The Hudson River has been inspiring artists for well over 100 years, though Elisha Cooper has perhaps taken that inspiration in a new direction.
In his latest book “River,” Cooper takes readers on a canoe ride down the Hudson.
Through his vibrant watercolor illustrations and sparing yet detailed prose, Cooper tells the story of a woman who leaves her home to take on the 300-plus-mile trek down the Hudson. She faces challenges both in and out of the water, from weather to wildlife, on her solo journey.
In the book, Cooper also includes information about the river’s history and its path from the Adirondacks to New York Bay.
“River” has been praised by the likes of Kirkus Review and The New York Times Book Review for its captivating images and story line. Cooper, a Caldecott Honor artist and author of “Train” and “Farm,” will visit the Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery on Saturday at 1 p.m. for a book signing. Before his arrival, The Gazette caught up with him to talk about the history of the Hudson and the many trips he’s taken up and down it while working on the book.
Q: What got you started writing and illustrating?
A: Growing up on a farm in Connecticut, I was always drawing animals and drawing stuff around me. I played a lot of football growing up and I kept doodling all the time. My doodles became sketchbooks, which became children's books.
Q: Did you end up going to college for illustration or did you go right into it after high school
A: I played football at Yale, but I was not that great a football player, so I spent a lot of time drawing my teammates and coaches and doing things like that. Then I was a messenger at The New Yorker magazine after college. I did a lot of [drawings] of the city and that started my books.
Q: Where did the idea for "River" come from?
A: I can almost see the Hudson from our apartment in [New York City]. I’ll go for runs along the river, and I just started thinking, “I wonder where it starts.” With my books, it always starts with an “I wonder” moment, and I was like “I want to see where this river comes from.” I’ve seen enough of it but I started getting curious.
Q: How did you start researching this?
A: I just started driving and I found there were some cool locks that I discovered right around Troy. I would see a dam or I’d see a boat and I’d draw that. Or I would think about, “What would it be like to come down this river?” I realized a river has a great narrative; there’s a start and there’s an end. The more I drew it, I started to picture a woman, kind of a hero coming down this river and saying goodbye to her family at the start, and then being welcomed back at the end after doing something really bold.
Q: How many road trips did you take in the research process?
A: It [was] a lot of bike trips down here when I was [researching] Manhattan. But I went to the Adirondacks a few times and I was also a Maurice Sendak fellow [three] years ago, and his upstate New York farm was the perfect launching pad for this book because I could just drive out from there and be on the river and drawing it. That was a huge help and inspiration, sitting in Sendak’s studio and reading books about rivers.
Q: What were some of your favorite spots that you got to discover through this process?
A: I loved Henderson Lake. It’s the second page in the book. It’s up in the mountains [and] it’s very Maine-ish. I loved going to a lake up in Maine as a kid and this reminded me of that. What’s great about a river is the same body of water can be up in the lake in [the] wilderness with moose, and then it comes down and there’s tug boats and there’s skyscrapers. I love how [it connects] the countryside to the city.
Q: Before you started working on this book, did you know a lot of the history of the Hudson?
A: No, that’s why it was amazing to me. I knew it in broad strokes. I knew my history of the Erie Canal, but then actually seeing it, how it comes in around Troy, and [understanding] why the Hudson was so important to our nation’s history, that really was eye-opening to me. It was the highway for this country for a long time. So I think what’s wonderful about the Hudson is as it comes back to life we are appreciating it more. We appreciate water more and we New Yorkers who get so stuck in our cities sometimes, we’re actually coming out of that and seeing what’s around us, and it’s just beautiful.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing and illustrating the book?
A: Oh, it wasn’t. It was a joy. I love what I do. I love going out and exploring. Not that writing isn’t challenging, but it’s a great challenge that I welcome.
Q: What do you hope readers see in the book?
A: I hope that they look at the beauty in the world around them. That’s what this woman is doing. This is a book about our world and observing it, loving it and then protecting it. I also think it’s about [how] we all have different risks. To do this [20-day trip down the Hudson] would be incredible. We all have little challenges, no matter what size we are. We are faced with challenges that scare us and worry us. She [the protagonist] gets through it, and I think that kids and adults face those types of challenges all the time. It’s tough, but to make it to the other side is such a great feeling.
Q: Do you have any advice for students who want to do what you do?
A: Run around with a sketchbook all the time and just draw constantly.
Q: Why do you think you were drawn to creating children’s books?
A: There’s a great Maurice Sendak quote where he says [“I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’ ”].
I love children’s books and I want to reach children, but I’m trying to reach all ages. So there’s something about that Sendak quote that I love because I think children know it when they’re getting talked down to. The thing that’s great about his books is they’re just kind of wild and they’re wonderful. That’s why adults like them, too. So I’m really writing for myself. I’m writing for a great, smart young girl out in Kansas. I’m writing for an older man in Florida. I want to reach that person who loves art and loves writing.
Q: Is there anything else you want people to know about the book?
A: I loved doing this book, all parts of it. I loved researching it in the field, painting it and creating this story. I think that you sort of sense that love when you see somebody else’s book. So I hope people sense the love I had in making this book and [that] they love it as well.
WHEN: 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery, 128 Jay St.
MORE INFO: opendoor-bookstore.com