It’s lucky for us readers that Sarah Stewart and Caldecott medalist David Small, married over 30 years, like to occasionally collaborate on books. Over the years, they’ve brought us The Money Tree, The Friend, The Journey, The Library and the Caldecott Honor Book, The Gardener.

But lest you imagine them side by side in their kitchen, one with a pen and the other with a paintbrush discussing their manuscripts in great detail, think again. “David Small and I have a great marriage,” Sarah tells me, “because we do not collaborate as artist and writer.”

“We choose to work in the traditional way authors and illustrators work together,” David adds, “which is: not at all. Sarah does her work in her writing space, I do mine in my studio, and if there are questions or disagreements, we have a good editor, Margaret Ferguson, who acts as bursar.”

In their latest book, The Quiet Place, they tell the story of Isabel, a young girl who has just moved to the U.S. from Mexico. She misses many things about her old life, which she communicates—while simultaneously practicing her English—in letters back home to her Auntie Lupita. Creating her own “quiet place” in her new home, using large boxes she decorates with crayons and paper, Isabel finds herself.

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It’s a moving story with a closing double gatefold that will take your breath away.

Tell me the story behind the genesis of this tale.

Sarah: Although I had, as a child in Texas, known Mexican families who worked on my grandparents’ ranches, I’d never experienced a friendship with someone from Mexico.

Abby Aceves changed that. She came to our village, purchased a dilapidated building and turned it into a gorgeous restaurant, where she presided as chef for eight years. The story of our friendship is complicated, but her inspiring self is simple. Abby turns everything into something beautiful—buildings, gardens, clothing, but especially food.

After closing the Bistro Rio one evening, she told me about moving from her mountain village in Mexico to Gary, Indiana. One of her fondest memories was of the visits with her father’s employers, who would bring ‘boxes and boxes of gifts every time. Then, Rick and I would make houses out of those boxes and play and play.’ They were a safe, make-believe place in her new world.

David: Abby started—and for eight years owned and operated—the Bistro Rio here in our village, along with her daughter Cyndie. Cyndie Aceves was my model for young Isabel, the heroine. (I had to imagine her at a much younger age.)

Sarah and I have spent nearly every winter of the past 18 years in the mountains of Central Mexico, and—having grown up in Detroit—I’m intimately acquainted with the kind of industrial American landscape where that family ends up. The contrast of the color and the beauty of the land they left behind with the bleak urban landscape where they ended up was what propelled my illustrations.

It became, for me, a comment on the immigration experience itself. This is a ‘No Place Like Home’ story. Trying to adjust to a strange new place, a new language, new friendships, Isabel comforts herself with her reconstruction of the world she left behind. In her mind, it was an Arcadia, and she remakes it for herself.

As you know, it’s part of the illustrator’s task to find himself in the story. In this case, it was easy, since I knew the characters, knew the settings and, having been an outsider myself as a kid, I could readily identify with the situation.

Sarah, did you have your own “quiet place” for yourself as a child?

Sarah: I had two “quiet places” as a child—my neighborhood library and a closet on the second floor of our home, where I read and wrote in my diary and, most importantly, hid from my alcoholic mother.

The only other person who knew about that safe and secret “quiet place” was Ola Beatrice Smith, for whom I wrote The Friend.

the quiet place panel

David, tell me about creating the beautiful wordless double gatefold that depicts Isabel’s quiet place/birthday party.

David: What I decided to make was a little village, which a child—a very creative child, with a lot of time alone—could make by hand, populated with hand-made figures. As a kid back in the ’50s, I myself spent hours drawing, making houses, puppets, theatres and painting murals on the basement walls. (I needn’t point out that these were ancient Stone Age times—before TV and computers—when children still did things like that. I presume most of them don’t anymore.)

I admire Mexican folk arts. My studio is decorated with Day of the Dead figures as well as carvings of insects, devils and the animal figures used in Mexican parades. I also have books of art by Mexican children, and I used that as a resource for the paintings our heroine makes on the walls of her hand-made village.

What’s next for each of you?

David: I am hard at work on a second graphic book, a memoir. A dog figures prominently in it. I’m very excited about the way it is developing, but since the graphic novel is a new medium for me, progress is slow, as it should be. I’m also continuing with the picture-book work. My agent is continually on the look-out for good manuscripts. 

Sarah: Without exception, I talk to myself every day in my separate diaries. One for dreams. One for my big garden. And one for my thoughts and observations. Out of this last one some kernel of a story emerges from time to time. I love my life.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.

THE QUIET PLACE. Text copyright © 2012 by Sarah Stewart. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by David Small. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. Spread posted with permission of David Small.