Esmé Shapiro’s enchanting embrace—lean into it

Once upon a time, there lived a girl named Esmé Shapiro of Laurel Canyon who did what the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz could only dream of: “while away the hours conferring with the flowers.” 

With a love for fairy tales and a potent connection to nature, Shapiro spent her formative years believing “I could talk to the roses and the daisies. I thought I could move the clouds with my mind.” As artists, her parents embraced her interest and encouraged her to go into her “inner world” and spend time building it on her own. To follow the lush grassy road where forests are imbued with spirits, and where “nobody asked me to be anything different” than the “strange alien-self that I was.” 

As her connection to nature deepened during summers at Camp Kawartha in Peterborough, in high school she found her calling to make children’s books. Off to RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) she would go, and then would come Ooko, her debut as both illustrator and writer. She’d collaborate with and create visual worlds for Kyo Maclear’s Yak and Dove, Margaret McNamara’s Eliza, and Sheila Heti’s Garden of Creatures. And throughout the years—as she continued to illustrate and write her own stories: Alma and the Beast, Carol and the Pickle-Toad, and most recently, My Self, Your Self (2022)her childhood always stayed with her. 

Esmé Shapiro among the flowers in Laurel Canyon as a child. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.
Still among the flowers as an adult. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.

Splitting her time between the Catskills, the Hudson Valley, and Brooklyn, Shapiro continues to nurture her relationship with nature. Something her parents always encouraged, as they did with all of her pursuits; gifting her the freedom to be herself. And it is that same gift she gives to her readers. Every kid needs that kind of freedom, she tells me in Zoomland, and in her ever-blossoming catalogue, Shapiro delivers. 

In her latest book, My Self, Your Self, Shapiro focuses the narrative on a squishy sprout that reflects “I like that when my friend is sad, I always have a sprout they can lean on.” And just like the sprout uses what they can to help, Shapiro’s pure joyful majesty rests in using her imagination, her life, and her connection to nature to help readers, young and old, nurture their spirit.

Confer with Shapiro and I as we dive into her enchanting world to reveal the stories behind her creations and the love languages that help(ed) build them.

Your work is textural, at times absurd, and is always grounded by honest and relatable emotions and scenarios. Was there a moment where you thought, I’ve found my style, this approach is my wheelhouse? 

I have found that if I remain open and find ways in my work to feel challenged, excited, and inspired, then that shows up in the work. The look and the style within is never a conscious choice. It’s usually something that happens after a lot of experimentation and curiosity. 

I always tell that to people who are looking to get into illustration who are concerned that their work doesn’t look the same or it doesn’t have a cohesive look. You will find that your work does have a cohesive look if you stay authentic and follow your nose. Find what makes you genuinely interested and happy. For me it means constantly taking my books to new places, new settings, whether I’m making them up or not. There’s a cohesive look to my work only because of my curiosity. What makes me fulfilled is when I’m putting down all the barriers and I’m asking, “What am I interested in?”

Speaking of current interests, congratulations on your newest book, My Self, Your Self. One of the lines that struck me when reading it was “yourself is a lovely self. So take some time to get to know yourself.” It made me think about the selves we inhabit and how it takes time to get to know yourself. We’re all these little creatures that you are illustrating and writing about. Why did you want to tell this story now?

Well, it’s funny, because in a weird way this book is a collaboration with myself now and myself in high school when I wrote the origin of the story in a poetry class. A couple of years ago, I was going through some boxes and found the poem. I sent it to my agent, and she said, “This is amazing. Let’s expand on it.” As I’m older, I wanted to include things I thought would be helpful to my childhood self. So a big part to evolve with the evolution of the book is the page that says, “And when I am by myself I know how to be kind to myself,” because that is something a lot of adults struggle with too. But then on a larger level I’m interested in the idea of the self and who we are, and kids are naturally curious too: What makes me me and what makes you you? It’s almost like the baby’s first existential crisis—these are really important questions to ask ourselves. I wanted to talk about how when we embrace who we are, and we learn to love ourselves then we begin to learn to understand how important it is to love others. The book is about compassion and understanding.   

Is there a certain when-where-how method you follow to find inspiration?

