To celebrate the media buzzing book “Dr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor!”, Alexandra Bye, Kate Messner, and Kendra Levin have graciously answered a few of our questions!
Alexandra Bye, Artist
1. What did you find most enjoyable and rewarding about illustrating this book?
The best part hasn’t happened yet. The magic of creating a book is when you see the story inspire. When a kid gets enraptured by the details and they finish the last page, theres that moment when they step back and take it all in. If we’ve done our job, one day they will subconsciously call on the message of the story when they face self doubt and need to muster courage to achieve their dreams. Hopefully, this book will inspire kids to say, If Fauci was just a normal kid from Brooklyn and he went on to change the world for the better, why cant I?
2. What was your favorite page to illustrate, and why?
Im obsessed with 1940s and 50s. I love that aesthetically, things were simple and utilitarian. My winter wardrobe is specifically sweaters, trousers and circle skirts from that era. I didn’t get to draw too much fashion, but I had blast doing a little too much research for the scenes with little Tony. The architecture, color palettes, vintage kitchen design; I wish I could have done the whole book just about his childhood so I could have lived in that time period longer. I specifically loved the spread where he’s at his grandfather’s eating Sunday dinner with his family. I was raised Lebanese and Italian so I was transported back to my great grandmother’s house to ignite the inspiration for that scene. I wish I had more time to add more characters to those scenes because there would have been tea dresses and wide leg trousers galore.
3. Is there anything you learned during the project that you found highly interesting?
I learned a lot about the AIDS epidemic. There are people in my life that I care about who have aids and I’ve always known about it but never understood the history behind the crisis and what a blessing it is that they now receive the care that they need. It gave me a lot of respect for the Act Up activists who fought for the care they and so many suffering with AIDS deserved and for Fauci who listened, when nobody else in the scientific community wanted to pay attention. The sacrifice and persistence of the activists and Fauci’s compassion are examples that a small group of people who care can make a huge difference.
4. How was it working with the team at Simon & Schuster and all those involved in bringing this series to life?
When I started my career I was so afraid of disappointing the art directors. This is the second time I’ve worked with Chloe and first time working with Kendra but, I feel like I could have them over for a swim in the lake and a barbecue!
I do a lot peak hiking and whenever I want to get to know someone better I plan a 12-16 mile hike up a 4,000-6,000 foot mountain with them. You start the hike knowing it’s going to be hard but, you chat, play games and cheer each other on as you ascend the steep, rocky terrain. When you reach the top you are full of euphoria and a sense gratitude for your group because, their positivity and encouragement allowed you to push your limits and achieve something great.
This is a really long winded analogy but when I got this project, I felt like I was standing at the bottom of the mountain. It was such a big responsibility to do a book like this in so little time and I couldn’t understand why they believed I could do it. Throughout the entire process, we all stayed positive and encouraged each other. Even at the end, when we were frantically making revisions in record time, Chloe, Kendra and the team at Simon & Schuster offered nothing but genuine encouragement, helpful feedback and patience. They had such great ideas and I love the collaborative, creative problem solving that happened throughout the entire process. They made a difficult task fun and so much less lonely after a year of creating work in isolation! I’m really proud of what we made together grateful that they believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I’m so happy we got to climb this mountain together!
5. What did you find most challenging about the project?
Definitely the timeline. But struggle always yields wisdom! When I had first agreed to the project I mentioned possibly doing it in a style that was really flat and graphic to save on time as well as to fit the medical asthetic. As I read about Fauci’s past, I was inspired by the warm colors and rich textures of his childhood in Brooklyn which quickly made me second guess the decision to simplify. I had just finished another book for Simon and Schuster called “A Dinosaur Named Ruth” where I had a great time going nuts with textures and dramatic lighting. I really wanted to do that for Fauci but we didn’t have 6 months. I discovered I really enjoyed the challenge of simplifying while still trying to maintain that richness and emotion. Working through this challenge made me realize that I do a lot less noodling around when think about what I want to say and try to the convey the feeling of the story with as few strokes as possible. A lot of master landscape painters use this technique and its definitely something I’m excited to develop further!
6. Any takeaways that you’d like to share with budding children’s book illustrators?
Yes! The low hanging fruit is draw every day and learn about storytelling but I have another piece of advice that Im hoping doesn’t sound aloof. When you’re starting out, especially when you start making money, you’re going to be tempted to take any paying project that comes at you. I have a few books under my belt now and with a few years of hindsight, I can confidently say, if your heart isn’t behind the story, don’t take the job. A LOT of work goes into creating a book and if you just take it for the money, you won’t be making your best work and your fire will burn out before the project is finished. I would much rather go back to being a waitress than make work I don’t care about. I really enjoy telling stories that I believe will inspire people to be bold and make the world a better place. If a project doesn’t align with those values, Im very grateful for the opportunity but, I have to stay true to myself. If I don’t, I end up questioning why I became an Illustrator, get stressed out and make bad work. With Fauci, I never could have dug deep and done what I needed to do to finish on time had I not cared about the message. I don’t expect people just starting out to be totally aware of what stories they want to tell or have the confidence to say no right off the bat. I certainly didn’t! But if you do your best to follow your heart and try create art that you are excited about, wether its paid or personal work, you will get to where you want to go much quicker. That said, if you turn down a project, make a zine, illustration, short comic or story that really excites you just because! Chances are, someone will be much more interested in paying you for that work because they can tell your heart was in it. The best clients can always tell!
