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The 2021 New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Winners at Work

A look at the artists behind this year’s winning books, in their studios.

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I Am the Subway

Written and illustrated by Kim Hyo-eun
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

“When I first decided to become an illustrator, I practiced drawing on a regular basis. One of the most frequent exercises I would do was quick character drawings of the passengers in my car during subway trips. The more I drew these random characters, the more I wondered who these people were and what their lives were like. These seemingly inconspicuous characters whom we pass by every day are people with their own special stories and dreams. I felt inspired by this notion and decided to base a picture book on it.

“I was determined to use mediums that are usually found in an average Korean pencil case: a graphite pencil; blue, black and red ballpoint pens. I also kept my daily sketchbooks on hand for constant reference and inspiration, and made it a regular habit to ride the subway and draw the passengers I came across.” — Kim Hyo-eun

Scribble, $18.99; ages 3 to 10.

The Night Walk

Written and illustrated by Marie Dorléans

“There is always intense emotion at dawn on a night walk. I really wanted to share this experience with young readers — in making ‘The Night Walk,’ my vibrant desire was for my readers to feel this excitement, and want to try it themselves. It took me about six months to complete the book. I had just joined a new collective studio, along with some painter and ceramicist friends. Sharing a space with artists whose practices are different from my own nourishes my work. The book is enriched with our pictorial discussions.

“On my work table, there were pencils, blue inks and a plethora of different kinds of paper. I wanted to find the paper most suitable for coloring night skies. On my wall, there were my daughter’s very first drawings. (I cannot wait until she is old enough to walk to a sunrise!) There was also a photo of my meeting with the esteemed French illustrator and cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé, which has kept me company in all my studio spaces. Thinking about his work inspires me every day.” — Marie Dorléans

Floris, $17.95; ages 4 to 8.

Time Is a Flower

Written and illustrated by Julie Morstad

“When I started the book in 2019 I had been thinking a lot about how fast, and conversely slow, time seemed to be going by — my kids were growing up too fast and I was solidly in my 40s, but I still felt young. I felt confused by the passing and relativity of time; it made me want to pick up the concept of time like an object and look at it from different angles. Of course, the idea of time sort of melted or collapsed once we all went into the pandemic lockdown, and then it became really weird and fun to be working on this book.

“I have been working in this home studio on and off over the past eight years. I like it because it’s bright. I have bee-covered dahlias, cosmos and verbena growing up outside the window, and my family is close by. It’s way too small for what I need, but its proximity to tea and snacks in the kitchen makes up for that. We live in a co-op and there is a playground next to our place, so I hear little kids’ voices coming in from the window most of the time and I love it.” — Julie Morstad

Tundra, $18.99; ages 3 to 7.

It Fell From the Sky

Written and illustrated by Terry Fan and Eric Fan

“Like most of our books, the initial idea came from a stand-alone illustration we had drawn about 10 years ago showing a group of insects — all wearing top hats — surrounding a marble in the garden. We find it helpful to use an image as a springboard for our stories; the trick is finding one that seems to already have a story around it, or is open-ended enough to suggest one. As we go through the process of interrogating the image, the story has a way of slowly revealing itself.

“Terry and I were both isolating during the first part of the pandemic, so when the strictest lockdown measures were lifted — and you were allowed to create a ‘social bubble’ — we were able to work on stuff together on occasion. We also share a Dropbox, so we could both work on the art and edit it, essentially in real time, so the separation didn’t affect our collaboration or work flow too much.” — Eric Fan

Explore the New York Times Book Review

Want to keep up with the latest and greatest in books? This is a good place to start.

    • Learn what you should be reading this fall: Our collection of reviews on books coming out this season includes biographies, novels, memoirs and more.
    • See what’s new in October: Among this month’s new titles are novels by Jonathan Franzen, a history of Black cinema and a biography by Katie Couric.
    • Nominate a book: The New York Times Book Review has just turned 125. That got us wondering: What is the best book that was published during that time?
    • Listen to our podcast: Featuring conversations with leading figures in the literary world, from Colson Whitehead to Leila Slimani, the Book Review Podcast helps you delve deeper into your favorite books.

