There has been a run on bounce houses of late, but if you could get your hands on it, a button allowing you to transport yourself to another world would be the better buy. Arguably, Lift, the new picture book from author Minh Lê and Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Dan Santat, is such a portkey.
Iris is the big sister in a family of four, who live in an apartment. Her little brother is still toted about by her parents, but her position as the older kid does afford her one great responsibility: being the designated elevator-button-pusher. It is a harmonious existence until her brother pushes the button one day (betrayal!), and Iris subsequently hammers ALL THE BUTTONS and puts the elevator out of order. When a repair man pries off the call button, Iris rescues it from the trashcan and sticks it onto her bedroom wall, finding it can transport her to another world. As in Drawn Together, the previous collaboration between Santat and Lê, Lift is told through graphic panels, and animated by worlds that characters are able to create together. It's a sweet look at siblingdom, and a perfect keyhole through which to view the current moment — all of us in our homes, just starting to open the door to the outside.
The author-illustrator duo spoke to Romper about finding creative escape, the outsized presence of parents in children's lives, and the importance of the arts and children's literature at a time when the global economy has shuddered to a halt.
There's a long-running theme in children's lit, from Alice in Wonderland to Narnia, where the kids go through a magical door, but it's taken on really weird significance now with everyone shut in their homes. What role does this book play right now?
Minh Lê: For this particular book, the theme centers so much on a young child wanting more space and using her creativity and imagination to [make that] for herself. And so my hope is that with a book like this, for kids who are doing the important work and staying inside, that dynamic will give them a sense of possibility and base within their own lives, that they can use the imagination that's sponsored by the book, to find that for themselves.
Dan Santat: Sometimes I feel like this book is out of trend as of late. I feel like this was the type of story that probably would have been written in the '80s or '90s, where it's very much a wish fulfillment or a high fantasy concept of what if, in the way of Jumanji where, like what if this board game was actually a magical toy that took you places. Because currently if we're talking about trends in children's books right now, the trend is probably leaning more towards own voices and things like that. I don't necessarily see that many books of a high concept fantasy these days, especially in the picture book market.
Minh and I were talking about how a magic door to go anywhere you wanted, is probably the most perfect thing you could have right now during this pandemic.
And in the book, it's a different world she visits each time.
Dan Santat: In the story, the worlds relate to things that are around Iris' orbits. She ends up in the jungle inspired by looking at the stuffed tiger that her brother's holding that used to belong to her. Before going into space, she's playing a board game called Out of This World and she has the little solar system mobile floating over her bed. And those were little details that got worked in with the editor. Just these subtle hints of, you can ask yourself whether it's real or whether it was all in her imagination. After the whole thing happens, you see her waking up on Saturday and she's going to press the button and in the background you see the lamp. It's all cracked and it's glued back together. It's just those little things. It's those little things that keep you asking questions like, "Wait, was this real or was it all part of her imagination?"
Minh Lê: It's the main character finding those touch points with their own life and those being the launching pad for those adventures. We follow all that, but it's all through her own imagination, that things can connect.
Looking at different pieces of work that each of you have done, parents are often pulled out of the picture a little. I'm wondering if it's deliberate and if removing the parents creates space or it was just totally organic.
Minh Lê: Within a picture book you have a limited amount of space to work with. In order to make that relationship and that dynamic as rich as possible, we decided to focus on the relationship between Iris and her younger brother and ... by distilling it to that relationship, it gave us more room to work with that and focus on them and then the fantastic adventures. It was definitely, it was [something] that came in through the editing process. Drawn Together is a book about focusing on the grandchild and the grandfather, this one is a siblings book. Hopefully down the line we'll be able to do one that does pull in the parents more.
As a parent, sometimes you're like, 'We need to just step back and not moderate all the time and let them figure things out.'
