The Whatifs Cover Reveal Q&A with Author Emily Kilgore and Illustrator Zoe Persico
How did you come up with the idea for The Whatifs?
- Emily: The idea first appeared in my second grade classroom back in 2013. My students and I were getting ready to go on a fieldtrip (I can’t even remember where we were headed!). The second graders were sitting on the rug in front of me as I explained procedures and reminded them of field trip expectations. Then I asked what questions they had. Just about every hand shot up in the air. Kid after kid after kid asked different “what if” questions — “What if I get lost?” or “What if I have to go to the bathroom when we’re on the bus?” — until I finally said, “No more whatifs! Does anyone have a question that is NOT a ‘whatif’?” A parent chaperone chuckled at the back of the room and said, “Ha! Whatifs. That’s pretty funny!”
That moment stuck in my head. Being someone who also has a lot of Whatifs, I realized that the idea was bigger than me: it was relatable to the students in front of me and to other adults, too. I knew it would make a great picture book. Here we are seven years later and, within that time, I continue hearing (and having) Whatifs almost every day.
How did you decide The Whatifs was a project you wanted to illustrate?
- Zoe: As soon as I read the premise for The Whatifs I knew I wanted to be a part of this project. I have always encountered my own whatifs throughout life and I know children, parents, and anyone else who picks up this book would be able to relate. Any opportunity to start the dialogue about anxiety is so important. Plus, getting the chance to design what the whatifs was so exciting for me too!
What was the process like writing/illustrating the book?
- Emily: As I mentioned, my first draft was written in 2013. That means there have been a LOT of revisions to The Whatifs. I had the concept locked down — I knew the story would feature a young girl who grappled with anxiety and was bogged down by her Whatifs, physical creatures — but the story arc has changed quite a bit over the years. I’ve taken in feedback from countless people and finally landed with the version you’ll see in August!
- Zoe: Whenever I start on a book project I always begin with figuring out what the main character(s) will look like. What kind of clothes does Cora wear? What expressions and poses reflect Cora’s personality? How do the whatifs designs reflect Cora’s anxieties? Then I create a rough layout of what each book spread will flow together. Once it feels balanced I create tighter sketches and they are approved by the rest of the team I go onto final art. I knew going into this project I wanted to use a color palette that uses bright and uplifting colors, but also not being afraid to use a dark color palette to reflect how anxiety affects us all. I love being able to reflect these feelings into illustrations.
What were some of your inspirations when writing/illustrating the book?
- Emily: As you’ll read in the book’s Author’s Note, I based Cora (the main character) on myself. As a child, I was bogged down by my anxiety and, as a teacher, I see it in my students. Many of the Whatifs in the book are ones I’ve asked. Honestly, coming up with the what-if questions was probably the easiest part of writing the story!
- Zoe: I also saw my younger self in Cora. I played piano and was much more introverted as well. A lot of the illustrations such as the designs and magical elements were inspired by my childhood imagination and how I took in the world around me. I thought a lot about what kind of creatures 8 year old me would be excited to see in a book. I grew up with Pokemon, Neopets, and other fun games involving brightly colored monsters so it was a no brainer!
Any special reasoning for having the main character perform at a piano recital?
- Emily: One of the pieces of feedback I received was to create a specific event that Cora was worried about. Incorporating a piano recital was a no-brainer: My grandmother was a piano teacher and I’ve been playing ever since I was five years old. I knew I could create a realistic, meaningful scene based on my personal connection with the piano. Even though I absolutely loved the piano recitals each spring, my heart still does a little flip in my chest just thinking about performing in front of an audience. It’s a very vulnerable spot to be in, which allows space for a person’s Whatif questions to get out of control. The Whatifs offers suggestions to take back that control and lean into hope and joy.
What inspired the idea/designs for the Whatif creatures?
- Zoe: Natalie, who is part of the design team on the project, suggested using the sprites from the movie Spirted Away as a starting inspiration for the designs and I immediately on board. I wanted to create designs where they had the same mischievous nature as the sprites, but could also reflect what anxiety they portrayed in their design. While they definitely look more complex than little fuzzy circles with legs, the eyes inspired by the sprites stuck through the whole process. They’re hilarious and slightly off putting, yet still charming. Another design concept I implemented was making them look animal-like. We all have our own whatifs and I think designing them with traits of creatures we’re familiar with makes having them feel more relatable.
Considering this is a cover reveal, how did you decide on the focus/design of the cover?
- Zoe: I knew I didn’t want to make a busy cover for this book. I think Cora being surrounded by her whatifs is so impactful and speaks for itself, especially on first glance. I played around leaving the background white and putting a dark cloud behind Cora as well. I definitely think adding a dark cloud above her head not only adds contrast to the cover, but it really helps add weight to the feeling of anxiety taking over.
What was your reaction the first time you saw the illustrations?
- Emily: I cried! Zoe brought my words to life in a way I only could have dreamed. The Whatif creatures are not what I imagined in my head as I was writing them — they’re better! The personality and emotion Zoe has brought to each page is truly amazing. I’m so lucky to have her partnership on this project!
What are some of your recent Whatifs?
- Emily: What if nobody reads this blog post?, What if winter in Minnesota never goes away?, What if nobody likes The Whatifs?, What if my kitty stops cuddling on my lap?
- Zoe: Oh gosh, mine are definitely more based on our current political process. Also quarter-life crisis whatifs. What if I’m not living my fullest potential? What if no one likes my future stories I write?
What projects are you working on now so readers can look out for your future works?
- Emily: My latest project is a Christmas-themed picture book based on a lesser-known tradition. It is so cozy I can’t help but smile every time I think about it!
- Zoe: I am currently finishing up illustrating a counting picture book and starting final art on a cozy board book. I am also working on pitching my next picture book and brainstorming more character and story ideas! Some of these subjects include succulents and houseplants, roleplaying and tabletop games, and the magic of weather.
Can’t wait until The Whatifs’ release date in August? Comment with a positive, wonder-filled whatif that’s currently on your mind and head on over to Twitter for a chance to win an advanced copy!