Thank You, Crow by Michael Minkovitz and Jose D. Medina will be published on Tuesday, October 9, 2018. The debut picture book for both Minkovtiz and Medina, Thank You, Crow tells the story of two friends, Crow and Sebastian. Crow brings little treasures to the boy who saves him so that together they can go on a big adventure. In the process, Sebastian discovers that friends can be found in the unlikeliest of places and that a little kindness and imagination go a long way.
Michael Minkovitz is a Georgia native who gained a unique perspective growing up in the only Jewish family in a tiny, rural community before ending up at New York University’s Tisch School, where he graduated with a degree in filmmaking. He later graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a Master’s degree in film, but he’s also had fun being a news photographer, an SAT tutor, and running his family’s business. He is overjoyed to create and publish his first book with his husband, Jose.
Jose D. Medina is an illustrator from Venezuela who now resides in Savannah, Georgia. After beginning his art education in Caracas, he finished his illustration degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2017. His art addresses complex ideas in a way that is simple and engaging, focusing on social and political activism while incorporating humor and lightheartedness. Thank You, Crow is Jose’s first book, and he was thrilled to work on it with his husband, Michael.
Penny Candy Books interviewed Michael and Jose on the eve of Thank You, Crow’s publication.
PCB: What is the origin of Thank You, Crow? What is the inspiration for it? How did the two of you come to collaborate on it?
MM: Thank You, Crow started as a project for Jose's college course in illustrating children's books. Because we both have a love for children's books and I have some experience in writing, it was a nice opportunity for us to work together on something. We enjoyed the process and put a lot of effort into it, so by the end of his class we had the beginnings of what we felt could become a real book. When discussing the book in general terms before we even settled on a story there were a few elements that I enjoyed in books as a kid that I knew I wanted to try to incorporate if possible. One of those elements was a repeated phrase ("..but he said thank you anyway") as I think there is something satisfying and pleasing in that repetition for young kids. Another was a visual element that continued across the pages that young kids could look for and anticipate. I think the main inspiration for this is my love of the Mercer Mayer's Little Critter books as a child, namely Just For You, in which every page included a hidden cricket and spider. Both of those elements might serve to make reading a book more of an activity between a parent and child and less of a passive event where the book is just read to a child. Lastly, we wanted the book to have a purpose, or a life lesson.
I started throwing story ideas to Jose and the one he liked best evolved into Thank You, Crow. The original idea took place largely in an orphanage rather than a spot in the woods, where Sebastian would spend his time on an outside balcony that overlooked a forest to get away from the scary housemother. Instead of a crow, Sebastian befriended a dog. After helping the dog in some way, the dog began bringing Sebastian gifts that he mistook for junk, but he was just happy to have a friend so he said thank you anyway. In the end, the dog was much more than he seemed, the junk he brought was actually components of a rocket, and Sebastian was able to best the scary adult and escape the orphanage.
Soon after, Jose suggested that the dog should be a crow, which made complete sense when he showed me a true story about crows bringing gifts to a little girl, and after a few more alterations it became what it is today.
PCB: Michael, how did your upbringing as a member of the only Jewish family in a small, rural Georgian town affect or impact your writing? When do you know you wanted to be a writer?
MM: I've often wondered how my childhood experience shaped me as a person. To provide some context with a little background information, my great-grandfather had a cart out of which he'd sell various fabrics and scraps which eventually evolved into department stores across Southeast Georgia named Minkovitz. My dad ran the store in Sylvania that his father owned previously, which is why my family lived where we lived. By the end of the twentieth century, malls in larger nearby cities like Savannah and Statesboro eventually killed most small-town department stores like ours, but not before giving my sisters and I a small-town childhood that I feel fortunate to have had. We were different from everyone else, however. We weren't shunned or anything like that—there were many great people there—but the culture was centered on Jesus, livestock festivals, hunting and fishing, and that just wasn't my family. Some days of the year we'd miss school to make the drive to our synagogue in Savannah for Jewish holidays. Likewise, some days of the year my friends would miss school because deer hunting season just started and they were going hunting with their dads. We put up mezuzahs, our neighbors mounted heads. You get the idea. When we visited Savannah for the holidays, and started driving in for Sunday school and then Hebrew school when we were a little older, we were once again in a place where we didn't fit. The other Jewish kids in Savannah had grown up around each other in what seemed like a huge metropolitan city compared to where I lived, and we felt like complete outsiders. My mom may have inadvertently amplified our insecurities in little ways by reminding us not to say "I'm fixin' to" and instead say "I'm about to" when in Savannah, for example. The point of all of this is to say that I never truly felt like I belonged in the place I was in, and that sense of being an outsider looking in continued for most of my life. As a result, I think I was more easily able to view things from someone else's perspective and therefore be a more empathetic person. As an example, while I had friends that looked like me in elementary school, I also became friends with the black children in my class, and looking back at it, I realize my other friends didn't. Now that I'm older, I find value in identifying with those who are viewed as the other. As far as how all that may affect my writing, I believe empathy must be an important factor for any writer.