Dan Santat: It's a big cliche when you look at all the Disney movies, how all the parents get killed off. I think it is a way of, OK, there is that kind of protective force over a thing in order to give the [character] a little bit of room for adventure, it is one way of doing that is getting the parents out of the picture. Luckily, I didn't go as far as to [kill any parents]. So these parents I should've sent them out on a date night. The conflict of pressing the elevator button highlights [Iris's] need for independence from her little brother, and with that said, I don't think there's never any need for her to want to distance herself from her parents. That is really the heart of the story — it's about siblings.
And I think a lot of siblings can agree, you could probably find that the resolution is resolved because the parents enforce it. "Get along," you know? So there is this property in the story where you let the children resolve the story on their own. And this was something that came up oftentimes in the ending. We were revising the ending two or three times because there there was one sequence where Iris wakes up in her brother's room and she tries to sneak out to go to the closet and then her brother hears her and wishes to be included. But when you do that, you have this interpretation of, "Oh, she would have gone by herself if she had not gotten caught by her brother." And so when we reworked the story, you had her waking up in her room and then about to press the button, but then she [stopped] because, she decides she wants to share the moment with her brother by her own volition.
The question right now that parents are having, are very much over-analyzing what they should be doing for their children. How can they control this chaotic world for their children, as if they are that sole determiner of what their childhood will be.
Dan Santat: As a parent, sometimes you're like, "We need to just step back and not moderate all the time and let them figure things out." And that is a struggle as a parent. When do we intervene? When do we just let them figure out? And during this pandemic, one of the blessings has been watching the two of them just really, really develop that relationship and figure things out and they're spending so much time together that their relationship is reaching these different layers. It's been really fun to watch this despite everything else that's going on. Dan and I both have two boys, so watching the two kids interact is really fun.
There are many, many wordless spreads in the work that you guys do together as author and illustrator. How does that handoff work?
Minh Lê: This is a point that Dan and I joke about a lot, because there are [several wordless pages] in this manuscript. I wrote the story and then if you look at the manuscript, when Iris presses a button and the doors open up, the notes are, "The doors open up onto a fantastical landscape and she goes out on an adventure." I just left it completely up to Dan to figure out what he wanted to do on the other side of the door. There were a lot of notes on the real world side of the story and maybe more so than I usually would, because there, when you have a word list spread, it's like the description is how I get the story across. But then as soon as we hit that magic door and the elevator dings, it's just like toss it over to Dan and let him figure it out.
Dan Santat: It left me with a big, just a really wide open, vast field of opportunity where it was almost overwhelming, because I knew, well this is 40 pages. What can we do? And with that, I'd had different possibilities. There were points where I was asking myself, "How out of the world can I go with this?"
It actually just clicked in my head that I remember that one of my first thoughts was "Oh, what if it was like a outdoor bazaar at some alien planet?" And I think there was a part of me that [decided against] adding to what already exists in the world for a kid, because for most kids there's a lot of little things that amaze them, because it's the first time they've ever seen anything before.
There was some ideas, like in an earlier draft, she goes up in the Himalayas and she sees some mountain climbers. She went with the mountain climbers. There was another variation where she's on a desert island. And then there was a third version where she's in a castle, just all alone and things like that. It was the editor who said, "Okay well, let's try to connect this to the real world so that we can limit these possibilities and open your mind so we can get this dummy book moving."
Minh Lê: That's funny you ask that because I would have been open to anything and was really had no expectations. But the way you all narrowed it down, I think works really well because there's enough of the fantastical element, but it's grounded enough, too, to have that touch point for readers. I think it worked out great. But I really had no expectations. I was like let's do what you want to do.
What was the process here, for finding the look and the aesthetic?
Dan Santat: Lighting, like intense lighting was a big point of this. Every time the doors open, it's always this blinding light that opens up on her face. And for me, I think the strong lighting was a symbol of opportunity. It's very subtle things. The color palette in the real world is very muted and then when she goes out into this world, like the jungle's very, very, very green. And then it goes out into space and it's keyed to a very, very blue. And I think I borrowed that from past projects that I've done where, like in [The Adventures of] Beekle, the real world's a very drab and muted colored place, but then the imagination is really accentuated with color and it's a very, very subtle thing.
