Evanston authors and illustrators create unique “connective tissue” through artistic community


Photo courtesy of Matthew LaFleur

An illustration by Matthew LaFleur for “Ultimate Treehouse,” a board game he created with Evanston-based game designer Kate Hunt.

Lily Carey, Reporter

When Betsy Bird moved from New York City to Evanston seven years ago, she said she never expected to stumble upon such a “book-centric” city.

“This is a very literary town, and I’ve learned that (while) taking care of the library,” Bird said. “People love their books here.”

Bird said she connected with a number of other local authors and illustrators as soon as she moved to the city. As the collection development manager of the Evanston Public Library and a children’s book author herself, Bird said she was excited to find how vital writing and illustrating is to the community. Bird has written several picture books, including “Giant Dance Party” and “The Great Santa Stakeout,” as well as middle-grade books like “Long Road to the Circus,” her most recent release. 

Bird is not alone in her experience — authors and illustrators from across Evanston have created a local literary community. Evanston-based illustrator Matthew LaFleur said this community has formed a unique “connective tissue” for everyone involved. 

LaFleur has worked on a range of projects with members of the Evanston community. He designed beer can labels for several local breweries, illustrated a picture book, “The Toothless Fairy,” and made illustrations for the board game “Ultimate Treehouse” with its Evanston-based creator Kate Hunt.

He said his experiences illustrating for “The Toothless Fairy” and “Ultimate Treehouse” were different from his usual work. 

“I really loved that process of character design and of telling the story visually,” Lafleur said. “You’re not just literally illustrating the words — you’re creating a story that exists pictorially separate from the words.”

Illustrator Diana Sudyka said she has found a unique ecosystem of artists and businesses in Evanston. Sudyka has illustrated several picture books, along with the “Mysterious Benedict Society” chapter book series. 

After receiving an MFA in printmaking from Northwestern University, Sudyka lived in both Chicago and Evanston. She said she has always loved Evanston’s artistic environment.

“We’re fortunate that Evanston has some really great independent bookstores,” said Sudkya. “There’s a reciprocal relationship between local artists, writers and musicians and the independent establishments that support them.”

Author Kira Bigwood said the city is also home to groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a nonprofit connecting children’s book authors and illustrators both locally and across the globe. Bigwood’s picture book, “Secret, Secret Agent Guy,” was published last year. 

Though she said children’s book publishing is “not for the faint of heart,” groups like the SCBWI provide authors with essential support in a difficult field. 

“The thing about publishing is there’s so many ups and downs,” Bigwood said. “You really couldn’t go through this without having that community of support around you.” 

Bigwood supports other authors and illustrators through blog posts, which offer advice to upcoming children’s book authors on how to get their work published. 

Through SCBWI, author Sarah Aronson established Read Local Illinois, an initiative that aims to connect authors with teachers and classrooms around the state. Aronson has written a chapter book series, three novels and two picture books. Her most recent picture book, “Just Like Rube Goldberg,” was released in 2019.

Both Bigwood and Aronson said seeing the impact of their work on children’s lives is incredibly rewarding. This impact plays a key role in local artists’ and writers’ contributions to the broader community, they said.

As a whole, Aronson said Evanston’s community helps her to embrace the vulnerability of the artistic and literary process.

“That feeling of vulnerability makes us less confident and less assured of ourselves, when really that’s our superpower — that curiosity, and drive,” Aronson said. “We strive for more when we can strive together.”

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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