In this interview, Aaron Becker talks with Nikki Gamble and guest panellists Erin Hamilton, Mary-Rose Grieve, Richard Charlesworth, and Ben Harris about the process of creating his most recent wordless book, The Last Zookeeper, which was published in the UK in April 2024 by Walker Books.


Interview Transcript Please note this transcript has been edited for readability. Filler words and pauses have been removed, but the text remains true to the words spoken. Images are in the video.

Nikki Gamble:

We’re thrilled to welcome back Aaron Becker to celebrate the launch of his wordless book, The Last Zookeeper. I’ve invited a group of panellists to join me this evening, and we will hear from them later.

Aaron, the last time we chatted, you were in your studio, and you’ve swapped that for the time being, at least for the great outdoors. And I wondered whether you’re finding any inspiration from your current environment.

Aaron Becker:

So, yeah, we’re living in British Columbia on a small island in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve done a few plein-air paintings since we’ve been here. But honestly, when you’re a working parent, life is about getting a lot done while the kids are at school.

Actually, it’s been more of a working sabbatical experience. Our lives are so simplified here; we’re away from our friends and normal day-to-day busy activities, such as shuttling the kids to their music lessons and sports. So, it’s been a family-focused time.

There was a period when we first got here when I just started creating new work. Just because I’m out of my normal routines.  So yeah, it’s been very useful, creatively … a real treat.

Nikki:

Before we saw all your working models, presumably, you couldn’t have that set-up where you are now,

Aaron Becker:

I’m limited in a couple of ways. First, I didn’t bring my massive computer, which has all of my 3D software and Photoshop-type stuff, and a nice big monitor.

So, I was selective about what materials I brought. But the woman we are renting from, who lives and built this house, is an architect. She’s extremely eccentric and creative. There’s this art space that the kids have taken over, but I’m kind of trying to use it as well.

So there were a lot of surprises in the supplies that were here. We’ve been doing a lot of painting together. And I didn’t use the computer at all for the book I’m working on now. Just a glorified copy machine. I’m drawing directly on paper, which I always do. The Last Zookeeper is just painted on paper. But the preparatory work is always supplemented by digital, which we’ll see in a little bit. But for this book, I’m drawing and I’m drawing again and drawing, changing which paper I’m drawing on. But that’s about it.

Nikki Gamble:

I do have a burning overarching question. I suspect it’ll be answered by looking at your slides. I’m interested] to know whether you’re working to resolve questions. or thoughts that you have about the world or whether principally you’re creating to communicate your ideas to readers. Of course, I realise you might be doing both, but I am interested in the balance for you. Do you start from one, motivation, or the other?

Aaron Becker:

Well, I’ll just briefly say that the thing I always avoid in making books for children is to preach to them in any way. I don’t want my books to have lessons which might bother educators. I hope not.

I think it’s much more powerful for a child to come to their own sense of the world through their interpretation. Wordless picture books are a natural extension of that idea; there’s no text to tell you what you ought to think. And so when I go into a book like The Last Zookeeper, which is my attempt at doing a book on climate change, I personally don’t know what to say about it. So, it is an exploration for me. I’m thinking, what is this story going to be? And where is it going to go? And I often do not know where it’s going when I start. The process of making the story come to life from the initial sketches. It is always exactly as you put it: an exploration to answer something for myself or not an answer just to explore an idea and maybe leave it open to interpretation by the reader.

And even since I made that book a couple of years ago, I’m looking at that book like a reader myself. I don’t feel like I made that book. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is interesting. Who did this? What’s going to happen next?’

Nikki Gamble:

Let’s look at the slides. We’ve shown the audience what the finished book looks like, but we’re going to step back a bit and see one of the drafts. I think you said this is a draft from 2022.

Aaron Becker:

That sounds about right.  When I looked through my folders on the computer to find these for you today, this is like draft 6 E. So that means in order to get to 6 E, I went through 1 A through G, and then 2 A through D. When I make a major change to the story, I change the number, but then I start adding letters just to keep it straight in my head. Then, I can refer back to earlier drafts easily. If I have lost an idea that I want, it’s easier to have this system when you are 40 drafts or so in.

But by the end of this 2022 draft, I know where I’m going. I know what I want the book to be, and it’s a matter of implementing the final art.

