by Danielle Carnito, Trade Art Director
It isn’t every book where the creators and the publishing team all visit the site of a book’s events. It isn’t every book where you happen to check your social media on a holiday weekend and notice pictures the illustrator is posting from her trip to the site.
It isn’t every book where the Editor and Art Director are invited to travel to Oklahoma City for a remembrance ceremony. It isn’t every visit to a historic site that inspires an author to tell a story, as the author notes, to “show what recovery looks like, how far into the future that process might last, and how the roles of helpers and those in need can intertwine along the way.”
It isn’t every book that gets such a dramatic opening paragraph of a blog post.
It IS All of a Sudden and Forever, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Nicole Xu. And yes, during the course of making the book—Author, Illustrator, Art Director, and Editor all visited the memorial, the museum, the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Chris’s first visit was spur-of-the-moment when he was in town for a different event. Nicole visited the site during a holiday weekend when we were so very near the end of the art process. Editor Carol and I visited the site, along with Chris and his wife Jennifer, for the 24th anniversary remembrance ceremony on April 19, 2019.
These visits had overlapping purposes. Chris’s first inspired the the book, and his subsequent visits informed the research & writing. Carol’s and my visit was to solidify finishing details and ensure we were telling the story correctly—by experiencing the remembrance ceremony, by seeing the site and museum, by meeting people who were there that day or who had involvement in the memorial.
Illustrator Nicole’s was to better understand the site as well. Around the time she visited, I was so close to sending her a message asking for the very last changes to the final final artwork—my notes at that point were very minimal—or really, we were done—and Nicole responded to that message that she was happy to adjust, and also noting that she had some changes she wanted to make to the pieces now that she had visited the memorial and museum. So of course, yes, we were happy to see those changes too.
I recently asked Nicole if she would share a bit about her trip:
Nicole, did you plan to go to the memorial, or was it a spontaneous trip over the holidays?
NX: I was in Austin, Texas, with my partner, during the winter holidays to visit his family, and I had voiced the thought of going to Oklahoma City to see the memorial since it was only a state away. My partner’s dad generously offered to fly us over since he’s a light aircraft pilot, so we made it a family trip!
You took inspiration for details in your art after visiting. Was there a specific piece or two that this impacted more than others, and why?
NX: One of the biggest changes I made after visiting the memorial was redrawing the spread that showed the memorial itself. I was working from a blueprint of the memorial and some photos, but I didn’t have a complete grasp of the layout of the site until I went in person. I was also able to understand the details of the memorial, such as the timestamps on the Gates of Time, and the layout of the Field of Empty Chairs.
Another spread that was changed after the visit was the illustration of the building with all the rubble. I had a couple photos that I was working off of in the beginning, but the memorial had much more in-depth photos and even had some exhibits recreating the destruction.
Anything else you might want to say about your visit and how it affected your work on this book?
NX: There is a big difference between reading articles about the Oklahoma City bombing and seeing the magnitude of the event through recordings and photographs. It was an incredibly emotional experience and really helped me understand the largeness and gravity of the tragedy.
Nicole’s art style, in its bare essential simplicity, really showcases the important details included. So when I saw her revised pieces with additional detail for authenticity, the impact was immediate. I was stunned at how much of a difference those details made and am thankful to Nicole for taking that additional time to make the pieces what she knew they needed to be after experiencing the site—even though we were basically done. (Really. As much as much as picture book art is ever done…)
By visiting Oklahoma City, all of us involved discovered little details we could incorporate to tell the story of the place and the people we met more fully, while still being accessible to everyone reading. After Carol’s and my visit for the remembrance ceremony, we asked for a few more last-minute adjustments to do the story justice. They aren’t necessarily things everyone will pick up on immediately, but they will at least mean something to the survivors and the Oklahoma City community. Among those changes: the corners on the building are visibly more rounded, and, one of those white-haired ladies in the art certainly may represent one of the survivors we met that day. The salient details of Oklahoma City needed to be correct (it is nonfiction, after all), but this book didn’t need an intense amount of detail in the art to meet its purpose—as much as this book is about a specific event, it is also about a universal need to understand, to reflect, to recover.
This isn’t every book—it IS the book it needs to be. To tell the story of this tragedy. To tell the story of the people we met. To help anyone reading the book to understand recovery, to help people reach out for help. If the book means even a part of this to any of our readers, we’ve done our job.