    “Eric and I both collected marbles when we were younger. We loved the mystery and beauty of these humble little glass worlds. Over time, we discovered that there were rare marbles and handmade marbles that were often over a hundred years old. They all had evocative names, like onionskins, ‘end of days,’ agates, gooseberries, micas, latticinio cores, Benningtons, Lutzes and sulphides. For our book, we used the most recognizable machine-made marble, which is the cat’s eye. We wanted something very ordinary that was still intriguing and mysterious enough to be a wonder to the insects of the garden. One of the themes of the book is finding wonder in unexpected or mundane things, so that made sense to us.” — Terry Fan

    Simon & Schuster, $17.99; ages 4 to 8.

    The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess

    Written and illustrated by Tom Gauld

    “I first told this story to my kids when they were quite small, but it took years for me to get it ready for publication. (They’re both teenagers now.) I was busy making cartoons and graphic novels for adults, and for a long time the story stayed as a document on my iPhone that I’d fiddle with when I had some spare time. I think the years of reading bedtime stories to my children (and sometimes inventing them) made a big difference to my book: I learned what works and what doesn’t by reading hundreds of books.

    “I have a big pin board in front of my desk where I pinned loads of inspiration for the book. There were photographs of real castles and forests as well as maps and especially fairy tale illustrations by my heroes: Tove Jansson, Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Peter Sís. I have a bookshelf behind me and I’ve got lots of illustrated books of the classic fairy tales that inspired my book, especially the Brothers Grimm, whose stories I love.” — Tom Gauld

    Neal Porter/Holiday House, $18.99; ages 4 to 8.

    ¡Vamos! Let’s Cross the Bridge

    Written and illustrated by Raúl the Third
    Colors by Elaine Bay

    “I have been working in an alcove of our home for the past nine years. It is my little corner of the house to work in, and while it’s not perfect (a bit too tiny, to be honest) I have authored and illustrated every single one of my published works here. There will always be a special place in my heart for this cramped makeshift studio of mine.

    “I am surrounded by coffee tins stuffed full of pencils, pens and brushes; by bottles of ink teetering on stacks of paper waiting to be drawn on. I have original art by Ernie Bushmiller, Kim Deitch, Ralph Bakshi, Scott Listfield, Ming Doyle and others on my wall. Framed photos of Vicente Fernández, Cesar Romero and Cantinflas smile down at me. Within reach are hundreds of art books that I leaf through whenever I need that extra burst of inspiration.” — Raúl the Third

    “I always have a bunch of photos that I have taken of my many travels to El Paso and Juárez. I really like photographing textures and colors — the sky; everyday items like tortillas, tacos, conchas; buildings, old cars, store setups, signs, murals; dirt, mountains and rocks in the desert; plant life; and creatures if I am lucky enough to catch a glimpse at them.

    “During the fall of 2020, I mostly remember my son being home starting a new school year with remote learning. We live in a small space, so I get to hear everything everyone is doing. I was able to listen in on my son’s school while coloring this book and to Raúl the Third giving many Zoom presentations. It was like being stuck in close quarters (a car) waiting on a bridge, living out your daily life, while observing others pass by. I don’t think I went crazy from it in the least.” — Elaine Bay

    Versify, $14.99; ages 4 to 7.

    While You’re Sleeping

    Written by Mick Jackson
    Illustrated by John Broadley

    “I tend to either have music, radio or a film or TV show on while working. I do remember sitting through the first two seasons of ‘Twin Peaks’ while working on this! I’m surrounded by lots of books and records and would probably find it uncomfortable to move into a designated work studio, especially as I’m used to working at different times of the day and night.

