Evan Turk is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Heartbeat. He also wrote and illustrated the picture book The Storyteller. He is based in New York City.
Q: You note that Heartbeat was inspired by a trip you took aboard the last wooden whaleship. Can you say more about how that trip led to the creation of this book?
A: I started documenting the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world, at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, in 2009 with the reportage illustration group Dalvero Academy. We drew, researched, and created work based around the ship and its history and had two exhibitions at the Seaport.
The ship, a symbol of industry, violence, and commodification of nature was restored, piece by piece, to become a symbol of education about humanity’s responsibility to the natural world.
In 2014, as the final step of that restoration, the ship sailed its 38th Voyage from Mystic Seaport to various whaling ports involved in her original creation along the East Coast, and finally into the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Provincetown, Massachusetts.
For each portion of the Voyage, artists, musicians, scientists, and historians were selected to sail aboard the ship, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for its sail into the marine sanctuary.
After sleeping aboard the ship, we sailed out in the morning and saw whales from the ship for the first time in over a hundred years, this time with us carrying a message of peace.
It was a magical experience, and it inspired an animation called “Heartbeat” that was my contribution to the 38th Voyage. This animation then became the basis for the book!
Q: In our previous interview, you said you usually go back and forth between working on the text and the illustrations. Was that the case with this book?
A: Because this story was originally a wordless animation, the main challenge was how to take the scenes, images, music, and movement from the animation, and make it into a book.
I decided fairly early on that I wanted there to be minimal text, so that the story could breathe a little and would rely more on the emotional experience of reading the images.
One particular challenge was how to illustrate scenes with motion, and my editor, Reka Simonsen, and art director, Ann Bobco, worked with me to figure out the best way to make sure the story was being told and still had the feeling of the original animation.
Because the words were so spare, and the pictures had to accomplish a lot, it was really about finding the right balance between the two.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?
A: I think that the main thing I hope kids take away is that we (you, me, humans, animals) are not all that different, and that the more we allow ourselves to hear from the experiences of others, the more compassion and empathy we will have.
It’s a story about our need to protect and cherish nature, but also to protect and cherish each other. My hope is that kids will read this book more than once, and get something more out of it with each reading.
I’ve noticed when showing it to people (kids and adults) the first reading is usually an emotional one, but once they read the author’s note at the end and learn the history of it, they read it again and see something entirely different.
Q: Did you need to do much research to create this book, and did you learn anything that surprised you?
A: I did quite a lot of research for this book, since it was part of an ongoing project. I did a lot of reading into the history of whaling, its impact on people, whales, and the world, as well as a lot of research into whales themselves and how they experience the world.
That idea became very important in making the art for the book, because whales and humans experience the world very differently. Whales are made mostly of water and live in a water environment experienced through sound, so their existence is largely without boundaries. For that, I chose soft, swirling, colorful pastels to show their world.
Humans, however, have vision that is based on edges and distinctions between one thing and another, so I chose to make the human world out of cut paper. These two worlds then collide, and blend together towards the end as they find unity.
I learned so many surprising things! I think one of the most surprising was just how many things humans used whales for throughout the decades.
I touch on some of them in the book: whale oil for an illuminant, industrial lubricant, use in bombs and guns, use in automatic car transmissions until the ‘70s, and even the first photos of the earth taken from the moon were coated in whale oil! So much of our human growth throughout the 19th-20th centuries was at the expense of the lives of whales.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I am working on a book called You Are Home: An Ode to the National Parks. My dad has worked for the National Park Service for over 40 years, so I grew up traveling to different parks across the country for family vacations, and was introduced to their importance at a young age.
This book is my personal tribute to these beautiful places and the power they have today to be a symbol of the hope for the future. I have spent the past five months traveling to National Parks all over the country and drawing and hiking my way through them! It has been an incredible experience. I can’t wait for everyone to see the book in summer of next year!
Q: Anything else we should know?
My blog post with drawings/writing from the 38th Voyage
The site for Dalvero Academy’s exhibitions on the Charles W. Morgan
The Heartbeat book trailer
The original animation Heartbeat
The 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Evan Turk.