Kate Berube’s debut is terrific. It’s a girl and a dog book. A fear book. An overcoming your worries in order to connect book.
(Just look at that cover! The way these two mirror each other, those glimmers of pink!)
Berube’s economy of storytelling really stuck out to me. She does this, in part, through repetition in her set up. Every day. Every day. Every day. Every single day. And then, one different day! Every day Sugar is there. And every day Hannah says, “No thank you,” when asked to pet her. As a reader, you wonder why she says that. But you kind of know too.
There’s this celled spread that shows us so effortlessly the passage of time and how things stay the same. Every day, a dog. Every day a girl saying no but toying with saying yes. Wondering what would happen if. Just look at her eyes and the tilt of her head every time!
That goodbye spread really gets to me, and it has echoes on other spreads too in affecting ways. It shows us so much. The connection between these two. The feeling of being drawn to something and knowing you’re missing out on it, but unable to change things. Not yet.
Until the different day. The day Sugar is not there. And that’s a big day for Hannah. Things change then because she’s worried not about herself, but about Sugar. She’s wondering what it would be like to be lost. She puts herself in Sugar’s place and she’s able, from there, to be brave.
She’s able to take a risk for a sweet dog who’s waiting to be her friend.
This Picture Book Life:Where did the idea for HANNAH AND SUGAR come from? What was the process of creating it (words and art)?
Kate Berube: The idea for Hannah and Sugar came to me in a couple of ways. First, I was trying to be more brave in my life at the time I was writing it and was thinking a lot about what it really means to be brave. I had been mulling over the idea that bravery isn’t really about confidence or boldness, it’s about doing something you are afraid to do—having fear and doing it anyway. I realized that most of the best things in life are a little scary at first.
With that in mind I decided I wanted to write a story about a fear that would be something children could relate to. One day, years ago, I was at the bus stop to pick up some kids I was taking care of and one of the neighborhood families had adopted a dog. All the kids came streaming off the bus and beelined for the new dog, all except one little boy. I couldn’t tell you if that little boy was afraid of dogs or just indifferent but it gave me an idea. That moment inspired the first two spreads of the book.
Of course, it all seems so simple and straightforward in retrospect. It wasn’t AT ALL simple or straightforward at the time. I had many ideas I was playing with and I wasn’t sure which I liked best and which I should be focusing on. I wrote many, many unfinished stories about different fears and also about completely different things altogether. Once I did narrow down my focus to a story about a girl who was afraid of dogs – I still wrote many, many drafts to get the story to where it is now.
I’m currently working on writing a new book and it’s an interesting and frustrating process. I often find myself wishing a finished and perfect story would just come to me all at once. But then I remember that’s just not how it works and that the process of creating a story can be really fun if I can stop focusing on whether or not it’s any good.The only way forward is to try and fail and then try again. That’s my process for both drawing and writing. I just keep trying different things until I find something I like.
TPBL: Are you a dog person/what dogs have you loved?
KB: I wasn’t always a dog person but I am now. The Sugar in the story is named for my real life dog. The real life Sugar has only one eye – which makes her extra cute.
She came into my life through a boyfriend I’d been dating for only a few months. When he told me he was getting a dog I thought to myself, “Well, that might be the end of this relationship!” I just didn’t get the dog thing – they seemed like a nuisance to me – messy and a lot of work.
But, how that changed when I got to know Sugar. I finally understood it. Yeah, she’s messy and takes some work but it’s always more than worth it. She gives me so much love and comfort. Now the boyfriend who introduced me to Sugar is my husband and I cannot imagine life without either of them. Sugar lays beside me in the studio all day as I work and we take lots of walks. Anytime I feel sad or stressed she is there to snuggle up to. I adore her.
TPBL: I love the page that’s all muddy black with the words “Hannah closed her eyes and took a deep breath” very much. It’s so authentic to what it feels like to be really scared and about to face that fear. When and how did that page come about?
KB: I have a sketch book somewhere with that idea in it – an all black page with little words on the bottom “she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.” I think I came up with it on the bus one day – unrelated to this story. And then it just sat in the back of my mind and thankfully came to me when I was writing this story.
I think that’s how a lot of writing books works – we come up with ideas here and there and jot them down and then if we’re lucky we remember them at the right moment and fit the right ones together to tell a story.
TPBL: Who are some picture book creators working today/some picture books you most admire? Who are your influences?
KB: I have a background in observational painting and perhaps it’s not something obvious in my work, but I think all the years of studying painting has had a huge influence on how I create illustrations. Some painters I’ve loved since I was young: Rembrandt, Matisse, Cezanne, Degas, Corot, Monet, Van Gogh, Vuillard, Bonnard, Giacometti, Hokusai, Hopper, Dubuffet, Morandi, Moore, Diebenkorn, Basquiat, Fairfield Porter, Hockney.
As far as children’s book creators – I could list hundreds! I used to work at Powell’s Books in the kid’s room and I read as many children’s books as I possibly could. There are so many who’ve influenced me.
Some children’s book makers I’m thinking about/studying/loving this week are:
Chris Raschka – I’m in awe over his ability to paint very gesturally and loose but also so clearly communicate emotion. His work reminds me of the ideas behind Japanese brush painting – allowing the mind to be free to let the body create.
Beatrice Alemagna – Her work is playful and relaxed but it’s also very, very smart. I’m crazy about all the layers and textures in her illustrations.
Christian Robinson – I adore everything he does and I cannot really figure out why. I could say it’s the combination of his lovely sense of color and his great design and his beautiful hand-painted shapes – but I feel like that’s oversimplifying it.
Kate DiCamillo – I love her books so much. I’ve been trying to reread them and dissect how they work, but I always just get caught up in the story and forget to think about the craft of it.
TPBL: You have a real economy of visuals. For example, you show us time passing on one spread in this sort of four-celled way and the searching scene is also very interestingly laid out. How does that kind of thing come about? Are you at all influenced by comic books?
KB: I do love some comic books and graphics novels but I’m kind of an amateur fan. I love Calvin and Hobbes and Saga, for example, but there are SO many I’m not familiar with. I have read Scott McCloud’s book, Understanding Comics, and learned a ton from it. I would recommend it to anyone who’s creating stories with words and pictures. (Also, the Uri Shulevitz book, Writing With Pictures, taught me a ton about telling a story visually.)
So, to answer your question, yes, perhaps there is a comic book influence, but it wasn’t exactly intentional. I think those pages came about partially because of the constraint of having only 32 pages to work with. It was important to find ways to show passage of time that didn’t take up a lot of pages. Also, it was about pacing the story. I wanted to make it build up at the right speed and having those scenes compacted like they are made the story move at the pace I thought it should.
TPBL: What’s next for you?
KB: I illustrated a picture book called The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, by Curtis Manley, which is coming out in July from Paula Wiseman Books/Simon and Schuster. It was really fun and different to illustrate someone else’s words and it’s a terrific story. A boy tries to teach his cats to read but soon learns one cat is what you might call a “reluctant reader.” A book about discovering the joy of reading – what could be better?!
And I’m working right now on illustrations for a very unique and delightful story called My Little Half Moon, about a child who has a friendship with the moon. It’ll come out next year from Putnam Books and written by Doulgas Jennerich.
And as I mentioned, I’m also working on writing my next book. I’m still searching for the answers to a lot of questions about it so I’m not ready to share anything yet. But I’m excited about it – it will be great to put into practice all the new things I learned from working on my first three books.
Thanks again for having me!
Big thanks to Kate Berube for talking to me and for those images! It was so lovely of her stop by and talk about her wonderful book.