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Q&A with art star and kidlit up-and-comer Cybèle Young

Cybèle Young may have seemed like an overnight kidlit success when her most recent picture book, Ten Birds (Kids Can Press), won a Governor General’s Literary Award last fall, but the Toronto-based artist actually began working on it more than 15 years ago. Young first made her name in the art world, where her miniature paper sculptures have attracted galleries and collectors in Vancouver, London, and New York, and landed her a recent residency in Paris. In the March 2012 issue of Q&Q, she discusses how her art informs her literary work, the transporting power of story, and what readers can expect next.

It might surprise some to learn that you trained as a sculptor. How did you get into publishing?
From a very young age, there was no question in my mind that I was an artist. At the Ontario College of Art, I did all sculpture courses. But in my final year of school, when I was pregnant with my daughter, everything shifted. I took a book-arts class and discovered that books were sculptural, too, on a private yet accessible level. I found myself going to kids’ book sections a lot more than I would go to galleries. And I still do.

You started Ten Birds in 1996. How did it finally come to fruition?
I drew most of the pictures for Ten Birds right after my daughter was born. I went to Groundwood Books with it 15 years ago because co-publisher Patsy Aldana is a friend’s mother. Then I illustrated a bit for Groundwood while focusing mainly on art “ I felt I could only have one focus in addition to parenting.

Three years ago, after Groundwood had agreed to publish another picture book of mine, A Few Blocks (2011), I thought, Well, I already showed this to Patsy, and we’re working together on something else, so I showed it to Kids Can publisher Karen Boersma, whom I’d met at Groundwood. It clicked. We added one or two pages at the beginning and one or two at the end, but other than that, we used only the original drawings.

Some of your illustrations look like your sculptures. How does your art affect your books, and vice versa?
They definitely inform each other “ I’m really half a person without one or the other. I had to find my voice in art first, but one of the things I love about books is being able to reach a wide audience. My sculptures imply stories, and in my books there are definitely themes I explore in my art, like my interest in small day-to-day experiences. Another thing I learned in sculpture that I apply to everything else: if I don’t enjoy it, it’s going to suck.

Has being a mom affected your publishing career?
Certainly I fell in love with children’s books when I was pregnant. And as a parent, there’s nothing more heavenly than knowing your kid, who could be climbing the walls, will sit happily in your lap if you offer them a book, and you can both be transported to another world.

Click on the thumbnails to see examples of Young’s fine art and illustration work.