Brian Floca is the author and illustrator of numerous acclaimed children's books, including Locomotive, winner of the 2014 Caldecott Medal, Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (recently revised and expanded for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), Lightship, and The Racecar Alphabet. His next book, Keeping the City Going, a tribute to healthcare and other essential workers who stayed on the streets and on the job during the Covid-19 pandemic, will be published in April 2021.
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Q&A with Brian Floca
Q: We all know that the inspiration for your new book, Keeping the City Going, came from the Covid-19 Pandemic, but can you tell us a little bit about the moment you realized you just needed to write this story?
That’s a moment I stumbled into, to be honest. Last spring, early in the pandemic and when things in New York were starting to look particularly bad—one kept hearing the word “epicenter”—I began making small drawings of things I saw in my neighborhood in Brooklyn that seemed to speak to the situation. I certainly didn’t have a book in mind; I suppose I was just looking for an activity to help me process events. Some drawings were of things I’d never seen before—discarded masks and gloves on the sidewalks, for instance. Others were of things that might earlier have seemed almost too ordinary to notice, but that in a new context assumed new meaning. One sketch was of a UPS truck still out and making the rounds. It was not just a delivery truck anymore, but a welcome reminder that despite the uncertainty hanging over us all, essential work was still being done and the city was still functioning. That led to drawings of more vehicles. Once I had a small stack of trucks and cars and garbage trucks, it occurred to me I might also have the beginnings of something accessible to young people, something that could serve as a sort of framing device or point of entry for them for conversations about the pandemic. I suppose I figured that if the drawings were helping me process the pandemic, they might be able to help some kids process it, too.
Q: In Keeping the City Going, you thank all of the essential workers who are out on the streets every day, helping our communities continue to run. Do you have any messages for the teachers and librarians who have worked tirelessly for their students and patrons during this difficult time?
I can only say I can’t imagine what it’s been like for teachers and librarians to have to go into work this year when it might or might not feel safe, or conversely to have to try to stay connected with all the kids they care about solely through cameras and screens. (I’m grateful, truly, for Zoom and FaceTime and all the technology that’s helped us bridge distances this past year, but we’ve all obviously felt the limits of those technologies, too.) It’s been a bad year of no good choices. We are all in teachers’ and librarians’ debt, and I wish them all a happy and safe return to schools and libraries as soon as possible.
Q: Many of your picture books feature vehicles, and Keeping the City Going is no exception; readers will find trucks, cars, fire engines, subways, buses, and more in its the pages. But the subject is, of course, very different from stories of flying to the moon or traveling on the first transcontinental railroad. How do you see this book relating to your other vehicle books?
I am, yes, always happy to draw a vehicle. I like cars and trains and ships as objects, I like the sense of motion implied in their forms, and I like the wheels and gears and general “thinginess” of them. I also like thinking about the people who operate them, and how their work is done. It’s always satisfying to watch someone doing a job well. I like to think, too, about where vehicles allow us to go, and what they allow us to do, for ourselves or for others. For me, at least, there are aspects of all those things in each of the vehicle books I’ve made, and then all those elements really came together for me last spring, in a meaningful and immediate way, as I watched the mail carriers and the food delivery trucks and the firefighters and everyone else in my neighborhood carry on their work. Despite it feeling like the world was turning upside down, there were still people doing their jobs and keeping the wheels turning, literally and figuratively.
Q: When illustrating your books, do you ever find yourself struggling to come up with a design or redoing your sketches over and over again because they aren’t coming out as you imagined? What advice to you have for budding child artists who are struggling with these same problems?
Is there any other way to do it? Just kidding—I know there’s not, at least not for me. Every drawing is made in a state of play (on good days) or tension (on bad days) between my intentions and the unexpected things that happen along the way—the stray mark here, the bleeding watercolor there, the wonky perspective, the bicycle that ends up looking impossible to pedal. So, yes, the prospect of struggle is always present, and maybe the best thing one can do is to build up an understanding that there will indeed be frustrating days, but that if you keep working you’ll learn your own set of tricks for making the best of them and get through them. Through practice you’ll find your own ways of working, you’ll learn how to recognize when you really do need to correct or retry a drawing, you’ll learn to recognize what you can live with, and you’ll learn how to recognize happy accidents, too.
Spotlight on Keeping the City Going
Caldecott Award–winner Brian Floca gives a heartfelt thank you to the essential workers who keep their cities going during COVID-19 quarantine in this tenderly illustrated picture book.
We are here at home now, watching the world through our windows. Outside we see the city we know, but not as we’ve seen it before. The once hustling and bustling streets are empty. Well, almost empty. Around the city there are still people, some, out and about. These are the people keeping us safe. Keeping us healthy. Keeping our mail and our food delivered. Keeping our grocery stores stocked. Keeping the whole city going. Brian Floca speaks for us all in this stirring homage to all the essential workers who keep the essentials operating so the rest of us can do our part by sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With his signature affection for architecture and keen sense of urban space, Caldecott Medalist Floca pays tribute to the frontline workers helping to make New York City run during the pandemic”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Essential reading about essential workers that is informative, reassuring, and positive.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“With lyrical text and exquisite, detailed illustrations…A moving tribute that remembers essential workers and community in a time of loss.”—Booklist, starred review
Download Curriculum Guides and Coloring Sheets to Share with Your Students!
Help your readers learn more about Brian Floca and his books with these interviews and book trailers!
Fairfax County Public Schools Meet the Author Video
Interview with Brian on Barnes & Noble Kids Blog
Lightship Book Trailer
Also by Brian Floca