In this case, the lighting is the narrative guide that leads you. When they say, when they're talking about going off to heaven, they say, "Don't go into the light." There's a reason why people are attracted to the light. It's just this natural thing that draws you to something. So much so that in the ending, I had various endings where the door is just this blinding light, and then we left it at that. And the editor had to say, "No, we have to make it clear where he goes, because it looks like they're dying." Also subtly, you'll see moments right before the door opens, you'll also see that the world's getting a little bit darker.
Minh Lê: One thing I love about the design that Dan came up with was, you see in the real world, there are a lot of the stories told in these panels and there's so much going on. And since the story's so much about wanting to have more space, I feel like everything is in panels and in these boxes and then the elevator door opens, and then you have these full page spreads and as a reader, you just feel yourself having that room to breathe.
Dan Santat: I did borrow from Where the Wild Things Are, where it starts off where the roots start to grow bigger and bigger and bigger, and then the jungle starts bleeding into the pages.
Minh, you have a master's in education policy. Do you have any thoughts on what this moment is showing us about the state of early childhood education policies?
Minh Lê: My work right now is focused on childcare policy, so what I'm looking at mostly is like how, when people are talking about essential workers and people who are going out into the workforce, a lot of times they forget about the role that childcare workers play. Because when you have doctors and nurses and people who work maintenance at the hospital going there, they need somewhere to put their kids and they have a child center to take care of their kids. By that reasoning, childcare workers become and are very much essential workers.
I think it's going to take a huge act of imagination to figure out how to rebuild and how to reshape how we interact and how we operate as a society coming out of this.
What is the role of artists right now?
Minh Lê: What role does storytelling play during a time like this? And I think there is an important role, even though it may not jump off the page as essential in the way we're using it right now. I think for kids who are stuck at home, you still need that sense of imagination, that sense of possibility. And I think when we were talking about where we go from here, the world is going to look so much different. It already looks so different. I think it's going to take a huge act of imagination to figure out how to rebuild and how to reshape how we interact and how we operate as a society coming out of this. I think that that role is like people who make a living on stories and make a living on creativity and possibility hopefully does still have an important role.
Dan Santat: Usually the first thing that goes when you're slashing budgets, it's always the arts. The very last thing that's going to recover is the arts. A lot of that is viewed as a luxury. When people are getting their $1,200 stimulus checks, a lot of that's going to go towards rent, towards getting food and things that they need for their families. Art is this luxury but there is this therapeutic release that comes from it. Recently, I built a ukulele out of cardboard just because I wanted something that symbolized how I dealt with this ordeal. That I still had the creativity and the time and the patience to make something with my own two hands and just feel like I had a sense of accomplishment doing this.
For me, I always felt like actually one of the most valuable things you can give a child is boredom. I just feel like there's a lot of kids who are over... I think a lot of these anxieties come from just too much in the schedule and not enough emphasis on just letting the mind wander. And for me, boredom is one of those things that I grew up with that was essential to nurturing my creativity because, even when I had writer's block, there's a moment where if you're overworked, you're not really, I just feel like you're not using the full range of your brain power. And I remember after winning the Caldecott medal with Beekle, there's a lot of anxiety that I had because I said, "Well, what am I going to write next?" And I remember my agent saying, "You need to take eight weeks off and do nothing because you're not enjoying what you just accomplished." And I was such a workaholic that I didn't really respond well to it, but then four or five weeks into it, I started getting into the groove of relaxing. And then I noticed that my brain was starting to fire up again and making connections to ideas that I realized that I just never gave my brain an opportunity to just be lazy for a little bit, and for 10 years.
I think there's a part the mind that maybe we don't fully understand or fully incorporate because we just feel like it's so essential in this capitalist society that we have to run, run, run to be the best and just be useful.
Lift is out now from Little, Brown, Books for Young Readers