Sheila Heti and Esmé Shapiro, A GARDEN OF CREATURES

Sheila Heti and Esmé Shapiro, A GARDEN OF CREATURES

Zibby is joined by bestselling author Sheila Heti and acclaimed illustrator Esmé Shapiro to discuss A Garden of Creatures, a tender new picture book that reflects beautifully on death and what happens after it. Sheila and Esmé talk about the personal losses that brought them together and inspired this project, the artistic vision behind the color palette and illustrations, and the positive response they have received from parents. The two also share their fascinating journeys into the art world, the children’s books that changed their lives, and their best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Sheila and Esmé, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to be talking about your new picture book, A Garden of Creatures, and so much else that you both are working on.

Sheila Heti: Wonderful. Thanks for having us.

Esmé Shapiro: Thank you.

Zibby: Try to explain the beauty and the message behind A Garden of Creatures, what the book is really about and, Esmé, how you decided on the particular palate and how it looks, an aesthetic standpoint as the illustrator, and what your main goals, the two of you together, are in having this book be out in the world.

Sheila: Esmé, why don’t you start?

Esmé: A couple years ago, maybe two or three years ago now, Sheila sent me the manuscript for A Garden of Creatures. It couldn’t have plopped on my lap in a more important time. I had been grieving my grandfather. I was just blown away by the simplicity and the beauty of the manuscript. Basically, the book deals with death in such an elegant way. The idea that when someone dies, they become the whole world, they become the garden that we’re living in, was something that really resonated with me. When I was with my grandfather when he was dying, I had the sense that he became the whole room. When Sheila and I were emailing back and forth — I know, Sheila, you also had a similar experience with the death of your father. We had this synchronistic experience of death. I was immediately like, I am going to do this. I’m absolutely going to illustrate this book. I’m a big fan of Sheila’s work. It was an honor to work with her. Basically, we just jumped right in. In terms of the color palate and the characters, the big thing that I wanted to show with my illustrations was the idea of it going from the darkness of the night to the lightness of the day. If you look at it, it starts in the darkness. It’s the night. The stars are twinkling. The moon is up. It starts with the death. In the night, we slowly start to pull away some of the big thoughts that the bunny is having and the cat is having. By the end of the book, it goes into the brightness of the day. Sheila, I’ll give it to you now.

Sheila: I wrote this story — I was working on my novel, Pure Color, at the time, which was also very much in the wake of my father dying. I was going to his house to clean it out. After somebody dies, there’s so much to do. It’s so weird. You think that it should be just a time of quietness and grieving. Instead, you’re dealing with all this bureaucracy and all these details. It’s so frustrating. You’re pulled back into life, and you want to disappear from life. There’s something so structurally weird about it. Anyway, I remember waiting for the bus, and the story came to me. I typed it out on my phone. Then I thought, I wonder what this is. Could it be a children’s book? I sent it to Esmé, who I had never met before. I’d commissioned an illustration from her at one point. She said, “This is a book. I’d love to illustrate it.” If she had said, “It’s not a children’s book. I don’t want to illustrate it,” it just would still be on my phone.

Zibby: Wow. Good thing you commissioned that last drawing, then. It all worked out. You already had her in your rolodex, so to speak. The book is beautiful. It’s sad. It’s inspiring. You have to stop and really think about your own views of death and loss for a moment. You can’t read this book and not reflect. One of the beautiful parts about it is that you remind the reader that that very act of reflecting on death is something that we all have in common and that in that way, every creature is alike in that we have to analyze and wonder. There’s no real way of knowing. Of course, you end up on a very positive note, as you mention, that the people we love are around us always. I love to believe that too. I also think about these things all the time. My husband thinks I’m so morbid. My mind always goes to these places. Last night, my son, who’s eight, was talking about the world not being here in however many years, if the Earth would disappear. I was like, if the Earth disappears, does that mean that the heavens disappear? What about the people who we’ve lost who kind of circulate? All to say, I’m down this spiral often, and so I relate very much to the messaging of your book, as so many people will. Do you view this book as something for children? Is this a way for kids to start exploring their own questions about it? What is your intention of having it out there? I know you didn’t have an intention writing it. It was beautiful. It came to you. I’m so glad it’s out here. It’s almost like a poem too. Are you viewing this as something you’re excited to go to schools and talk about? Where are you with it in terms of the audience and reception? That was sort of a long rambling thing.

