by the river, I started writing the poem that would eventually become You Are Home.

What do you hope a reader will take away from You Are Home?

Growing up, I always saw the National Parks as an example of the best that the United States can be. As a gay kid, I found the parks and the idea of nature for preserved for everyone to be the one part of our nation’s creed that really spoke to me when a lot of the other rhetoric actively didn’t.

But what I found when I was working on this book, was that I was coming from a place of privilege and that all people have not always felt welcome in the parks.

People of color and especially the Indigenous people from whom the park lands were taken, were often excluded from this idea of “everyone.” The fact that these parks today exist on Native land is something that the National Park Service itself is contending with, and it’s impossible to talk about the Parks while ignoring this issue.

I wanted this book to really try and speak to everyone and say that, even if you’ve never been to a National Park, or you’ve been and you didn’t feel welcome, no matter what, these parks are for you. You have a place there.

There is so much in the National Parks—animals, plants, ecosystems, millions of years of geologic history, and cultural history—and I want readers to know that the parks are a place where they can go to remember that they are a part of all of that. I want readers to go out and see these places and feel that belief, the power of nature, and the idea that we are all connected.

You’ve written and illustrated three picture books and also illustrated three picture books written by other authors. With one, you have text you have to react to and, with the other, you have to generate everything, so I imagine it’s a bit different creative approach. Please share with us what that process of creation is like for each.

When I’m working with someone else’s text, it’s very exciting for me, because I get to delve into a world that I haven’t necessarily looked at before. I love to do research, particularly art research, and look for my own way to connect with whatever story I am trying to tell.

A lot of times, I’ll try and bring more historical and artistic context to the central narrative through the art (since the text of a picture book usually can’t offer all of that in such a short format!)

With Muddy (written by Michael Mahin (Atheneum 2017)) and the Grandfather Gandhi books (written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus (Atheneum 2014, 2016)), I used artistic influences from the broader art context of those figures to make sure that the visual vocabulary was rooted in those cultures as well.

Referencing artists from the Harlem Renaissance and African-American quiltmaking traditions in the art for Muddy, and Indian miniature painting and shadow puppetry in Grandfather Gandhi helped make the visual storytelling more rich and exciting, and help give cultural context to the main narratives.

When I work on my own projects, there is a lot of that research as well, but it stems from something I am already interested in. When working on my own manuscripts, there is often a visual approach that is solidifying as well, and the two tend to kind of arrive simultaneously.

I think that for me, the biggest difference is the feeling that with someone else’s text, everything I’m doing is kind of winding around the central narrative and rhythm they’ve already created.

It’s not so much that the art is secondary to the text, but that the text already exists and the art needs to find a way to harmonize, enhance, and uplift the story already being told.

What craft and career advice do you have for beginning author-illustrators?

The best advice I can give is to always write and make art about what you’re passionate about, and focus on what kind of stories you want to tell and art you want to make. It’s been my experience that eventually you will find a home for those stories.

A lot of people run into a problem of trying to fit with what’s trendy, or what’s selling currently, and I think that’s a bit short-sighted in terms of a career.

With The Storyteller (Atheneum, 2016), I heard people say “they don’t publish folktales” and that books have to be less than 500 words. But the final book is something like 1,500 words with a long author’s note, and has several different folktales put together, so you never know. Always keep learning what kind of stories are best for you to tell, and being honest with your own experience and perspective.

My second piece of advice, kind of more specifically for illustrators, is to look beyond illustrators and the children’s book world for your influences. I think a lot of young illustrators only look at who is working now, and I think to find a unique voice, you have to look beyond your own field.

Look at art from around the world—historical and contemporary, music, theater, fashion, stage design, whatever you can—and I think that’s going to lead you into having more unique taste and a more unique approach to children’s books (which I guess goes for writing, as well!)

What do you have coming up next?

I have a couple of projects in the works right now!

I just finished the artwork for a book I wrote called A Thousand Glass Flowers (Atheneum, 2020) which is about Marietta Barovier, one of the first female glass artisans and entrepreneurs, who lived during the early Renaissance. She went on to invent a particular bead called the rosetta which would go on to be one of the most valuable currencies of her time, and would be traded all around the world.

It was this fascinating history, through this one bead and this one inventor, who is only somewhat recently resurfacing in the historical record. It was wonderful to bring her story and Renaissance Venice to life in a fun and contemporary way.

I also have a new project I’m getting started on with Abrams Kids, written by Cynthia Levinson, called The People’s Painter. It is about one of my favorite artists of all time: Ben Shahn. He was a Lithuanian-born American illustrator and artist who used art to help bring about social change. I can’t wait to dive into his world and look at more of his work! That book will be out in Spring 2021.

Cynsational Notes

Evan Turk is an award-winning illustrator, author and animator. He is the illustrator of the Grandfather Gandhi books, as well as Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, and the author and illustrator of The Storyteller, Heartbeat (Atheneum, 2018), and You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks.

He received the 2018 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for New Illustrator, and has been on The New York Times Best Illustrated Books list, as well as being featured in the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and The New York Public Library best books lists.

Evan grew up in Colorado and loves nature and being outdoors. He loves to travel all over the world and learn about other people and places through drawing and the interactions that come from it. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, NY with his husband, Chris, and his two cats, Pica and Bert.

Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.

Traci is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor, a 2019 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.

Her newest works include: At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, September 24, 2019); and “College Degree,” which appears in Thanku: Poems of Gratitude, edited by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Marlena Myles (Millbrook, 2019).

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.