To help kids make sense of the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant changes in day-to-day life, children’s books are exploring modern life, including wearing masks. Sharing a Smile by Nicki Kramar, illustrated by Ashley Evans, is one such title, published February 23 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
The 32-page children’s picture book, aimed at ages four and up, features young Sophie, who misses seeing the smiles of people in her neighborhood, like her friendly mail carrier, because they’re now wearing masks. To help brighten their days (and hers), Sophie, with help from her grandfather, creates masks for her neighbors and friends to match their personalities and interests, such as one decorated with lions to help her friend Jenny be brave.
Via email, I interviewed Evans, who has also illustrated four other titles, including Gabrielle Union’s children’s book Welcome to the Party, about the timeliness of the book’s message, her approach to the illustrations, and what she hopes readers take away from Sharing a Smile.
Evans has been an illustrator since 2010, but only began work as a children’s illustrator in 2018 when she signed with the Bright Agency. Of Sharing a Smile, Evans says she was interested in working on it because “this story felt very timely and very warmly written. I love how the book is centered around a child and her grandfather working on community care, and how their project helps them cope with the ways their lives have changed during the pandemic.”
Evans began working on the book in September 2020, with the artwork completed by the end of November. Evans, who works digitally, completed all the artwork in Photoshop, and was given free reign to “design the characters and build the entire world for the story.”
To do so, she used her hometown of Queens, New York, as inspiration for the neighborhood where Sophie lives. “I approached the art with lots of research on the environment, since community plays such a huge role in the art. When my Art Director mentioned that the characters would live in houses as well as buildings, during a brief for the sample, I immediately thought of Queens.” Evans says she used her imagination andof people in her life as inspiration for the various characters in the book, including her daughter, who Sophie’s outfits and hairstyle were modeled on. “I knew I wanted the art to be bright and simple to draw people’s attention, and I wanted the art to focus on the characters and their kindness, which is at the center of this story,” says Evans.
While she received notes and instructions after each scene, Evans says she wasn’t restricted in her approach to the art. As for a favorite part of her story, Evans says hers “is when Sophie and her grandpa are leaving their house, and Sophie looks excited to hand out masks and there are lots of butterflies flying around.” Evans hopes kids “take away the message of kindness and caring for their community, and how things that seem scary or uncertain can sometimes be made better when we remember that we can help others and vice versa.”
Evans says the process of working on Sharing a Smile was similar to working on Union’s Welcome to the Party. Because both are fiction, she notes, “I had a lot of creative freedom for how the people and backgrounds. Other projects I’ve worked on were based on real people and specific time periods so that would tie my hands a bit.” In addition to illustrating other people’s words, Evans hopes someday to both write and illustrate a children’s book of her own.
I’m a freelance writer covering books, pop culture, and relationships. My website is rachelkramerbussel.com and you can follow me at @raquelita on Twitter. I’ve edited