Get to Know… Kevin and Basil Sylvester!

My name is… Kevin Sylvester.

I am a… goofball.

Which is useful to be when you write and illustrate books for kids.

I try to write books that would have pleased and entertained a 12-year-old me, and I think I’m still that kid with more (thank goodness) adult behaviour on top.

But the things that made laugh back then (word play, snark, bizarre and unexpected juxtapositions) still make me laugh.

The types of stories that made me want to read back then (comic books, mysteries, adventure) still make me want to read.

As a kid, I was… a quiet geek. Awkward, shy, slightly hyperactive. I found an outlet in drawing. I can lose myself for hours with a pencil and paper.

But it was in third grade that I thought I might not be bad at it. I drew a witch for a Halloween drawing contest and won a pack of bubble gum. It’s still the most I’ve been paid for a single drawing, and it made me start taking art more seriously.

Writing is… frantic.

You know this, Jarrett, but there’s a pattern to writing that always starts with an idea, then the excitement of following that idea… then the slog of trying to get that down on paper (or computer).

Drawing, as a process, can be relaxing.

Writing CAN be like that, but never (in my experience) until I’ve reached the smoothing out stage of draft #3+. But we were all prepared for this as kids, because our editors today are basically just telling us the same things our teachers told us back when:

Read this over before you hand it in.

Read it out loud.

Show it to someone else.

Drawing is… as close to prayer and meditation as anything in life.

Everything around me quiets and settles. I’m still conscious, making decisions about the drawing, but I can lose myself within the drawing.

Part of this was embracing messiness, mistakes, and the joy of doodling.

I know that the process, if allowed to continue on its own, will often yield interesting results.

I’m actually finding this hard to articulate in a way that might be useful to someone else.

I guess the bottom line is that you should never judge a drawing until it is done, and you know it is done when it is…. done.

(See earlier answer about writing).

Reading is… as important as writing.

To be a writer is to be a reader. You HAVE to read. Not just because that’s where you encounter new ideas and POVs but because it’s the best place to pillage and plunder for nuggets of gold. You might be wowed by a sentence in a new book. A writer will deconstruct why that sentence worked, and how it used the placement of words or sounds or images to lead to a specific result.

Then a writer will learn from that and will use it in their own writing.

But, I also want to say that reading is half of a book, even if you are not a writer.

Our culture is obsessed with the idea of a “work of art” as an object in and of itself. We go to museums and look at works of art that are completely taken out of their context, their utility in the real world. The viewer merely observes, rarely interacts.

Books blast that wall down. Why? Because once I’m done a book, it is a dead object. Paper and ink. I call this the first “half circle” of the book.

The book is completed, made alive again, when a reader reads it. Let’s say The Fabulous Zed Watson sells a million copies (please, Basil and I need the money). Well, there is no longer one Zed Watson. There are a million. Each reader closes the circle in their own personal way.

Books are… see earlier response.

But I would add two things. Each book a writer makes is the answer to a question. What if we lived in Space? What if the greatest book ever written was never published, but buried in a hidden location?

I think of books as messengers. Not in a didactic way (although they can be that), but as couriers for ideas, feelings, experiences. I learn so much about the world by reading books from perspectives, or about experiences, that are different from mine.

Did you know… I play hockey as many as four times a week? And I freeze a skating rink every year in my backyard?

I also love baseball. Maybe too much.

You can find me… in my messy attic.

In schools (I love doing school visits – virtually or in person).

Online, all over the place.

And, once this pandemic is over, at as many NerdCamps as will have me in person. Finding people who are smarter than you, and put kids first, is invigorating, inspiring, and humbling.

My name is… Basil Sylvester.

I am a… weirdo (and since I cite my sources: my family has said this me for years. I come by it honestly, though!).

As a kid, I was… super intense. Always! Ask my dad, ask anyone–I was always talking everyone’s ears off all the time. My mom had to give us a “no tapping on the shoulder” rule because of how many times I just could not wait for her to be done with her conversation before I needed her attention. I think I’m a lot like Zed in this respect, ha ha.

Writing is… HARD. some people–like my dad–write very quickly and have a ton of ideas happening at once. I do not. It can take me literal years to write a word of a story idea. By the time we got the email from our friend and colleague Suzanne Sutherland, asking us if we’d be interested in writing a middle grade book with a nonbinary kid, I had given up on becoming a writer. I was too critical, and could never write anything. I’d delete it or I’d cross it out. But the universe did not give up on me, and i really do thank my lucky stars every single day for that!

A slight tangent, but: I get asked a lot if Zed is the book I needed at that age, or if I wrote with that kid in mind, and the answer is actually no, I didn’t. I wasn’t ready for that then, personally. I was too busy with all the other things that made me feel like an outsider; I only started questioning my gender in my late teens, right before graduating high school. Kids these days are lightyears ahead of me at that age, and that’s part of why I’m so excited about having Zed out in the world! I’ve already had kids say they or their friends are trans/nonbinary. I didn’t even know that existed when I was younger, and if I did, I don’t think I would have connected with it at that age. I was too busy realizing I wasn’t straight to add not being cis onto that, too.

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that kids (especially at that age) have literally SO MUCH going on in their lives that it’s a treat to write for them because you really never know what kind of story they need to hear–and sometimes they don’t, either!

Drawing is… ALSO HARD. I think one of the things I’m proudest of on Zed is that I designed the cover and did the lettering! It took a frankly unbelievable amount of time and I thought, wow, how do artists do this every day? What the heck? Then it turned out I wasn’t using Procreate properly and when they asked me to do the spine lettering as well, I did the first rough sketch in 45 minutes. You live and learn. (Although I am a bit bummed because I like the spine lettering so much better! You can see I kind of know what I’m doing!) Can you tell I’m a bit of a lazy creative? I much prefer editing to writing, actually; my dream is to be a fiction editor because I love helping other people achieve their vision for a project. It’s like a fossil! The shape is there, you’re just helping them reveal the awesome colossus underneath.

Reading is… something I need to do more! I own almost too many books to fit in my studio apartment, and I’ve probably only read about 30% of them…

Books are… magic! And that’s not just a beloved indie bookstore in Brooklyn, NY. Books can provide escapism and community, sometimes at the same time! I know it’s a cliché, but it’s true! I was doing an author visit a couple weeks ago and a kid raised his hand and said he had a friend who was nonbinary, like in my book. And I smile every time I think about that–I hope Zed and other books let that kid see his friend living a full life, and that the friend sees that there are so many possibilities out there!

I’ve made some incredible and lifelong friends through books, bookselling, and book launches and events, and it’s really such an amazing community. Hooray for books!

Did you know… that I’ve seen the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (directed by Joe Wright) over 400 times? That there might be dinosaur remains on the moon and even as far as MARS?! That the voyager golden record has greetings from Earth in 55 different languages? That scientists have taught spinach to send emails? (I think Gabe would really like that.)

You can find me… in my little hobbit hole of an apartment, avoiding doing my dishes and reading my friends’ Star Trek: The Original Series fanfiction. (And also intermittently on Instagram, @ghostbasil.)

4 thoughts on “Get to Know… Kevin and Basil Sylvester!

  1. Kevin Sylvester, I am so glad to “meet” someone that has a backyard ice rink. My husband and I had one in our backyard in central NJ for 10 years. Our two sons played hockey! Can’t wait to read your book.

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