About the writing of The Littlest Matryoshka

I wrote the first version of The Littlest Matryoshka (originally called The Last Matryoshka ) to go with a matryoshka I bought as a Christmas present for my daughter. The matryoshka had been on sale because of a crack in the largest doll, and it seemed to require a story to accompany it. I made a little hand-sewn book, printed the text and glued it on the pages, and illustrated the story with my own, rather naive watercolors. 
My original story was based on what had really happened: a mother buys a damaged matryoshka, repairs it with glue, and the matryoshka is given to the child for Christmas.  Not much of a plot! When I thought about turning my story into something that would have appeal for a larger audience, I knew I had to create some dramatic tension.  The tale of Odysseus returning home after his long, adventurous journey has always resonated with me, and that theme of separation and reunification seemed perfect for this set of nesting dolls.  
When I sold the manuscript to Hyperion, the editor hired an illustrator, Tom Voss, who did thumbnail sketches and made a dummy for the book.  The editor who had acquired the manuscript then left the company and the new editor who was assigned to the book had a different vision for it and decided she wanted a new illustrator. To my delight she selected Kathryn Brown, whose work I admired and whose style seemed perfect for my text—sweet, but not saccharine.  
By coincidence, Kathy lived not far from me, and we’d met once before.  We got together for tea before Kathy began the illustration process, and I brought her the actual matryoshka to use as a model.  The dolls were on loan to her for the entire year, and I didn’t meet with Kathy again until all the art was done.  I knew she was working in her studio, not many miles from my own study, and I could imagine Anna, the biggest matryoshka (with her sisters “safe inside her”) smiling from the side of Kathy’s drawing table.  The editor sent me copies of the illustrations in process—sketches, book dummy, color Xeroxes of the finished art when it came in—and any comments or suggestions I had I directed to the editor, not to Kathy.  Many of the publishers I’ve worked with require this kind of separation between author and illustrator.  
In only a few cases have I worked directly with the illustrator of my picture book. One unusual collaboration was with Ted Lewin on The Disappearing Island. We’d become friends after he illustrated an earlier book of mine, Matthew’s Meadow. Ted used my daughter as a model for the child narrator of The Disappearing Island, and I accompanied him while he shot the photographs that were the basis for his watercolor illustrations.  
It’s a joy for a writer to witness her book coming to life in a new way.  I could not envision Kathy’s illustrations beforehand, and yet when I saw them, they seemed so right for my text it was impossible imagine they hadn’t always been paired.  It’s also quite flattering for a writer to know that an artist has been putting such exquisite labor and thought into creating a visual dimension to your words.  I knew that Kathy had read my story with sensitivity and intelligence—she got everything right.  She not only illustrated what was going on in my story, but she also conveyed the tone of the language, the emotions of the characters, and the thematic elements that hovered around the text.  In particular I loved the way Kathy created the landscape of the story, the natural world (the waterfall, the great blue heron, and “the darkening sky and the arrival of the moon and stars”) as well as the dreamlike quality of Jessie’s bedroom.  This is a story that begins in winter and ends in spring, and Kathy beautifully captured that larger story of the progress of the seasons.  Although Nina, the littlest matryoshka, is just a little wooden doll, Kathy managed to give her poignancy, and that special quality when an inanimate object is not anthropomorphized but still seems to have been imbued with a soul.	 

-Corinne Demas 

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photo by Daniella Bordonaro