“Less than one hundred years ago,” The Quest for Z opens, “maps of the world still included large ‘blank spots.’ ” If anyone is going to draw young readers into the story of Percy Fawcett’s early 20th-century explorations of these blank spots—an obsession that ultimately led to his disappearance—I’m glad it’s Greg Pizzoli. Here Pizzoli discusses his book’s unusual and welcome portrayal of failure.
As I understand it, this is the first book for children about Fawcett’s story. Did that make you feel pressured to get it just right?
Of course! I always feel pressure to get every book “just right.” But Fawcett was such a unique and often bizarre character that it took a lot of work to get the story to be just right for a picture book.
You write in the author’s note that, while working on this book, you’d often felt like you’d “lost your way.” Was it because Fawcett, as you also noted, wasn’t a “typical hero”?
I think what I meant was that it was tough to pace a book that wasn’t going to have a happy ending. It’s fascinating to know that Fawcett was correct about large cities in the Amazon, but it’s hard to polish the fact that he never returned home with a discovery. But I think it’s valuable to children (and everyone!) to read about failure, and to read more about figures in history that devoted their lives to something, worked toward a single achievement and failed in the end.
Plus, Fawcett was pretty bizarre figure with a lot of interesting and strange quirks, and I had to find a balance in what I wanted to include because I only had 48 pages to tell his story.
In what ways did your trip to Central America inform this story, beyond it giving you a jolt of inspiration to finish the story?
Seeing the pyramids and forests in Central America were influential, but I think the real bursts of inspiration came from visiting the Royal Geographical Society in London and holding some of Fawcett’s original journals and letters, and also visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. The way I imagined the city of Z is largely based on photos and drawings I made while in Angkor Wat.
What was the most challenging part of telling Fawcett’s story?
I hinted at it before, but the hardest part was cutting out all the really good stuff I just didn’t have space to include. Luckily I was able to include a “selected sources” page, so anyone interested can find some of the books and websites I referenced and get more information.
I love your illustrations of the anaconda, particularly the one where it’s shaped like a “Z.” Did that immediately come to you?
It did actually. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to create a theme with the pictures of hiding Zs wherever I felt it could be subtle enough to not detract from the story. There’s more than one.
What’s one thing it would make you really happy to hear that child readers have taken away from this story?
I’ve read this book with kids a few times already, and I love talking with them about the mystery of what happened to Fawcett and what Z might have been like. The thing that I like about it is that the book asks a question, it gives them something to talk about, and I’ve already been witness to a few disagreements over Fawcett’s fate! It’s so great.
It sounds like it’s been a long and winding road, working on this book. What was the most rewarding thing about it?
I’m not sure—I think that is still yet to come. Since it’s just coming out now, I haven’t done a ton of school visits with classes that have read it yet. I have really enjoyed talking with kids about Tricky Vic over the last couple of years, so I think the upcoming school year will be very fun. In terms of the art making, I think it’s my best work (except for what I’m working on right now).
What’s next for you?
I’m working on several projects—publishing next is The Twelve Days of Christmas with Disney-Hyperion, and next year Hi, Jack!, the early reader series Mac Barnett and I are working on, will start coming out. And a new nonfiction book coming in 2019! But I have to finish that one yet. . . .
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Quest for Z.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.