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Ashley Spires

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Ashley Spires on her highly anticipated picture book, The Most Magnificent Idea

From books to TV and film, author-illustrator Ashley Spires is one of Canada’s most successful creators of children’s entertainment. Her 2014 picture book The Most Magnificent Thing (Kids Can Press), which introduced readers to her young creative heroine, sold over 700,000 copies, and Nelvana is currently working to develop a TV series based on the book. Next month, Spires releases the long-awaited companion title, The Most Magnificent Idea (Kids Can Press). 

Spires spoke with Q&Q about The Most Magnificent Idea, the creative process, and what readers can expect from the series moving forward.

The Most Magnificent Thing was a runaway bestseller. Did you anticipate the reaction it received?
I never would have dreamed of the reaction the world has had to that book. I honestly credit so much of it to the fact that I was writing from the really authentic place of a struggle that’s identifiable to people of all ages. It’s the book that taught me to be vulnerable when you create things. It’s fantastic that kids have loved it, but I also love that so many creative adults have connected with it. We all create in a bit of a vacuum, and all you see are these amazing products, but we don’t know the blood, sweat, and tears that go into them. I think that any time someone comes out and says, “Oh, it’s really hard,” it makes you feel so much more validated and seen. The response from adults is probably something that simple. I certainly hope [The Most Magnificent Idea] makes even half as much of a connection with people.

What inspired The Most Magnificent Idea?
My publisher asked, “Do you think we could ever make a sequel to The Most Magnificent Thing?” And I just couldn’t think of anything that would work. But that’s the other side of the creative process: [sometimes you] wake up in the morning with an idea you can’t [actualize], and sometimes you wake up in the morning without an idea when you really want to make something. As a creative, not making something is the same as not being able to breathe. It’s just something we do, so not having an idea is such a struggle, and it is one I see in children. It was always very tempting to write about things that we adults experience, but my goal is to tap into something that is a bit more universal. There isn’t a teacher or parent in the world who hasn’t heard their kids say “I don’t know what to draw, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to make,” so this is the book about the flip side of the process.

Why did you focus on perseverance as the young girl’s greatest character trait?
It’s one that’s extremely important and, perhaps, one that’s getting shoved aside a little bit in our world of instant gratification. It’s so easy to decide that you’re not good at something and move on to something else. I am my own worst critic, and I will always think the worst of my work, but the reason I [continue] is the excitement of new discoveries and finding something inside myself I didn’t know was there – and that wouldn’t happen without perseverance. That, to me, is the ultimate lifetime fulfillment of your soul, of your mind, of everything.

Along with emotional intelligence and perspective, The Most Magnificent Idea is about trusting your own ability. Why was it so important to share this message with young children?
I feel like I keep writing books where I’m trying to teach myself. It’s as if this is something I need to learn, and if I need to learn it, chances are I’m not that original. There’s got to be a lot of people out there who are having the same emotional arc, I think – in particular, women and young girls. If I can put out the message of trusting themselves, trusting their own abilities, listening to themselves, their own drive, and not letting outside influences ever interfere with what they know about themselves and what they’re capable of into every single one of my books, then I will have lived a full life.

The young girl is a maker. What role has innovation played in your life?
I see these books as an allegory for the creative process, whatever form that creative process takes for any given individual. I chose to make her an engineer engaged in tangible innovation because it generates something visually that’s enticing for kids to watch as it evolves. Admittedly, I’m not an engineer; I’m wildly hopeless when it comes to that stuff. Switching to digital technology was something I held back on for a long time. I loved working with my hands. I loved painting, and I still do, but the freedom and the amount of things you can achieve with Photoshop and Cintiq, well, there’s really no limit. While it may not be my own innovation, I certainly appreciate it, because it’s revolutionized how I work.

You write as well as illustrate. Do you approach both disciplines the same way? Do you find one easier than the other?
I do approach them differently to some extent. When it comes to picture books, sometimes it starts with a simple doodle or sketch, and there’s a character I want to write about. But more and more, it seems to be that I am approaching my picture books with an emotional goal. There’s something internally I want to express in the story and how I manifest that emotion into an identifiable story arc.

Sometimes, the actual arc [of a story] can come out very quickly, but when it comes to writing it and making sure you’re hitting the right emotional beats throughout, that can take time, and certainly that’s where my editor comes in and works very hard. The illustration part, because I started as an illustrator, is definitely my favourite part, even though it can be what I struggle with the most, because it is my love.

Any chance readers will get another book in The Most Magnificent series in the future?
Yep! By the end of the summer, I will be starting on a maker’s alphabet book for the young girl. It’ll be more about the fun vocabulary that goes with [the process]. We also have plans to do a board book, which will give us an opportunity to see the girl a little bit younger, and, of course, her dog is going to be an adorable puppy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction, August 18: This story has been updated to reflect that The Most Magnificent Thing was published in 2014 not 2013.