I would say it’s less related to space and more related to seasons. I have seasons where I’m constantly getting ideas and I have to stop everything and write everything down, or I have to draw everything. And then I’ll have seasons where it’s blank, nothing. No inspiration. When I was younger I used to be really afraid of those times. It wasn’t even that ideas weren’t coming, I was just not feeling it. However, my mom has always said to me, “an artist is always working even when they’re not working,” which I find to be true. If I’m not feeling inspired, if my well is dry, whether we realize it or not there’s something working behind the scenes. There’s something happening and once I get to that next season, whatever it is, where I’m actually able to function as a writer and illustrator again, then it kind of pours out of me. But I think in times where the well has dried up it’s really important not to panic and think, “Oh no I’m never going to have an idea again.” Before you know it, you’re going to be filled with them.

The perfect pairing:  A flower palette and a set of paints. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.
An enchanting view of the artist’s studio. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.
Esmé Shapiro reading Carol and the Pickle-toad to a group of intrigued children. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.

In Alma and the Beast, where Alma the hairy creature meets the beastly and incredibly less hairy human Mala, the term “bald house” is just one of your many inventions that make me laugh out loud. It causes me to question why we live in bald houses. How does that line relate to the overall theme of the book?

With Alma and the Beast I was trying to show how relative reality is. Why are houses hairless? It breaks your brain open. 

When I’m reading Alma and the Beast I always start by asking kids who they think the beast is and who they think the main character is and they always think it’s Mala with the little hat. So then when we read it together, they realize we can be seen as the strange ones. In this hairy world we’re the strange ones. I think it’s important to question our reality and why it is this way. When you’re a kid learning about the world it helps you think critically about the world around you at a young age.

Carol and the Pickle-Toad is your most autobiographical work and the first time you dive into your Jewishness, replete with blintzes, bagels, and the fictional deli Little Shapiro’s. What is your relationship to Judaism like? 

I’m definitely culturally Jewish and it’s a pretty big thing for me. I identify as a Jewish person, though I’m not religious. 

Did you ever think you’d share this aspect of yourself in your work? 

In my family food is our love language, which is common for a lot of my Jewish friends as well. We are the most happy when we’re together, eating food and complaining or laughing. I connected with my grandfather and my dad with deli food. It was our heritage and specifically with blintzes, which are special because they have to be so lovingly prepared. The book showcases my love for food and food is love. The conversations we have over the dinner table are the ones I cherish the most. And I know that other people feel the same way from all cultures. But I felt like it was a nice opportunity to make it more autobiographical. 

When I was making the book, my grandfather had just passed away. So Little Shapiro’s was what I imagined would be his deli. I painted him as a young man as the deli waiter. I was processing his death and he was the mountain my whole family lived on. He taught me so much about the joys of being Jewish, and not only the joys of being Jewish but why it’s important to be open about your Judaism and celebrate it and share it. And when he passed, the baton was passed to me. I needed to embody the joy I feel about being Jewish and what it means to me. I know that’s what would make him proud. The book is very much an ode to Papa and an ode to Judaism. 

Esmé Shapiro (left) with her grandfather and sister. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.
Serving Carole and the Pickle-toad, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, a sandwich, and oranges. Assemble two of these treats to make a pickle-toad. Photograph courtesy of Esmé Shapiro.

Loved ones who have passed are still here with us because of their memories. It’s beautiful to have your grandfather in Carol and the Pickle-Toad. I’ll move on to a very important question: How did the idea for Carol’s initial literal toad hat to the then pickle-toad hat come together? 

I’ve always been interested in creating entirely different logic in my books. In terms of the toad and the pickle-toad, first of all, I think toads are the funniest symbol of all time. The look on their face is pure grumpy majesty. They’re whimsically grumpy, they’re a little bit affected, they all seem like old grumpy souls. I am forever going to be exploring the magical qualities of toads in my work. And then the pickle-toad . . . I think pickles in my family are our love language too. You open up the fridge, and you ask, “You want a pickle? You want a pickle?” “Yes, I want a pickle.” You always say yes to the pickle. I think pickles are probably somehow related to toads. Their most natural partner, as they seem whimsically grumpy too.

The materials credit at the front of your books include food. From matzah ball soup, to dumplings, to buttered toast. What are you working on now? And what is your current work being nourished by?

I have two books coming up that I’m working on. One I wrote with my now husband, we just got married, but we wrote it when we first met. It’s a little mystery book for kids. And then I have a book coming up that is another existential read for kids. I will be making those books with a side of bagels. Bagels are my all time favourite food. I live and breathe bagels. I’m a sesame girl.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Header image design by Orly Zebak. 

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