True friendship and selfless love are examined in critically-acclaimed storyteller and illustrator Geraldo Valério's newest picture book, At the Pond (Groundwood).
On a gloomy day, a boy puts his dog on a leash for a walk to the pond. Once there, he is struck by a number of immaculate white swans swimming on the surface. One of them invites the boy and his canine friend for a ride, and the two climb on its back to set off across the water. Along the way, their world transforms as a vivid natural landscape reveals itself. Foxes, rabbits, deer, and a seemingly endless array of beautiful flowers pop up along their trip. When the trio reach the shore, the boy unleashes his dog and wraps his arms around his new feathered companion.
When he attempts to leash the swan, however, everything around them darkens once more. The once-vibrant wildlife fades away as the boy realizes his attempt to possess this creature has made them both feel terrible. Dropping the leash into the water, their world regains its magic as the two rejoin the boy's dog, patiently waiting.
Told through Valério's dynamic and textured illustrations, At the Pond provides a unique and powerful angle to the "if you love something, set it free" adage, leaving us with the lesson that freedom and happiness are intrinsically connected.
We're thrilled to have Geraldo at Open Book today, where he discusses how a gift from a friend inspired his newest work, the importance of universal freedom, and what qualities define a great picture book.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
At the Pond tells the story of a kid and his dog. The kid keeps the dog leashed and everything around them is dark and grey. One day the kid and the dog go on a walk and they meet flock of swans. The swans invite them to a ride around the pond where everything is colorful and lively. The kid releases the dog and then puts the leash on a swan. Things become dark again. In the end the kid will learn that love should be free.
The idea for this book came from a postcard of the 15th century Dunstable Swan Jewel from the British Museum.
When I received that postcard from my friend, I was struck by the image of a gracious and strong swan, leashed with a gold chain - so cruel and beautiful at the same time. I knew that there was a book in that image.
I kept that postcard by my desk. Then one day the whole book came to me – the images and the plot.
Is there a question that is central to you book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you start writing or did it emerge from the creative process?
The central message of this story is that love and happiness live in freedom. The ones you love should be free. This is also true about the love that you have for yourself – you must be free to flourish and love the world back. From the beginning, I knew that was the question I want to develop in this project. The plot and the images for this story first came to me as you see in the book.
Did this project change significantly for when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?
I did not have to make any significant changes to the story. I only made minor revisions while talking to my editor and art director before I worked on the final illustrations.
It took me two weeks to make the draft that I submitted to my publisher at the time, Sheila Barry. She accepted the story right way. When it was time to get the book ready for publication, I worked on the illustrations for about six months. The finished illustrations look very close to the first set of sketches I had initially made, so I knew exactly what I had to do.
What do you need in order to create – in terms of space, food, rituals, instruments?
I have everything I need in my studio – my desk, my many pens and pencils, lots of paper, and my precious solitude. I also need natural light.
What do you do if you’re feeling discouraged during the creative process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
Initially I have an idea that stays with me for a while. Then, when the story is “ready”, it usually comes to me quite resolved. But it also happens that with some projects I need to let it sit for while and come back to it later with a new insight or a new point of view.
Usually when a publisher takes on a project, the story is in a good shape. But if there is something to be revised, it is something that can be resolved easily. I have been fortunate to work with great editors who offer me intelligent insights and good suggestions.
Sometimes you realize later that certain stories are great as they are, and all that was needed was a fresh look. Other times, you need to let it go and trust that story will come back to you whenever it is ready.
What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.
Great picture books for me need to have good art, good design, and a good story. I like simple books with strong emotional messages. I also love books with beautiful images and crazy stories.
There are so many great books, and it is difficult to pick only two. As an example of a simple book with a strong emotional touch, I would name Nepomuk by Peter Wezel. For a beautiful and crazy book, I would say Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on many projects at the same time, constantly having different ideas for books. Right now, I have been focused on butterflies.
Geraldo Valério was born in Brazil, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Drawing, followed by a Master of Arts at New York University. His work has been published in Canada, the US, Brazil, Portugal, France, the UK and China. His many highly acclaimed books include Friends; Blue Rider; Turn On the Night; My Book of Birds; Moose, Goose, Animals on the Loose and Jump, Leap, Count Sheep. He lives in Toronto.