apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

Linda Booth Sweeney and Ariel Rutland on APART TOGETHER

apart together-linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland-cover

On Oct. 17th Balzer & Bray released your book, APART, TOGETHER – congrats!!! Tell us about the book. Where did the idea come from?

LINDA: "I can remember the exact moment this book idea showed up.  It was during COVID,  every open spot in my house was filled with someone online, either working or taking a college or high school class.  So I hid out in the basement where no one else wanted to work. I love it down there. Darker places help concentrate my thoughts somehow.  

I was taking an online class with children’s book author Kate Messner. She gave us a writing prompt: “What do you love?  I just starting making a list:  'I LOVE piano chords. I love how one note combines with other notes to make chords. Unlike one note, you can really feel a beautiful chord.'

I kept writing: 'I love what happens when you mix colors..  Red on its own is red.  Yellow is yellows.  But together they are an entirely new color.  Orange. Magic! / I love how apart, brooks babble, but together, they ROAR!'

There was more, but when I finished, I realized all my examples were about how 'the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.' 

Was it a crazy idea to write a kids book about emergence?  Kate encouraged us to trust what we wrote.  I loved that list so much, so I decided to work on it.  Eventually I found that it could rhyme quite nicely, and then I decided to start workshopping it in my writer’s group.  

I think what sealed it was the fact that we were all apart during COVID.  My little neighbor who was three wasn’t able to play with other kids on the playground. At some level, I wanted the book to celebrate the magic of being together too.

Linda, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a writer? 

Linda Booth Sweeney, author of APART TOGETHER, and teddy bear and Roosevelt - Our Headshot

LINDA: I’m the youngest of four kids, all born within six years of each other.  As I kid, there was a lot going on in our house.  When I was 12, my sister gave me a diary with a lock.  I loved the idea of writing whatever came to my mind and I could lock them up and keep them safe.  I highly recommend it! 

Ariel, tell me a bit about yourself. How did you decide to become a designer and illustrator? What type of work do you create?

ariel rutland-illustrator of apart together

ARIEL: I live with my husband and our three fun-loving boys (6, 3, and 1) in the suburbs outside Philadelphia. We live on a quiet tree-lined street near a walking trail along the Delaware river and a sweet downtown. It’s a lot like my cozy hometown of Metuchen, NJ, where I grew up.

Becoming a professional designer and illustrator was a natural landing along a path I started following as a child and never really veered from. As a kid I was also coloring, painting, and crafting. It was an expressive outlet for me that came naturally.

I studied art and design in college, landed a job at Martha Stewart in NYC and began my design career. Though my work was print-based, I was lucky to have a desk feet away from the craft department and textile department.

I explored a lot of hands-on art making during this time, creating surface pattern design for home goods like notebooks, wrapping paper, and pillows. From there I worked at a design studio specializing in gourmet food brands and packaging. The clients and products were incredibly varied. There was chia pudding, handmade pasta, Mexican cookies, macadamia milk and on and on.  

Ariel Rutland textiles for baby

When my 6-year old was born, I left the studio for freelance life, and today I continue print design and branding work with a handful of dear clients within the gourmet food market and in the education field.

I’m thrilled to be working with Linda again on our second book with Balzer + Bray (forthcoming). And I’m busy creating sample art for a book pitch in the new year, this one written by one of my childhood best friends.

As you know, Linda, we originally pitched the book to publishers as a manuscript, but didn’t have any luck. When I originally suggested partnering with Ariel what did you think?

LINDA: I thought that was brilliant!

If you think about it, I was trying to create pictures of change. Ariel was able to highlight the different parts like seeds, soil, sun and water, and then celebrate in a beautiful illustration what happens when those parts combine. 

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-honey interior spread

When I originally suggested partnering with Linda, Ariel, what did you think?

ARIEL: It was a dream opportunity and I said yes without hesitation!

At the time you suggested it, my freelance jobs had a strong illustration lean: creating patterns for Birchbox and illustration spots for ApartmentTherapy. My work was becoming a satisfying mix of design (order, problem solving, structure) and artistry (intuitive, full of expression, loose). I was rediscovering myself as a drawer, painter, artist and it was invigorating being on this path.

ArielRutland birchbox packaging

When you presented the manuscript, I knew I had to pursue it. I was certain it would be a positive experience, that I would learn and grow as an illustrator, no matter if there was a book deal in the end.

Ariel, what’s your process of approaching the visual expression of written text by someone else? How do you develop the illustrations?

It wasn’t an easy process! In all of my past work for clients, it was important to set aside my personal aesthetics, especially when working within an existing brand style guide.

This was the first project in my career that literally had my name on it. So, this was an opportunity to dig deep and embrace my own style.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-foam bubbles illustration

Linda, after you collaborated with Ariel on the pitch, we got multiple offers on the book! What do you think her work brought to the table?

LINDA: When I think of Ariel’s work I think of not just brilliant color, but the masterful way she combines color. Brilliant orange next to a robin’s egg blue, hot pink next to a deep lemon yellow. 

