Jennifer Thermes has written and illustrated an amazing book. MANHATTAN, Mapping an Island is a BIG book.
Both physically and contextually. The size of the book itself is bigger than most (13 1/4 inches by 10 1/4 inches). The page count of the book is longer than most (64 pages, most picture books are 32-40).
And it’s gotten a bunch of well deserved starred reviews(5!!!!!!!!!)— which is a BIG deal!
I wanted to know what inspired an author/illustrator to take on such a BIG project. And Jennifer has graciously agreed to visit Picture Book Builders and answer a few of my questions.
Jennifer, you are a “map illustrator” (obviously, you’re not just a map illustrator, but it seems to often say that in your bios). I would think that this probably played a role in you wanting to write and illustrate this book? “Mapping the Story of an Island” is to me an absolutely daunting undertaking and must have come from a real passion to dedicate so much time and research to this topic. Can you tell us the genesis of your idea and a bit about the book’s journey?
For many years I created maps primarily for magazines and MG/YA books. I’m a graphic designer by training and self-taught as an illustrator. I’ve always called them “illustrated maps” because I am definitely not a cartographer!
I think of my maps more as designed illustrations of a place. This book WAS daunting! Manhattan has always held an allure for me, as it does for many. I grew up on Long Island and often took the train into the city as a teen. (It was the 80’s and that’s where the best music was!) I also went to art school in NYC. I’d had thoughts about a Manhattan book knocking around in my head for years– even a few fictional ideas with maps– but nothing ever clicked.
Whenever I was in the city I’d walk around and marvel at how everything functioned on such a tiny piece of land, with all that’s above and below ground. And as grimy as it can be, I’d think about the craftsmanship that went into the tilework in the subway stations, and the people who took the time and care to create it. I wondered about what made so many people from all around the world still want to come to this island.
Questions led to more questions. And then, one January, my husband and I had tickets to see Hamilton. We headed in for the weekend just when a blizzard hit the area and shut everything down, including the subway and theaters. We decided to make the best of it, so that night we bundled up and went out for a walk. In the blowing snow we made our way down the middle of Fifth Avenue. It was completely magical. Other than plows and people out enjoying the scenery, everything was quiet. I imagined it was what the city might have been like a century earlier.
Eventually all of these different pieces gelled, and I knew I wanted to write the island’s story. (P.S. We did finally get to see Hamilton that April. It was amazing!)
I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction, and many of those books included a map in the frontispiece. It’s wonderful to pause and pore over a map– it allows the reader to slow down and engage with the story on another level. When I began focusing on writing and illustrating nonfiction picture books, I finally figured out how to weave maps into my own stories.
You have done an amazing job of varying your page layouts to fit lots of information, but illustrate it in fun and fresh ways on each page. Was this a challenge, or did it come easily for you?
Thank you! From early on I had a picture in my head of a few of the pages, which was helpful to start. The biggest challenge was how to convey so much information logically between the text, the illustrations, and the maps, while keeping visually interesting.
The design of some pages was driven by the shape of the historical reference maps, giving me a little bit of a framework. There were a lot of layers and moving parts, but that’s the part I love to puzzle through.
I saw an Instagram photo of yours with an amazing amount of file folders and sticky notes. I also know that as an illustrator you have all that author research and paperwork, as well as reams of sketches. Tell us a bit about what you did to research your book?
You can tell I’m a huge fan of sticky notes! As far as research, I read books and articles on the history of Manhattan, visited museums, collected primary source photos and maps from digital archives for the illustrations, walked around the city some more (because it’s fun to do), and basically immersed myself in everything Manhattan.
Having grown up just outside NYC, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know about the island– both the land itself and the parts of history that we don’t learn about in textbooks. There are so many untold stories.
The whole experience was intense and fascinating, and it got to the point where I was actually dreaming about it all. I’ve heard other authors and illustrators say they’ve had a book they were sad to finish because they loved working on it so much. This was definitely that book for me!
I love everything about this book. From its size, to its eloquent wording, to its classically whimsical, magical illustrations. Jennifer’s attention to detail is stunning. Her book has a beautiful case underneath and informational end pages to boot. Jennifer works traditionally in watercolor, colored pencil and sometimes ink. She hand-lettered the title.
I learned so much about Manhattan that not only didn’t I know, but I couldn’t even imagine. Jen’s talent as a writer, illustrator, and picture book builder will be appreciated by kids of all ages.
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