During these uncertain COVID-19 pandemic days, people are finding creative and fulfilling ways to cope, as well as to fill the days while we shelter in place. Liz Surlin Gordon, a writer based in Evanston, came up with an idea to help her young grandson Lev, as well as readers of all ages.
In her e-book, Where Is Everybody?, she writes about little brown bear, Teddy, who doesn’t understand why all of his favorite activities have suddenly come to a stop. Lucky for Teddy, he has loving parents who are able to put his mind at ease. I spoke with Liz about the inspiration for the book, being a “Mooma,” and what she likes best about Evanston.
I’d like to begin by asking you to say a few words about your writing background.
I’ve always loved books and have been writing ever since I can remember. I wrote a lot of poetry, essays, and short stories as a child through early adulthood. But as they say, life got in the way, and being busy with family and career I put writing aside until after my kids were grown. With the help of a wonderful mentor, I started writing poetry again. Now, as a retired empty-nester, I primarily write children’s books.
Who do you consider to be influences on your work when it comes to writing for a young audience?
I absolutely adored the Madeline books as a young child. The verse, engaging drawings, and Parisian settings were magical to me. I also loved the Curious George books, but probably my favorite book was Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina. It’s a sweet, simple tale of how a solution that seems impossible can be right in front of you. Lessons are often easier learned from stories, and I’ve always loved books that make you think.
What can you tell me about the genesis of Where Is Everybody?
We’re very involved in our 21-monthold grandson, Lev’s, life. I’m his part time caregiver and we’ve always seen him a few days a week. He also goes to daycare part-time, has playdates with friends, loves the slide and swings at the playground, and goes to Wiggleworms music classes at Old Town School of Music. He’s a busy little boy, and very enthusiastic about everything he does.
When it all suddenly stopped due to the Covid-19 quarantine, he was understandably confused and, at times, upset. He was asking his parents to go the park, and running to the door to see if we were coming over. We do video chats with them daily, and of course are very grateful that he and our family are safe and healthy, but it still broke our hearts.
I have a background in child development and am concerned about how this pandemic experience will end up affecting little ones down the road. Much of their world has stopped suddenly and it’s so hard to explain this to them. This book was written in one sleepless night. It just flowed, and I have to admit that I shed a few tears while writing it. I think everyone has their “COVID moment” where the entirety of the situation hits them, and this was it for me. The next day I asked my younger son, Lev’s Uncle Micah, to do the illustrations. When they were done, I printed out the book, bound it with ribbon, and dropped it off at their house.
The main character of Where Is Everybody? is a little brown bear named Teddy. Can you say something about the decision to have the main character be a bear instead of, say, a child?
Well, Teddy is an important part of our family. He was my son Zach’s (Lev’s dad) muchloved Teddy when he was a child, and they were inseparable. When we found out Lev was on the way, I still had Teddy at my house and took him to the doll hospital to be refurbished. He came back looking almost good as new. We gave Teddy to Lev when he was born, and now Lev loves him as much as his daddy did when he was little.
What was your primary goal in writing Where Is Everybody?
Originally, it was just written as a gift for Lev. Then, my son and daughter-in-law told a few friends about it and they wanted copies, and some of my friends wanted copies for their grandchildren, so I decided to publish it as a kindle e-book on Amazon. I felt like time was of the essence in getting the book out, and that seemed to be the quickest, easiest way to do it. Now, a lot of people are asking for print copies, so I’m looking into that.
My primary goal for Where Is Everybody? is to comfort children who are too young to fully comprehend why their world has changed, and to reassure them that the things that are most important will always be there. I realize the entire world—and unfortunately, many kids— have much bigger and very serious issues to deal with, and this is just my small contribution to healing. It’s what I can do. There are so many kids and families in need in so many ways right now, so I’m also donating proceeds of the book to a local organization that serves children and families.
Where Is Everybody? features illustrations by your son, Micah Gordon. What was the experience of collaborating on the book with Micah like for you?
I loved collaborating with Micah on this. He lives in Los Angeles, so it was a wonderful opportunity to connect with him in a way we haven’t done in a while. I’ve always admired his drawing style; it actually reminds me a bit of H.A. Rey’s drawings in the Curious George books. Micah is a screenwriter, and while he doesn’t enjoy drawing as much as writing, he was happy to do this for his nephew.
Do you foresee writing other books about Teddy?
Actually, I do have a sequel in mind. Teddy is quite the muse!
The book is dedicated to your grandson, Lev. Has he given you his review yet?
His exact words were, “I yuv book, Mooma.”
Best review ever.
His parents said he definitely realizes that the book is about his life, and that it’s been helpful in opening up conversations about his life in relation to the book. They feel it’s very relatable and is helping him adjust to all the changes. I’ve also gotten a lot of similar feedback from other readers.
You have been living in Evanston for a few years. What appeals to you the most about living there?
Oh my goodness, there’s so much! We live in downtown Evanston, which is very urban yet accessible. We’d wanted to move to this area for a long time, and it’s everything we’d hoped for and more. We love the lakefront, vibrant downtown shops and restaurants, arts community and festivals, great public transportation and proximity to Chicago, beautiful Northwestern campus, and tree-lined streets. It’s a wonderful, diverse, caring community.
The world is upside down right now as we all find a way to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. When things return to normal, what will be the first three Evanston destinations you plan to visit?
Well, the very first destination will be to Chicago to hug Lev! After that, we can’t wait to get to our favorite restaurants. There are so many that we love, we really don’t anticipate spending much time at home once we’re able to go out. If I had to pick just three, I guess I’d say Tapas Barcelona for delicious tapas and sangria on their patio, Café Coralie for fresh macarons and a latte, and Five & Dime for its amazing rooftop views.
Where Is Everybody? is available for purchase for $6.99 at amazon.com. A portion of the proceeds is being donated to a local organization that serves children and families.