Five questions for Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith

I Talk like a River (Porter/Holiday) — a collaboration between poet Jordan Scott and award-winning illustrator Sydney Smith — has received multiple starred reviews. The story takes us into the psyche of a boy who struggles with stuttering. After a “bad speech day,” the boy’s father takes him for a walk by a river and tells his son that he talks like the “proud” river — “bubbling, churning, whirling, and crashing” — allowing the boy to think about his speech challenges in a new and therapeutic way. Smith’s illustrations are a tour de force, showing both the boy’s inner emotions and the beauty of the river that ultimately equips him with a metaphorical framework: “Even the river stutters. Like I do.”

1. How were you two brought together for this project?

Jordan Scott: We were thankfully brought together by the great Neal Porter [vice president and publisher of Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Holiday House Books]. Oh, and Starbucks coffee.

Sydney Smith: Neal introduced me to Jordan’s text, and I was instantly drawn to its sincerity and emotion. Later we met at a coffee shop in Toronto, and I was so relieved he was as pleasant and kind as his writing suggested. I will always work extra hard on a book if it’s for good people. And Neal and Jordan are the best!

[Photo of Jordan (l) by Andrew Zawacki. Photo of Sydney (r) by Steve Farmer.]

2. Jordan, you’ve written poetry for adults, and your poetry has been adapted into a short film called Stutter. But this is your children’s book debut. What made you want to write a book for children?

JS: I’ve always wanted to write books for children. When I first began writing poetry in high school, I remember coming across Dennis Lee’s poetry. I had only known Dennis as the author of Alligator Pie and was completely surprised he wrote poetry books for adults. It was such an incredible moment, because right away I had this relationship to his work that I would not have had without reading his work for children. Alligator Pie was such a formative book for me because it opened language to so much possibility. As a child I remember taking such joy in the way Lee made language sound — in the way he made language strange and beautiful. This is the same kind of joy I take in poetry. I guess this is a long way to say that I wanted to write books for children as a continuance of this joy and beauty in language. I’d love to introduce children to the endless possibilities of poetry.

3. Jordan, when you got your first glimpse of the illustrations for this book, what was it like for you to see the ways in which Sydney extended your text?

JS: It was a beautiful experience. I actually couldn’t make my way through the book on the first read, as it seemed unreal. I’ve spent so much of my career as a poet working with the page as a field of composition and trying to make words burst into image and color. Seeing how Sydney did this to my words with his materials is a real gift.

What’s truly remarkable about his work in the book is that he really understands the stutter on an emotional and aesthetic level. Emotionally, the artwork almost places the stutter in the background, like a low ambient noise, that hums throughout the book. The stutter is present, obviously, but it’s not the entirety of the child’s experience or identity. It’s hard to explain how meaningful this is for me. Sydney’s work is more about the relationship between the child and father and the child and ecology. This is the heart of the book and of my experience. Sydney made this happen and I am forever grateful.

4. Sydney, in these illustrations, you had to tap into both the frustrated interior world of the narrator and the beauty of the exterior world (things like the play of the light on the water). How did you get to the place where you could do so, and was one more challenging than the other?

SS: I am at a point where the thrill of experimentation and exploration is the most exciting aspect of illustration. It’s about discovering an exciting way to expand on the text and serve the story. And sometimes it means following instincts and taking risks. With this project I was able to explore the personal and emotional perspective of the character, experimenting with mediums that are beautifully messy and degraded. The pigments separate, and after elements are introduced they can create their own beautiful textures as long as they are left alone. I found that to be a poignant metaphor for the text.

Later in the book, I was able to indulge in a more classic approach to painting, focusing on the external world, as the story shifted as well from internal turmoil to the beauty of the river.

I was able to get to this place because of the support and encouragement of Jordan, Neal, and Jennifer Browne, the art director. To be excited with others is such an important part of my job. It lifts me up and gives me the ability to do as much as I can for a book.

5. Jordan and Sydney, have you had a chance to share this book with children? Have you, by chance, received feedback on the book from child readers who stutter?

JS: So far I’ve had some wonderful messages through Instagram and Twitter from speech and language pathologists and parents of children who stutter, who all say that this book is very meaningful and making a difference. Some messages are from adults who stutter (or know people in their lives who do) who wish they had this book when they were kids. I’ll soon be working with a wonderful organization called SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young and I hope to share more of the book at that time.

SS: I have not been able to share this book with children yet, but I am excited to hear how it is received. My hope is that, like the father’s words in Jordan’s text, the book has a long-lasting effect for the right person. But that’s never guaranteed. All we can do is make the book, put it out, and hope that, if the stars align, it drifts into the hands of someone who needs it.

From the November 2020 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Martha V. Parravano and Julie Danielson
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog. Julie Danielson, co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog, writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

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