It’s quite similar to what you just saw. The quote from Jane Goodall is already there. We see his boats. You can see here that I’m making notes to myself on the bottom, clarifying the geography of the zoo and adding evidence of tiger and panda building tents.

Those notes are for me as I’m heading into final art; some are a few things to consider, which may have come from a meeting with my editor. But really, these are just like hand-drawn pencil sketches, digitally coloured so that I have a sense of the mood and the colour as they move through the story.

I want to make sure I get the expression and the body language just right because getting this into the final illustration involves building a 3D model. I want to know ahead of time what I’m going for because the computer can make things lose life and a human quality.

I wanted to imbue these sketches with as much personality and flavour as possible, especially in the character of nӫa, the robot.

And you know, the final illustrations are different. This composition changed quite a bit. It wasn’t reading quite as well, but at this point, I know what I’m doing.

Nikki Gamble:

Can you tell us about some of the comments at the bottom of the page?

Aaron Becker:

We talked about this one: ‘ Work on relaxing nӫa’s pose without losing wonder.’ This would have been a note from my editor. I cannot remember why she would have mentioned this because I kind of liked him stretching out and his excitement. Maybe it did get a little bit lost when it went into the final drawing in the book.

It’s one of those instances where, as an artist and author, you work with an editor, and at some point, you have to trust yourself, and at some point, you have to trust the editor, and it’s hard to know when to do which. But this is a great instance of seeing how something changes from the artist’s idea. It’s such a minor thing to change, just the pose of the character, but it makes a huge difference. I don’t know whether I agree with her at this point or not.

Nikki Gamble:

So, the notes on the bottom are the editor’s notes rather than yours.

Aaron Becker:

That is me typing into my computer what I heard my editor say to remember later when I’m going back in. I would just say that I feel like as I continue on this path of making books, I’m getting better at knowing what to listen to and what not to. But we’re also human beings. And I think we’re quite affected by what people say. I might err on the side of listening too much.

I have friends in my critique group back home, and we get together to show off our work. Everyone we’ll give their ideas. Then, the next week, they bring in their changed drafts, and they haven’t changed anything we said. But I think that’s them sticking to their guns. Right?  I tend to think that listening to other people is a good trait, but sometimes, you need to stick to what you’re doing.

Nikki Gamble:

One of the decisions that you made, either consciously or subconsciously, was to cage your tigers. If we go back to the traditional story of Noah’s Ark, as it’s retold for children, we all know the imagery of the Ark and the animals going in two by two, all very happily living together. I love the fact that the tigers have to be caged in your story.

Aaron Becker:

Yeah, there they are in their cage.

I really loved those tigers. Initially, there was much more to do with the tigers. They had a more significant role in the story in getting to know what kind of character nӫa was and how he cared for these animals. However, in the interest of editing, I just had to have them be there and leave it up to the readers to think, ‘Why are they in the cage?’ Then, they might figure out they might be eating the zebras if they were let go.

The book used to end with the two robots here playing with the tigers like cats, like their pets – But that didn’t make the final cut.

Nikki Gamble:

Just looking at your two robots, the first thing that struck me when you arrived this evening was your yellow jumper matching your yellow robot.  I’m interested in how you selected the colours for the two robots and tonally how the colours affect the mood of the story.

For me, the introduction of the purple robot gives a melancholy feel.  I wondered if your colour choice is subconscious and intuitive or whether you consciously make colour choices.

Aaron Becker:

Well, because it’s an ocean book, I knew the majority of the paintings would be blue, and I wanted a colour that would stand out from that. And also, at least in America, that colour yellow – we call it a Tonka truck yellow, like the kids’ truck toy. It’s the exact shade of yellow. He’s a construction robot. He was built to build seawalls. And so I thought, he should have that connection to a construction vehicle, like, a digger or earth mover, and then I needed a colour that was complimentary to that.

Aaron Becker:

On the colour wheel, yellow and purple are opposite each other, forming a polarity of colour and balance.

Nikki Gamble:

So, there’s an element of colour theory involved in that.

This isn’t the first iteration of this story, though. Shall we look at an early draft?

Aaron Becker:

When I mentioned the folders, this book was totally different. It’s still called The Last Zookeeper, and it was my attempt at a climate change book. It was shelved for two or three years before the story pulled me back.

