This Fairly Mysterious and Much-Bigger-Than-You Creative Thing

Written by Joyce Chen; Photographed by Laura Dart

My heart is a window. My heart is a slide. My heart can be closed… or opened up wide.

— My Heart

Corinna Luyken’s picture books are a wellspring of wisdom on wide-ranging topics—mistakes, loneliness, teasing, loss—but at their heart, they all stem from a shared desire: to make young readers feel a little less alone.

“I think there’s this sweet spot where love and kindness overlaps with awkwardness and uncertainty and discomfort,” she tells me as we sit on a fuzzy rug on the floor of her home studio in Olympia, Washington. This overlap, she explains, is where she feels the most connected to her readers, the most honest. “There’s something about that territory that feels so rich and fertile and interesting and exciting to me. That’s the space I enjoy.”

It’s clearly a space that many young readers and their parents enjoy, too. Luyken’s first book, The Book of Mistakes, was featured in the “Live Art” series of The New York Times in 2017 (in the video interview, she sketches scenes as she shares insight into her process, all while sporting a temporary ink splotch tattoo). Her subsequent titles, My Heart (2019), The Tree in Me (2021), and ABC and You and Me (2023) have made bestseller lists and garnered the attention of parents, librarians, and cultural critics alike. She’s also collaborated with revered authors like Kate Hoefler and Matt de la Peña to illustrate picture and middle-grade books, to much acclaim.

As we sit together on the rug, sipping tea with ginger biscuits, she fans the books out between us. Each cover radiates playfulness and movement. Her latest, ABC and You and Me, pays homage to her dance background; three figures bend and stretch to form the first three letters of the alphabet. In the more muted cover of My Heart, in which a young child bends down to examine a sprouting yellow heart, I can see why Maria Popova, the discerning curator behind the popular newsletter The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) called the book “lyrical and lovely” and “an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem.”

In person, Luyken is also uncommonly tender. She is full of questions and curiosity, and shares anecdotes about her process freely (“I always start with some kind of tea”); she holds eye contact meaningfully and listens intently—her groundedness feels deep-rooted. She is generous with her attention, gesturing to a wall full of sketches for her latest project with the same excitement that she has when asking me about my own writing process. When I ask where this inquisitiveness comes from, she attributes her approach to bookmaking—and to living—to Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step, which she first discovered back in high school, and his concept of “interbeing, of things being deeply connected,” a gentle way of looking that undeniably informs her work on the page.

The tree in me is strong. It bends in the wind, and has roots that go deep…

The Tree in Me

“If you look inside an orange,” Corinna explains, “you can see the sunshine that grew the orange, you can see the water that fed it, you can see the farmer and the farmer’s parents, and all the way back—because without the farmer’s parents, and whoever took care of them, there’d be no orange. And once you eat that orange, it’s a part of you, too. It was such a profound way of looking at the world differently. I’ve carried that with me ever since.”

Even though her books are meant for young readers, Luyken doesn’t shy away from complex concepts like empathy or community. In fact, respecting her child audience is probably what draws kids to her books in the first place. “When you are sad and lonely, knowing that other people are sad and lonely can be what makes you feel better,” she says. “Sometimes the most comforting thing can just be someone being honest with you.”

It was exactly this sort of honesty that first ignited a creative spark for Luyken, giving her permission to venture into the space of picture books. She’s always been a big reader, she says, citing Mary Oliver and William Stafford as two poets who have deeply influenced her worldview. Luyken graduated high school in Corvallis, and it was there, working at a local bookstore—Grass Roots Books & Music—that she first encountered George Saunders and Lane Smith’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. The illustrated fable was “life-changing” for Luyken, who hadn’t realized that a children’s book could be so “dark and weird and quirky.”

Continue Reading