If it just so happens that you’re reading this and you’re not familiar with the picture books of author-illustrator Jason Chin, I will admit to a moderate amount of glee in being the one to introduce you to his books. Rather, I can only urge you to find them, but I can tell you with assurance that when you do find and read them, you’re in for a treat.
As you can see here, Jason has illustrated a handful of children’s books, but it was his 2009 debut as an author-illustrator that really set him on the map. Redwoods, a book about a young boy’s adventures after he finds an abandoned book about the majestic California redwoods, is everything professional reviewers said it was: inventive, smart, thrilling and beautiful. In Coral Reefs (2011) and Island: A Story of the Galapagos (2012), Jason brought readers more captivating stories that bring science to life for readers in thrilling, imaginative ways.
And he’s done it again with his newest title, Gravity. The unfussy text—laid out matter-of-factly and in large, all-cap, block letters and all of just a little over 50 words (not including the back matter information)—gives children the most basic definition of gravity in the simplest of terms. The Kirkus review praises Jason’s "elegant, spare" text. “I went through about eight drafts,” he tells me, “which is relatively few for me. My other books took between 20 and 30 drafts. Of course, this book was only seven sentences, plus the back matter.”
The book is hugely appealing to young children, and as it turns out, Jason had a specific age range in mind. “I had Pre-K to second grade in mind. My other books have much more advanced content, and I wanted to do something different. For Gravity, I really had to think about what content would be age-appropriate. Once you get past the basics, the topic becomes really conceptually challenging, so I decided that the book should be an introduction to gravity and present just a few essential things. The main text is appropriate for a very young child, and there is a more complete description in the back matter, which is appropriate for an older child.”
The paintings are enthralling, as Jason plays with perspective and takes readers to outer space and back again. “These paintings were done in watercolor and gouache,” Jason says, “and let me tell you gouache can be really frustrating. It was really temperamental, and to be honest, when I handed in the book, I swore I’d never use it again. Of course, for my next book I pulled out the gouache and used it again.”
Jason frames the book with the story of one boy’s toys. A young boy plays imaginatively with his rocket and astronaut figure at the beach, and the book ends with these very toys interrupting a girls’ lemonade stand—as in, falling straight from the sky to the utter shock of the children. Children will spot the girls’ lemonade elsewhere in the book, as Jason demonstrates for readers what would happen without that very handy force called gravity. “The last illustration in the main part of the book where the objects fall onto the girls’ lemonade stand,” Jason explains, “went through a lot of revisions. I could have had them fall anywhere and I tried out a lot of ideas: an apple orchard in japan, an amusement park, a city street, an art museum. I probably did 15 or 20 drawings. But then my nieces came to visit and they had a lemonade stand, and they were so charming. That became the ending, and those are my nieces in the book.”
And what does an artist who likes to use models do for a story that includes floating lemonade, bananas and beach balls? “Yes, I like to have models, or at least someone in mind when I make my pictures,” Jason says. “For the girls, I had my nieces. For the boy, I had a family friend in mind. But for the spaceman and spaceship, I couldn’t find any good toys to use. So, I made some out of modeling clay and used them to help make my illustrations.”
Fans will be happy to know Jason is tackling a new topic for his next picture book—the Grand Canyon. “[It’s] really challenging,” he says. “I want this one to be comprehensive, but it’s proving difficult to fit such a big topic into a picture book.” He also just finished illustrations for a book called Water is Water, written by Miranda Paul, coming our way next year from Roaring Brook.
Which ones he will tackle with gouache remains to be seen. But I’m glad he survived the gouache to bring us Gravity, which is out of this world in more ways than one.
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.