Sheila: There’s been such a positive response from parents who say that they want to talk to their kids about death or their child is already talking about death. I hadn’t realized this, but there aren’t a lot of books for children that are frank and not religious but beautiful. The mystery of death and the questions that it leaves you with, that’s rich. I’ve had people say that they were moved by it and like it and that it’s a book for adults too. I don’t know. I just think that we don’t talk about death. The fact that the book begins with the death I think is sort of special. Kids know — once they realize that death is a thing, they want to talk about it and think about it because it’s so — you would never think that death exists until you’re told about it. It’s counterintuitive that the people that we love go away. Even when we’re adults, it’s counterintuitive that somebody disappears.

Zibby: Sheila, you’ve written a lot inspired by this loss of your dad. Would you mind telling me more about what he was like and how he passed away and what the effect of that has been on you?

Sheila: He was a wonderfully optimistic and playful person, very loving and a great father. He was a happy person who loved life. I feel like his legacy for me spiritually in dying was that his death sort of showed me even more beauty in life. I expected grieving to be sadness. For me, it wasn’t exactly sadness. It was deep. It was rich. It was disorienting and bewildering, but it opened up the world to me in kind of a magical way, which is not what I would’ve expected from the death of somebody that I loved. Esmé, your grandfather died at the same time. I think you had a similar .

Zibby: What was he like?

Esmé: My grandfather, who we called our papa, was an incredible man. He was a giant man. He always wore a little hat. He was the person that my whole family flocked to. He was the mountain we lived on. He had five kids. My bubbie had passed away when the kids were really young, and so he made it his life’s work to hold the rest of the family together. There’s twelve grandchildren. We’re all incredibly close. When he was passing away, it was actually the most beautiful passing a person could want. We were all there playing his favorite songs on the guitar. He loved Cat Stevens and Leonard Cohen. It almost felt like a ship. We were all with him for the journey. That was a great way to go because he was surrounded by so many of us that loved him. Eventually when he did pass, I agree with Sheila, it was so hard, but I also felt like we absorbed the parts of him that we always admired. I carry him with me in a very special way now.

Zibby: I like how in the book, you also refer to how you don’t know when you’re going to die because you’re not you anymore, and so you can’t feel that loss, necessarily. All this self-reflection has to stop. The bunny is just like — they’re flummoxed by this whole thing, but quietly accepting of it, which is this beautiful resolution. It’s just really beautiful and so important with so much loss in the world, especially the last few years, but obviously, all the time. Nice to not hide it. What you said before — I have four kids. We lost people. My husband’s mom and grandmother died from complications of COVID. We had to go through all the stuff. We had all their boxes in our basement. Going through the boxes, what does it mean? Being able to talk about it is so important. The beauty you found, Sheila, I feel like you can find at any age. Once you’ve lost someone who is in your orbit, suddenly, it does change the colors of the world. I love how that’s represented in the shifting of the colors, as you pointed out, Esmé. That’s really awesome. Backstory for both of you. Esmé, you start. How did you become an illustrator to begin with?

Esmé: I’ve always known I wanted to be in the arts. My mother is an artist. My father is a filmmaker. It was the water I was swimming in my whole life. In high school, I basically was like, I know exactly what I’m going to do. I’m just going to be really focused. I’m going to do it. I went to an arts high school. I studied fine art for four years there. Then I studied fine art at RISD again for another four years. I love what I do. I feel like every single book, I get to jump into a different world. I get to play with color and shapes and emotion. I feel like I become a part of these kids’ worlds in a very special way, part of the fabric of their identity. When we look back at kids’ books as adults — I’m sure you guys have felt this way too. You’re taken back to where you were at the time when you were reading it. It’s a very special portal to that. These books that we’re working on, especially kids’ books, they become a part of who you are. I feel very proud to be making images and symbols for people to grow up with.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Sheila, I’ve done a deep dive into you and your beginnings as a playwright and sending stories out to random people on subways when you just wanted them to be read and all of that. Talk about your trajectory to working with words in so many ways, playwright, children’s book, essay, fiction, novel, everything. Wait, when is the movie? The only thing I feel like you haven’t done is write a screenplay, but maybe you have.

