Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt: In Conversation

A Conversation between Kate Messner and Christopher Silas Neal about Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, published by Chronicle Books. 

KATE: Hi, Chris – and happy National Nonfiction November! I was thrilled when Chronicle reached out to talk with us about collaborating on a follow-up to our first picture book together, Over and Under the Snow. I’d scribbled down a bunch of ideas, but the thought of exploring the hidden world of a garden was irresistible, especially since we both have gardens. When my kids were little, we used to sprawl on our bellies at the edge of the garden, checking out all the insects and worms. I know you have little ones, too. Was that part of the appeal for you when it came to working on this book?

CHRIS: Hi, Kate. When we first began turning around ideas for our second book, my first son was only a baby and perhaps too little to really appreciate our garden, though by the time I started work on the art, he was a full-on dirt enthusiast. I remember you reaching out by email, wondering if there were any other environments I might like to explore for our next book. I think I mentioned an ocean and a hiking trail, but it was my wife who suggested a garden. She and I keep a small bed of flowers, a raised bed of vegetables, a patch of grass, and a redbud tree in our Brooklyn backyard. Little did I know, you happen to be an avid gardener and it shows in the writing. Now that I have two boys ages 4 and 1.5, we spend a lot of time finding worms, snails, and rolly-pollys in the yard, as well as acorns, seeds, rocks and pods in the surrounding parks in our neighborhood. When we read Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, it’s fascinating to see my kids react to certain parts of the book. They enjoy seeing familiar creatures from our yard reflected in the illustrations. Once you decided on a garden for the setting, what was the first thing you researched?

KATE: The roots of this story are in my own garden at home in Northern NY. We have two raised beds in our backyard – smaller than the garden in the story, but still plenty of space for a fun variety of vegetables and herbs and a whole ecosystem of tiny garden helpers. Once I had a list of insects and other animals that might be part of the book, I turned to the library and some local gardening experts to answer the questions I had about the details. There were also some elements of the story that I haven’t experienced for myself, so I needed to research those as well. The characters in Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt are lucky enough to have chickens to gobble up some of their garden pests, but where I live, zoning laws don’t allow us to keep chickens in the neighborhood (much to my daughter’s dismay). I knew I’d do a better job writing that chicken scene if I spent some time hanging around chickens, so I reached out on social media to see if I had any friends who might be able to help out. Renee Castine and her family invited me to spend a morning with the chickens on their farm and ask questions, so they were the inspiration for those spreads in the story. I think lots of people understand that authors do research, but I’m not sure how many realize that illustrators do as well. Were there things you needed to research as you worked on the art for this book?

Click on this link to see a spread from inside the book: Up in the Garden_1

CHRIS: Every spread in this book required some kind of research. Most of what I do is search for visual reference, but in order to bring this story to life while also staying true to the science, I made sure to read about the creature’s behavior as well as take note of what plant life is doing (or not doing) in each season. Your notes and charts helped a lot with this. The coolest part was that my research and the things I drew in the book came full circle from the page to my own backyard. I hadn’t known too much about tomato hornworms and had certainly never seen a tomato hornworm pupa before, but after making this book I began noticing them in my flower beds, under rocks, under pots, and hidden in the dirt. After some research and studying your helpful notes, I start sketches. I always wonder what it’s like as an author to receive sketches. Do some of the drawings match what you were picturing? Are there any surprises?

KATE: Getting that first round of sketches in my email inbox is one of the most exciting days for a picture book author!  My favorite thing about working on picture books is that they’re a dance of ideas between the author and illustrator. Naturally, when I’m writing the story, I imagine what the art might look like. Sometimes, I’ll write something and think, “Ohhh…Chris is going to have fun with this spread!” or “I wonder how he’ll handle this.” Those early sketches always have surprises – spreads I’d imagined one way that turn out to be so much more lovely and interesting from a different perspective. I just love the art in this book so much. I’m wondering if you have a favorite spread? (Do illustrators do that? Or do you try to love them all equally?)

Click on this link to see the sunflower nook spread from inside the book: Up in the Garden_2

CHRIS: I love each spread for different reasons. I enjoy the texture and color combinations in the spread with a sunflower nook for reading. The spread near the end of the book with the autumn leaves and girl going home for soup nicely evokes a sense of place—you can almost feel the autumn wind and hear the soft night sounds. The spread where the girl takes a drink is fun, too. You get a real sense of scale and the world under the dirt is active and playful with little worms. When I have the opportunity to create simple and bold compositions like the snake eating the grasshopper, that’s always a blast.

We have this book, Over and Under the Snow, and Over and Under the Pond on the shelf, and we just signed up for two more. Any thoughts on which ecosystem we might visit next?

KATE: Yes! I’m super excited to get to work on the next two books, which will be set in a rainforest and a desert canyon. Looking forward to collaborating again! Thanks for the conversation, Chris!

CHRIS: Thanks, Kate! Always a pleasure. Looking forward to making more books.

Christopher Silas Neal and Kate Messner spoke to each other about their collaboration on picture books. Their views do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG. 

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