"The Best Part is Having Someone By Your Side" KidLit Dream Team Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault on Life as Co-Creators
The powerhouse team of writer Fanny Britt and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault, highly decorated for their work both together and individually, is the kind of thing literary dreams are made of. Their newest collaboration, the graphic novel Forever Truffle (Groundwood Books), turns the spotlight on the precocious younger brother who played a supporting role in their hit Louis Undercover.
Truffle, an aspiring rock star, appears in three delightful linked stories, with adventures that take him from forming his dream band with friends (before any of them know how to play an instrument) to navigating first love.
Britt and Arsenault excel, as they always do, at exploring young lives in honest, funny, deeply relatable ways, without flinching away from the adult-sized complications that kids and teens often encounter.
We're excited to welcome Britt and Arsenault to Open Book today to speak not to us but to one another about their brilliant new book, as part of our KidLit Convos series, where co-creators of books talk about what it was like to work together.
Here, Fanny starts things off with questions for Isabelle, after which Isabelle asks Fanny about her experience, giving us a unique behind the scenes peek into Truffle Forever. The creative team tells us about the trust involved in crafting a book together, the close-to-home inspiration for Truffle himself, and the good advice from Dolly Parton that sums up Truffle's approach to life.
Do you relate to any of the characters in the book? If so, who and in what ways?
All the characters were inspired by [your] friends and family members, or people I know. I think it helps, when developing characters to have someone in mind who vaguely serves as a reference. It’s rather an empathy exercise for me, where I try to see life through other people’s eyes. In that perspective, I’m perhaps just someone in the crowd at the Man-eating Plants’ show. An observer, doing figuration.
What are the best, and the toughest, parts of collaborating on books in your opinion?
For each collaboration, I try to achieve some sort of visual edition of the story. It’s not just adding images to a story, but somehow developing a universe, with graphic codes that can support the storyline, and also guide the readers towards new levels of interpretation. In order to create this sort of visual narration, I need the author’s full trust, which I’m lucky to have with [you]. However, the toughest part for me when collaborating on books, is achieving this delicate balance between putting your art to the service of someone else’s vision, while staying true to yourself and to your own style.
The best part is - when the book is published - having someone by your side to promote it! Traveling, signing, and talking about a book is much easier and fun with a collaborator.
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Is there another co-creator team whose books you find inspiring?
Of course, there is Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen – and I could say, Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris, and Mac Barnett and Carson Ellis... There’s also Jon Klassen and Lemony Snicket. Carson Ellis and Colin Meloy. Colin Meloy and Shawn Harris... There is something with these West Coast collaborators that makes their books wild and free. I also love the duo of Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad, both Canadian, inspiring artists and dear friends of mine.
[editor's note: here the co-creators swap their interviewer and subject roles, with Arsenault now posing questions to Britt]
What was the strangest or most memorable part of creating this book for you?
As is always the case with my work intended for children, the most memorable part of the writing process is when I "submit" it to the kids in my life, most especially my own. Forever Truffle was even more special, since Truffle was largely inspired by Hippolyte, my youngest son, hair colour and music obsession included! He connected to the stories and with Isabelle's illustrations very deeply, so I felt elated. And, of course, my first glimpse at [your] work – when [you're] ready to show it to me – is always a great thrill.
What was your work space like while working on your part of the book? What do you need in order to make a work session successful (food, music, rituals, etc)?
I'm hopelessly messy. My office space is always cluttered with perilous piles of books and papers and old mugs of tea and bills to pay and wilted flowers and probably three different types of chocolate hidden in tins or drawers so my kids don't get to them before me. I mostly wrote Truffle by hand, which I notice is something I do only for children's books. My plays and novels are all written on the computer. For Truffle, I needed to have a feel of the rhythm by writing only a couple of phrases on each page, sometimes less, to let it breathe, to hear it. By now, it feels like a nice ritual for me to write illustrated books this way.
What do you hope young readers will take away from our book?
Truffle invites readers to dive into the things and people and places that make their heart swell. For Truffle, it's rock and roll music, but it almost doesn't matter: his wisdom is knowing what he loves and always staying curious about the world. As Dolly Parton (if Truffle doesn't know her yet, he will, believe me!) says: "find out who you are and do it on purpose." I hope all readers get that chance.
Isabelle Arsenault is an internationally renowned children’s book illustrator. Her award-winning books include Jane, the Fox and Me and Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt, Spork and Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, Cloth Lullaby by Amy Novesky (BolognaRagazzi Award) and Colette’s Lost Pet, which marked her debut as an author. She has won the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature three times, and three of her picture books have been named as New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Isabelle lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her family.
Fanny Britt is a playwright, novelist, and translator. She collaborated with Isabelle Arsenault on two previous graphic novels: Jane, the Fox and Me, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Illustration (French) and the Joe Shuster Award for Best Writer and for Best Artist, and Louis Undercover. Her other award-winning works include the play Bienvaillance and her first novel, Les maisons (published in English as Hunting Houses). Fanny lives in Montreal, Quebec, with her husband and two sons.