A Picture Book Asks, “What If?”

Maxwell with Mike Curato at Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Massachusetts
Maxwell with Mike Curato at Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Massachusetts

Maxwell with illustrator Mike Curato at Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Massachusetts

A new picture book, What If . . . (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), tells the story of a fictional African American girl who wonders how she would create if she didn’t have pencils, paper, and other tools. She uses her imagination to find powerful ways of self-expression. 

The book is written by Samantha Berger and illustrated by Mike Curato. “Whatever works” is the motto that Curato lives by. The same holds for the book’s theme.

“We have to use whatever is at our disposal and make the best of what we have,” Curato says. “I’m using lots of different things to create the pictures in the book. Some rely on traditional media, like drawing and painting. The rest is made up of found objects in nature or around the house.” 

Curato recently read What If . . . to an enthusiastic group of kids at Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Massachusetts. After the event, I had the opportunity to ask him questions. Here are highlights from our conversation:

What inspires you to create stories?
If everyone told their stories and their truth, there would be more compassion in the world.

Where did you study your craft?
I took private art lessons from the time I was a little kid, starting at age 4 or 5, all the way through high school. Then I went to Syracuse University to study Illustration.

What is your advice for aspiring artists?
Draw all the time. Draw what makes you smile. A lot of people make the mistake of chasing trends when you really have to find your own voice.

What were you like as a kid?
I grew up outside of New York City in the suburbs. I was an only child for seven years, until my sister and brother came along. In the beginning, I had to entertain myself, so those were some of my most imaginative years. I was always drawing. I’ve always loved sweets, which is apparent in my work.

What were a few of your favorite picture books growing up?
I grew up reading a lot of Golden Books, like The Little Red Caboose. Also, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books [Harper & Row] are really important to me.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I like to travel. I spend a lot of time with my husband and my puppy. 

Photo courtesy of the author