February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Aaron Becker: Creating Scalable Worlds | Interview

Listen to Aaron Becker reveal the story behind Quest, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

questWhen Aaron Becker finished Journey, his debut picture (and 2014 Caldecott Honor) book, he thought, “There’s a whole world here…and more story.” He followed up by pitching the idea of a trilogy to his publisher. In Journey (2013), his young female protagonist finds friendship in a magical kingdom, while in Quest (Aug., 2014, K-Gr 3), the new acquaintances start their day in the park but are soon drawn into a mysterious, fantastical world and a mission to save a king who has been abducted. “The third book  will come to terms with the girl’s deepest desires about meeting her family in play,” Becker said. “The book is called Return (all Candlewick) and uses that word on many levels.” The author elaborates on his creative process and how his career in film informed his work as a picture book creator.

You’ve said that “drawing was a way to artificially create,” a way to control your “own version of life.”
It’s hard for me to separate drawing and make-believe…. As a kid, I created worlds on paper, like a city of the future. All the cars had certain types of windows and structures, and when they were explained visually it started to solidify a sense of order.

A child’s brain is trying to create order out of absolute chaos. I was a pretty sensitive kid, so having these more scalable worlds, where I could control each aspect of the way things work, was much more appealing than walking into a crowded room full of kids with lots of activity. What’s nice about drawing is you get to create elaborate systems of logic. There’s something relaxing about doing that, and it does create a safe space.

How do you plan the pacing of a completely wordless story?
I start as loose as I can, although my fascination with space(s) does get me into trouble. In an early draft of Quest, the children come through a doorway and they meet the king in a Greek-inspired gazebo. There was backstory there: the king had married a mermaid, which was the reason his palace was underwater. There were waterways and a gazebo connected to the ocean—it was all about the story’s logic, which I was working out. Meanwhile, I hadn’t figured out the flow of the story yet!

Sometimes I’ll do a fully fleshed draft just to figure out how things are operating and to get a sense of space, only to discover the story has no emotional arc and I have to start over. I went through six or seven months of drafts [for Quest]. All those puzzle pieces have to be there.

Interior page from 'Quest' (Candlewick) Becker

Interior scene from ‘Quest’ (Candlewick) Becker

Did your work in animation as a “concept designer” serve you?
That work is all about understanding shape, composition, and design…and how to bring the focus where it was needed. Likewise, [in illustrating a wordless book] you have to bring readers’ attention to what you want them to see. If there are 100 things going on on the page, there may be four things you must make sure they see before they turn it.

But some of the things I learned [in film] had to be thrown out. There’s a shininess or sheen or slickness to it, which is why I chose to work in watercolor—it forced me to relinquish control over every last sparkle.

How do you achieve that sense of being an insider, and helping readers feel safe despite the level of danger involved?
There’s more threat and perilous situations [in my books] than in your average picture book. I think children want to navigate that. In Quest, readers see the king and the green and yellow guards carted off in a boat. In an earlier draft, they were being marched off. That seemed too intense. Seeing the characters sitting in a boat with their heads down, the danger is glossed over [to some degree]. You don’t see the bombs, but you see the smoke.

Can we expect the purple bird, who was rescued in the first book and accompanies the children in the second, to play a part in the next adventure?
Yes, the bird will have a role. For Return, I’ve built this entire mythology…how this world came about, and where the king and the emperor came from. The bird is a pivotal player, like a deus ex machina.

What I love in Journey is that while the girl rescues the bird, the bird then leads the way, and she has faith that the creature will lead her back to where she needs to go. There’s this idea in children’s books that the child has to solve every problem on his or her own. But that’s not the way the world works. We’re not happy people because we defeat evil on our own. It’s always more complicated than that.

Eds. note: See also “Your Guide to Reading a Wordless Book” by Aaron Becker, and the trailer for Quest.

TB image


Listen to Aaron Becker reveal the story behind Quest, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.




Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Diversity and Cultural Competency Training: Collections & RA

Do you want to ensure that your library’s collections are diverse, equitable, inclusive, and well-read?

Do you want to become a more culturally literate librarian and a more effective advocate for your community?

We've developed a foundational online course—with live sessions on February 28 & March 14—that will explore key concepts essential to cultivating and promoting inclusive and equitable collections.