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When 'Here' Is Home, But 'Here' Keeps Changing — A Family Flees In 'Story Boat'

Mar 7, 2020

When illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh first read the manuscript of Story Boat, she recognized the children in it immediately. Kheiriyeh's family fled Iran after war broke out in 1980 — she remembers what it was like to leave everything behind, to escape to a safer place. So Kyo Maclear's story, about a little girl and her family who are forced to leave home, felt very familiar.

"I thought, oh, that's me," Kheiriyeh says. "That's the girl who likes to draw and has a wild imagination. ... When I started illustrating this book in my studio, I kept thinking ... I'm drawing myself."

The family in Story Boat is leaving an unspecified place and heading to an unknown destination. "It's a story about uncertainty. It's about dreaming," Maclear says.

The family in the book is in the midst of an ongoing journey — "here" is home, but "here" keeps changing. Maclear says she tried to build a pattern into the book to give children a "thread of continuity."

Here is a cup that the children sip from every morning.

Here is a blanket that the children sleep under every night.

"I wanted to give a sense of what home might be in the absence of a solid place," Maclear says.

Kids are "natural collectors," she says — just look at the way they curate their Halloween candy. "Building the story around objects makes it very recognizable, I think, to a lot of children ..." Maclear says, "whether they were on the inside of [the refugee] experience or on the outside of the experience."

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Here is a cup and a blanket and a lamp — but it is also a song and a journey.

"What I really want to convey was the idea that home was also a story," Maclear says. "That what could carry us in the absence of something solid was just the presence of a story."

Kheiriyeh built a sense of continuity into the illustrations as well. She appreciated the simplicity of Maclear's writing. "So I tried to use it in my illustration, too," Kheiriyeh says. "I tried to make it as simple as I can."

Using watercolor, ink and oil paint, Kheiriyeh illustrated the book in white, black, blue and orange. The blue is meant to represent water. The orange was inspired by the bright orange life vests.

Maclear says Rashin was a "perfect fit" for the book. "I felt that she had inhabited this story so fully," she says. "And that's all you can ever hope for as a writer."

Seeing the illustrations also helped Maclear pare down her writing. After you get a look at the images, "you begin to see as a writer what words are unnecessary ..." Maclear says. "Everything keeps moving until the very end. I really love that process."

It took a long time for Maclear to find the right artist for Story Boat -- and she acknowledges that this was a complicated book to illustrate. "There's kind of a whimsy to it," she says, "but there's also a ... hard reality. ... It's really tricky as an illustrator to capture that in a way that kind of honors the situation," Maclear says.

When she saw Kheiriyeh's sketches, Maclear knew she'd finally found the right fit. "It was like being on The Bachelor and you find your perfect match," she recalls.

The illustrations in the book alternate between the experience of the fleeing families — walking with their belongings, living in tents, boarding a small boat — and the imaginative lives of the children — sailing the open ocean in a teacup, the wind filling their blanket turned sail.

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"It kind of switches between images that capture the gravity ... and the painfulness of the situation," Maclear says. "But every time you turn the page, you're back in the interior life of the children."

Kheiriyeh says she loves the universality of the book. "The whole point of this story in writing and illustrating is to give hope to kids," she says.

Maclear also wanted tell a story about refugees that was full of compassion, creativity and humanity. "We think of refugees as people who wait a lot and suffer," Maclear says. "But I wanted to portray a story where refugees also imagine, and dream, and run towards life."

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KYO MACLEAR: Hi, it's Kyo.

KHEIRIYEH: This is Rashin (laughter).

MACLEAR: Oh, my God, Rashin. Nice to hear your voice.

KHEIRIYEH: Yeah, nice to hear your voice, too, finally.


"Story Boat" is a new children's book illustrated by Rashin Kheiriyeh and written by Kyo Maclear.

