Evan Turk is the author and illustrator of The Storyteller, a children's picture book focusing on storytelling in Morocco. The book is a winner of the 2017 Children's Africana Book Awards. He also illustrated the book Grandfather Gandhi. He is based in New York City.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Storyteller, and what do you see as the importance of storytelling today?
A: I came up with the idea while researching for a trip to Morocco back in 2012. I read a book called The Last Storytellers, by Richard Hamilton, that talked about the dying art of Moroccan storytelling and its thousand-year-old history.
When I went to Morocco that fall and discovered that most storytellers were not telling stories in the squares anymore, I decided to write this ode to storytelling as a way to talk about that. The form of the story was inspired by 1001 Nights, and how Scheherazade used stories to save herself.
I see storytelling as important in many different ways in today’s world. There is the power of oral storytelling, like in the book, which is something that really connects us to past generations in a unique way.
But there is also the idea of storytelling in all of our different media today (movies, video games, books, TV, and even political campaigns), and how being able to tell a story and captivate an audience is such a powerful art form. There are more venues than ever for being a storyteller.
Q: Did you write the text at the same time that you created the illustrations, or did one come before the other?
A: The text was written before the final illustrations, but I usually work back and forth on a project, tweaking the text and the style and content of the illustrations as the story evolves and grows. But there is always a draft of the text to see how the story will be paced first.
Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book?
A: Research was very important for the book, because I wanted to make sure the book was accurately representing Morocco, the art of their storytelling, and the types of stories they tell.
I did a lot of reading of Moroccan folk tales, and tales from the Middle East that are popular in Morocco, such as 1001 Nights, to try to understand how their stories were formed and how they flowed.
I also tried to get a sense of how the stories fit into Moroccan history (with their use to pass messages during French occupation) and their relevance in today’s Morocco.
Equally important was the visual and experiential research done in Morocco getting to meet, talk to, and observe the Moroccan storytellers and carpet weavers, and give the book, its characters, and the stories more depth.
I also developed the style of the art while on location in Morocco. I find that drawing on location forces unexpected choices in art-making, and makes for a more unique, responsive feeling in the art.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: I hope that readers take away the importance of preserving traditions and the power that comes from passing this knowledge and these traditions down.
One question I always like to ask on school visits is whether the kids have any storytellers in their own family. I am always amazed at how many children hear incredible stories from their parents and grandparents, and I always urge kids to really listen the next time these stories are told.
It is stories like these that are often never written down, and if we don’t listen now, they might disappear forever. So I would like readers to feel the preciousness of that gift.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a few projects at various stages in the pipeline! A book I illustrated called Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters, written by Michael Mahin, will be out in September and I’m very excited to see that book come into the world!
I just finished the illustrations for my next book as author/illustrator called Heartbeat. It’s about a baby whale who loses her mother during the heyday of American whaling in the 19th century, and swims through the next 200 years seeing how human attitudes towards whales shift throughout the decades.
In the end, she’s able to find solace in the compassion of one young girl who hears her song and sings with her, with hope for a brighter future.
It’s based on the reality of whaling, in that there were many orphaned whale calves, and that recently some whales have been discovered to have been over 200 years old! Heartbeat will be out in 2018.
And finally, I’m in the research phase for a book called A Thousand Glass Flowers that takes place in Venice during the Renaissance, that will be out in 2019.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m so honored to receive the Children’s Africana Book Award, and thank you so much for having me on your blog!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb