In college, artist Diana Sudyka heard people say she should draw for children’s books, but she didn’t become a fiction illustrator until a decade after graduating from Northwestern University’s MFA program in printmaking in 2001. For her first project, Sudyka illustrated the second, third and fourth novels in the young adult series, The Mysterious Benedict Society.
“I am still sort of amazed at how popular that series has remained,” Sudyka said.
With her distinct folksy style of watercoloring, Sudyka illustrated children’s stories such as What Miss Mitchell Saw, the story of America’s first female astronomer. Little, Brown and Co. released her picture book and authorial debut, Little Land, this week which is a meditation about people tending to the earth.
Do you have a memory growing up of entertaining yourself outside and being lost for a few hours in whatever you were doing?
One of the farming families we knew moved away to southern Indiana, and for a number of years, we would go visit them. I was close for a while to their daughter, and we would just go off. That part of Indiana is full of quartz, geodes and fossils. So we would take off for the day and ramble these ravines, looking for geodes and cracking them open, watching out for ticks and spiders. We were let loose in a way that doesn't seem to happen as much now.
In Little Land, it feels like the earth is the core protagonist of the story. What does that say about humans and our places in the world?
We are not the first species to have this moment where we flourished to the point of going beyond our resources. We are the driving force for what is happening. We are the most recent agent for extinction. I don't want to get so negative, but that's how I see our place in the world right now.
How do you hold the two things in balance – that we are both the driving force of these harmful changes and the only ones who can reverse them?
I have to because if I don't, what's the point? I have a child, so I have to model some hope. But it’s not easy. I'm the type of person where it can be very easy to look at the world as half-empty.
How do you model hope for your child?
This forest preserve that me and my family have been going to for the last eight years had a lot of old-growth oaks. The oaks in this particular tract of forest were 200 or more years old. In the last two years, almost every single one of those oaks is dead or dying. Every single one. It is devastating to see that.
There is a particular type of grief that is associated with ecological death – accepting that there is nothing I can do right now to get this back the way it was. But I just signed up for a class on oak trees where I'm going to learn about exactly what's going on, what can be done. What can I do with the little bit of land that I have?
Sitting on your ass and wringing your hands, especially in front of your child, is not going to do anything. You have to work through it.
While writing Little Land, did it ever feel like you were writing to find comfort for yourself?
Absolutely. One hundred percent.
And do you think you've found that?
I don't know. A lot of things in life, you got to work for them. That kind of comfort and grounding, I'm realizing it's like exercise. You have to practice it every day.
Editor’s note: The interview in this article has been edited and condensed for clarity.