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The award-winning children’s book author and illustrator discusses art, science, and the “wow” moments that make him want to learn more.
“In science, we’re looking at a situation and saying, ‘OK, well, we think it’s this way,’ but did anyone actually look carefully? Has anyone actually studied carefully and collected the data and determined that what we assume is there actually is there? We assume a lot about the way the world actually is.”
Some people might think geology sounds dull, but not Jason Chin. It’s thanks to geology and geomorphology that scientists have discovered vast amounts of information about the Grand Canyon, from its age (they’re still not totally sure about that one) to the many species of creatures that have lived there to the ways water and climate have altered the landscape. Those rocks tell a story, and in his lushly illustrated, Caldecott Honor–winning Grand Canyon (2017), Chin tells part of the story of those rocks, with imaginative flourishes, clever book design, and a bounty of additional information scattered throughout sidebars, page backgrounds, and the back matter.
Chin’s not only interested in rocks, however; he’s covered gigantic trees in Redwoods (2009), the Galápagos in Island (2012), physics in Gravity (2014), and the water cycle, with Miranda Paul, in Water Is Water (2015), among many others, and his signature realistic artwork, typically rendered in watercolor, is ideal for nonfiction. In the following interview, Chin elaborates on what pulls him into a topic, his fascination with the world at large, and the common thread linking art and science.
HUNTER: Tell me a little about the evolution of your art style.
CHIN: I’ve always been a realist illustrator interested in making realistic pictures. A lot of the training to learn to paint and draw realistically comes from studying what things really look like, and I love doing that. I love drawing as a means of learning and observing, so it’s very natural for me to pursue art in that way. When I came to picture books, I came with this particular style, and I think relatively early on I was offered work doing nonfiction. But the book I did that defined all the books that followed was Redwoods.
I knew a little about redwoods before I started the book—I knew that they were tall and they were in California, and I knew the reference in “This Land Is Your Land,” so just a teeny bit about them—but one day I was in the subway and I read a New Yorker article about redwoods, the scientists who climb them, and the tallest tree in the world, and I was fascinated. This article stuck with me and captured my imagination, and as I kept thinking about the trees, it came to me to make the book.
I didn’t think too deeply about it when I came up with the idea, but upon looking back at the book, it’s representative of the way I like to learn. When I’m reading and something captures my imagination, that’s an important part of learning, and the book reflects that feeling.
HUNTER: One of the things that I associate with your illustrations, particularly in books like Redwoods and Grand Canyon, is this immense sense of wonder. Is that a driving force for you as an illustrator, and do you feel like that’s part of your job when you’re making a book for children?
CHIN: Yeah, it is. I choose topics that give me that sense of awe. When I read a book and go, “Wow,” that’s the feeling I want for readers when they read my book because that’s a feeling I like when I’m reading. Also, that sense of wonder drives curiosity, and that’s an important part of learning. Lately, I have been really interested in learning about how science is taught in school, and I’ve been struck by this thought that a lot of science education is concerned with teaching kids the facts, like how big the sun is, how the Earth goes around the sun, the moon goes around the Earth, and so forth. Those facts provide a lot of certainty.
But that’s kind of contrary to the way scientists think and operate, since scientists are constantly dealing in uncertainty. They’re curious people, and they have lots of questions; they seek out uncertainty and try and find answers there. So it occurs to me that teachers have to strike a balance between teaching kids what we do know and nurturing their curiosity so they keep investigating and asking questions. Because the facts come with the authority of being facts, and that authority can have a dampening effect on curiosity and investigation.
HUNTER: Do you think that plays into how you write your own books?
CHIN: When I first started making books, I wasn’t thinking about that at all; I was just tapped into my own curiosity and wonder. But yeah, it absolutely does play into it. There are strong parallels between the practice of science and the practice of art. I think artists and scientists are very similar people in many cases: they’re both interested in investigation and trying to find answers to questions. Artists express what they’ve found in different ways than scientists express what they have found, and their tools of investigation aren’t always the same. But they’re both concerned with seeking truth and expressing the truth they find.
