We fell head-over-heels in love with This Is How We Do It, a nonfiction trip around the world by Matt Lamothe, and knew it had a place of honor in our curations! Matt is part of the award-winning design company ALSO, as well as the co-author of multiple art books including The Where, the Why, and the How. His combination of lively illustration and fascinating material made this a book we needed on not only our own shelves, but our members’ too.
This Is How We Do It is a full exploration of what it means to be a child in seven countries around the world. We chatted with Matt about his process for creating the book, what he liked to read as a kid, and where he’s going next.
You’re a person of many creative hats: animator, designer, researcher, and more. At what point did you know you wanted to create for a living?
I’m not sure if I can call back to a specific point. I have two brothers and as kids we were very determined to imagine alternate worlds and realities. The result of which was building models, making costumes, and drawing comics. Other than that, going to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design was an amazing experience that placed me within a community of people who were constantly inventing and making. I can’t emphasize enough how surrounding yourself with makers helps motivate your own work.
I also loved a short book series called “Pelly and Peak” by Sally Wittman. A pelican and a peacock live together and solve various problems often relating to gravity or physics. In one story, the earth, moon, and sun are explained by using a grapefruit, an orange, and a plum. In another, they raise an egg only to find that it’s a snake. I loved how these birds solved funny puzzles and had human furniture.
Did you read much as a child? What are the books that have really stuck with you into adulthood?
I had pretty bonkers taste as a kid, I don’t think there was specific genre that I gravitated to. There is a book that has eluded me as an adult but was a favorite of mine as a child. In my elementary school, each week we went to the school library where we allowed to check out one book. There was a big picture book of domestic cats called The Big Book of Cats by Gladys Emerson Cook. It was illustrated in muted tones but the eyes of the cats where very brightly colored. They were mesmerizing. I checked out that book every week for all of first grade staring into those feline eyes. I even remember my librarian trying to convince me to read Where The Wild Thing Are, and showing me the Caldecott medal on the cover. It was shiny, but I was adamant, and just kept checking out the cat book.
Later as a teen, I didn’t read much young adult literature. I think a lot of YA in the 90s was about reflecting real life back to it’s readers in a way that was too realistic for me. I was looking for an escape in books, and found the Victorian era detective stories of Sherlock Holmes and Poirot different enough from real life to dive into.
You used real children and their real experiences, homes, and words to create This Is How We Do It. Can you tell us a little bit about how this book came to be?
A few years ago I traveled to Uganda. My friend’s sister lives there part of the year and works as a primatologist, studying monkeys and gorillas in the rainforests. I’d never been to central Africa before and didn’t know what to expect. The trip wasn’t a typical tourist experience, since we spent a lot of time at research centers and could have prolonged conversations with the people who lived and worked there. As I got to know some of the Ugandans, it became clear to me that we had lots in common. We talked about fixing up houses, mother-in-laws, and pop stars. It was so comforting to find that people living across the globe could share so many of the same life experiences. It struck me that the world can appear both strange and familiar at once, and this seemed like a topic worth sharing with children. I have worked within a small design company called ALSO for over a decade, so the world of publishing and book-making was somewhat familiar to me, and branching out into the picture book world felt do-able.
What surprised you most in your research for this book? Is there anything interesting or unexpected that didn’t make in that you could share?
Seeing what the families ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was always a surprise, and it remains something that is specific to different cultures. And as a bonus, it’s really fun to draw!
As far as the unexpected, Ribaldo’s family in Peru live at an income level that is significantly lower than the other families in the book. They have no running water or electricity, and while those thing certainly affected his life, Ribaldo’s daily routine was essentially the same as the other children in the book. I’d love to see a picture book tackle economic inequality at a global level. It’s something that’s very sensitive and difficult for adults to discuss, especially with children. I feel one of the great things about picture books is that illustrations can be used as a device to control the level of realness perceived by a reader, and help to gradually introduce these themes to young people.
What’s been your favorite reaction from a child about this book?
I have truly enjoyed hearing “Kids drink coffee in Peru?!” But the most exciting thing has been receiving letters and emails from kids who share that they’ve made their own version of This Is How We Do It and filled it with all of the activities of their lives.
You’ve said previously that you’re working on some extensions for the classroom related to what you’ve learned when writing This Is How We Do It. Can you tell us a little more about that?
When making This Is How We Do it I hadn’t considered it as a school learning tool but librarians and teachers have often told me that it’s used in the classroom as a starting point to discuss other cultures. A few months after the book came out I created some drawing and writing worksheets that related to the activities in the book. But because I don’t have a background in education, there’s a big learning curve for me to create these types of materials.
What can you tell us about what you’re working on now, or what you have coming out next?
Because I was getting positive feedback from children who were making their own versions of the book, I’ve spend the last year creating a follow-up activity book called This Is How I Do It. The book follows 59 more real kids from around the world, but leaves a blank page for the reader to answer questions and draw pictures of the activities that make up their day alongside the other children in the book. It also has maps, postcards, and stickers, so there is a lot to do besides drawing. It should be available for purchase this October.
If you could travel anywhere you’ve not yet been, all expenses paid, where would you go?
I’m always inspired to go places based on pictures, and a year or so ago I saw a New York Times photo essay on trekking on Kodiac Island in Alaska that just keeps prodding my mind. The grassy red and yellow landscapes in that essay are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You can see the article here, maybe I’ll see you there!