MACLEAR: Well, "Story Boat" is about a journey that a family's taking. And the entire story takes place after their departure from an unspecified place and just before their arrival at a new place. So it's kind of a story about uncertainty. It's about dreaming. It's about two children's imagination.

SIMON: We've been asking authors and illustrators how they work together, or separately, to try to bring stories to life. Kyo Maclear and Rashin Kheiriyeh had never so much as spoken on the phone until this interview.

MACLEAR: It's funny 'cause I feel like I did speak with you.


MACLEAR: Maybe it was telepathically or something (laughter).

KHEIRIYEH: Yeah. Me, too.

SIMON: Rashin first heard about Kyo's idea for "Story Boat" nearly three years ago. She felt immediately that she needed to illustrate it.

KHEIRIYEH: I loved it. And I said, please, please, let me - (laughter) let me try it. Let me do some illustration, and you'll see if you like it or not. And then I started to come up with three or four different illustration techniques. And I sent them to Kyo and a publisher. And when I got the result and they said they pick me, I was, I mean, over moon. I was so happy because I love this story so much, and I saw myself in it.

To tell a little bit about my background, I'm coming originally from Iran. And when I was a kid, I experienced to be like a refugee kid, because in 1980, there was a war between Iran and Iraq. And in those days, Iraq attacked my hometown, Khorramshahr in Iran. And the war started, and it ended, like, eight years after that. So my family had to leave behind everything they had and just took me and my brother and tried to escape and took us to a safe place. So when I was - started illustrating this book in my studio, I kept thinking - I filled it - I'm drawing myself.

MACLEAR: Well, I'm crying, to be honest. And it's just so beautiful because as soon as I saw the sketches that Rashin had drawn, I felt that she had inhabited this story so fully. And that's all you can ever hope for.

One of the things that made it very difficult was that the story has a tone. There's kind of a whimsy to it, but there is also a sense of hard reality to it. And that's really difficult - like, that's like being at the very center of this kind of spectrum of hope and despair. And it's really tricky as an illustrator to capture that in a way that kind of honors the situation. And that's what was so challenging. And as soon as I saw Rashin's art, I knew that this was perfect. It was like being on "The Bachelor" and you find your perfect match. It was like, I knew this was right.

KHEIRIYEH: Kyo's stories - the great thing about her writing is that - is the simplicity. So I tried to use it in my illustration, too. So I choose a very limited color palette, like blue and orange - blue because of - they are sailing in their journey, so I chose the blue for water. And then I chose orange. I inspired by the color of boating life jackets, which, usually, they are orange. The technique - I use watercolor, ink and oil paint because I needed something to give me a texture for the waves in the sea. So I mixed oil paint with water, and if they cannot get along with each other, so it gives me a good texture for waves for the water.

SIMON: In the book, a little girl and little boy drink out of a steaming cup and sleep under an orange blanket, always against a stormy blue background. Here is a cup, gold and fine, warm as a hug, writes Kyo Maclear. Here is a blanket, patterned and soft, color of apricots. And on the next page, they're moving again. Here isn't always the same, she writes, sometimes it's here just for a moment.

MACLEAR: I don't know if you're familiar with the idea of, like, a step and repeat story. So there's a kind of patterning in certain stories where you kind of build a pattern. And then children look for the thread of continuity, and so they kind of become participants in the story. So one of the words that repeats is the word here. You know, here is a cup, or, here - you know, here is a blanket. And I wanted to give a sense of what home might be in the absence of a solid place. So the heres kind of develop and kind of add up to this story. And so what I really wanted to convey was an idea that home was also a story.

KHEIRIYEH: It's supposed to be a hopeful story, full of imagination and full of dreamings. That's what we, all of us, as children's book creators - is that - to encourage kids to be a dreamer. When you stop dreaming, you cannot realize the future.

SIMON: Illustrator Rashin Kheiriyeh and author Kyo Maclear talking about their book "Story Boat."

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSAJ THING'S "HEART ENTIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.