I Know Here: Illustrator Matt James’s 2011 BGHB Picture Book Award Speech

laurel croza and matt jamesIt’s amazing to have won this award, and I think it’s great that our book has been so well received, in the States as well as back home in Canada. I think this shows that, while Laurel’s story is set in Canada, the story is a universal one — the story of a kid who loves nature and the world around her. Even though many kids who will read this book live in big cities, they’re nonetheless fascinated with animals and nature and beautiful wild things. And we can all agree that an appreciation of these things is something that deserves nurturing in our kids.

After my first look at the story, I was excited about the opportunity to draw a moose and a frog and a wolf and to try to put the puzzle together. Thinking about the story as a whole, I relished the idea of trying to put myself back in the mindset of a youngster with a connection to the out-of-doors, a connection I have lost in any tangible sense.

To create the strong sense of place that Laurel’s character had, I looked to my own past. Manitoulin Island is as timeless a place as any I have found in Canada, and it was a campground near Providence Bay on that island that became my visual and spiritual inspiration for this book. While working on the book, I took a trip back to the spot where we camped when I was a kid. I explored the network of trails that led through the woods. As a kid, those trails were major thoroughfares. What a relief it was to find that this beautiful place has changed only in my perception: those major thoroughfares of my childhood seem to have shrunk as I have grown up, but they remain as beautiful as ever. It’s interesting that this place from my past in Ontario can feel so much like Laurel’s description of northern Saskatchewan.

I developed a real love of nature as a kid. In high school, I wasn’t able to camp as much, but I still managed to sleep out in our Coleman tent trailer on the driveway from time to time. Later on, during one of my summers off from studying illustration, I followed a few friends up to the Yukon and really reconnected with the outdoors. I was so enamored with the summer I’d had living in a tent that as September approached I hadn’t even registered for my final year at school or found a place to live. The school called my folks and they paid my tuition. In the end, the romantic ideal of a life of camping I had hoped for didn’t materialize. Instead, I spent that year “camping out” on a couch in a moderately overcrowded student apartment.

After I finished school, I was hesitant to commit to any real effort to establish myself as a visual artist. Daunted by the thought of having to focus on my career not only creatively but also from a business perspective, I almost bailed on the idea of being an illustrator altogether. I set that ambition aside and found work in animation, but most of my creative energy was focused on playing music with my friends — we had formed a band during this time and were out playing as often as possible.

In animation, I worked in almost every department possible as long as it didn’t involve actually animating anything or designing anything. I worked as a cel painter, color stylist, production assistant, and even as an assistant editor. My greatest successes were as a photocopy guy. The best times were the slow times when we got to work on our own stuff; some really great collaborations occurred quietly, unnoticed by, and in some cases in spite of, our employers.

i know hereI worked in animation for six or seven years, and by the end of that time I was really feeling the need to express myself visually. I felt hemmed in by the rigid parameters and repetitive nature of the work I had been doing. I found myself going home and working on projects in which I had a personal investment. I made a lot of band posters that were stapled to telephone poles downtown. I screen-printed band T-shirts and hand-printed at least a thousand copies of the artwork for one of our records. I was putting love into it. It was at this point that people began to respond to my work. The more personal it became, the more folks seemed to be into it.

I’ve had lots of people who’ve encouraged me along the way.

The first person I want to thank is my mom. Throughout my entire life she has always encouraged me and the rest of my family to pursue our artistic dreams, as fanciful as some of our ideas may have been. She’s always been a big fan of my art. We always had the supplies we needed, from lapidary equipment for my brother Cary, to guitars for the two of us, to fancy sketchbooks and real paintbrushes. When my brother and I graduated from making a mess finger-painting on the kitchen floor, she had my grandpa build us an easel. This was before I was even old enough to go to school. Making art was something really exciting for us as kids, right up there with making a pie in the kitchen with Grandma or hanging out in the garage with Gramp. My whole family is creative, and I’m inspired by all of them. In recent years, it’s been great watching my mom, dad, and eighty-eight-year-old grandma form a band and make music together. It’s been inspiring watching my brother Cary develop his childhood aspirations of being a miner into a career as a goldsmith and jewelry designer. Growing up in an environment like that gave me the opportunity to go for it, whatever it was I wanted to do, and I am often reminded of the special efforts Mom made and continues to make for all of us. So thanks, Mom.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had amazing teachers at all levels of education.

I’ve had great bosses along the way as well. In their own special way, they encouraged me to quit my day job. Well, actually, they fired me. Several times. And to all of them, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

After my final “layoff,” it was my friend Tina Cooper who suggested that I could hang some paintings at a little furniture store where she worked. The response I got from that was great, and it was enough to start me down my own road, working for myself. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid day jobs ever since.

In fact, everybody who has ever had kind words about my work, everybody who has ever bought one of my paintings, everyone who has shown interest in my book illustration has had a direct impact on keeping me keeping on.

I want to thank my agent, Jackie Kaiser, for her help and guidance.

I am obviously indebted to Laurel. I really love the words to this — her first — book, and I am grateful to her for the openness she had toward allowing me to help her tell her story through my pictures.

My wife, Rebecca, deserves the biggest thanks: for her generosity of spirit, for her great ideas, for her willingness to put up with my craziness, and for all the hard work she put in, very often on her own, when our son Noble was a very small baby and I was often very late at work trying to make this book feel right. I wouldn’t have been able to create the illustrations that I did had it not been for her understanding, encouragement, and partnership.

I’d like to thank everyone at Groundwood, especially Patsy Aldana, Michael Solomon, and Nan Froman.

And at the Horn Book, I’d like to thank Roger Sutton and Lolly Robinson. Thank you so much for this award.

From the January/February 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Horn Book
Horn Book

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