Cover Reveal Q&A: Noodlephant by Jacob Kramer and K-Fai Steele
That right there is the cover for the upcoming picture book by Jacob Kramer and K-Fai Steele called Noodlephant. It’s about a noodle-loving elephant. It’s about a magic pasta machine. It’s about a community’s response to injustice. It’s 80 pages long. All that is to say it’s unlike any picture book I’ve read in a long time. And it’s great.
I jumped at the chance to talk with the book’s creators.
Jacob and K-Fai: Hi Travis, great to talk with you! Our process making Noodlephant with our editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick at Enchanted Lion Books was a bit different from the traditional model; instead of working in silos (where the author sends a manuscript, the illustrator makes the art, and the editor stitches it all together) we worked collaboratively and discussed in-progress work. This resulted in a truly shared vision for the book, and we’ve decided to answer your interview in that
We’ll be going on a West Coast tour after Noodlephant launches at ALA midwinter, and look forward to sharing Noodlephant, eating noodles, and having conversations about our book.
Travis: K-Fai – What was your first reaction to the text?
K-Fai: I saw the manuscript for Noodlephant before Claudia took it on because Jacob and I are friends and we share drafts of things we’re working on. We have a lot of shared interests, especially in regards to society and justice and how that all gets encapsulated (or not) in contemporary and historic picture books. So when I read Noodlephant I was really excited about the story’s potential, and how I could make drawings that would amplify/play with the text.
Travis: Jacob – What were the elements that inspired or played a key role in this story?
Jacob: The initial idea of an elephant who loved noodles came from my nephew Leo—he was three, and cranky. My partner Pennie and I were babysitting him, and we wanted to distract him, so we asked him to tell us a story. He immediately started talking about three elephants who loved noodles with a variety of sauces. I did a version with my brother, who is a cartoonist, and multiple drafts with Claudia. I’m glad you mentioned the word ‘elements’ because that is what stayed consistent—elephant, noodles, friends, a fantastic machine— I discovered the meaning of these elements through editing.
In the spring of 2016, Claudia posed really generative questions about Noodlephant’s motivation and existential role. Her questions—combined with my own deepening political engagement—revealed the elements in a different light. It became a story about who makes the laws and who has to follow them, when it is necessary to break the law, and how a community
can sustain dissent and build power.
Travis: K-Fai – What were some of the key illustrations in the book for you? Maybe ones that you felt were the most pivotal to the storytelling? Which illustrations did you wrestle with the most?
K-Fai: When I worked on developing Noodlephant herself and her community (and I think this is true of a lot of illustrators) they became, in a way, real. This is because I spend so much time drawing the characters/getting to know them. I have to know the way they stand when they’re listening to other characters talk, how they eat out of a bowl, what their eyes do when they’re thinking. Also, I consider drawing to be a very embodied experience; when I’m drawing a character I’ll often pose or make the face I want them to make. So making a character encounter something traumatic is a difficult thing to do because it feels like you’re putting a friend through something awful. The scenes in Noodlephant that I experienced this with were the moments leading up to the kangaroo cops arresting Noodlephant, and the scene when she appears alone in front of a kangaroo court (literally and figuratively).
I had maybe almost a full year getting to know these characters, and made final art in 2017. I was drawing Noodlephant at a time when I was experiencing a lot of renewed fear and anger towards our political system and how it consistently fails to protect people who are most vulnerable. Channeling these feelings into these admittedly cartoony characters provided a way for me to put the context outside of my community and my life. If Noodlephant creates a way for educators and readers to talk about these recurring and urgent issues in our society, and raise questions about justice in our communities, then I feel my work is done.
Travis: Jacob – The length is unique for a picture book (80 pages). What was the decision making process behind that?
Jacob: We are so fortunate to be working with Claudia Zoe Bedrick, an editor who is open to giving stories the space they need to be told. We concerned ourselves much more with pacing, plot, and development than the keeping to the standard 32 pages. Many picture books these days are essentially poems of a few hundred words, and though I love poetry (and so does Noodlephant!) I think readers lose something when language becomes so sparse and precious. We’re really excited to bring readers a book that will stick to their ribs, offer them lots to look at, discuss and digest over many readings.
K-Fai: It’s just how long the book needed to be with all of the scenes and the page turns. I agree with what Jacob writes about Noodlephant offering a lot to a reader. Picture books are expensive. I like a book that gives you a lot of bang for your buck.
Travis: K-Fai – This being your first book, what were some things you had to figure out on the fly?
K-Fai: There were certainly some technical things I learned the hard way; making sure I included enough bleed, leaving enough space for text. I made a lot of mistakes as part of the process which was hard and humbling. I worked on a lot of collaborative projects in a former job, so I learned how to set aside ego and personal differences and focus on The Work That Needs To Get Done. That went miles.
Jacob: One thing that was great for us was we had already worked together on our own project called Critterverse. We really trusted each other, and that trust made Noodlephant flourish. This was the first time I had been professionally edited, so I needed to learn how to stick up for the parts that absolutely had to stay, and let go of what was unnecessary.
Travis: Jacob – This seems like a fully realized world. Do you have plans to return to these characters and town?
Jacob: It’s funny you asked me this question! The words are so vague when it comes to the world of Noodlephant. She’s the only character with a name, and basically she has “neighbors” and “friends”. The town of Rooville, all its residents, their interrelationships—it’s all K-Fai’s invention. She brought that world to life in a way I had never imagined. That said, once I met the characters she drew, they have been inspiring in terms of what comes next . . . stay tuned for a sequel!
About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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