Kidlit County

What Are You?

It’s a question I’ve been asked my whole life. And now, it’s a book that I illustrated. Written by Christian Trimmer, What Are You? is an introduction to talking about being mixed-race. Though it is imperative that we talk about race with kids, the topic can often feel too heavy to find an entry point. However, I think our book offers a light opportunity to begin a conversation.

Here’s a little synopsis from Macmillan: From Christian Trimmer and award-winning illustrator Mike Curato comes What Are You?, a brilliant, new early-reader picture book brimming with warmth and playfulness that explores questions of race and identity.

When a puggle meets two new poodle friends, there is a question the poodles feel they must ask. 

What are you? 
What am I? 
Yes, what are you? 
I am a dog. 
No, what are you? 

So begins a conversation about family and identity, and about the things we’re good at… and why we’re good at them. Brimming with warmth and playfulness, What Are You? is an exemplary picture book for early readers. Equally funny and thoughtful, the book includes prompts to facilitate important first conversations about stereotypes and bias between child and adult.

I myself am mixed-race, and I think what I find most troubling about the question, “What are you?”, is that it’s one of the first things someone feels compelled to ask me, as opposed to “WHO are you?” Surely that would prompt a much more interesting, multifaceted answer, because I am many things. “I contain multitudes.” When asked the question, sometimes I’ll push back and inquire, “why do you ask?” That’s usually followed by “just curious!” But what exactly is driving that specific curiosity? Why not ask someone what their interests are? Or if they’re hungry? Or if they’ve read any good books lately? (I’ve got a recommendation!)

I hope that everyone sees themselves in these pages: the asked and askers. I like to create books that I wish I had when I was a kid, and I hope that mixed folks who read this feel validated and seen. But it would have been even better if kids in my class who weren’t mixed had this book, because it would have helped them understand how to talk to me, how to ask me to be friends, how to see me as a person not so different from themselves. As a creative, I fully support curiosity, and I also believe that there are some things that we must wait for someone to reveal to us in their own time and on their terms.

I’m so grateful that I was asked to illustrate this story, one that I felt compelled to tell for many years, but couldn’t find the right words. My thanks to Christian for finding the those words and putting them together so beautifully! Many thanks to the good people at Roaring Brook who helped make this happen: Jennifer Besser, Lisa Vega, Allene Casagnol, and the rest of the team at Macmillan Children’s. And a big thank you to my dear agent, Brenda Bowen.

I dedicated this book to my brother and sister, who are two people whom I rely on to know exactly how I feel about a shortlist of things, including “the question” in question. I’m sure if the three of us were asked “What are you?” at the same time, we would in unison reply, “WEIRD.”

And for anyone asking, I am the following mix:
a friend-baker-brother-traveler-son-singer-uncle-thinker-dreamer-reader

And to you, dear reader, I am your devoted storyteller. xo Mike

Order your copy today!

Kidlit County

Where Is Bina Bear?

Please help me welcome my new friends, Bina and Tiny, to the world today! (You can order here! Or read to the end if you want a signed copy.) It’s been several years since I put out a picture book that I also authored, and my heart is full of love for my shy friend and her compassionate confidant. It’s become customary for me to post “the making of” in honor of book release, so here’s the story behind the story…

Once upon a time, I was having a bad summer. It was July 2019, and I had just arrived at one of my favorite places, the Highlights Foundation, to co-facilitate an illustration intensive. There was a lot going on in my life, and rather than face a room full of people, I really just wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there for a year. I remember calling my bestie, Samantha Berger, and saying, “I can’t do this.” She assured me that I definitely could and pumped me up before the intensive started.

I affixed my “EVERYTHING IS GREAT!” smile, and headed to the first session. The nice thing about being surrounded by fellow illustrators is that no one thinks you’re being rude when you doodle in a sketchbook while someone is speaking. That is when this bear fumbled her way onto my page.

As you can see, she is not really up for engagement. I was having fun putting her in scenarios in which she was trying to hide in plain sight, and doing a very bad job at it. I didn’t really think of it as a story idea at first. I just kept toying with the visual play of hiding oneself, because that was my reality in that moment.

Days after the retreat, I was looking at these doodles (there were more than just these ones) and thought, “Is this a thing??” Before long, I had a story about a bear at a party who does not like parties, and her small rabbit friend (Tiny to be exact). Bina, stressed out by the crowd, finds quiet pockets of the house to store herself in, while disguised as an inanimate object. She is a lamp, a table, a tree, a bookcase. She suddenly runs out of clever ideas (or did I?) and assumes the role of “groceries” when she is finally found out (though we secretly know that Tiny has been onto this whole charade from the beginning).

I sat on a blanket on the coast of Maine with some computer paper, a pen, and some colored pencils. Within a day, I had a book dummy. My agent, Brenda Bowen, saw it the next day and sent it to my editor, Laura Godwin, right away. Laura took it to acquisitions at Macmillan that week. It was the fastest book pitch I’ve ever made and sold. Some aspects of the story changed, most notably my decision to make Bina purple to stand out from the many other bears in the kidlit universe. But at its core, the story has remained the same.

style development sample

I did lots of rounds of style tests with different mediums, but I was really enjoying working in pen and ink with color washes.

first phase of a finished piece: pen & ink with watercolor

This style was a departure from my earlier, tighter Little Elliot work (speaking of, keep your eyes peeled in this book for a cameo or two). I’ve varied my styles for other picture books written by other authors. But Bina would be my first post-Elliot book I’ve authored, and it felt like a change was in order. I liked the quirkiness of the pen line and punchiness of the color to match the humor of the story. I wanted Bina’s fur to have a rich texture, so that was done separately with watercolor and colored pencil. There are other pieces here and there that use a scanned texture, like canvas for the lampshade and brown paper bag for…a brown paper bag.

These are fragments of Bina’s fur textures for different pages throughout the book. High quality watercolor paper is expensive, so I used every bit of the surface as possible!

Similar to Elliot though, Bina is a mix of traditional and digital media. These elements were scanned and assembled in Photoshop. Then I colored digitally in both Photoshop and Adobe Fresco.

my first book illustrated on iPad
the final ilustration

On the surface, Where Is Bina Bear? is a cute hide and seek book. One could read this book and quickly chalk it up to a funny story about a bear with social anxiety. But for me it’s even more about two people trying to be good friends as best they can with what they have to work with. Tiny sees past Bina’s anxiety with compassion and playfulness, and we come to learn that Bina only came to this party because of her love and loyalty to Tiny. In the end, the most important thing is being together, and the two find a creative way to do just that.

Any of my loyal readers know that the theme of friendship never gets old for me. This book is a love letter to those friends who understand and accept each other’s idiosyncrasies without question. Vulnerability, so often seen as a weakness, can be an opportunity to allow others, to allow love, to enter our hearts and make us feel whole.

For reviews and to download the activity kit, please visit my website. I hope you’ll join me this evening for a virtual book release event with High Five Books! Click here to register and order your personalized and signed copies! I’ll be reading, drawing, and answering your questions live via Facebook. Don’t be shy…