I recently had the opportunity to chat with the creators behind The Safe Return, a children’s picture book for kids aged 2-8 that features kids wearing masks. This book was developed to help normalize mask wearing for children during the pandemic, and through a fast-paced, mask-wearing biking adventure, provides an example of a safe return to fun. A first-of-its-kind, two-sided book, The Safe Return flips to show the story with face masks on or face masks off so when the pandemic is over, it can remain in kids’ collections with a mask-off version. The Safe Return has been listed as the #1 New Release in Children’s Disaster Preparedness and will resonate with children and adults alike.

Here’s what authors Arwen and Ashley told me about how the idea came together, and what it meant to have famed illustrator Abigail bring the story to life:

NMM:  What inspired The Safe Return?

Arwen: My kids learned to ride bikes first by using balance bikes, and it had occurred to me that there were no books featuring balance bikes.

Ashley: Arwen called me up and said “we need a balance bike book.” That was about two years ago. Haha.

Arwen: We wrote the draft and loved it, but it got shelved for the time being while we worked on our first book together. Then when the pandemic hit, I thought that bike riding was one of the only safe things kids could do. And when I first tried to take my four-year-old out in public and get her to wear a mask, I realized how hard it would be for little kids to adjust to mask-wearing, so I thought wouldn’t it be great if kids were wearing masks in the book?

Ashley: Arwen called me up again. When she told me the idea, I told her it would be even better if the book flipped. Masks on for now during the pandemic. Masks off for later. That’s how the book came together.

NMM:  How did Abigail come to join the project?

Arwen: We knew the art had to look and feel different than our first book, We Toot. We wanted a really cinematic illustrative style. So we took to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website and looked at hundreds of illustrators.

Ashley: Abigail stood out immediately, and when we saw she had made the iconic New Yorker cover with the pussy-hat-wearing Rosie Riveter, we knew she was like-minded as well.

Abigail: Ashley emailed me. What she didn’t know was that I had a long-standing career-goal of illustrating a children’s book before I turned 40 in January 2021. The time to do it was ticking away and then here come these two creative women who had this amazing project. I loved the story, the group of kids, and the concept. I said yes immediately and got to work.

NMM:  What was it like creating a picture book?

Abigail: It was harder than I thought it would be. I’ve noticed a shift in how I work since we began quarantining in March. This new way of life is exhausting, and mentally taxing, so that was a hidden hurdle I had to continually overcome. In order to feel inspired and to stay focused, I made a large inspiration board, complete with beautiful fall leaves, and an atmospheric color pallet. Arwen and Ashley had specified that they wanted it to feel like autumn. That helped. When I hit a creative “down day” I listened to a lot of Nick Drake, his music reminds me of the changes between the seasons. I wanted the illustrations to build throughout the book and become more colorful and fun by the end of the book, much like a bike ride that time of day. It’s exciting for young kids to be out late with their parents when the sun is setting, their world looks different in the changing light, which felt like a nice metaphor to go along with the theme of the book. Just like Arwen and Ashley, I was doing this under a time crunch, while homeschooling kids, moving my studio, and trying to keep my other work afloat. So there were a lot of late nights.

Ashley: It really became a back and forth process. Arwen and I found ourselves stripping words out of the manuscript when we saw the art; we didn’t need to do as much talking. Usually, the manuscript is done before the art, but editing as we went made them really gel more.

Arwen: The art is really the most important thing in a picture book. We loved Abigail’s vision and the drama she employed and all the beautiful, well-observed details. She captured the pain and joy of a childhood biking adventure and we were just so charmed by her use of color and movement.

NMM:  What do you hope that kids take away from The Safe Return?

Arwen: We hope kids can still be kids even during a pandemic — that they can enjoy simple pleasures and have adventures. For our book, that meant a bike ride with friends, wearing masks. But we also wanted to acknowledge the parents and communities working hard every day to keep kids as safe as possible, that’s why the dad is part of the story. He’s always there looking out for his daughter and her friends. He symbolizes all the adults who are helping shelter children from fear and fill their days with joy and learning. As a mother of three, I know how difficult this time has been on both kids and the adults who love them.

Ashley: The Safe Return shows masks as a normal thing. It doesn’t mention the masks or have text explaining what they are for. They are just there. The story can be read masks-on or masks-off and it will inspire a slightly different meaning. We want it to be hopeful, triumphant, that together we can overcome.

NMM:  Thank you ladies!  I love the creativity and the message.  Can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

Ashley Wheelock is a mother, writer, and lawyer on the central coast of California. She loves books, especially children’s books, and began her book career as the then youngest editor-in-chief of her elementary school’s press. She dreams of marshmallows and witches. Ashley is a member of SCBWI and 12x12PB.

Find her online: www.Ashleywheelock.com
Instagram: @wheelock.ashley

Arwen Evans is a PR executive. Her mission is to raise strong girls, which is important as she has three of them. She spends her commute embroidering elaborate gifts while dreaming up her next story. Arwen is a member of SCBWI.

Find her online: www.arwenevans.com

Abigail Gray Swartz, is a fine artist, muralist, and illustrator. Her work has appeared in The NY Times, countless magazines and most notably, she painted the Women’s March cover for The New Yorker magazine (Feb 9, 2017 issue). Her cover went on to win several awards. Abigail is also the founder of ‘City of Hidden Figures’ a national public art program that seeks to celebrate local hidden figures through murals, statues, and the renaming of streets while providing art opportunities and equal pay for female- identifying artists. Abigail earned her MFA from The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She lives in Maine with her young family and a handful of chickens, where she loves to garden, go swimming and breathe in the salty sea air.

Find her online: www.GrayDayStudio.com
Instagram: @GrayDayStudio

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