For me, it’s a very natural thing. As a realist artist, I really enjoy studying things and trying to draw them as a means of learning about them. That’s kind of a scientific approach to art. It deals with close observation and recording what is there, not what I’ve perceived to have been there. For example, when young kids draw faces, they’ll often put two eyes on the same side of the face, regardless of where the face is. And that’s because they know there are two eyes there, regardless of whether you can see both eyes from that perspective. A lot of the process of life drawing is learning to see what is there and not what you know or assume is there.
And that’s a parallel between life drawing and science. In science, we’re looking at a situation and saying, “OK, well, we think it’s this way,” but did anyone actually look carefully? Has anyone actually studied carefully and collected the data and determined that what we assume is there actually is there? We assume a lot about the way the world actually is.
HUNTER: Can you tell me a little bit about your process for starting a book like Grand Canyon?
CHIN: It takes that sense of wonder and personal interest in the topic to make me willing to dive in deep on the research, but it also takes a good idea for a book before I really get into the project. Typically, I ask myself, “What’s the story here? Is there a story inherent in the topic, or do I come up with a separate story of a kid engaging with the topic?” When those two things come together, when I have a topic I really care about and a way of presenting it that I think is interesting and worthwhile, then that’s when I settle in for the long haul and commit the next year to making the book.
For Grand Canyon, my original idea for the story was the origin of the canyon. I wanted to depict the river carving out the canyon over 5 or 6 million years and show how the landscape changed over time. But I ran into a real problem when I started doing the research, because the story that I had learned previously was no longer accurate because new evidence had been uncovered.
It was an interesting time to be working on the book because this new kind of big mystery had come up. There’s still valid evidence that points to a canyon that’s 5 or 6 million years old, and other evidence points to a canyon that is as much as 70 million years old, so I think geologists are reconciling these two pieces of evidence and trying to figure out how they can both be true.
After I found this new evidence and realized that my concept for the book wouldn’t work with the story I had envisioned, I had to figure out a new way to approach this topic, but, luckily, I had really fallen in love with the canyon, particularly the ancient history that’s on display there.
There are so many things you can learn about past environments from the rocks there because they’re very old, so I became very fascinated by the idea that you can look at a rock and know something—sometimes quite a bit—about what this spot looked like hundreds of millions of years ago. As I was reading these geology textbooks, I found myself just closing my eyes and trying to imagine these places based on all the evidence that they were presenting, and I found that really interesting to try and do in the book. That’s where the idea for the book came from, this concept of the girl finding a fossil and then that taking her to the past where she could see what it was really like back then.
HUNTER: Obviously, there’s so much more to the Grand Canyon than what you included, and there’s already a lot in the book. How did you choose what got to stay and what had to go?
CHIN: There are broad categories of information about the Grand Canyon. There’s a geology, paleontology, and geomorphology. There’s the ecology and biology of the canyon today. Those are the big categories that are addressed in the book. But another big, big, one is human history at the Grand Canyon. And I decided early on that I couldn’t fit all of those categories as well as the human history, and it seemed appropriate to draw the line there, even though that element is very important.
After that, it was a question of how is this book going to be organized. What I ended up doing was kind of making a hierarchy of information. The primary information—how big it is, how old the rocks are, the key species that live in the canyon, and so forth—was going to be the main text of the book. Then I decided I needed to include some secondary information that would be really helpful to have as you’re reading that primary information. For example, I say at one point that the Grand Canyon region was under the ocean, but I didn’t have space in the main body of the text to explain that. So, I developed these sidebars where readers can find the answers to the questions I hope kids will have as they’re reading. Then there’s tertiary information that went into the back matter, which would appeal to someone who is really curious about the canyon and wanted to spend extra time learning more.
That’s how I divided up the information, and then from there, I decided what to keep based on what served the topic and the story. If it’s not going to serve the story or if it will distract from the narrative elements, then it probably shouldn’t go in the main body of the text. I guess it comes down to what’s absolutely necessary. It’s a picture book, so there’s only so much space, and you only have so much attention from your readers. You’ve got to be respectful of their attention and interest.
HUNTER: How do you approach distilling such big scientific concepts for a younger audience?