Kate Messner, Author
1. What has been the most rewarding part of your profession as an author and specific to children’s books?
Curiosity has always been a driving force in my life, and I’ve always loved telling stories. To be able to share that sense of wonder with young people is such a gift, whether I’m writing about animals that live under the snow or insects with cool superpowers or scientists who shaped history.
2. Would you be able to share a bit about the process of working with Dr. Fauci on his picture book biography?
I’d reached out to Dr. Fauci’s office in Spring 2020 with a question about a totally different project, but the more I learned about his life, the more I realized that his story would really resonate with kids. So that fall, I sent another email to share the idea of a picture book biography and ask if Dr. Fauci might be open to a Zoom interview. He was incredibly busy, of course, but made time to talk with me on his way home from work one day in November, and then I was able to follow up with his office on other questions that came up as I worked on the book.
3. What drew you to this topic and inspired you to tell Dr. Fauci’s story?
When kids see someone like Dr. Fauci on the news at night, there’s often a sense of distance, and it’s hard for them to imagine that people doing such important work were once curious kids, just like them. But this is very much the case with Anthony Fauci, who grew up in a working class Brooklyn neighborhood, reading his family’s set of encyclopedias, studying the fish in his bedroom fish tank, and wondering about the planets. I also loved the way Dr. Fauci’s gift as a communicator was evident in his childhood. He got along with all different kinds of people, from the tougher kids in his neighborhood to his fellow scholars in his high school literature and philosophy classes.
4. What did you enjoy most about collaborating with illustrator Alexandra Bye?
I loved Alexandra’s art from the moment I visited her website, so I was delighted when she signed on to work on this project. This book came together quickly, but because it’s a work of nonfiction, it was essential that the illustrations be as historically and scientifically accurate as the text. I really appreciated Alexandra’s determination to get things right and her flexibility when revisions were needed. And of course, the final art is amazing, and I can’t wait for kids to see it!
Kendra Levin, Editorial Director
1. Would you give us the inside scoop on the process of acquiring this title?
The manuscript arrived in my inbox the first week of December. I read it the minute it came in—one of the joys of editing picture books is sometimes being able to do that—and immediately messaged our publisher, Justin Chanda, and told him I wanted to try and preempt it. Dr. Fauci had already become a bit of a folk hero and I found his life fascinating and felt sure that kids and adults would love reading about him. And though I hadn’t worked with Kate Messner before, I was a fan of her books and trusted her to be thorough in her research and accuracy. My vision was to publish the book as quickly as possible; I acquired the manuscript within about 24 hours of receiving it, and by the end of the month, we were finished with edits and ready to hand the text over to Alexandra to illustrate.
2. What did you enjoy most about working with Alexandra Bye and Kate Messner?
Both were a dream to work with. Kate was extremely professional—she understood right away that, with a tight schedule like this, we’d need to be decisive and intentional about everything, and she really followed through on that. And Alexandra was also fantastic. We made this book in three months and couldn’t have done that without Alexandra’s speed, professionalism, and good humor. She was always totally receptive to our feedback and such a good sport about the tight turnarounds. And both she and Kate really immersed themselves in information about Dr. Fauci and the time periods of his life, which brought so much authenticity to the book. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how beautiful Alexandra’s artwork is! It was so important to me and to Chloe Foglia, our art director, that the book not look like it had been made quickly, and Alexandra brought such warmth and vibrancy to each piece of art, you’d never know she had so little time to work. The finished book is absolutely gorgeous thanks to her.
3. What drew you most to Alexandra Bye? Were there specific titles or pieces in her folio that sealed the deal?
Chloe had worked with Alexandra before on The Only Woman in the Photo by Kathleen Krull and had a terrific experience, so recommended her very highly as a collaborator. Looking at her portfolio, I loved the warmth and light in her backgrounds and the way she could imbue a deceptively simple-looking figure or face with lots of emotion and personality. And I liked her treatment of period clothes and settings, knowing that we’d need to depict many different decades in Dr. Fauci.
4. What did you find most challenging as well as rewarding?
The schedule was definitely challenging! I’d never made a picture book in three months before, and it meant that every time anything related to Dr. Fauci hit my desk, I had to drop everything and focus on it right away. I had a few late nights with this one, and I think Alexandra had many very early mornings! But there was also a real thrill in making something so quickly, and especially knowing how much this book can help people as soon as we get it out in the world. In addition to sharing the story of Dr. Fauci’s life, the book contains several pages of backmatter including a full spread explaining how vaccines work. I want young people to have this resource in their hands as the COVID-19 vaccines continue to roll out across the country. Thinking about empowering children with information and inspiring them to pursue their science dreams, as Dr. Fauci did, kept me motivated!
5. Any takeaways that you’d like to share with budding art directors and editorial directors?
Anything is possible with the right team. If you want to do something challenging or potentially difficult, do all you can to assemble a group of people you can really trust as collaborators. This book would not have been possible or turned out so beautifully without Kate Messner, Alexandra Bye, Chloe Foglia, and our fantastic production person Chava Wolin and stellar managing editor Jenica Nasworthy. It really does take a village, so make sure your village is filled with smart, competent, and reliable people, to the extent that you can control that!