    “Just before making the book, I’d given up a full-time office job, working night shifts for a media monitoring company, that I’d held for 22 years. Back in the 1990s, after several years plugging away as a freelance artist, I’d decided to stop trying to make a living from art. Over those two decades I had gone from making a series of handmade chapbooks in small editions to slowly picking up commissions. I was actually contacted by Pavilion the same week I left my job. The fact that the subject of the book matched my own previous work lifestyle felt like a good omen.” — John Broadley

    Pavilion, $19.95; ages 4 to 8.

    Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre

    Written by Carole Boston Weatherford
    Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

    “I have long wanted to tell or draw some of the stories my grandpa would tell us kids on warm summer Muskogee evenings, sitting on the front porch under the heavy smell of the grain silos, between passings of the Frisco freights clanking along the tracks behind the house. Those between times after the trains had passed were quiet and softly lifted Grandpa’s voice, enhancing his stories even more, so that our hearts were touched in a lasting way. He’d tell us about life when he was a kid and life right now — what we kids needed to hear and know. He told it all. There was no censoring. But funny thing is, he told us in a way that we could get it.

    “One particular story Grandpa told us was burned in my chest through the years, yearning to be told, but I could never quite find the opportunity or the time to get it out. It was the true account of my grandfather’s eyewitness experience on Greenwood Avenue, Tulsa, Okla., that May night in 1921. Black Wall Street suppressed and denied the shame and guilt. And then Carole Boston Weatherford’s magnificent telling fell right in my lap. On my first reading I was struck, as if seeing something familiar in an odd place. She told my grandpa’s story. ‘Unspeakable’ is my grandpa’s story, told for kids the way my grandpa told us kids right back there on that porch in Oklahoma.” — Floyd Cooper

    Floyd Cooper passed away in July. He talks about creating “Unspeakable” here.

    Carolrhoda, $17.99; ages 8 to 12.

    Keeping the City Going

    Written and illustrated by Brian Floca

    “I took a lot of long walks in the early days of the pandemic, wandering my neighborhood in Brooklyn and making small drawings of what I saw. It was a way of trying to stay oriented in a new, uncertain and shifting situation. I drew some maybe mildly depressing things at first — discarded masks, discarded gloves — littering the sidewalks. Then one day, turning a corner on one quiet and shuttered block, I noticed a driver and delivery truck making the rounds, and it struck me how glad I was to see them. Just a few weeks earlier I would have considered a driver and truck an everyday sort of sight, but in the new context they carried new meaning. The city was reeling, but the driver and truck offered a sort of testimony that the city was still functioning. The things that needed to be done were being done.

    “From that point, I started sketching other essential workers and vehicles, and the book grew out of those drawings. At first, making the book just felt like a small way of trying to acknowledge essential workers and health care providers. Once I got going I found a sort of therapy in the project, too; it gave me a small sense of agency in my relationship to the pandemic, and it felt like a helpful way to frame and think about what the city was going through. I hope that some of what I found helpful in making the book comes across and is helpful for young people who read it.” — Brian Floca

    Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, $17.99; ages 4 to 8.

    On the Other Side of the Forest

    Written by Nadine Robert
    Illustrated by Gérard DuBois

    “I work from home, always have, and my studio is literally four steps down from the main floor of the house, which makes it private enough so I feel outside the house, and inside enough so I can enjoy a family life while my kids are young. It can get pretty cold during our Canadian winters, but it’s still my place and I feel cozy in it, with my books and framed illustrations from friends.

    “Once I discovered Nadine’s text, I was enthusiastic about it right away. Scenes of constructions, but also landscapes with many tiny things going on à la Flemish painting. Bosch and Bruegel instantly came to mind. It is such a thrill to know your story and images have reached the people for whom you’ve created a book. To think they have enjoyed it is a true joy, almost magical.” — Gérard DuBois

    Greystone Kids, $24.95; ages 3 to 8.

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