CHIN: For me, it’s about using pictures to make concepts visible and doing it in a way that’s more interesting and more engaging than a diagram. Diagrams, which are all over Grand Canyon, are great for making concepts visible. But I find them jarring. I’ll be reading along and a diagram will pull me out of the flow of the story, and I’m bumped out of the experience of being captured.
Abstract concepts take effort on the part of the reader. It takes time to ponder the concept and sort it out for yourself. Reading a book isn’t necessarily going to make a big concept clear on the first read. I try to explain these concepts the way I think is the most accessible, using pictures to help illustrate the idea, but mainly, I try to make a book that kids are going to want to return to and read again, since repetition is key to a lot of learning. For me, that comes down to the strength of the story.
HUNTER: I also wanted to talk a little your latest project, , which seems like such a departure from everything else that we’ve been talking about. How was working on that book different for you than your other projects?
CHIN: When my editor brought me the manuscript and we read it over, I said, “This reminds me a lot of Ruth Krauss.” Because of that, I was thinking of A Hole Is to Dig, and I was thinking of Sendak and how he illustrated her books. The text was wonderfully spare and very open-ended, so I had a lot of options for how to illustrate it. I hit upon this idea to set it in a park with a picnic, which would be a great setting to show all of the things happening in the text. And I was thinking about sharing, which is an important value to teach kids, and it occurred to me that it’s a very American value, so I set the book on the Fourth of July and ended it with fireworks. It seemed like a good, appropriate image to end with.
From there, I decided I would put my own family and all of our friends in the book and set it on Lake Champlain at Oakledge Park, in Burlington, Vermont. I do this frequently: I put people who I know and love into my books, and it’s my way of kind of ensuring that I have an emotional grounding or a passion for the story. When you get a manuscript that’s not your idea originally, it’s important to find your own way into that text, a way to make the project your own and become fully invested in it. I think putting people I know into the book helps me to do that. I’m not very good at just inventing characters out of thin air. It really helps me to base characters on real people. So when I’m illustrating them, I know what they’re thinking or feeling in the picture, even when they’re just in the background.
HUNTER: That strikes me as sort of similar to how you approach your nonfiction books. You’re grounding them in reality. You’ve got real people, real faces, and that’s informing your artwork and your connection to a story just as much as the real rocks in the Grand Canyon.
CHIN: I think there’s definitely something to that. I want my books to feel true and honest. For example, there’s a scene in Pie Is for Sharing where the little sister trips and falls and cuts her knee, but she puts 10 Band-Aids all over her body. It’s cute and endearing, and there are any number of adorable scenarios I could have come up with for that character in the book, but the character’s based on my daughter, and that’s something she does—she pretends to have cuts so she can get a Band-Aid. I wanted the scenes to be tender but not saccharine.
HUNTER: What are you working on next?
CHIN: Next spring, I have another book coming out that I illustrated. It’s by Miranda Paul, and it’s called Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born. We are just about nine months away from publication. So the countdown has begun. It’s about pregnancy and fetal development. In the book, we show a family preparing for the new baby, and we show the embryo becoming a fetus and growing over nine months. Every page you turn, you see the next month and how the fetus has grown, and it’s all shown in actual size. We’re very excited about this one. This is the second book I’ve done with Miranda, and it’s completely different from anything else I’ve ever done.
Coral Reefs. 2011. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $16.99 (9781596435636). K–Gr. 3.
Grand Canyon. 2017. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $19.99 (9781596439504). Gr. 2–5.
Gravity. 2014. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $16.99 (9781596437173). K–Gr. 3.
Island: A Story of the Galapagos. 2012. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $16.99 (9781596437166). Gr. 2–4.
Pie Is for Sharing. By Stephanie Parsley Ledyard. 2018. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $17.99 (9781626725621). PreS–Gr. 2.
Redwoods. 2009. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $16.95 (9781596434301). PreS–Gr. 3.
Water Is Water. By Miranda Paul. 2015. Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, $17.99 (9781596439849). K–Gr. 3.
Sarah Hunter is the Books for Youth Senior Editor at Booklist.
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