Just as he did with the superb Building Our House, published in 2013, author-illustrator Jonathan Bean brings readers a tight-knit, DIY family—his very own, as the Author’s Note explains—in his newest picture book, This Is My Home, This Is My School. In it, a young boy invites readers to meet his home, which also serves as his school; his mother, who is also his teacher; and his sisters, who double as classmates. It’s a homeschooling family in a house filled with love and learning—and its own fair share of joyous chaos.
With the boy as guide, readers see that the world is this family’s classroom and Earth, their art room. The story is a bustling riot of lines and color, paced such that readers are nearly breathless at the end when the family slows down for “astronomy class” (a night under the stars with their telescope) and their “English lesson,” a story at bedtime.
I talked to Jonathan via email about this intimate book and its distinctive look.
Jules: Hi, Jonathan!
You mentioned to me earlier in an email that trying to get just the right look for this book was a rather involved process. Can you talk about that? I love the really loose, seemingly carefree line of the artwork.
Jonathan: Yes, I wasn’t too interested in recreating the look of Building Our House. When I’m writing a new story or reading someone else’s story, I gradually begin to see what that story’s visual world should be; once it appears, it seems that it can be no other way. Because Building Our House was a book about making a solid home, I used a pretty controlled, thick line.
With This Is My Home, This Is My School, I wanted that line to feel like it had been lived in and was beginning to fall apart some, as buildings will when they age and are occupied by energetically active people. So, I inked the whole thing with a hand-carved bamboo pen, often drawing at arm’s length. I also used cheap paper so that the work wouldn’t feel precious and so I wouldn’t worry about drawing things over and over. When, on the fifth or 10th or 13th time, I got a face or tree or stove I liked, I cut it out and pasted it to the Frankendrawing that I gradually completed like a puzzle.
Jules: That’s fascinating. All of those efforts translate well.
There's so much movement in these illustrations. I like that, because it emphasizes how full a homeschooler's day can be.
Jonathan: I’m glad you feel that way about them. As I mentioned before, I spent a lot of time drawing and re-drawing until I reached a point where I felt freer and had less control—and new energy began infusing the work.
The funny thing was that, at the time, I thought much of the work was done when I finished inking. It turned out, though, that each watercolor mark had to have its own unique gesture or energy, just like the ink marks, or they would feel trapped or made redundant by the lines. Fortunately, I could reproduce the line drawings over and over using a photocopier. This was good, because it took nearly 40 attempts to get the blue watercolor wash that forms the night sky in the astronomy lesson illustration. I wish I could say that that was an uncommon occurrence.
Jules: Well, as the reader, I think the 40 attempts were definitely worth it. It’s such a beautiful illustration.
Did you always plan to have the boy talking directly to the reader? I like the immediacy of that.
Jonathan: My very earliest sketches had a boy inviting the reader to tour his homeschool. It seemed the perfect way to tell the reader that they should feel free to join in the fun they are about to see. It also felt right, because I’ve never thought of this as a book for homeschoolers only. It’s for anyone who’s curious and wants to make their home and life a place where curiosity and learning flourish, whether that’s during evenings doing homework, on weekends, during Summers, or by homeschooling, as in this story.
Jules: Yes, the book definitely and successfully invites more than just homeschoolers. It tells a universal story about discovery and learning.
What are you working on now? Anything you’re allowed to talk about yet?
Jonathan: I just finished (an hour ago!) the cover for a story by Kate Hoefler, titled Real Cowboys. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful story describing the many valuable skills and character traits cowboys, past and present, must have to work well with others, their land, and their herds. It will appear next Fall from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
I also have a couple more books in the works with Farrar Straus Giroux, but each is still in that exhilarating phase during which I think they should be about everything! This simply means I don’t know exactly what they’re about—and they need to take on more shape before I can describe them succinctly. Stay tuned!
THIS IS MY HOME, THIS IS MY SCHOOL. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Bean. Published by Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of Jonathan Bean.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.