Sheila: It’s funny. I haven’t heard about Esmé’s trajectory. I feel like mine is very much the same. I was a creative kid that did all kinds of art. I directed plays when I was five. I just loved making things, always. I would stay home from school and pretend to be sick and make up worlds and make my own school and draw the girls that would go to the school and so on. It was the best day of my life as a kid, staying home pretending to be sick and just being able to make my art all day. Now that’s every day. It’s the best result of what I could have ever hoped for. I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be a photographer. There were so many things I wanted to do. Then I think I was in my teens when I realized you have to just pick one. Otherwise, you’re not going to get good at it, really great at any of them. I wanted to be really great at something. For a while, I thought, there’s going to be a loss not being able to do all these other artistic pursuits. Then I realized, no. If you pick one, all of the others will transform and come out in it. Even though I gave up acting, I feel like there’s still an element in which I do become an actress when I write books. You become the character. You give up photography, but there’s still creation of images and the way things look when you’re writing. It’s true, I didn’t lose any of them. It’s just, they all express themselves in language. I think I chose writing because that was the one that when I did it, people gave me the most positive feedback. You sort of listen to the world. Oh, people like my stories. I also felt the biggest when I was writing. All parts of myself came into being when I was writing. That wasn’t the case when I was acting or taking pictures or whatever the other things were.

Zibby: I feel like so many of your books are these unique takes on books, novels about novels. It’s like you’re always questioning the form in which you’re writing at the same time. Tell me about that.

Sheila: My subject, ultimately, is art. I’m most interested in, what is art? How can you make something that’s truly expressive of your soul? Everyone looks different inside from everybody else, a little bit different, also a little bit the same. How can you find a shape? I feel like a lot of art is an imitation of art that you’ve already taken in. How can you make something new? I think the way you make something new is by making art truly play. When I’m working, I really just feel like I’m playing. It’s really never felt like work somehow. I think if you’re imitating other novels, consciously or unconsciously, then it would feel like work because you’re doing something that isn’t intuitive. It’s a lot of labor, but it’s not a lot of — I’m not ever trying to force an impulse into a form that’s not my own.

Zibby: Interesting. Wow. How do you feel about that, Esmé? Did you follow Sheila’s work for a long time before you worked together?

Esmé: I definitely agree that if you’re making art, you should be in this intuitive, playful space. It’s really funny. I’ll do an artist talk. One of the questions I always get is, how did you develop your style? I always say the same thing, which is, don’t consciously think about style. You just follow your nose. You follow your curiosity. If you follow what you’re interested in, there’s always going to be a through line through all of your work. There’s always going to be certain motifs that you’re drawn to. If you’re authentic to yourself, your style appears like the Wizard of Oz. Your style’s just there. It’s in you. Yes, I definitely knew of Sheila’s work. We had run into each other in Toronto a few years prior at a restaurant. There were lots of things with Sheila and I that just felt fated. We were in each other’s orbits. I remember the first day that we met. We met in Toronto at a café. It was the kind of thing where we only had an hour, but we could’ve stayed and spoken to each other for a full day three days a week. I feel like Sheila and I, in many ways, are kindred spirits. I feel so connected to her work. It’s just such an honor to be able to bring A Garden of Creatures to life, honestly. It was something that when I was working on it, it felt intuitive and playful and like the creatures were already there. I was just putting a flashlight on them and bringing them to life.

Zibby: Will there be more with the characters in this book? Do you see there being future books, collaborations together? Have you already worked on something?

Sheila: We’ve never talked about it, but I think that would be so marvelous to do more together. I agree with what Esmé says. The books that you read as a child you absorb on a cellular level in such a deep way. It forms your being permanently. I think writing for children is one of the most beautiful kinds of writing that you can do. Good idea, Zibby. Let’s do it, Esmé.

Esmé: Yeah, I’m ready. Anytime, Sheila.

Zibby: I love it. I would like to see these characters live on. What would they do next? Where would they go? What would they tackle?

Esmé: Or new characters.

