In Conversation with Adam Jay Epstein and Ruth Chan
Head over here to read a conversation with Ruth Chan and me about Have You Seen Gordon?
Adam Jay Epstein is the author of the Wily Snare series for middle graders, and co-author of the bestselling middle grade fantasy series The Familiars. He has also written film and television projects for Disney, Sony, Fox, MGM, Paramount, MTV, Hulu, Syfy, and Disney Channel. Ruth Chan is an illustrator and author who spent her childhood in Canada, her teens in China, a number of years studying art and education, and a decade working with youth and families in underserved communities. She now writes and illustrates full-time in Brooklyn. We asked Epstein and Chan to interview each other about their new picture book, Have You Seen Gordon?, a playful and irreverent take on the classic seek-and-find book.
Adam Jay Epstein: Ruth, I remember the day that our editor, Kendra Levin, told me that her team had found an illustrator who they thought would be perfect for Have You Seen Gordon? I grabbed my phone, went to your Instagram profile and started scrolling through your art. When I saw the mural you did for the North York Central Library in Toronto, which is this hilarious and detailed cityscape full of adorable animals, I knew that you were the right person. Tell me how the manuscript for Have You Seen Gordon? found its way into your hands and why you decided to take it on.
Ruth Chan: I was waiting to hear back about another manuscript I was interested in illustrating when my agent sent along Kendra email with your manuscript. I saw the first few lines and thought, “OK, a search-and-find book. This is interesting,” and then proceeded to chuckle and chortle and guffaw my way through the rest of the manuscript. It was brilliant! There was so much more to it than simply being a search-and-find book. And while I was intimidated by the idea of illustrating such visually complicated spreads, I knew I couldn’t let such a funny, refreshing, unexpected book pass me by.
I’m so curious to know: what was the inspiration for this book? And were the characters inspired by any particular people?
Epstein: When my daughters were younger, every night before bed I would read them picture books. I would choose a couple. They would choose a couple. More often than not, they would pick a search-and-find book. I loved their interactivity and the level of excitement the kids had for finding every last hidden detail. However, the books that we had at home were missing a story. I had often thought how much fun it would be to write a picture book that filled that hole but, lacking inspiration, I put it aside.
Seven years later, late one night, an idea popped into my head: what if the main character of the search-and-find book didn’t want to hide anymore? I chuckled to myself and then asked myself why that character didn’t want to hide. Why would I choose not to hide? I was proud of who I was! It just clicked into place. I grabbed my phone as thoughts started to pour out. An idea that had started off as a joke suddenly was transforming into a book that felt important and could explore the issues of identity and consent. By the end of the night, I had a rough draft of the manuscript.
One of the things I love most about Gordon, who is a purple tapir, is that everyone can put their own identity on him. I was certainly inspired by my friends in the LGBQT+ community and my own non-religious Jewish identity, but I hope that others see their own pride within Gordon.
Ruth, the first thing people see when they pick up the book is your delightful cover. Tell me how you came up with the idea of a bunny with binoculars.
Chan: I love that readers can identify with Gordon in so many ways. I also love that you included a character, Jane, who doesn’t want to be found. I know I like to talk a lot now (even my poor dog, who I work alone at home a lot with, can attest to this), but I was definitely like Jane when I was a kid. I would have loved to see a character being shy and have it be OK in a book!
In thinking about the cover for this book, I had to figure out how to communicate the busy-ness that is inside the book while keeping it clean and simple so as not to overwhelm potential readers visually. I also wanted the cover to convey the humor of the book, as well as showcase some of the main characters—especially Gordon. I thought of the binoculars as a way to say, “This is a search-and-find book!” while playing off of the title. Finally, what’s funnier than a giant goofy bunny face?
Adam, since this is the first picture book you’ve written, were there any unexpected challenges you came across while writing the manuscript? Were there other books that you looked to for inspiration?
