There is an excitement peculiar to beginning the assessment of a picture book frontlist from a major house. Will there be a great book to discover? Will there be a fantastic new voice to encounter? Will a favorite author/illustrator deliver the goods again? Will there be a book so ill-considered and executed that it will stun and defy belief?
After 32 years of frontlist picture book buying, I don’t expect to encounter something wholly new. I expect wonder and unexpected twists and turns, but not a previously unimagined structure executed with sublime force. The first F&G in Simon & Schuster’s Winter 2023 list was In Every Life by Marla Frazee. She is a personal favorite as both an illustrator and an author illustrator, so my expectations were high. Meg read it first, and clutched the F&G after she was finished, looking teary eyed. “I don’t know what to say,” she said handing it to me.
What I found was that In Every Life was good beyond the highest expectation. It was next level, as Meg put it. The alternating structure so effective and simple in its power that it felt impossible for it to be new, but in my many years of picture book buying I had not seen it before. The freedom accorded readers of all ages was entirely magnified by the impact of the images gathered together and then reimagined as singular.
Here is how the book’s structural pattern works: a universal idea and modifier are presented with a group of adjacent images.
Then a single breathtaking, unifying spread without text.
I was so bowled over by the elegant simplicity of this incredible book that I asked the author to answer a single question.
Kenny: In your book the use of the phrase in every is all-inclusive; it refers to states of being that happen in every life and are informed, blessed, by another corresponding universal element. Yet your book is profoundly personal to every reader. How did you approach that complexity?
Marla: It took 25 years for me to figure out how to do this book. Most of those years were spent replacing words with other words, adding and discarding lines, and changing the order of them around. I knew the book needed to be both universal and personal, but I couldn’t figure it out. Then the pandemic happened. Now my questions were even more urgent. What connects us all? What is truly important, no matter who we are?
I’ve always found answers in nature, most often while walking trails in the San Gabriel Mountains near my home in Pasadena, California. And no matter what I’m feeling—big overwhelming emotions or quieter ones—when I am out there in the world, I have a sense of seeing my feelings being reflected back to me in the moods of the sky, or the light, or the shapes of things.
What finally clicked the book into place for me was alternating a page of small vignettes with large wordless landscapes. The vignettes tell specific stories of individuals and my hope was that the landscapes would widen the emotion to hold all of us.
Kenny: Thanks so much, Marla!
Marla: Kenny, it’s my absolute pleasure to be answering your insightful questions about what is finally a finished book! I still can’t believe it.