Edify in conversation with Emily Chu about Get Out and Vote!: How You Can Shape the Future by Elizabeth MacLeod (Author), Emily Chu (Illustrator)
Can you talk about how the book came to be, and working with Elizabeth MacLeod?
I worked with Elizabeth, and I also worked with designer Dahlia [Yuen]. It was mostly a typical job, through Orca [Book Publishers (Orca Think)] — they contacted me for this project, thinking it would be a nice collaboration to make an educational book with Elizabeth. Also, with a nonfiction book about voting for youth… there’s definitely a gap in what’s out there and as resources.
Elizabeth has obviously worked on it for many years, but even for myself as an illustrator, I’ve been working on it for two years. So these books are often a really fun journey, with lots of learning involved.
But it was also really great to connect with Elizabeth after the fact — we did some conversations and interviews, shared our processes and learned a little bit more about each other. So that was really nice, because we don’t live in the same city, so it’s just nice to connect with other artists. I love doing that kind of collaboration.
How did the collaboration happen in practice?
Elizabeth was definitely the one to kind of kick things off, to create this book for young adults. For me, it was really great. This is actually my first children’s book through a publisher. I’ve done comic books and things like that in the past, but it’s been so nice to get into nonfiction for youth.
I mentioned we connected at the end, but we did do a little bit of collaboration during the process. I worked with Elizabeth to just understand where she was going and kind of her vision, especially for the chapter illustrations for each section.
Did she give you pointers throughout the process?
I had some pointers for sure. From both sides — the designer, as well as the writer. So that was really nice to have that collaborative process, and make sure that I was following and able to capture the vision that Elizabeth has set for this book. Obviously, the topic of voting can be dry, I think. And so I wanted to make it really fun, really colourful, inclusive and something that shows a working city. I really wanted to capture a little bit of a world with all these characters in there. That’s kind of a mutual visual aim that we were hoping to work towards. I had a lot of reading on this project.
What kinds of things did you learn while working on it?
It’s a new process for me. It’s also a new audience, creating specifically for young adults. So that was a learning process. But there’s always so much more to learn because this book isn’t specific — it’s nicely lined up right now with the upcoming elections, but it actually is a very generic book about voting. There are lots of stories in here that talk about voting in all countries in the world. So I definitely have learned a lot in that way.
But also, for myself, voting — it wasn’t necessarily something that I did, or thought about, as an immigrant. Like I moved here when I was five, and it’s taken me quite a long time to even think, or really value my voice in that way. I don’t think I voted until my mid- or late-20s. So that’s also a narrative that I think a lot of folks wanted to change with this book, as well as representing diverse cultures and kind of giving them that opportunity to see themselves and knowing their voices matter from a young age.
You mentioned a sort of dearth of books like this for kids, and from my distant memory, when you’re a kid, the idea of voting isn’t particularly cool, or doesn’t even register in your world. How did you take on that challenge?
I think that’s why they reached out and selected me as an illustrator, after seeing some of the murals that I’ve been working on — capturing aspects of being part of a prosperous neighbourhood and community, sharing, and all these ideas I wanted to kind of recapture into this book as well. That’s something that I really keep in mind, as I’m doing all of my illustration work, to make sure that people feel that they can see themselves in the work and that it brings joy or hope, or that it’s relatable.
So in creating this project, I thought that the age group was really important. Not only were we trying to capture young, pre-voters, but also putting in that foundation for even younger kids. I’d say from as early as eight years old, you could probably start reading through this book. And that’s kind of the decision that we’ve made in terms of the graphics and making it look like there are all sorts of kids getting involved with their school elections and things like that. And that can start as early as junior high.
It seems to cover a lot, especially for a kids’ book. I notice a section near the end that talks about people who choose not to vote, and how by not being part of the process they sort of still are part of it, even by omission. Can you talk about why that was included?
I can’t speak for Elizabeth, but I thought it was a really nice way to end the book, and I was really glad that all these different perspectives were considered in this book. So yeah, not voting is also in some ways voting, right? And it’s not always talked about, so I really enjoyed that. And I also really enjoyed all quotes, especially from the young leaders that were included. I really enjoyed creating those portraits, as well — there’s even a young David Suzuki. And it’s just really nice to kind of see all these really interesting photographs of people that I’ve never seen before, at certain ages of their lives.
So that’s another nice little learning point that I experienced with this book. And I really appreciate the amount of detail and thoughtfulness of putting together a book like this for young adults. I can’t even imagine how difficult it can be, but I think they did it in a really great way with facts and stories and quotes and educational information. The way that they broke up the chapters, I thought it was a really great way to simplify but still cover everything.
Do you remember your first educational experience with the concept of government and voting?
I think it was around early junior high, there was some talk about just voting in general, probably when I was about 12 or 13 — there were some middle school elections and things like that, even just electing class representatives. And as an artist, if a friend was running and they needed to make some graphics, I would help. So I guess in some ways, I’ve been creating posters ever since I was maybe 10 or 11.
And I do a lot of community work, I do work in Chinatown. Sometimes I have to really check my boundaries as well, when it comes to politics and community work. Because some of it is very political, but some of it should focus more so on the artwork. But I do get involved in other ways as well. I created some merch, just a couple of years ago, for Janis Irwin, which was really cool. So yeah, I think art and politics, even from a very young age, kind of go hand in hand.
The book hasn’t been out long, but what reactions have you gotten so far? Have you heard from kids?
I have had some reactions from like staff members who have mentioned that they saw an advanced digital copy at the library, which is really exciting. I know that Elizabeth has done quite a few book readings, and she said that was really great. I think a lot of the feedback that we have so far, although it’s very early, are from educators. They’re really happy to have this book to share and bring into their classroom. A lot of the teachers are quite thankful for a book like this, of having this resource to share with their students.
What do you hope the book will do?
I always look at things from like a personal level, and it’s in a way how I look at like murals and community work: I just hope that I have a positive impact on kids, and maybe even change their expectations, in this case about voting. Because they see it in everyday life, but they may not notice, or kind of gloss over it. But the decisions you make, what you purchase, and what you get involved with, they’re all very important decisions, kind of like voting. So I kind of hope that it makes that impact, that somebody would see this book and know that their decisions and their voice matters. And that it would inspire them to be more involved with community work, or programs at their school. But at the same time, I’m very inspired by youth. I feel that like youth are already a lot more engaged than like when I was in school. I just wish a book like this kind of existed when I was younger.