Andrea Curtis, author of City Streets Are for People, has been a cyclist for more than two decades. Her enthusiasm for sustainable forms of public transport shines in the third offering from Groundwood Books’ ThinkCities series (A Forest in the City and City of Water), which focuses on urban systems and sustainability.
“All over the world, people are reimagining transit and their cities,” she writes in the narrative nonfiction picture book. “We’re taking over sidewalks to talk and dance, to eat and play. We’re making room for bike lanes and electric scooters. We’re building green transportation and reclaiming public spaces.”
Emailing from Toronto’s West End, Curtis says she began writing books for young readers approximately 10 years ago, when her own children were little. “In my opinion, starting with kids is the best way to build an urban culture where city streets are for people,” she says, sharing her fascination with the bicycle playgrounds of Copenhagen, where kids learn to ride safely in a fun environment.
As the pair worked on the project together, illustrator Emma FitzGerald was also travelling by bike along the Galloping Goose trail to her studio in Victoria, B.C. Despite never having met Curtis in person, FitzGerald – who has since relocated to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia – was “grateful to have the chance to work with someone who clearly cares about the world and our shared future.”
Curtis explores several modes of sustainable transportation across the world, such as the solar-powered buses of Adelaide, Australia; the rapid bus system that drastically decreased pollution in Bogotá, Colombia; and Russia’s subway network, which includes a station that reaches down as far as a 19-storey building. In the book, she paints an awe-inspiring picture of the Moscow transit system, with its “chandeliers twinkling from soaring ceilings,” and she stresses the urgent need to consider transport that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.
“Transportation emissions are a huge contributor to climate change, and all over the world, you see progressive cities eliminating or restricting cars from their centres (think London, Oslo, Paris) and making life better for their citizens. Without fast-moving, polluting, single-occupancy vehicles dominating the streets, people are safer, healthier, and better able to connect with others,” she says.
The team encourages a community approach to change-making, which is reflected in the book’s format. The book includes both a generous list of actions to promote sustainable transportation and a glossary at the back – indispensable resources for teaching or reading collectively.
“I love to think about adults (whether they are parents, friends, or librarians) and kids reading together and having interesting conversations based on the book, maybe sparking research and actions of their own,” FitzGerald says.
The layered and lively illustrations complement Curtis’s world-opening vignettes. To create a sense of movement and vibrancy across the page, FitzGerald used a complex mixed-media technique.
“I enjoyed following an instinct that told me I should use some pencil crayon while also using my typical digital colour, which tends to be more flat. This offered me more texture, and I feel that makes it more relatable to kids, who use pencil crayons in their art. The different materials created some surprising results that made me happy.”
The writer and illustrator team will talk to kids across the country with an online book tour via Zoom, but they will also host in-person launches in Nova Scotia and Toronto. Though it is common for illustrators and writers to work with each other indirectly via their publishing teams, Curtis and FitzGerald’s connection to the late Sheila Barry, the former publisher of Groundwood Books, informed their camaraderie.
Curtis says, “The fact that Emma and I have a connection through Sheila makes me feel as if this legacy continues through us – as I know it does through many other authors, editors, publishers, and illustrators, as well as through the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable award in her name.”
FitzGerald, who was brought on board by Groundwood due to Andrea’s suggestion, echoes Curtis and says that the connection felt like it was meant to be.
City Streets Are for People began during the pandemic lockdowns, and the team had to make a decision about whether to continue working on a book about public transportation, which was not a priority at the time.
“What we decided to do was address COVID in the text a little bit, and also make sure some of the people in the images were wearing masks,” says Curtis. “I’m so glad we persevered despite all the unknowns, because I think the issue is very much top-of-mind for people as we try to imagine a greener post-pandemic future.”
Andrea Curtis: Joanna Haughton, Emma FitzGerald: Michelle Doucette