This is How we Do it: Matt Lamothe on his Book for Children from 7 Corners of the World
Designer, illustrator, and author Matt Lamothe’s debut children’s book, This Is How We Do It, documents a day in the life of seven children around the world, from the moment they wake up until they rest their heads on their pillows. With cheerful illustrations, the book shows how a child from Italy, Japan, Iran, India, Peru, Uganda, and Russia makes breakfast, goes to school, studies, plays and sleeps. While Romeo participates in rock-throwing contests after school in Italy, Oleg plays hockey with his school team in Russia. Ananya from India goes to school with her mom, while Daphine takes the 30-minute walk to school with her friends in Uganda. The simple layout is visually compelling, depicting the differences and similarities in these children’s daily routines side by side. As a children's book, This Is How We Do It also speaks to a new generation growing up in an ever globalized world. Bookwitty spoke with Lamothe about the inspiration and process behind the book:
You’ve worked on a wide range of design projects, from brand identities, websites, and animation to book covers. What made you choose the genre of children’s books?
Well I’m not a natural writer so a full-blown travel novel was certainly not going to happen. But I like to draw, and children’s books are this wonderful hybrid between pictures and words, where the combination of both makes the overall message stronger. I think that the idea for This Is How We Do It is a simple one of empathy and understanding. To my mind, the sooner people can share their experiences the better for all of us.
How did you get in touch with the children you interviewed?
I wanted This Is How We Do It to include a range of children from different geographic regions, from both rural and urban settings, within a similar age range, and ideally of a median income for their country. I thought 7 children could show a broad range of cultures and locations from around the world, but was a small enough number so that children reading the book wouldn't get overwhelmed.
Finding kids with these specific requirements proved pretty difficult. I didn’t have vast resources to draw on to find the families; mostly it involved complex chains of friends of friends of friends and family and co-worker connections. For example, Ribaldo (the Peruvian kid in the book) was found through this connection — Jenny, the book’s designer’s, Kindergarten friend’s brother had an acquaintance who was doing environmental outreach work in Peru. He visited the family in a fairly remote part of Peru and took over a hundred photos of Ribaldo and his family.
Most of the connections were like that, so establishing communication lines to the 7 families was a slow process. It took about half a year to find everyone. For each family I made an "instruction packet" that had questions about the child's day, along with thumbnail illustrations and instructions for taking photographs to document their home, clothes, family, etc. For the families that needed one, I sent a camera as well. For both the Russian and Iranian families, we ended up translating the text. Almost all communication was done through email, although in Uganda we also used WhatApp to text back and forth.
How did you choose these seven countries?
My primary goal was to try and cover as wide a range geographically as possible with just 7 kids. This was tricky because even if I magically had a connection to every country in the world it would have still been tricky to just pick 7 countries. Generally I tried to cover the major continents, and looked for a range of languages as a way to ensure some distinct cultural differences. But ultimately I was limited to who I could find personal connections to.
Were there any unexpected challenges in the project?
Balancing an illustration style that was both specific enough to show unique likenesses of people, with a look that is friendly and not overwrought was very tough for me. If you go too realistic, it’s hard to describe, but people can look a bit scary. If you go too abstract you lose the weight that these are real people and they become cartoons.
As a children's book, This Is How We Do It, speaks to a new generation growing up in an ever more globalized world. Was the project also meant to be educational? And in what way?
Initially I thought that this book would be a simple and direct way to have kids share their daily experiences with each other, in a way that is honest and hopefully with as little filtering as possible. I think the choice to use real children instead of made-up characters in the book felt like a natural way to make the experience of a different culture real and relatable. I am not an educator, so I didn’t really approach the project through that lens. It was something that I, as an adult, wanted to know more about and hoped that children would find it interesting too.
I remember as a kid learning about other cultures in books, and a typical page would show "Pierre lives in Paris and loves to eat baguettes." The books were filled with cultural stereotypes that may have been true, but because the characters in the books weren't actual people, they were as real to me as characters in a fictional story — interesting, but still fiction.
What kind of feedback did you receive from the children you interviewed?
I think they’re into it! I’ve had some of the families send me pictures of the kids holding the book and smiling, and have gotten some really wonderful messages back from the families saying that they're proud to have participated. It takes a very open and accepting family to give a stranger access to pictures of them inside their homes, and into their classrooms. Who knows how this crazy American will draw all of us? I am very thankful and lucky that they opened their lives up for the book.
What surprised you most during the process of working on this book?
It was really exciting to get back the responses and photos of each child's day. I would send off the interview packet with a basic set of photo requirements, but instead of getting back the 20 photos of the family’s day, they’d send anywhere from 50 to 120 photos and it showed so much detail about aspects of their lives that I hadn’t thought to ask about. I received photos of their living rooms, neighborhoods, gardens, and even one family's pictures of all their different cats (with their cat names in the photo’s titles) This provided me with lots more material I could use to add details into the book's illustrations. They went above and beyond.