Here is the final draft of The Last Zookeeper before I completely redid it. It was a vertical-format book that you were meant to turn as you told the story because it has multiple dimensions.

On the cover, you see the boy and his motorboat.In the reflection is a boy of the same size in a sailboat. It’s a little hard to see with the dark colours there, So this is the endpaper, but now we’ve turned the book and we’re reading it. So even though it still looks vertical here, this is an open book, and you’re reading it sideways, if you can imagine.

The boy is making his way through this flooded town, going back to his boat with a food container. So now we have the title page. He ends up at the flooded zoo that we recognise from the final book.

I researched different zoos from all over the world. I wanted it to have a very grand feel. So a a lot of these structures are from the Berlin Zoo and zoos in Philadelphia and New York during a time when zoos were exotic, colonial beasts, showing off how we’d ‘discovered’ the world. I thought they were beautiful structures.

Here, he’s taking care of a sick polar bear cub. He’s gone to town to get fish, but the polar bear doesn’t want to eat. Now we see him cuddling, but in the reflection, there’s a different boy leaning in, and the boy sees the reflection and falls into the water.

And now we turn the book.

So he tumbles through and comes out the other side. So now you turn the book 180 degrees and begin to read the other way.

He meets his doppelganger, a happier version of himself who takes them out on horseback through the same landscape that has not been flooded. So, we see the wind turbines in the distance. People have taken care of the planet in this version of Earth. They get into a sailboat and take the polar bear across the ocean towards the north. Hop across the ice floats. Camp out for the night under the Aurora Borealis and meet a mama polar bear. They leave the cub with her, and then sail back to the zoo.

Now, when the boy returns home, we orient the book as we’re used to reading it—like we’re not looking at 90 degrees anymore. The world has evened out. The boy returns to the polar bear exhibit, grabs some bits of the zoo, just like the robot ends up doing, and outfits his boat to be a sailboat instead of a motorboat. And that’s the end of the story.

So, it’s a totally different story, but the same world. You can see the struggle of coming up with a book. It takes time and a lot of effort. And this was one of many, many drafts which turned into one of many, many drafts. I thought it would be interesting to see how much goes into making these stories, which seem to be simple constructions.

Nikki Gamble:

Did this one ever get to your editor, or was this just you working it out for yourself?

Aaron Becker:

This was the draft that the editor and I looked at along with our designer. I thought we were good to go. I may even have had a colour version. And I was ready to go into the final artwork. And they said it was too depressing that this boy was still in this world. He hasn’t solved any problems. And why wouldn’t he just stay behind and have a better life? I have to say, every time I read this story, I like it quite a bit, and it doesn’t bother me at all. And it doesn’t feel depressing.

I’ve often heard that you want the change in a book to be very small. The character’s growth should be a slight shift. And it just seemed like the right amount.  That’s what it will take for us to all make these changes to our lives.

Basically, all the pieces in the published version of The Last Zookeeper that we are holding are in this draft. Not just the world-building, but the idea of caring and changing and growing as a character through that effort of caring,

Nikki Gamble:

Having said that, there are some major changes. Obviously, there’s no other world that the boy falls into. And there are no human characters—you just have robots in this story. Can you recall working out those changes?

Aaron Becker:

I know exactly how it came about.

Before I abandoned this book, which we’ve just been looking at, I felt it was growing into a huge story, so I tried to write it as a middle-grade chapter book.

I outlined the whole thing as a synopsis, which grew out of a sketch of the robot I did one night. At that time, I’d been working on this book for quite a while. I came out of that meeting with the editors very frustrated and demoralised. Then, one night, I drew this very tired robot, hunched over and pulling a fishing net behind him. It had nothing to do with the story. I was just sketching. And when I saw that sketch, it was alive. And I had a moment when I realised I could make something from this tired robot, who’s been caring about something,( i. e., like creating this book).

You know everything we make—authors, illustrators, all of us—it’s a part of us inside, right? Coming out. And that’s what this robot was: my state of mind at that moment. And it felt real and authentic.

I wrote a chapter book about a robot. This boy teams up with it, so it gets very complicated. There was a huge plot involving a football match. A  friend who writes screenplays looked at it and told me, ‘Aaron, this is totally not working.’