Zibby: Or new characters or whatever. Which books affected you on a cellular level as a child? Either of you. Both.

Esmé: You want to go first?

Sheila: I’ll just mention one. We were talking about it yesterday, Esmé. Poppy Pig by Dick Bruna. It’s a story of a little pig in her house. She just sweeps up and does the dishes and pulls the carrots out of the garden and then eats the carrots. It’s a perfect day. I think I always wanted that simple, simple life where you just do a few simple tasks in the day. Then you’re rewarded with your carrots. It still seems to me like Poppy Pig’s life is my ideal life. There’s something about that book that really resonated with me, a woman alone in her house. Not that I’m a woman alone in my house, but close.

Esmé: I love that. For me, I was obsessed with Goodnight Moon. Looking back, those images are so striking, colors I personally would never even think to put together, reds and greens and primary yellow. When you look at them, there’s nothing calming about the colors for a goodnight book. It’s almost like there’s a spell put on the books. They’re a passageway to falling asleep, in a funny way. I also love as an adult, looking at all the little details. Margaret Wise Brown’s writing is so simple and elegant and beautiful. As I got older, I was obsessed with Grimms’ Fairy Tales. I felt like I was getting insight into a less-than-perfect world. I enjoyed how morbid they were. I always kept them by my bed because I just felt like it was this little precious book that was my own that felt like it wasn’t talking down to me. I loved it.

Zibby: Have you read — if you haven’t, you have to go google it now. Elisabeth Egan wrote this beautiful essay about Goodnight Moon in The New York Times. I think it was two weeks ago or so. It was so beautiful. She really took it apart and analyzed the book, but it was really about her own children growing up and coming at the book herself as her kids went off to college and her reinterpretation of the woman in the chair, the character. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It’s so interesting. Go google and read that. That’ll be your assignment for the day from me, aside from doing another book together. Do the two of you have any advice for the many people out there who are always like, “I want to write a children’s book. I have a story I think would be great. Should I do it? Should I not? Will I get this published?” All of that. What would you say? What’s your advice?

Sheila: I think that a gratifying audience can also be the people one knows and one’s friends. Of course, it’s a wonderful thing to be published and to be read by people you don’t know on a larger scale. For me still, the most gratifying audience are my friends and the people that I love. Sometimes I write something, and I just send it to three or four friends. I just want to express myself to them. Yes, obviously, try to get published, but don’t overlook the depth of sharing yourself with the people that you love. That’s really important. It’s not something to be put down. That’s what I would say. There’s a lot of richness in that.

Esmé: I would expand on what I was saying earlier about following your nose with your curiosity. I feel like becoming a creative person, it’s learning about when the spark comes. For me, that means that sometimes I go down to work, and nothing is there. There’s nothing going on in my head. I’m not inspired. Then all of a sudden, I’m cooking or I’m driving, and inspiration strikes. I think that you kind of have to learn how this slippery creature of inspiration works because you’re not always going to have your greatest ideas when you summon them. Some of the greatest ideas come when you’re not expecting them. You have to be ready to write them down or paint them, even if it’s just in a little notebook so you can try and remember that spark. I have found that that’s been the most helpful tool for me, is learning that I have no control over when inspiration is going to strike, but I’m very good at noticing when it comes. When it comes, I’m all ears. I’m like, okay, what are we going to do? What are we writing down? That would be my biggest advice to people looking to get into writing or illustration, is that.

Zibby: Wonderful. Amazing. Thank you to both of you. I’m sorry we didn’t get into more stuff. I wanted to talk about Pure Color and everything. Congratulations on your latest book. It’s so beautiful. I am going to absolutely read it to my kids. Now that we’ve talked about it, I can give them even more backstory. A Garden of Creatures. Sometimes I like to have them listen to the podcast with the author. I’m like, okay, I’m reading you this book, but now listen. Here’s what they meant to do. Congratulations. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Esmé: Thank you so much. It’s so much fun.

Zibby: Good. I was hoping. Have a great day.

Esmé: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Esmé: Bye.

Sheila: Bye.

Sheila Heti and Esmé Shapiro, A GARDEN OF CREATURES

A GARDEN OF CREATURES by Sheila Heti and Esmé Shapiro

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