Epstein: I put picture books on the highest pedestal of writing. They are all about rhythm, cadence, repetition, and the poetry of words. A caregiver will read a picture book dozens (if not hundreds) of times. A child will memorize the words and read them along with their teachers and caregivers. That puts a tremendous amount of pressure on an author to get it right.
I’d say the biggest challenge was capturing the narrator’s voice. I wanted the narrator to start off flawed and a little bit dismissive of Gordon and Jane, but I needed to make sure that the narrator was never mean or inconsiderate. And the book needed to be funny! I think my breakthrough was making Gordon such a positive and hopeful character that nothing the narrator said would diminish his spirit.
When writing Have You Seen Gordon? I returned to books I loved when I was a kid that broke the fourth wall in exciting ways. Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of the Book made the reader complicit in the story by asking them to not turn the page. The Color Kittens by Margaret Wise Brown has this amazing moment when a tree changes color on the count of three by flipping a page. The other two books I looked at when writing Gordon were Arnold Lobel’s Fables and William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. Besides them being two of my all-time favorite books of any length, I think that when you close them, you feel changed for having read them.
Ruth, Gordon makes a big realization in this book about his own identity and how he wants to present himself in the world. I love the work that you are doing to amplify discussions about Asian identity by sharing your childhood experiences. How did that come about?
Chan: When we saw that sudden uptick in anti-Asian hate around February, it was upsetting to say the least, and the only way I found I could process how I was feeling about it all was by making comics. I’d been taught for so long to “not make a big deal of things” and to brush things off and move on, but I just couldn’t this time, and comics felt like an accessible way for me to [address] this. So many people expressed how much they related to these comics on Twitter, whether they were about a personal experience of racism, straddling two cultures as an Asian-Canadian (or Asian-American), or being part of the anti-racism movement. That, to me, was the most incredible feeling—to feel less alone, to feel like all our stories and voices matter. It has been a very somber yet also uplifting experience.
I also see Have You Seen Gordon? as an opportunity for readers to feel less alone, in a sense. What do you hope readers will “get” out of reading our book?
Epstein: I hope that our young readers finish the book and realize that they can be confident in themselves and comfortable in their own identity no matter what that identity is. Gordon wants to live in the public eye. Jane wants a private life. Both are valid and worthwhile. Maybe the book will start conversations between caregivers and children about how we should treat friends and what is okay and what is not.
I also want our book to make kids and adults laugh. I think a book with a lot of humor is one that readers will return to frequently, and return reading is so important with picture books. For many families, book purchases are a special expense. There are only so many they can make within their budget. If a parent or grandparent gifts this book, I want to make sure a kid can find a lot of enjoyment in it. Return reading is one of the reasons I was so excited to put hidden stories into the book. We have an axolotl that is trying to share a secret message with the reader and a donkey that has some problems with balloons.
On that note, I bet there are Easter eggs that you slipped into the book that are meaningful to you. Can you let me in on some of those secrets?
Chan: I love what you said about return reading. It’s so important, and I had my favorite three books I’d read over and over again when I was a kid (including one about how mummies are made—I just couldn’t get over the part where they take the brain out through the nose!).
To answer your question, hiding Easter eggs was one of my favorite parts about making this book! There were just so many opportunities to sneak little details in on every spread. Besides the axolotl and donkey stories, there’s also a little story to follow about a gazelle who keeps accumulating things. In the museum spread, almost all the artist plaques are the names of real people in my life, and some of the artwork are shout-outs to artists my husband has or currently works with. In the last two “neighborhood” spreads, I included my favorite stationery store in Toronto (Wonder Pens), and a nod to an old N.Y.C. ad on the side of a bus. Throughout the book, I also put in some of my favorite books, of course!
One last question for you: do you have any other picture books in the works? More search-and-find books? Or something completely different?
Epstein: I am currently writing a new search-and-find book that is not a sequel to Have You Seen Gordon? but similarly brings important ideas, humor, and story to the genre. I’ve got to say that my favorite part of the picture book process has been working with you and watching as you brought my words to life.
My last question is: do you want to do it again?