Shortly after moving to Flagstaff, Stevie Lewis came across a curious sight while exploring her new surroundings.
“I happened upon an old burn area up on the 180 and I saw all these trees that were planted in these tiny little orange cones,” she said, describing a reforestation technique used by the US Forest Service in areas damaged by fire or over- harvesting. “I remember taking some photos, being like, ‘Oh, this is an interesting image I’ve never seen before.’ I just wasn’t aware of those practices until that moment.”
Little did she know at the time, Lewis would draw from those photos several years later when she was approached to illustrate We Are Better Together, a children’s book written by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, forthcoming from Macmillan Publishers on April 22, 2022.
The book takes a compassionate approach to big issues that impact everyone regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status and political beliefs. From solar power and wildlife recovery to following Leave No Trace principles, readers of all ages will appreciate the rich palettes used to demonstrate how working together benefits the planet.
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“I had to do a lot of research on climate change approaches, preventative tactics and, in that example, replanting and regrowing our forests,” Lewis said. “There were a few pages that I struggled with, and this happens from time to time on every book project that I’m on, but it’s really up to the illustrator to interpret [the text] in whatever way they see as creatively fit.”
And her characters are reflective of the diverse world in which we live, with many drawn from people Lewis knows in real life.
“I’m really conscious about including a wide variety of different colors, shapes and sizes. Maybe it’s just second nature because I want to see more books that are inclusive,” she said. “Being Asian American, I often read books as a kid that weren’t representative of me and what I look like.”
While Lewis has been illustrating children’s books for the past eight years, her education is in animation, with 12 years of experience under her belt. However, she made the decision to step away from her full-time job at DreamWorks Animation and focus on herself following intense burnout and the impending closure of the studio’s northern California office where she had been working.
“The timing just sort of worked out to where I had been wanting to travel and really just do it while I’m young, I guess. So I quit my job in 2015 and moved into my car and didn’t really have an end goal,” Lewis said. “It wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to do this for a year and then I’m going to go back to my life.’ It just sort of became the norm and I took it day by day.”
The flexibility of illustration allowed her to continue working on the road without the strict deadlines and heavy workload that led to her burning out in animation. She was able to create her own schedule while she traveled around the country, hiking and rock climbing in some of the country’s most picturesque locations. But living simply didn’t always come easy.
“The transition was hard at first in the sense that I had no idea what I was doing, and I wasn’t an outdoor person before,” Lewis said. “I wasn’t really aware of who I was as a person until I hit the road. There’s a lot of time to self-reflect and you just realize, ‘Wow, I really don’t need all these things that I thought I did.’ In my travels, I’ve noticed I’ve just become more connected with nature, the impacts that humans have on it.”
She is intentional in the way she incorporates these experiences in her art whenever possible, allowing viewers to peek into how life can be lived if we just slow down and take the time to work with nature rather than against it, listen to our body’s needs and nurture it rather than pushing it to its physical and mental limits.
Now back at DreamWorks in a remote position and continuing to illustrate on the side, Lewis and her partner are preparing to return to their full-time nomadic lifestyle at the end of this month with her two 12-year-old Maltese, Tigger and Kiki , along for the ride.
We Are Better Together helped put some things into perspective for Lewis. Despite the frustration and guilt of being a consumer when corporations continue to produce packaging that isn’t accepted by recycling programs, she hopes books like this and decades of advocacy building upon itself will encourage others to shift their mindsets and lead to change.
“Reading Bill’s work, a lot of his nonfiction work, it can be very depressing, honestly,” Lewis said. “How do you take that and translate it to inspire children in a positive way versus making it feel like there’s no hope?
“I used to always make myself feel really bad, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I took like this really long shower,’ or, ‘We’re driving around a gas-guzzling van and living in it, living the dream, but at the same time I’m leaving a huge impact.’ But at the end of the day, am I? Because I didn’t have a house at the time and I wasn’t using all these other resources. So how can we be kinder to ourselves? Be more compassionate to ourselves to not get burned out on trying to do better for the earth? I don’t know the answer, but I think the way to approach it is with compassion.”
We Are Better Together is scheduled for release on Earth Day, April 22, through Macmillan Publishers. Copies can be purchased locally at Bright Side Bookshop, 18 N. San Francisco St. Learn more about the illustrator at www.chocosweete.com or @chocosweete on Instagram, and the author at www.billmckibben.com.