But it felt like there was something here with this robot who cares. There is so much in his body language and personality that came across in that one sketch. So that’s when I went back and started the wordless picture book sketch, which became the one that we know now. It was a painful but necessary evolution of the story. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. I don’t love everything that I do, especially in retrospect, but this book felt like it landed.

I’m quite happy even knowing how much it took to get there. I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Nikki Gamble:

There’s no polar bear in the published version, but I was interested in your selection of animals. There’s no sense that every animal has been saved because you have a small collection. You’ve got giraffes, pandas, tigers, elephants, flamingos (well, they can fly and swim). But of the land mammals, there’s no sense that everything has been saved.

Aaron Becker:

That has to do with the mechanics of a wordless book. You have to pick symbols because that’s all you have—no language.

If I had hundreds and hundreds of animals, it would be harder to follow the story. It is important to see how the robot cares for the animals and that they are all accounted for. It also helped to develop a little personality for each animal, even though they were very small. So, it was an editorial need.

I wanted to pick animals that felt very representative of a zoo. And recognizable and different from one another so that they would stand out from one another and work graphically,

Nikki Gamble:

We’ve got some more slides to show.

Aaron Becker:

I’m sure none of you could see what’s going on in this picture. This is when I’m at the point of having done 100 drafts, and I want to get an idea out. I don’t care if it’s a good drawing or not. So, in sketch form, nӫa is gathering the animals after the flood. I probably drew this with an ink pen, scanned it on the computer, and sized it how I wanted.

So, then I can go to the next inage. This is the same pose; now you can see what was in my head.

Then, before I make it a final painting, I want to know what it will look like in colour with values and how it will read as a shape. I go into the computerand this is what the computer model looks like. It is a little shiny and precise, but it gives me a real sense of scale, which is an important part of this book.

When I did the sketches by hand, I noticed that I would often change the scale dramatically from page to page. Suddenly, the giraffes would be super teeny or way too big, and I wanted it to be consistent. I felt for this story to work, you had to believe it was possible. Therefore, I wanted the perspective, lighting, shadows, and scale to be completely immersive, believable, and not cartoony.

So, I sacrificed a little bit of the life of the sketchiness of the drawing, I think. But it felt like a necessary step.

From this stage, I took the 3D model and did a pencil drawing on paper. (I redrew one of the rhinoceroses because I wasn’t happy with the one I’d done). Then, this gets printed out onto watercolour paper very lightly. And then I do the ink and watercolour on top of that to get to the final.

And then, to end up in the book, there are just very slight colour changes. I wanted the yellow to be a bit orangish, but it came out a little greenish in the scans. I brought in a little bit more purple to the greys and warmth here and there, but otherwise, the computer left it untouched.

Nikki Gamble:

Are you happy with how the colour has come true in the printing process of the final book?

Aaron Becker:

Oh, absolutely. Walker and Candlewick are just superb with their print quality. We do tests and print runs like anyone, but they do a great job with paper and ink.

Nikki Gamble:

I think the anatomy of a rhinoceros must be quite challenging.

Aaron Becker:

Yeah, they have a very strange bone structure.  And their heads are quite low, lower than you think.

Nikki:

We have some questions from the audience.

Leslie wanted to know whether you always make the changes your editor suggests.

Aaron Becker:

Well, I think I probably make more than many authors. I tend to see it as a collaboration with my editor. I’ve worked with the same editor since Journey. So, it’s not like I feel like I can’t push back, and I do. I will be pushing back on the story I’m working on right now. I’m at a stage where I’m pushing back quite a bit.

But it’s a give and take. I see her role is clarifying. I tend to be a generalist with my thoughts. So, it works well for me, but when I need to communicate an idea to someone else, they may have no idea what I’m talking about. And so the editor’s job is to say, ‘Okay, Aaron’s not quite hitting this one on the mark. I’ve got to push him a bit.’  I usually try to be open-minded to see the point, so it’s a bit more of a collaboration than you might think.

I think this is probably true for many authors, especially if they have a good working relationship with the editor.

Nikki Gamble:

Kelly has a question. She says your robot reminded her of WALL-E and wonders whether that robot inspired the book. Maybe I could ask that as a broader question. Are there any robots in particular from literature, film, or art that have inspired you?

