Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!
Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors, illustrators and translators.
Congratulations to Kristen Uroda on the release of Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers?
The story originated from the award-winning poem written by Junauda Petrus. What was your creative process to develop the illustrations?
In the beginning, I had a few meetings with Junauda, her editor Andrew Karre, and Assistant Art Director Anna Booth, to understand the emotions and feel they wanted the illustrations to have. They were so much fun to work and dream with and we were all aligned that it should feel playful, celebratory, intimate, and bold. They gave me a lot of trust and creative freedom to go wild with my imagination.
As I was reading the script and imagining what this world would look like, I did some research on Midwest cities like Minneapolis, where Junauda lives, Chicago, and Milwaukee to get a feel for the architecture. I also took inspiration from Detroit, where I was born, and stories my mother would tell me about what Detroit used to be like when she was a kid. There was a time when everyone knew each other and looked out for their neighbors. People would sit on their stoops, chat with one another in front of corner shops, and cruise down the streets in their cars playing Motown music. She still tells me stories of eating fresh watermelon on hot days as the swimmobiles (imagine semi-trucks carrying giant pools!) rolled through the streets for kids to play in.
Cars are also a major theme within the book. Instead of police cars, the grandmothers roll around in super cool vintage cars. Being from the Motor City, I had a lot of inspiration to pull from to give the cars their own personality and role as supporting characters.
After establishing a strategy for the feeling the story should convey and all the characters that would be needed, next came figuring out how to align the illustrations to tell a cohesive story. Eventually, I fell on the idea of sketching out the journey one grandmother takes as she’s patrolling her neighborhood from sunrise to sunset and all the people and events she encounters in a day.
Ezra Jack Keats’ work and Sesame Street played a big role in getting the color and playfulness right. I wanted to capture this feeling of a vibrant, inner-city neighborhood full of life and love contrasted with green spaces and brownstones. A neighborhood that feels safe but also real—like you could turn some corner street and this place and the people in it would actually exist. There’s so much pain in communities today caused by systemic racism and discrimination. I think it can be easy to look at the current status quo and feel helpless and cynical about change. But when people, of all ages, read Junauda’s words and see these illustrations, I want them to feel a sense of familiarity and longing that fuels a sense of hope that change is possible. That a neighborhood like this can be a reality. Systems, like societies and rule of law, were created to function in specific ways which means they can also be reimagined, improved, and recreated to function in better ways. So every time someone picks up this book, I hope they feel inspired to stand up and push back on a system that’s harming and killing people. Whether that’s pushing for new policies or working to build relationships with their neighbors so people feel seen and connected, we can all play a part in imagining a new way of living together and taking care of one another—it starts with believing it’s possible.
What was the most difficult part in illustrating the book?
I don’t think there was necessarily a difficult part, but it was a new challenge because it was my first full picture book. I’ve worked in the field of editorial illustration for so long that I’m used to creating quick one-off illustrations. Creating a full narrative of illustrations was a different mindshift and a learning curve. While it takes a lot more planning, research, and thought, you can also go slower in what you say in each visual because you don’t have to pack everything into one concept. But I loved it! And I’m looking forward to the next one.
What inspires you to illustrate?
I think I’m naturally drawn towards using my hands and mind to create and communicate, whether it’s using clay, a camera, or pencils. I feel most at peace when I’m in the flow of taking a complex idea or emotion and making it tangible in a way that can be understood by and shared with others. And I feel more aligned with a higher purpose when people can see my work and it touches something within their soul.
Maybe it’s something innate in human nature to draw what’s inside of us but visual art is one of the oldest forms of communication. We drew before we wrote. We used, and still use, pictures to educate and inspire. I guess I’m following the path paved by artisans who came before me who used visual language to tell stories, connect to others, and shape the world.
What are your marketing plans for the book?
Thankfully, Penguin Random House is managing all of the marketing, so I just have to touch base on a few things here and there and share things on my social media platforms and tell all my friends to tell all of their friends about it.
What's next for you?
Currently, I’m working on several book cover projects and I’m still doing editorial jobs as they come in. Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers? was about a year-long labor of love, so I am enjoying a bit of a breather as I work on less labor intensive projects, but I hope to continue doing picture books in the future, whether stories from others or stories of my own—because I have quite a few!
A little bit about the book . . .
Based on the viral poem by Coretta Scott King honoree Junauda Petrus, this picture book debut imagines a radically positive future where police aren’t in charge of public safety and community well-being.
Petrus first published and performed this poem after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. With every subsequent police shooting, it has taken on new urgency, culminating in the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, blocks from Junauda’s home.
In its picture book incarnation, Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers? is a joyously radical vision of community-based safety and mutual aid. It is optimistic, provocative, and ultimately centered in fierce love. Debut picture book artist Kristen Uroda has turned Junauda’s vision for a city without precincts into a vibrant and flourishing urban landscape filled with wise and loving grandmothers of all sorts.
Publisher: Penguin Random House
A little bit about the illustrator . . .
Kristen Uroda is an artist best known for her vibrant, joyful illustrations. Often softly formed yet boldly colored, her work aims to express beauty in the ordinary moments, celebrate the poetry within diverse faces and figures, and tell stories that inspire reflection and social and civic change.
While her career started in editorial illustration, she has most recently moved into narrative illustration with her first picture book, Can We Please Give the Police Department to the Grandmothers? coming in 2023.