Aaron Becker Returns

h1 October 4th, 2016 by jules

Early sketch and final art
(Click each to enlarge)


Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Aaron Becker visits 7-Imp today to talk about the close of his Journey trilogy. Return (Candlewick Press), the final picture book in the series, hit shelves in August and tells the further adventures of the girl whose crayon enables her to leave the world of her distracted family and enter a magical one of emperors, majestic birds, rich, cinematic landscapes, and much more. I won’t spoil the read for you, but suffice it to say that the girl’s father, satisfyingly, plays a large part in this final adventure.

I was curious to know how Aaron is feeling at the trilogy’s close, and I thank him for visiting today. He also shares some preliminary images and final art. Let’s get to it.


Jules: Did you always know how the trilogy would play out (the plot, that is)?

Aaron: When I was drafting the story for Journey, I had always wanted to resolve the girl’s hopes of being met by her family in play. But one can only fit so much story into a 40-page wordless picture book! Once Candlewick started to really get behind Journey, I pitched the entire trilogy. Many people don’t realize just how long it takes for a book to go from concept to bookshelf, and amazingly, the artwork for Quest was completed even before Journey published. Initially, in Return, I had outlined a story in which the girl’s entire family came into the magical realm. I even had some good bits in there about the boy’s backstory. In the end, I had to pick one relationship to focus on, and because in my own life it was my own Dad that had the most trouble finding me in my imaginary realm, I picked the girl’s father as the unlikely hero to close the tale.


Preliminary images and sketches from Return
(Click each to enlarge)


Jules: Have you shared this final book with students in school visits and, if so, how has that gone?



Aaron: I’m in between two weeks of touring the country. It’s amazing to me how universally enthusiastic children and educators are about the narrative potentials in wordless picture books. I never set out to make anything other than a story I liked myself, so it’s incredibly moving to see so many others find meaning in these tales. Now that the trilogy is complete, it’s fulfilling to tell the entire story from beginning to end and really get into the layers of backstory and mythology underneath the surface-level story. The other big shift that’s happened for my readings since Journey published is that fans have had some time to really take ownership of this land on the other side of the girl’s bedroom wall. Needless to say, as the story’s creator, there’s a real joy in witnessing all of this!


(Click to enlarge)


Jules: What have been some of the other highlights of your tour?

Aaron: I was just in Savannah, Houston, Austin, and D.C. Next week I’ll head to Minneapolis and Chicago. At every reading, there is always something new that I learn about these books (that I really no longer see as my own!). I remember at one bookstore, a very young girl asked why the emperor wants to cage the purple bird. When I present these books, I try and not give my own answers but instead inquire what the audience might think. So I asked her why she thought the emperor might want to capture the bird, and I’ll never forget her response. “Because he’s afraid of it.” Wow. We cage what we fear. That is some seriously deep interpretive reasoning for a four-year-old. It caught me off guard, and when I started to think about her answer, I nearly teared up in front of the audience.


A final spread from Return
(Click top image to see spread in its entirety)


Jules: I love the cloth covers for each book in this trilogy. Was this your idea? Or Candlewick’s?

Aaron: Actually, from the very beginning, when I pitched various publishing houses, this was top on my list for something I wanted to make sure the final book would have. I even went so far as to build my own cloth-bound dummy [below], complete with hand-stitched pages. I wanted to make an impression on the publishers as a hopeful first-time author, but I also wanted to make sure that. if we did get an offer, that it would come from a publisher that understood I was already thinking about the book-as-object. It was really important to me to have a book that felt good to hold — from the paper stock to the little embossed stamp hidden underneath the dust jacket. There’s no doubt in my mind that Candlewick was the right publisher for this book.



Jules: How does it feel to be wrapping up the trilogy? Sad? Bittersweet? Ready for something altogether new? A little bit of each?

Aaron: This trilogy has consumed the last six years of my life (along with our daughter, who was born three months before I started to work on the first book). So, it’s incredibly satisfying to see all three books lined up together on the shelf. That said, it’s also wonderful to have the opportunity to move on to other types of projects after focusing on this one story for so long.


(Click to enlarge)


Jules: Well, what’s next for you? Does part of you want to do something wildly different or are you planning to stick with what you know well? (Or does it depend on where your stories take you?)

Aaron: When I worked on the artwork for Return, my family and I were living in Spain (for 10 months, actually — an entire school year for our daughter, who learned to speak Spanish there).


(Click each to enlarge)


It was an amazing experience, but coming back was pretty tough. We were acclimating to life back home, but also there was some (internal) pressure to figure out what was next. I really wanted to try something new. I was afraid of being pigeon-holed as a fantasy-wordless-picture-book author. So I played around with a lot of ideas from a novel to an activity book to a picture book with words. There were many months of investing a lot of time into ideas and projects, but nothing was feeling quite right. In retrospect, I can see that all of this time was really valuable. I have a feeling that these experiments are all eventually going to find their way into book form. In the end, I traveled full-circle and am working on another wordless picture book, but I think my fans are going to be surprised. It’s actually quite different from Journey (in a good way, I think!). I also have a toddler board book in the works (and, coincidentally, we’re expecting our second child this February!) and am also working on a YA novel that’s a bit closer to the spirit of Journey.


The children’s area at Cuyahoga’s County Public Library in Parma, Ohio
(Click to enlarge image)


Jules: Anything else you want to add?

Aaron: The last three years have been a wild ride. I will always remember when I first found out you’d be doing a post on my debut; I believe you blogged about Journey months before it had hit the shelves. It’s a dream to be working on storytelling now as my actual job. I’m amazingly fortunate to have this opportunity, and it’s always a thrill to be able to share my process here on 7-Imp!

Jules: Yes, I remember that post. That was here, and it was the same week Sendak died.

Aaron: His books were so instrumental in my own understanding of the form, and Journey is full of nods to Where the Wild Things Are, from the compositions of the girl’s bedroom as a frame within a frame down to small details, like the Max’s boat fabric pattern on her bed sheet. He left so much for all of us to follow.


Cover sketch and final cover
(Click each to enlarge)


Lastly, for fans of the series, you might want to check out some pieces that are in a gallery show here in Amherst. The show runs through the end of the month, but the pieces will remain on the website through the holidays. We had a lot of fun putting this together, and it’s worth checking out just to see the pictures of these behind-the-scenes elements of the books.


(Click each to enlarge)


* * * * * * *

RETURN. Copyright © 2016 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

All other images used by permission of Aaron Becker.


3 comments to “Aaron Becker Returns”

  1. Aaron and Jules, thank you for this amazing interview. I also will not forget what the little girl in your audience said about caging what we fear.

    I really look forward reading RETURN, and look forward to your future projects as well.

  2. Loved this interview, thanks Jules and Aaron! I have been amazed by how much my 3 year old son has loved looking through these books over the last year or so. We’ve just been reading Return this last week and it’s just as popular!

  3. I have read these books to 5 different grade levels since the first one came out, about 400 kids. All the kids this year are convinced that you left the door open and shining because you plan a 4th book, hopefully the story of the boy and the purple crayon. We all have our fingers crossed.

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