Aaron Becker:

When I worked in the film industry before making children’s books, my art director was a robot guy. He had an entire giant personal project called Robata. He was a Star Wars art director and designed all of the droids from the prequel films, like the Phantom Menace. So, he was very much an influence in that respect. Many of the people I worked with at that studio were very interested in robots. I was around them a lot.

I wouldn’t say I’m a robot kind of guy, but for some reason, when I drew that first sketch of nӫa in it just felt right as a character for this story.

You’ll notice that a big difference between this robot and many robots is that he has no face. There are no facial expressions to let us know how he’s thinking or feeling.  There’s no mouth to show surprise and no eyebrows even to show an expression. And so it forced me to use body language entirely. It also allows the reader to project their own emotional state onto the character, which I thought was important. Something that helps my books work is all of that projection work that the reader has to do on whether someone’s feeling sad or happy.

I think I noticed the WALL-E thing later. It’s funny with Journey, people always notice a similarity between Harold and The Purple Crayon. I had to look at it when people started mentioning it. And I was like, Holy cow!There are so many similarities with this book. I’m glad I didn’t look at it at the time, or I would have never made the book. It took six months or so for that book to be out before people stopped making that connection, and it just became its own thing. I think we often want to attach something familiar to something new so our brain knows how to fit it into our universe.

But Wall-E is a great film, and there are similarities. That character had his eyes, and all he had to show emotion was whether they were tilting down or up. The first 30 minutes of that film are wordless, which is pretty fantastic for a feature film

Nikki Gamble:

There’s so much you can show with a gesture. The image that we talked about with nӫa standing, looking at the stars says so much with hands are doing and the tilt of the head. I think there are lots of very interesting discussions to be had with children around that about communication,

We’ve got some other things to look at.

Aaron Becker:

These were the images of the tiger. nӫa is reprimanding the tiger, saying, ‘I’m going to let you go on this boat, but don’t eat any of the animals’ and wagging his finger at them. My favourite part of this drawing is how the other animals look deadpan, as if they are thinking, ‘Uh, you’re going to let those tigers on the boat?’

I wish this image was still in the book. There’s only so much room for everything, and it’s one of those kill your darling things.

Here’s another moment where he’s checking in on the tigers. For some reason, I really cared about these creatures. The pandas ended up winning the day for more screen time in the final book.

If you look at the book’s endpapers, you’ll see these posters. I wanted to show nӫa’s backstory – where he came from. These are work progress administration posters. They depict a moment when we were all coming together to save the Earth and build a better tomorrow by constructing a giant seawall. The robots were built by this organization to construct the sea wall.

I thought his interest in the sailboats and taking care them was part of his DNA to fix the world a bit and make things better.

These were all little drawings that I did. If you look at the endpapers, you can barely see them, but it was important for me to understand who this character was.

You can see that he was originally steam-powered. So there are furnaces on his back with chimneys.

The final character in the book, of course, has found a way to power himself without the help of people. So he’s put the wind turbines on his back. The purple robot that was built to take care of plants has figured out how to build a solar panel on her back to power herself in the post-human world.

Nikki Gamble:

While we’re just talking about that, I think I noticed a difference in how the hot air balloon is powered between the 2022 draft and the final book.

Aaron Becker

Yeah, it’s an electric solar-powered heater.

Nikki Gamble:

 I’m going to bring in Erin, who has a question for you.

 Erin Hamilton:

Thank you, Nikki. Aaron, that was just the most amazing way to spend my evening. I could listen to you talk about this for hours.

My question is, towards the beginning of the book, we see Noah fixing a small sailboat, and then he casts it adrift. And I wondered if that was a call for help. Is he trying to find others around him or in the world to come and help,

Aaron Becker:

Yeah, so it’s subconscious for the character, I think. We were just talking about the balloon. Initially, there was a hot air balloon in my sketches that he had found that had drifted by, and it happened to be purple, just like the robot he meets. And I had this idea that he was already communicating with this character he meets.

So he’s sending these boats out. It just feels tender like he’s putting something out into the world. He’s caring for, repairing, and letting these broken sailboats be free, but maybe there’s someone else out there. Those work progress posters are important because they show he’s used to having friends, people, and robots he works with. And so, there is this sense that something’s missing in his lonely robot world.

