Eleanor was born under a spectacular harvest moon. As it hung low in the sky, her grandfather made a promise: that wherever they both were, and however far apart that may be, they would look up at the moon and know they have each other. This tender scene opens artist Maggie Knaus' debut picture book, Eleanor's Moon (Owlkids)
As Eleanor grows, her grandfather's promise is proven true. His love seems to radiate from the moon every time she looks at it. She learns all about the moon, its stages and mysteries, and sees moons wherever she goes. When her family has to move away, it's looking up at night that gives her peace in an anxious time.
A gentle and important story, Eleanor's Moon features Knaus' stunning and dreamy artwork, turning the book into a gallery-worthy experience. And by weaving a tale of how to love someone through absence and changes, Knaus gives kids tools to understand that family connections can transcend distance and time.
We're excited to speak with Maggie today as part of our Kids Club interview series. In our conversation, she discusses her decades-long journey from working as a photographer to becoming a book creator, shares important advice about connecting with the older adults in our lives and families, and reveals two strange and fascinating moments that occurred during the book's creation.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I began my career as a professional photographer shooting events, weddings and capturing images for magazine articles and books. Twenty years ago, when my daughter, Eleanor was two years old, I wrote a story about her and my father (her grandfather) and their shared love of the moon. The story came from real life events between them and I built the rest from there. Eleanor and Grandpa really did dress as a star and the moon for Halloween. Eleanor did take great joy in finding and pointing out the moon almost every day. However, my father never went camping in his life. That was a fantasy of mine!
After writing the story, it sat in a notebook for many years. As I had initially written it just for me, I wasn’t even thinking about getting it published. And then I took a painting class. Once I started painting, I couldn’t stop. I painted my kids, scenery, flowers... the possibilities were endless! It reminded me of when I first picked up a camera and started looking up, down and all around, seeing the world like never before. I was still taking pictures but now I was doing so with painting in mind.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I was now in Toronto and on the executive of the Friends of the Osborne Collection, a special collection at the Toronto Public Library housing over 90,000 children’s books from around the world. In addition to books, they also have three lectures a year highlighting authors, illustrators, creators and anyone involved with children’s literature. These were both great inspirations and concrete advice on how to approach writing and illustrating a children’s book. It was while attending one of those lectures that I had an idea. Why not illustrate the story myself?
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
If you are lucky enough to have an older person in your life, spend as much time as you can with them; ask them questions, share your life with them. The elderly have a unique perspective on the world and you will each benefit from connecting with one another. They might even become your first friend.
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Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
When I submitted the story, my editor, Jennifer Stokes, felt that the arc of the story came too late. So we pushed it forward which allowed for that moment to come almost in the middle of the story instead. This gave us the opportunity to add more imagery on either side of that juncture. I was very happy with that decision because in addition to making the story flow better, I then got to work with both my editor and designer on creating new ideas and making new paintings.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
There were a couple of strange moments in the process of creating this book. The first was when Eleanor sends a letter to her grandfather, naming her new friends. I wanted to include the rest of my family in the book, so I chose two names because they were my husband’s and my other daughter’s names. My editor then called me and asked me “How did you know my children’s names?” Her children’s names were the exact same ones as those of my family members. Secondly, I was asked to create a new painting where Eleanor sees a moon shape in an everyday occurrence. I chose a lawn edger for its half moon shape and I painted Eleanor bending down in the garden with the tool being used by her father in the background. Three months later, I found a photograph that I had printed 20 years ago with almost the identical composition. I seemed to have stored that one in my brain for a long time!
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
A good story not only has words that you can get immersed in but original imagery to support those words. My favourite books as a child were by Richard Scarry. He created an entire world of animals and funny events all while teaching children to read. There was also always the challenge of finding Lowly Worm in an unexpected place. My daughters loved Dr. DeSoto by William Steig and Suki’s Kimono written by Chieri Uegaki and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch.
As an illustrator, I worship Sydney Smith’s stunning sense of light and place, Lauren Child’s unique and fun collages of drawings, materials and photographs and Thao Lam’s beautiful collages which highlight difficult yet important topics for children to learn about.
What are you working on now?
I have two daughters and this is my first book about my first child. My second daughter is waiting for her turn. I am writing a story about her and her first love, a tuxedo cat named Gatsby. I’ve made a couple of paintings already. At 59, I’m starting this 2nd career late in the game so I hope it doesn’t take another 20 years to finish this one!
Maggie Knaus is a photographer and artist and serves as an executive of the Friends of the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. Eleanor’s Moon is her first picture book. Originally from Washington, DC, she now lives in Toronto, Ontario.