Qing Zhuang was in class at SVA just a couple of years ago. Her talent was enormous and she awed us with her beautiful illustrations that she brought in each week. I am thrilled for her that her first book has just been published - and that she did not have to wait forever for this to happen! Congratulations!
It is exciting to hear about a debut illustrator’s journey to publication. Qing, can you tell us about yours? How did HOW LONG IS FOREVER? get started?
Last Summer, I attended the SCBWI NJ conference for the first time after many years of going to the Winter Conference in NYC. I entered their themed competition and to my surprise won in the unpublished category. I also participated in the portfolio show. Going to the NJ conference is one of the best decisions I have made in my illustration career because it was so much more intimate. I met so many more people than in my previous conferences and it was where I ultimately met my editor, Karen at Charlesbridge. I went to see her talk and gave her my promo postcard at the end. To my surprise she refused it because she said she had already taken one earlier. Some weeks later she emailed me the manuscript to “How Long is Forever?” and asked if I would be interested. Later I found out that Karen had sent my illustration samples, along with the portfolios of two other illustrators, to Kelly, the writer, and she chose mine! Because they both have great taste of course! Haha! To sum it up: it’s showing up plus serendipity.
What were some of the stages of working on the book?
I started off just doodling on the manuscript, then I made character and environment designs. The setting is mostly based on the farm that belongs to the school I work for. I had to go to Queens County Farm to look for a corn field. I made several versions of the characters and the editors helped pick out the ones that eventually embody Mason, Grandpa and Nana. I made a lot of studies of everything in the book including streams, pies and the most exotic to me as a city girl were tractors. After many hours of researching tractors, I found none that had the exact description that was in the book so I mashed together two vintage Farmall tractors. It was so much fun drawing the complex machinery and rust! Then there were many versions of thumbnails that grew into many versions of book dummies.
When the author and illustrator are two different people, such as for your book, we wonder if you and Kelly Carey had contact/communication during the making of the book? Or now that the book is published?
We didn’t communicate too much, which is standard and for the better. I know I am not the only one who feels very sensitive about that. The best work comes when you are connecting to a manuscript on a personal level. Had Kelly emailed me giving me directions I would have lost some focus and enthusiasm for the project. With that said, I communicated with the creative director a lot and had complete trust in her advice.
Kelly did contact me to join in on a debut writer/illustrator group for promotional purposes. It made me nervous because I was just beginning to work on the book and did not want to focus on marketing yet. It added extra work but I did get to meet other creators and ultimately it was good that I joined the group.
Now that the book is released, Kelly and I chat frequently about marketing and how the book is selling. It’s so fun and helpful to have a partner in this adventure! She’s very good at the marketing part too and I’m inspired by her.
What was your favorite part of working on this book?
My favorite part was drawing the little details in the book. I’d imagine Mason drinking from a mason jar and Grandpa drinking from his old ceramic mug. At the end of the book they are doing dishes together and I drew their drink ware drying on the counter. Little things that help make the world feel relatable and lived in excite me.
And the most difficult part?
The most difficult part is drawing the layout of the farm. There is a part at the end of the manuscript where Mason is running past all these things but it didn’t really make sense with the layout established in the beginning of the story. I had to really finagle to get it to all work out. Also as I edited one page it affected the rest of the book, so I had to keep things consistent.
I was an only child and immigrated to America from China at 7 years old. My parents worked all the time and I was alone with not a lot of resources. We also moved frequently and it was hard to make friends. So I turned to books and drawing. I loved poetry and observing people and whatever little nature there was in NYC. In high school I would escape the noise and drama of the cafeteria to read art books in the school library while sneakily eating a chocolate bar that I was supposed to be selling for the school (and consequently had to pay for most of my box).
This is me in China looking through a Dorling Kindersly picture encyclopedia my dad bought me. It was one of the nicest, most prized and expensive things I had. I didn’t have room in my luggage to bring my toys to America but I did bring this book.
This is me and my maternal grandmother in a park on the Lower East Side. She worked as a nanny and came home once a month.
When/How did you decide you wanted to do children's books?
I have always loved reading and art. Picture books were one of the first and only places where I found beauty and celebration of a sensitive and thoughtful perspective in the world. Books and art helped me through those school years and I knew that upon graduation I would do everything I could to become a maker of books, specifically beautiful, colorful picture books.
Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs?
Of course. I graduated college almost 10 years before I made a single cent out of my major. I saved up money to go to conferences and paid extra for 15 minute reviews that were sometimes damning. Some really discouraged me and made me feel lost. But after a while I would get back up with a sense of clarity and work on my art.
Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?
I think just looking at Monica’s work is really inspiring. I remember her showing us her process, and the plastic yogurt lids she uses for palette. I thought wow, she really has a specific and consistent way she goes about her art and it works beautifully for her. I started to think what are some ways that I prefer to work? I used to work very slowly not because I was being very careful but because I couldn’t decide on which style or medium or way of working. I am still trying to figure out exactly how I want to work but I am getting closer and feel more confident about it.
Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
If you are stressed out because of financial or emotional reasons, take care of those things first. Having all that stress doesn’t help you with your art despite the romance of the starving artist.Take care of yourself and do other fun things for a bit and you will find more time and joyful energy to put into your art.
Thank you Qing for bringing us behind the scenes with your book.
To see more of Qing’s artwork, visit her website at https://www.qingthings.com/