He’s found a hot air balloon somewhere and tied it up at his fort, which this other robot has also been sending out, like little messages in bottles, I guess, but it’s good that you picked up on that because it was hidden.

Erin Hamilton:

Thank you. That’s amazing.

Nikki Gamble:

Mary-Rose also has a question.

Mary-Rose Grieve:

I’d rather just listen to you talk about it. Seeing those pictures and seeing the development of your thinking is amazing.

However, I emailed Nikki with a question. Listening to you, I’ve thought about it a bit more. At the end there’s this hopeful bit where the rainbow’s out, and they’re coming to an island, and everything’s wonderful. I understood the feeling of hope, but I also felt, the whole way through, these echoes of humans who are no longer there. There’s the religious overtone, with Noah’s Ark, and the human-made robots, and the zoo that was also once made by humans. And now they’re no longer there at all. As a human reading the book, I felt that there was a really big story behind all of that that wasn’t quite being told but was quite depressing – or not depressing, but sad.

There are moments of uncomfortableness in looking at and reading it because I know that I’m a human and I’m not a robot. These robots have human feelings and display human emotion, but there are no humans left.

I’ve just wondered how that paradox worked. It was interesting seeing the very first book that you made with the human characters in it;, that felt in a way, more hopeful, I think. I was interested to hear that your editor thought it was too depressing because the absence of humans is perhaps a bit more of a warning than the other one.

Aaron Becker:

Unless you feel the absence, there is no question. Like at the beginning of WALL-E, for instance. If you’ve seen the film, you don’t feel sad that there are no people around. You’re enchanted by this cute little robot taking care of the garbage, and you care about him, and that’s it.

But I will say that those sailboats are not toy boats. They’re our boats that don’t have people in them. And I very purposely did that. I wanted those reminders that you’re picking up on. I wanted it to feel slightly uncomfortable because I feel somewhat uncomfortable. I hope we all feel slightly uncomfortable.

You’re in Dubai right now, right? So, you’ve just experienced the wrathful consequence of people not taking care of this planet in a big way. I absolutely do not want this book to worry a child upon reading it. But I also want to be authentic to the experience of being on this planet right now.

Writing a book without a touch of worry, melancholy, and concern would feel disingenuous. It should be there. In some ways, that dissonance between hope and worry creates a conversation that gets people engaged and thinking about these ideas in an approachable way that ends on hope.

It’s very important for it to end on hope, you know. If he had just washed up on the beach – end of the story.

Mary Rose Grieve:

That dissonance you’re talking about is what’s so interesting about it. That’s what you’re so brilliant at doing. You can read your books over and over and over again and keep seeing the next layer and the next layer and the next layer.

Nikki Gamble:

Thank you.  I’m going to bring Rich in next with his question.

Richard Charlesworth:

Well, I feel like it’s heavily adapted from my original because I think it naturally answered quite a few bits of this through the conversation.

I’m going to preface it briefly by saying it’s a testament to your work that a lot of readers can put their own selves into the text and read their own interpretations. And it’s been interesting to hear your connection in its journey to its creation.

So, my question is linked to a few filmic references I’ve drawn out. So, I’ve said you’ve created a text with a great sense of scale. The robots reminded Jaeger in Del Toro’s Pacific Rim – his guardians and protectors. Things have been man-made but then become self-sustainable.

The final image in the book sees them journey to an island that is seemingly untouched by humans, which gave me very Isla Nublar vibes from Jurassic Park.

I wonder if you could tell us about the designs of the robots, particularly their crests. They’ve stayed quite consistent in your drafts. So, I was wondering, have they changed at all since their conception? What did you hope that people would read into them?

Aaron Becker:

I designed a crest for the purple robot that was a spiral leaf fern pattern.

There was a draft where, at some point, the two of them meet on the island. She’s already living on the island, and she has a greenhouse. She populates the deserted island with the plants she’s been taking care of and he helps populate the island with animals.

