"Empowering and timeless, WHAT CAN A CITIZEN DO? is the latest collaboration from the acclaimed duo behind the bestselling Her Right Foot: Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris. This is a book for today's youth about what it means to be a citizen.I am thrilled, thrilled, thrilled to have Shawn here to today to talk about this wonderful and important new book!
Across the course of several seemingly unrelated but ultimately connected actions by different children, we watch how kids turn a lonely island into a community—and watch a journey from what the world should be to what the world could be.
This is a book about what citizenship—good citizenship—means to you, and to us all."
e: What was your creative process/medium for WHAT CAN A CITIZEN DO?, can you walk us through it?
Shawn: I used cut (and sometimes folded) paper, and ink for the book. The cut paper is arranged and lit on my desk and photographed by an overhead camera. I then print out the photo and using a light-table to see the cut-paper image through a white sheet of paper, I create the ink lines on this separate paper with a brush and india ink. Finally, I overlay the two images in Photoshop. I don’t like to alter the photograph of the cut paper digitally, so making the art on two layers allows me to alter expressions and details according to notes from the author and publisher without having to re-light and re-shoot the collages, because on this project, to emphasize shadows between the layers of paper, I was not using glue, so it would have been very difficult to re-stage any scenes that had notes that needed addressing.
Shawn: My favorite thing about Dave’s manuscript was the idea that this book might be the first definition of the word “Citizen” for our youngest audience, and for grade-schoolers, it might be the first time that they associate the word “Citizen” with themselves, and detach it from just being a stuffy adult word. I hope our readers and listeners are energized by that power, and feel that even their little actions do add up to make a big impact on the lives of everyone around them.
Shawn: For me, an image’s emotional effect is all about context, which is why making picture books is so fun. Every page-turn is an opportunity for the artist to surprise, subvert, or ratchet up the reader’s expectations. An illustration is just an aesthetic exercise until it succeeds in moving a viewer, and within that reaction, there is magic.
Shawn: The book mostly takes place on one set. It’s literally a set under lights, like you might see on a stage at a play, but it’s all the size of my desk. I reused cut-paper set pieces, characters, and objects from page to page as the construction of the little society progresses. So I realized while I was making the book, that with my glue stick and x-acto blade, I was constructing this tree fort in actuality, along with the fictional paper characters. In the end when you see the completed tree-fort, it’s a page by page culmination of girders, beams and columns. So I can’t help but feel that having labored in the drainage ditch alongside the kids and the bear, that I have become a citizen there too.
Shawn: I like visiting schools and drawing for/with kids. When I post my work online, it isn’t for my audience, it’s for their parents and my peers, who I suppose are the ones purchasing the books, but when I read directly to kids, I can tell immediately what they connect to in my art, and what doesn’t land as I’d planned, and so I get to evolve as an artist in that setting too, which I really appreciate.
e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Shawn: There’s a period of time between sketching and moving on to making final art that always threatens my emotional foundation. The internet is full of incredible artists, and I’ll usually lose a few days or weeks in a Pinterest/Instagram hole, admiring everyone else’s work, and thinking that I’m a fraud, and that my best work is behind me. Then eventually I’ll plow through a few days of drawing poorly until I complete a few images that I like, and from there, the rest of the project unfolds like a dream, and I can do no wrong. Those would be my favorite times, though they will over-ripen and become lonely, but then the book gets published, and I will be drawn out into the world for the cycle to repeat.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Shawn: There’s a page that reads “… a world of latticed people, none of us the same” below an illustration of identical twins. When I read the book to kids, and I hear a murmur of “but they ARE the same…” I get to ask the question, “Why do you think I drew two people that look almost exactly alike to illustrate this sentence? I could have drawn two people with totally different hair and different skin and different clothes, but I drew identical twins instead. Why?” To see a kid pause to reflect inward, where they recognize a nameless soul detached from their body— that is one of those magic moments you asked about above.
e: Wow, Shawn. That is very cool. Watch a great video on Shawn's method below, and Citizens, DON'T FORGET TO VOTE!!!
About Dave Eggers:
Dave Eggers is the author of many books, including Her Right Foot and This Bridge Will Not Be Gray. He is the cofounder of: Voice of Witness, an oral-history series focused on human rights; 826 National, a network of writing and tutoring centers; and ScholarMatch, which connects donors and under-resourced students to make college possible. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
About Shawn Harris:
Shawn Harris is an artist and musician who lives and works in Morongo Valley, California. He is the illustrator of Her Right Foot.