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Cover Reveal Q&A: Okapi Tale by Jacob Kramer and K-Fai Steele

You all remember Noodlephant, right? One of the Most Astonishingly Unconventional Children’s Books of 2019? When I last spoke with Noodlephant creators Jacob Kramer and K-Fai Steele, they made mention of a sequel.

On September 1st that sequel arrives. It’s called Okapi Tale, and today we get a first look at the cover.

But before we get to the cover, I had some questions for Jacob and K-Fai:

Travis: Jacob, how did OKAPI TALE come about? What was the spark that got this book in motion after NOODLEPHANT?

Jacob: I wrote the very first draft in the summer of 2017, and it was (sadly) inspired by events in Somerville, Massachusetts where I live. There’s a brand new train station coming to my neighborhood, and lots of empty land belonging to the city. Instead of building much-needed social housing close to transportation, our mayor sold the land in a no-bid, undermarket process to corporate developers. It was a total disgrace. 

At the time, I was organizing with neighbors to create a group that could wring some community benefits from this terrible deal. Privatization was on my mind, so naturally it became a problem for Noodlephant and her friends.

Beaston is home to the Phantastic Noodler, the machine that can turn anything into pasta. The natural question becomes: To whom does this resource belong? What happens if it falls into the wrong hands?

As you might guess from the title, a rich Okapi comes to town and cuts a backroom deal with the Mayor, one of those bossy kangaroos from the first book. Things do get worse before they get better, but as with all big problems, the solution comes through solidarity and collective action. 

There’s a bit of a happy ending for Somerville, too. I’m proud to say I was elected to the founding board of the Union Square Neighborhood Council, and helped negotiate our city’s first Community Benefits Agreement with the developers. We won concessions for housing, labor, arts, and the environment. But that said, I like Okapi Tale’s ending even better. 

Travis: K-Fai, how did your collaboration work this time around?

K-Fai: Jacob shared drafts of the manuscript for Okapi in late 2018; this was before Noodlephant came out and before we went on book tour in January and February 2019. The car rides between schools allowed us to bounce ideas off of each other, especially as we engaged with students over Noodlephant

Afterwards Jacob continued to work on and share drafts, and in the summer I began working on the final art. Jacob was working for the Bernie Sanders campaign and we’d talk over the phone about organizing while I worked on the art for the book. We give each other feedback, and we respect and trust each other. Our editor Claudia Bedrick and the team at Enchanted Lion Books really helped to round out the collaboration; it’s a small indie publisher and we all work together in support of the book. 

Making Noodlephant and Okapi Tale was an interesting collaborative process, and I’d love to develop a way to share it with students (who often only ever see the final product).

Travis: Jacob, Okapi Tale is largely about problems that stem from capitalism, and how a community can overcome them. What was the biggest challenge in writing about this topic, which you don’t often see in children’s books?

Jacob: Okapitalism, truly the bane of our time! I think the challenge is to try to depict something so profoundly evil in a way that is manageable for kids, but still truthful.

Our economic order has people rationing insulin, and workers need multiple jobs just to pay rent. Over half of Americans had less than $400 in savings before COVID-19, and during the pandemic billionaires have looted $565 billion in profits. It’s diabolical.

The good news is that kids have a strong moral sense. They hate unfairness and injustice and being bossed around. They dislike greed and admire courage. They love their friends, and like having the power to make decisions. So, in a way stories about how inequality is manufactured, and how power can be reclaimed collectively are quite naturally enjoyable for kids.

I’d say that there is a tradition of kid’s books that question capitalism,  but you have to seek them out. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss and Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell are classics. Swimmy by Leo Leonni and Crab Cake by Andrea Tsurumi both have undersea organizing. There are also some historical books like Which Side Are You On? The Story of a Song by George Ella Lyon and Brave Girl by Michelle Markel. The DSA has membership over 70,000, and capitalism’s popularity is at an all time low among Millenials and Zoomers, so I expect we’re in for a renaissance!

Travis: K-Fai, how was it like to revisit this visual world? Is there a particular image or images that stood out in the making of the book?

K-Fai: There are a few phases to book making; one is when you are doing the actual work of making the book, and another is when you bring the book out into the world and discuss it with students, teachers, and librarians. The world and your characters grow. Noodlephant, her friends, and her world had become a lot more nuanced and alive to me by the time I started the visual narrative for Okapi Tale. It was just a matter of figuring out a few different shots, remembering what watercolors I used for the goats, actually drawing and painting all 64 pages, etc.

The cover is one of my favorite drawings from the book. When I was doing research for the visual world, in particular the Okapi’s factory, I started by looking at images from mills and mill towns in New England using the Etching and Engraving Picture File Collection at the San Francisco Public Library. I grew up outside of Worcester, MA surrounded by the Industrial Revolution’s architectural legacy; giant empty mills, beautiful houses that the factory owners lived in, the “three-deckers” where workers lived. But I was looking for a thread to pull that imagery into Noodlephant’s world.

Over the summer I read On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane by Emily Guendelsberger. She writes about her experience as a “picker” in an Amazon fulfilment center (spoiler alert: it’s not good). Soon after her book came out, Amazon began to offer tours of some of their fulfilment centers (likely a damage control move) and I visited the one in Sacramento. That’s when the cover for Okapi and the visual language for the book really began to gel; the veneer of bright corporate imagery vs the reality of the often-invisible workers, the environmental impacts of capitalism, and the dreary working conditions.

Travis: Recommendation Time! Can you recommend something to the folks reading this? It can be anything – book, movie, hobby, food, experience.

Jacob: Make your own pasta from scratch! I’ve done this a bunch during the quarantine, and even if it’s not perfect, it always tastes better than dried noodles. Also, get involved in local politics with your friends. Noodlephant endorses abolishing police and prisons and putting our money toward nonviolent public services. 

K-Fai: I’ve been revisiting this piece from The 1619 Project called In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation by Matthew Desmond. There’s also a great podcast conversation between Desmond and Nikole Hannah-Jones. It helped me to understand how the enslavement of Black workers and capitalism are woven together in American history, and how this legacy shapes working conditions today. 

Over the past few months in shelter-in-place in San Francisco I’ve been paying more attention to the geology, birds, and plants around where I live. When I start to experience burnout or feelings of hopelessness and cynicism it’s helped me to remember that life still grows around us.

Thanks for this K-Fai and Jacob!

And now, a first look at the cover for Okapi Tale, written by Jacob Kramer and illustrated by K-Fai Steele.

(click to enlarge)

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 scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.