So I always knew that she was more to do with the energy of the sun and nӫa was more of the energy of the wind. To that end the bird is a good symbol, and of course the Noah reference with the dove and the olive branch. That symbol was there from the get-go. I wanted an acronym that felt slightly European like maybe he was the product of the EU, some sort of oceanic offshoot of the UN or something like that, where everyone had decided to really deal with climate change by pooling resources into building these giant robots to save the planet. So they had to have a good acronym, and nӫa seemed like a good way to slip in the idea of it being a Noah’s Ark story.

I do consider all these things. Some of them come early. Some of them come later. With the purple robot, I had to reverse engineer her story because I knew she had to be from a different place, but I wasn’t sure where.

Nikki Gamble:

Thank you so much, Rich. We’re going to move on to our last panellist. Ben Harris

Ben Harris:

Thank you. Hello, Aaron. I would like to ask you about your previous book and the comparison with The Last Zookeeper.

With The Tree and the River, there was an inexorable sense that an Eden-like simplicity was overtaken as time progressed and technology developed. In The Last Zookeeper, you draw the saviour of the planet as something technological. I just wondered if you had any comment about the connection between those two books in relation to technology and the environmental message that you’re portraying in both of them.

Aaron Becker:

Yeah, that’s an astute observation and one I hadn’t considered. It goes back to something other people have mentioned, which is that it’s easy to just think of nӫa as a robot because that’s how I’ve drawn him, right?

But in my mind, nӫa is really a child. He’s a projection. I wanted a story that would be exciting for a child to read, and kids love robots like they do. They like dinosaurs, robots, and any other sorts of big machines. I don’t see it as a technology story because, in my mind, even though it’s a giant robot, it’s a projection of the child’s imagination and wonder.

I wanted a character who would be fascinating for a child to want to follow right out of the gate. The Tree and the River aligns more with my philosophical ideas about environmentalism and the role of technology.

I am not one of those who think we’ll save ourselves by continuing to take away resources by building stuff on the planet. I know there’s a big camp of people who think that’s ultimately what will save us, and they might be right. But I think we need to become more community-based and smaller in scale regarding how we operate. There are a lot of people on this planet, and it’s a limited resource.

It doesn’t feel like a dissonance to me because, in my mind, The Last Zookeeper is not a pro-technology book,

Nikki Gamble:

Ben, thank you so much.

I can’t believe that we’ve spent just over an hour talking. I don’t suppose you’ve got time to show us your study now, have you?

Aaron Becker:

I was hopingyou would ask that. Yeah, let’s just take a quick walk upstairs.

I’ll show you. It’s a rainy day here, but I think we still have a pretty good view. This is the studio I’m currently working in, and you can see it’s a complete mess because my seven-year-old has taken over with her craft projects.

This is the drawing I’m currently working on for a book called We Go Slow. You can also see a grandparent and their granddaughter walking through New York City. One of the things that I’ve had to do for this book is trace without a lightbox. I usually use a lightbox, or I’ll scan and use the printed-out on paper.

But what I’ve done to get it transferred onto this watercolour paper isthis very simple technique of taping the whole thing up to this window.

Underneath is the initial pencil drawing printed on a large piece of paper. And then I just simply put it up and when I press my hand against the paper, I can see through to the, drawing underneath. And that’s just simple tracing, and no technology is required other than some glass.

Nikki Gamble:

It looks like an incredible space. It’s built in a tree, is it? I can see the trunk of a tree.

Aaron Becker:

That is, after the fact, pretend. It’s a real tree, but it’s not doing anything structural.

You can see this is our view out to the Misty Mountains, Highlands of the Pacific Northwest. A tremendous spot. And we’re very, very happy and lucky to be here.

Nikki Gamble:

How wonderful. Well, thank you so sincerely for giving us so much this evening and spending time with us. I know we all hugely appreciate it.

Aaron Becker:

Anytime. Nikki, it’s fantastic. I just wanted to say quickly to all the teachers and librarians here tonight that it’s been heartwarming to see the response to my books across the pond.

I hope one day to come to England and do some events through Walker. Because it’s a different world. There’s a different relationship to literature in England than in the United States.It’s the birthplace of children’s books, of course. Even the styles I work in emanate from the watercolour and pen and ink of the early children’s book illustrators in England.

I appreciate all of the support and enthusiasm for the books that I do simply out of curiosity and artistic interest. The fact that they are resonating with you all is just a real icing on the cake. Thank you very much.