She’s like a jazz musician except she’s riffing on the color wheel. Her drawings, her fabric, her art is clean, graphic, child-friendly, whimsical, and in many cases, inspired by nature.

What has been your experience of the writer-artist partnership? How do you complement each other?

LINDA: We have a lot of mutual respect for each other and listen to each other’s ideas.  

OK, sometimes I may have too many ideas!

Ariel and I compliment each other because she listens really well, and while she’s amazingly creative, she’s also discerning and practical, which means we ultimately pick the best ideas and then go for it!

I think it’s really interesting how the concept underlying APART, TOGETHER is reflected in your work together. The book is about how sometimes, separate things come together and result in something completely new, something that’s not 1+1=2, but rather 1+1=5, or something like that!

How would you say that this fundamental concept of “systems thinking” shows up in human collaboration?

LINDA: Absolutely. But first a story. 

2730 years ago, a philosopher named Aristotle was puzzled. He thought about the parts of a tiger, like the heart and stomach and brain. He knew that separately, the parts made a heap or pile. Together, though, they created something different: a fierce, fast, powerful Tiger.  

So he famously said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Scientists now call this “emergence.” 

Our health, the speed of your bike, the song you love, a growing garden, love between family and friends and human collaboration --  all are the result of interactions that produce something greater than the sum of the parts.    

Typically, real collaboration takes time.  If you think about little kids playing soccer, they're more like a heap or a swarm. There’s not a lot of collaboration or cooperation. 

But as they grow, they learn how to play together. And with time and practice, something new that is the result of their interactions over time begins to emerge: teamwork, cooperation, and even success.

ARIEL: The magic comes from working together.

In our case, Linda needed pictures, and my pictures couldn’t have existed without her words.

Linda, you’re actually a systems thinking expert. Why do you want to bring systems thinking to very young readers? What’s important about it?

LINDA: As adults, we intuitively understand how tightly interconnected our world is. (Certainly the last few years have demonstrated that acutely!)

Sometimes these connections and the systems that govern them can be invisible to us, though, until we take the time to really look and trace how “this” influences “that.”  

Whether you’re five or fifty-five, systems thinking begins with imagining how different parts of a system work together to produce the results we see. By doing this, we become more curious and learn to think critically about the world around us.

Early exposure to systems thinking can help children feel more confident when dealing with complex problems as they grow older. At the same time, they are practicing important abstract thinking skills like prediction, cause and effect, and transformation. These are also developing a growth mindset and building neuroplasticity!

The premise APART, TOGETHER is simple. We teach our kids about objects: Truck. Duck. Cat. Bat. We teach our kids our individuals: Mom. Dad. Grandma. Teacher.

But when do our children learn to look at interrelationships, between objects, parts or people? 

APART, TOGETHER invites children and their grownups to read, discuss, play, imagine and together, be curious about the connections that make up their world.

Having these types of conversations helps children build the muscle to see not only objects — a bee, soil, a soccer player — but to imagine how the interconnections and interactions among those objects can create something entirely new. 

Early childhood researcher and author Ellen Galinsky, in her book Mind in the Making, calls this “cognitive flexibility.” That means developing the ability not just to sort, categorize and name parts, but also to make multiple connections, a skill Galinsky notes “becomes possible during later preschool and early school-age years as the prefrontal cortex of children’s brains mature.” 

“Systems thinking” might be a new concept to some early childhood educators. How do you help them incorporate it into their work with children?

LINDA: I tend to focus on everyday scenarios and language when I teach systems thinking. 

In the book I use familiar scenarios like mixing paint, building with blocks, and playing soccer as examples of how interactions produce different results that are often quite different from or greater than the sum of their parts.

For little ones, APART TOGETHER simply asks:  what can happen TOGETHER that doesn’t happen when things (or people) are APART? 

Ariel, you have very young children yourself – the exact target audience for APART, TOGETHER! How does your experience as a mom inform what you do as a children’s book illustrator?

ARIEL: It informs everything, whether I’m conscious of it or not!

Being around these three growing humans and witness to all their developmental changes, tiny and big, has added new levels of perspective. I try and take cues from their approach to life and apply it myself. To be open, be curious, be playful, be willing to try big things and make mistakes and try again.

Kids reading apart together by linda booth sweeney and ariel rutland

This practice was essential when embarking on illustrating this book, and continues to guide me through new drawings, especially when I’m feeling stuck.

In a very literal sense, being a mother informed how I imagined another caring adult would read this book out loud to a child.

How would a child look through these pictures, what nuances might they appreciate? What can I incorporate that would spark an idea, or might prompt the adult reader to point out something to the child?

The final spread of the book (a family of birds in a nest) was very much the result of letting this mom energy flow. The ginkgo tree depicted on the page is a real tree that stands like a friendly giant in our front yard. I get a perfect view of the canopy from the window over my desk and I spent many many days looking out at it while i drew the book.

ArielRutland-ApartTogether-birds illustration

Where can people connect with you and find out more about APART, TOGETHER?

LINDA: Visit lindaboothsweeney.com/APARTTOGETHER!

ARIEL: You can find me at www.arielrutland.com and www.instagram.com/arielrutland/.