Here’s a rarity in children’s literature: a book for and about babies that isn’t in a board book format (well, not quite yet). That’s what we have in Sara O’Leary’s You Are One, an endearing new book illustrated by Karen Klassen, and coming to shelves in mid-March. O’Leary is a Canadian author, known for her collaborations with illustrator Julie Morstad, including last year’s beloved This Is Sadie. O’Leary is switching gears here with this book aimed at 1-year-olds and their parents. It’s the first in a new series. In the fall, we’ll see You Are Two; in 2017, You Are Three.
In this first book, O’Leary covers milestones of the first year of life for a child. “So much has changed in just a year,” it opens. After year one, baby is on the move and just beginning to branch out—trying (and wearing) new foods; picking out books; waving goodbye; playing peek-a-boo; and much more. O’Leary’s text is detailed; one can tell she’s spent her fair share of time with wee babes. “You like to put things inside other things,” she writes. (Indeed. This type of activity can please a just-toddling toddler for hours on end.) Also, 1-year-olds don’t just play with toys. Sometimes they prefer “the empty boxes they came in,” another very true detail in the text. One-year-olds also sometimes talk in sentences, “but not always in words.”
O’Leary says that she was wary of taking on the series when Karen Boersma of Owlkids Books proposed the idea. “I will confess to having initial doubts about the whole thing,” she explains, “and now my favorite thing about these books is how thoroughly my doubts have been quashed. I have a slight horror of anything cute or pastel or sentimental, and a project like this could so easily have gone in that direction.”
It was when illustrator Karen Klassen came on board that O’Leary feels like she hit the jackpot. “Because her background is in fine art, editorial, and fashion illustration, her work brings something really new and fresh to picture books.” Klassen, who lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, brings readers delightfully textured paintings here, the baby always the focus. Only a few times do we spot a grown-up, and we see only their hands or legs. Klassen’s 1-year-olds revel in their burgeoning independence and play: they smile and show off new teeth, reach and touch, explore and clap, generally taking in their worlds with wonder.
Klassen also features babies of varying skin colors and ethnicities; it’s truly inclusive. “I love how the babies are all beautiful in their own way and so expressive,” O’Leary adds. “I also love the palette Karen has chosen for the books—so bright and appealing and slightly startling. There's a really nice sensibility informing her work and a slyly subversive sense of humor as well.”
Klassen says she was easily inspired when first reading the text, instantly brainstorming ideas for the book’s images. “The words are fertile!” she tells me. “No pun intended. I enjoyed how the writing was lovely and sweet, but not too sugary.” She particularly enjoyed putting these realistically depicted babies in what she calls “abstracted environments,” playing in her artwork with cropping, texture, and color. “The real challenging aspect,” she adds, “was trying to create a visual for the more abstract ideas—not so much in the first book, but more in the second and third books. In the second book [releasing in the fall], there's a spread about a child that is making memories, learning about tomorrow, yesterday, today. That gave my brain a work-out, but I think the result was successful.”
Eventually, the books may be released in a board book format. For now, Owlkids prefers them in hardcovers. "The combination of Sara's text and Karen's art,” explains Boersma, “seemed to suit a hardcover format more than a board book. That doesn't mean we won't do a board book edition at a future date, but we see this gorgeous hardcover edition as a book that parents will want to keep for many years as a keepsake of their child's first year.”
If O’Leary’s friends are any indication, Boersma may be on to something. “A friend picked up this book,” she says, “and cried all the way through reading it. I think that's the funniest thing. Also, maybe the nicest.”
Art used by permission of Owlkids Books, Toronto.
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.