crush (Algonquin, January 11) is the debut of award-winning artist Sophie Burrows. In this charming, expressive work, two unnamed protagonists, a young man and a young woman who each live in the same London neighborhood with only a small pet for company, have several painful near misses where their lives could but not intersect. (at least, initially). She works in a coffee shop and has an unfortunate experience with a dating app. He is cycling home after a humiliating day at work when he ends up in hospital with a broken arm due to an accident. The two lead ordinary lives, punctuated by moments of humor, disappointment, small joys, deep loneliness – and finally cause for hope. Teen and adult readers who appreciate illustrated narrative works such as Raymond Briggs’s will immediately become enamored with Burrows’ storytelling style, which demonstrates a gift for capturing narrative detail that reveals the emotional depths found in our everyday lives. This work is especially resonating given the social isolation of the pandemic. Burrows, an assistant professor on the children’s book illustration course at the Cambridge School of Art, lives in the London area. She spoke to us via Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I noticed crush was released as an adult title in the UK, but as a crossover YA book in the US
It wasn’t a decision I made anyway, but I was glad it had that crossover appeal. It was [originally] a project for my masters. We were encouraged not to think about the age of the reader at all. I had been working as an illustrator for children for several years and used the courses to unlearn everything. I just wanted to create something for myself. The last book is inspired by observations, experiences and memories from my life as a teenager and also from my adult life. I think it’s important not to doubt what you find attractive [to young readers] or what is going to be trendy or publishable. It is important to discover your own illustrative voice and discover your passion for creating. I’ve had the most interest from publishers in projects I’ve been really passionate about.
Why did you choose the wordless format, which is unusual for a work of this length for older readers?
I realized quite quickly as the themes of the book became clear that I wanted to see how much I could communicate without adding words. The opening part was an exploration of moments where you wander through a city, surrounded by people but not talking to anyone. It’s a very strange feeling and almost more isolating than being all alone. As I developed the work, there was nothing that summed up that feeling better than the images. Making something wordless is probably a bit risky and maybe a bit hard to sell. But at that point, because I had spread my shorter strip, [I knew] that people were discovering ways to connect with the book that I hadn’t consciously thought of. I loved that. I thought, wow, if I can create that space through the lack of words, that’s really special†
How did you come up with the striking color palette of gray pencil with red accents?
I wanted to explore color symbolism and think about how I could use that to convey my ideas [in contrast to how] I had created a lack of clarity with the wordlessness. I thought, I can use color to amplify what I’m trying to say† I think it’s interesting to pick red because it means all these different things, doesn’t it? Love or passion or anger – shame was a huge one for me. It can be quite an overwhelming color, but gray can also be overwhelming. I had to deal with this topic which was sometimes very funny, sometimes not. I was thinking about how I could use those two colors to create images that had emotional power: if I were to make a page that was all red, where would it be in my story? It was exciting to explore that; it wasn’t something I’d ever done with such focus before.
The London setting adds so much texture.
When I was a teenager I traveled to London looking for something…[my] people or a sense of community or connection, I guess. Much of the book is formed from memories and observations – not just the artwork, but the content as well. It’s semi-autobiographical and I wanted it to feel real, to give it some kind of foundation. But I think it’s really interesting that people pick up on it [the setting]because many places in the book are not London and are actually drawings I collected in Bristol and near where I grew up. But there are such iconic [London] moments. The park is Hampstead Heath and I’ve had a lot of messages from people saying ‘I love that park! I sat on that couch!” – and of course the red buses. I couldn’t paint the buses any other color. It was a conversation I had with my editor that we were thinking about Good, should it should be more generic† It’s a story that could happen in any city, but I wanted it to have that sense of reality.
This book seems to have an extra emotional impact given the isolating effects of the pandemic.
I worked on the original comic in the spring of 2017, but after that I didn’t do anything about it until after graduation. I started working on this last book around December 2019, formulating ideas and building a synopsis around March 2020. It was pretty surreal to be honest, starting a book about loneliness and connection and then bringing those things right to the forefront. to get off everyone’s mind. It had come from somewhere [that] was maybe quite a niche to be something a lot of other people could connect with as well. I was determined to explore ideas of connection in all its forms – I saw that during the pandemic, people had a closer connection with nature and their relationships with [other] people. But really, it’s not about the pandemic. The themes of this book may be universal, but the fact that this story has been framed by the pandemic really opened up the story. I was able to pour a lot of my own fears and emotions about these situations into my work, which was therapeutic. It was cathartic to bring out all those feelings through those characters who are essentially both me, albeit in different forms. To get people to read it and say: yes i felt like thiswas something completely different.
Laura Simeon is an editor for young readers†