Interview with Jashar Awan, STRUM & DRUM
All is quiet in the forest as the Great Star rises in the distance, and two little musicians, Strum and Drum, wake up from a deep slumber and set out to make the most joyous music they can! But as Strum strums his guitar and Drum drums her drum on their way to the North, some mysterious obstacles fill their paths...
Pick by Eric Fan, Night Lunch:
STRUM & DRUM: A MERRY LITTLE QUEST
By Jashar Awan
Published by Tundra Books (October 4, 2022)
Thanks for stopping by again, Jashar! Let's start out in the way these interviews always start: Can you tell me the origin story behind Strum & Drum?
JA: "Sure! I was hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree a few years ago and I noticed how each branch looked like it could be its own little tree. I thought, 'This could be a forest.' As the tree filled with ornaments, it quickly became an enchanted forest in my mind. I already had the names Strum and Drum from a project that I had set aside and decided to attach them to this idea.
Early sketches of Strum & Drum:
Around that time, I found a copy of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau by Jon Agee at a book sale. It’s all about a painter whose paintings are so lifelike, they actually come to life! The story had a sense of surrealism that I hadn’t seen outside of Chris Van Allsburg’s books, but it was drawn in a linear cartoony style that was nothing like the realism of Van Allsburg’s work. It got me thinking about style and how it’s used. I thought, 'Wouldn’t it be fun for a children’s book to change styles at a pivotal moment in the story?'"
Early sketches and an interior spread from Strum & Drum:
I had all of these thoughts and influences brewing in my head for a few years before I finally started writing the story. Recently, I was looking back through my sketchbook and I couldn’t get over how much development went into the book. There was a moment when Strum and Drum were anthropomorphic instruments and another when Strum was an angel with a harp and Drum was the Little Drummer Boy. It was a good reminder that it takes time for creative work to get to where it’s going. It’s always tempting to look at the final book and say, 'Of course—that’s how that story goes and that's how the characters look.' But that’s not true at all—there are so many decisions made and roads not taken along the way."
Interior spreads from Strum & Drum:
Strum & Drum has a very modern fairy tale quality to it, and reminds me of Tom Gauld's The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess. For those who love Strum & Drum, can you recommend a few other titles that you think they might also enjoy?
"Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day by Kaya Doi was a big influence on Strum & Drum (so much so that I used the same book dimensions!). There’s a whole series of Chirri & Chirra books. They usually involve the characters going on a bike ride and ending up in a whimsical fantasy world filled with beautifully illustrated details. Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day was the first one I read and it's my favorite of the series—it’s just so cozy and inviting!
Phoebe Wahl’s Little Witch Hazel is another book that I’d describe as cozy and inviting! Wahl builds a fantasy world where chores and colds still exist but so do toads who want to take you rafting with them. (Also, I’m kinda a sucker for tiny doors on the sides of trees.)
I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m a big fan of the illustrator Júlia Sardà. She just made her authorial debut with The Queen in the Cave. This book is overwhelmingly gorgeous! It tells the story of a girl who leads her younger sisters on a journey where they see many fantastic and strange things.
And, finally, if you enjoyed Strum & Drum, you might also like The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen. It is a retelling of a classic fairy tale that feels modern due to the sensibilities of its creators—Barnett’s way with words, Klassen’s visual pacing, and their shared sense of humor. They make it look easy!"
What are some of your favorite holiday books? "It almost goes without saying The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg is a favorite holiday book of mine. Its imagery is so memorable and I love the bittersweet note at the end about how the sound of the sleigh bell gets fainter every year. It’s a book with nostalgia built into it.
My family's favorite nostalgic Christmas read is Clement Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas. We have an old paperback copy illustrated by the great Golden Age illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith. My wife and I read and reread this our son so many times, he could recite large portions of it by the age of 2! (I included a nod to the opening line of Moore’s text in Strum & Drum—a sleepy mouse can be seen marching in Strum and Drum’s merry band!)
The Sweet Smell of Christmas is another favorite in my household. It’s written by Patricia Scarry and illustrated by J.P. Miller. It’s a scratch-and-sniff book so you really get to experience the smells of the holiday along with Little Bear and his family as they prepare for and celebrate Christmas.
My studio mate Lala Watkins just released an adorable board book called Little Santa’s Workshop! It’s a rhyming behind-the-scenes look at the North Pole as preparations are made for Christmas Eve. Lala’s art always makes me smile—it is so joyful and bold!
One non-book recommendation—I realize that The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats isn’t a holiday book but check out its animated adaptation on Prime Video. This cartoon sets the story at Christmastime and is wonderfully inclusive in a way that I imagine Keats would have liked. It really captures the feeling of Brooklyn in winter."
You've spent years illustrating for the New Yorker. I'm curious whether any picture book illustrators inspired your work there? "I’ve always been a big fan of William Steig! When I was little, I was inspired by Gorky Rises to make potions in the kitchen sink. Steig was a New Yorker illustrator, too. Like Steig, my editorial work was very linear (although I reinvented myself stylistically when I switched to picture books)."
What would be on your list of 100 best picture books of all time? "Most of the books I’ve already mentioned would probably find their way onto my list! They’d be joining books like—
"Madeline’s Rescue by Ludwig Bemelmans I am a Bunny by Ole Risom and Richard Scarry Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson Corduroy by Don Freeman Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola Doctor De Soto by William Steig Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak Anatole by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone
The Lion and The Stoat by Paul O. Zelinsky
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson The Way Home in the Night by Akiko Miyakoshi The Bad Mood and the Stick by Lemony Snicket and Matthew Forsythe Mary Wears What She Wants by Keith Negley Mile End Kids Stories by Isabelle Arsenault Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak would take the top spot for sure. I love the way he's able to transport us to another world and back again before supper even starts to get cold."