Smash Pages Q&A: Sara Varon puts on ‘New Shoes’

Sara Varon is a cartoonist who can be hard to pin down. Since her debut Sweaterweather she’s made a series of award-winning graphic novels like Robot Dreams and Bake Sale, and picture books like Chicken and Cat and President Squid. Her stories feature animals and other characters, the art is playful, with stylistic influences ranging from animation to ligne claire. Her stories manage to tackle complex issues in thoughtful nuanced ways. It’s easy to describe her work as designed for young readers, but they’re layered stories with stories and themes that aren’t inappropriate for young readers. Robot Dreams for example might appeal to children because of the style and some elements of the story, but I think it remains a story best appreciated and ultimately understood by adults.

Her new book New Shoes is very much a part of this tradition. Set in Guyana – or at least a Guyana in a world with anthropomorphic animals – it tells the story of Francis the donkey, a shoemaker who is forced to leave his village for the first time. It’s a story about friendship and work, problem solving and crises. It also features Varon drawing capybaras and sloths, manatees and anteaters, among many other creatures. It’s a funny and beautifully drawn book about work and life, and it is the work of a great cartoonist at the height of her powers.

What was the initial idea behind New Shoes?

I generally want to make projects about the things I’m excited about or interested in. In 2012, I started traveling with my husband to Guyana to visit his family. It was completely different than any place I’d been before. There were animals I’d never seen (or even heard of) before and tons of fruits I’d never seen or heard of before. Where his family lives in Linden, life is really slow – I loved the pace. I loved the words people used. (Guyana is an English speaking country, but the words and grammar are sometimes different, and they have different ways of saying things that are often really funny). I also loved that there are animals loose everywhere – cows and goats walking around through the middle of town. There’s the occasional donkey wandering around on his/her own, and tons of dogs and chickens.

I especially loved how all the animals were wandering around on their own. They seemed like they had their own lives and community going on, so I kind of based the story on them and their seemingly rich life.

How did you decide which animals to make the characters? Was there something about Francis, for example, that suggested he should be a donkey?

The first animal I saw on its own was a donkey, hanging out by the side of the road. That donkey really stuck with me. At first, I was worried that it was lost or something, but John told me to ignore it, that it was busy doing its thing. Living in New York City, you would NEVER see a large mammal loose in the road, and if you did, people would certainly not ignore it! So I decided to make this donkey the main character of the story. As for the other animals in the book, they are animals you’d see in John’s town – ducks, pigs, cows, dogs, goats, chickens – domestic animals.  There’s the occasional parrot (like Rhoda in the book) or monkey. In the interior of Guyana, which is mostly jungle and savannah, there are amazing animals!! So I had Francis, the main character in the book, meet some of these animals on his journey outside his village.

Why is Francis a shoemaker? Did you go to great lengths to learn how cobblers work? Did you make shoes?

Where John’s family lives, people are much more self-sufficient than most Americans, and people there make a lot of their own things, which I really admired. When an item breaks, they save the parts and use them to make other things. It’s not the same throw-away culture that we have here in the US. So I wanted Francis, the main character, to have a job where he made things with his hands, like a craftsperson. I chose shoes since they are something everybody needs. However, I didn’t know the first thing about making shoes, so I had to do a lot of research. Turns out, almost nobody makes shoes by hand anymore! Fortunately, I found a guy in Pennsylvania who does, and I was able to go out there (it was a few hours by car from where I was living at the time,) and he kindly let me interview him. (I also paid him for his time and for letting me take a bunch of reference photos.)

You’re making a story for younger readers, but like all your books this one covers a lot of ground. It’s about leaving home for the first time, dealing with consequences and finding ways to resolve conflict. It’s about existential crises around work and the way we think about the world. What’s the key for you in finding ways to explore these issues without making them sound ponderous and exhausting – like I did in asking this question.

I’m always glad to hear my work is perceived as being all-ages – thanks! It’s not something I’m setting out to do. When I’m making a book, I just draw the things I want to draw and explore, and luckily, it often works out that way?

Are these ideas present when you’re thinking about the story and the characters or do they emerge as you’re working it out?

I usually have a vague idea of what the story will be and I provide the publisher with a rough outline, which is enough to sell the book. But the story really emerges as I’m writing it. So it’s fun for me to see what will happen. I never know how the story will end until I get there myself.

The end papers of the book have the characters drawn but the background is a photograph. Did you ever think about making the book in that style?

I love drawing these kinds of pictures! I think it kind of makes characters seem a little more real – like, there they are in the same space that you and I could be in! When I started making comics, I was really into the Japanese books Aronzi Aronzo, and they do this a lot. So I think I was inspired by them.

On your instagram you have a lot of pictures of alebrijes. Which are stunningly beautiful. Could you say a little about what they are and why you’ve been making them?

Oh, thanks!! They were just a one-time project, but they were so fun to make!! What an amazing opportunity! Somebody connected me with a guy outside Oaxaca, Mexico, who has a workshop that makes alebrijes. I gave him some little pencil drawings, and for a tiny fee, he carved them out of wood, and let me paint them using the paints he uses to make his own alebrijes. For those who don’t know what alebrijes are, they are figurines made in Mexico. They are sometimes animals and sometimes fantastical creatures, often made of wood, and usually very brightly painted with nice patterns of Mexican motifs. They are really expressive and are often doing funny, human things, such as dancing or painting or reading or just sitting in a funny way, and they always have a lot of character.

Do you have a favorite animal among the many in the book?

Like a real life animal or a character in the book? I feel connected to all the characters in the book, so I don’t really have a favorite.  If you’re talking about a real life animal, I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite, but when we go to Guyana, I sometimes have an opportunity to see some cool animals. Last time, we saw giant river otters and capybara in the river, which was exciting. (You have to travel pretty far outside the towns to see them.) I keep trying to see manatees, but so far I have not been successful. Miss Manatee, where are you?!

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