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Open This Little Book: Illustrator Suzy Lee’s 2013 BGHB Picture Book Honor Speech

open this little bookPublisher Victoria Rock, on behalf of Suzy Lee:

Suzy recently made the long journey from Seoul, Korea, to the United States to participate in the National Book Festival in Washington, DC — in fact, the poster for the festival this year features a painting of Suzy’s that is based on the closing image in Open This Little Book. Unfortunately, because of that, she can’t be here this evening.

When we let Suzy know that I’d be happy to read her remarks on her behalf, her very “Suzy” response was that she wanted me to tell you that she was “grateful to receive this honorable prize.”

That is Suzy, with the essence of an idea distilled. Much like the images in her books.

So with your permission I will add a few thoughts.

The process of creating this book was most definitely not linear. It started with Jesse’s manuscript. In the initial draft the characters weren’t animals but people of different professions and relationships. I loved the message in that — that books were for everyone — but I worried that the specific nature of the various characters might add a layer of unintentional meaning. We also wanted to be sure that we found a way to highlight a really key element of the manuscript — that it wasn’t simply about books, it was about the action of reading. It was about the anticipation that comes with opening a book. And the unexpected things that happen when you do.

That combination seemed to call for more than a standard book. Not an unusual format for format’s sake, but something that would truly enhance the intent and experience of the book. Once we figured that out — which the ever-patient Jesse will attest took quite a bit of time — all we needed was an illustrator. But who?

In retrospect, it is almost as if our goal was to come up with a book for Suzy to illustrate. Suzy not only trained as a fine artist, a painter, but she also has a master’s degree in the art of bookmaking itself. Those of you who are familiar with her other books know about how she brings her awareness of how a book is made and used into her work. Not just by thinking about how her illustrations will work within the physical parameters of a book, but by actually making those elements part of the story. If you look at her book, Wave, you can see that there are really three main characters — the little girl, the wave…and the gutter of the book. It is the conceptual made accessible. We were all extremely excited by the prospect of her bringing that to this book as well.

When Suzy agreed to take on the project, she asked me to tell her about Jesse’s inspiration and intent for it as well as my thoughts about it. And so began a dialogue between author, illustrator, editor, and designer. It was Suzy who suggested that the characters could be animals. Jesse agreed, and in turn suggested that they be not just any animals, but the animals we regularly encounter in storybooks old and new.

Suzy’s touch in Open This Little Book is subtle. Look closely at how color is used. Look at how pattern is used on the various covers. See how the world within the book is flat before the climactic reading experience and more painterly afterwards. Look carefully at the characters. What is that white rabbit carrying? Well, of course, it is a pocket watch. Is the rabbit carrying the watch when he heads home afterwards? You know, he isn’t. Such a small detail, and yet through it and a myriad of other seemingly minor details, the book takes on another powerful layer of meaning. It is a book about friendship. A book that was created through collaboration became a book about collaboration.

At Chronicle, the author, artist, editor, designer, and production manager who collaborate on a book are called the “Make Team.” (And here I would like to acknowledge Sara Gillingham, the designer, and Steve Kim, the production manager, as I know Suzy would do. Both were an integral part of the creative process.) What I loved about being part of the Make Team on this particular book was that each one of us was excited by the conceptual nature of the book, but none of us lost sight that in the end we wanted it to be a book that children would love. I have been sent videos of children reading this book. I love seeing how delighted they are when they realize that the pages in the book get smaller and smaller. They don’t know it, but they are learning not simply about the power of story but also the power of the physical book. I especially love that as they turn those ever-smaller pages, readers often lean further and further into the book. Those tiny pages literally draw them into the world that Jesse and Suzy have created.

But along with the story and an appreciation for the book form itself, something else lingers. When Sara first read a copy of the book to her young son, he asked her “Who is the giant?” and before she could answer, he said, “I know — it’s us!” Suzy has said what she admires in illustration are pictures that are mysterious and convey the sense that the artist enjoyed creating them. I’d say she delivered on both counts. And I’d add a third thing — joyful art that makes you think. Thank you, Suzy Lee. And, again, on behalf of Suzy, thank you judges and guests for this very honorable prize.

About Suzy Lee
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