Luckily, my mom was always reading multiple books and surrounded us with books from an early age. I think because we lived in a town without a real bookstore, relatives sent us many books, though I think the library in town was actually fine. So I read a lot growing up, and it had a big impact on me and my imagination. In the end, it’s simply a nice feeling to create a story and make someone feel something when they read it.
PCB: Jose, tell us a little bit about your life in Venezuela. How did you come to be an artist? When do you move to America and what brought you here?
JDM: I grew up in Caracas, which, for people who may not be familiar with it, is kind of like the New York City of Venezuela. It's a gorgeous place, surrounded by green mountains. There are special things about living there that I miss. For instance there is a group of wild blue macaws that would frequently come visit my mom on our balcony. I miss my hour long commute to college in the morning, where I would get to see the sun rise from behind the mountains, even though I was stuck in traffic. It's often a noisy, dirty, and crowded place, but at the same time it's filled with culture and art, and I attribute some of that to my development as an artist. I don't think there is a point in time that I ever decided to be an artist, it's just something I've luckily always had an aptitude for, and though I did consider studying medicine at times, clearly art was the path I took. I started my art education in Caracas, and due to the increasingly destabilized political and social climate in Venezuela, and to explore opportunities as an illustrator that I would likely not be afforded in my own country, I transferred to SCAD three years later.
PCB: What has been the biggest challenge for you both as you've written, illustrated, and published this book?
MM & JDM: This is our first book, so we have nothing to compare this experience with, however we were lucky in how nicely and mostly painlessly it all seemed to come together. However, there was an instance when we needed to account for the fire extinguishers that Crow used as propulsion for the rocket because we didn't show how Crow actually procured them. The fix involved a change in the text and imagery that worked out nicely and solved the problem. It was challenging while also being satisfying in the same way that solving a difficult logic puzzle is satisfying. The most challenging part of the overall process was likely when it came time to translate what was in our heads into a 32 page format, maintaining the repetition we wanted while not being overly repetitive, and finding the right rhythm for the story that would make it the most enjoyable.
PCB: What has been the biggest surprise throughout the process?
MM: We knew that making a book was not a simple and quick process by any means; however, we didn't anticipate the level of thought and consideration that goes into every little detail. For example, we all spent a considerable amount of time discussing the placement of a single line of text, and while the reader would likely never notice, it hopefully results in a better experience and goes to show how much care actually goes into it.
PCB: Why is Thank You, Crow such an important books for kids and adults to read at this moment in time?
MM: Being kind and being gracious simply because it's the right thing to do and not because you'll get something out of it is one of those life lessons, like the golden rule, that would make the world a better place if everyone tried to abide by it. Today, when elected leaders spew hate and contempt through every medium, a little story about being polite and kind might be needed. If this book finds a home in the bedroom of a child who is otherwise exposed to ugliness, it's possible that it could actually have some sort of impact. A parent reading Thank You, Crow with their child might be uplifted by its hopefulness and be a little less weary.
PCB: Any advice for aspiring writers and artists out there?
MM: Writing a children's book is something I've always wanted to do, but it was always a nebulous sort of thing that I had no idea how to approach, so I just labeled it as being out of reach and didn't even try. It turns out that I did have the ability, so I should never have discounted the idea. The lesson I learned is that special things can and do happen and sometimes luck makes it happen and other times it takes trying again and again. The original story idea for Thank You, Crow is pretty different from the final product, but the core is basically the same. So I've learned that when you feel that you have a good idea don't dismiss it because sometimes it takes a lot of brainstorming and looking at it from new angles before you find the direction that works best.
JDM: It may sound like a cliché, but keep drawing. Draw funny things. Draw things that make you sad and things you love. Draw trees, draw dogs, draw cars or mountains, and draw more dogs. And put it out there. There will be someone out there who can relate to it and appreciate it and to me that's what it's all about.
PCB: Any advice for young readers out there?
MM & JDM: If you read a book that you think someone else will like, be sure to let them know! Keep reading!
Thanks again, Michael and Jose!