I love being able to share the news of a debut picture book especially when the author/illustrator was once a student in class at SVA! Anna Kim's DANBI LEADS THE SCHOOL PARADE is getting off to a fantastic start with a starred review from Kirkus: "All together now: Food, dance, and music combine for magic that transcends language barriers...Imaginative, irreverent, improvisational fun in kindergarten." I hope you will be impressed and inspired by this behind-the-scenes look at Anna's joyous book.
It is exciting to hear about an author/illustrator’s first picture book – can you tell us about yours:
How did DANBI LEADS THE SCHOOL PARADE get started?
The idea for writing Danbi’s story came to me one day when I was book shopping for my nieces and couldn’t find any that captured a thoroughly positive immigrant story. There were also very few character-based stories featuring Asian characters. What struck me beyond that was the absence of immigrant stories that showed, not just the perspective of the immigrant, but also that of those who already live here.
Writing Danbi’s story was me determined to do something about it. Once I had my rough draft, I took Monica’s SVA class on writing Children’s Picture books, and that put me on the path to creating Danbi.
How did you meet your agent/editor/publisher?
After I finished the dummy and two illustrations, I sent query letters to a couple of agents. One wanted to pitch it to editors right away, and another told me the book needed work, made important suggestions, and asked me to query him after revising. I was torn, but realized that getting published is only the first step. Readers are those who ultimately decide on a book’s success and I decided to bite the bullet. I had no idea that the revisions would take me a whopping four years! As I started revising, I realized that my story had to be rewritten from the ground up. So I slashed pretty much everything, except the look of the Danbi and one scene, and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. I sent the revised story to Steve Malk at Writers House, who emailed me that same evening “You made my day!”. Steve ran an amazing auction and got ten offers from major publishers. We decided on Viking (Penguin Young Readers) because of their reach and their belief that books would appeal to both the institutional and trade market.
What were some of the stages of working on the book?
1. Character is at the heart of the stories I want to tell, so I spend a great deal of time understanding my characters from inside out. This, to me, is the most challenging part of creation. You literally have to get to know a whole new person - but as in real life, you can never know a person wholly. True characters will surprise you as they grow and take shape, as people almost always do.
2. Writing the story’s synopsis and story, and building the visual world comes next.
3. Then it’s about finding ways to pace the story by arranging thumbnails of each scene on a 40-pg storyboard, then sketching, then coloring (see below thumbnail and final art in B&W)
4. I wish I had adopted this process when writing “Danbi Leads the School Parade” and saved myself years of rewrites and redraws, but that is how I’m approaching the sequel and it is making a world of difference.
What was your favorite part of working on this book?
My favorite part was getting to know Danbi. Danbi and I share similar backgrounds. We both moved with our families from Korea to America when we were kids. And we both experienced that same challenging first day of school. But there is one big difference between the two of us.
While I felt numbed by the pressure of all the kids staring at me and not understanding the teacher, Danbi is way more positive. She views it all with a hero’s strength and confidence and that she can overcome whatever obstacles get in her way. In other words, she is my hero and my role model. I’m hoping all her readers will feel the same way.
And the most difficult part?
Fleshing out Danbi, the character, from inside out, both in personality and in illustrations, and doing the same (though to a lesser degree) with her 15 classmates.
Where do you live and what is your studio like? What are your art materials?
I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My studio has a large desk with pencils, ink, watercolor, and a computer with Photoshop. There’s also a day bed, because I’m literally napping every couple of hours in my most creative moments. It’s weird, I know, but my best ideas come after I can no longer stay awake and I emerge from a nap. There is a mountain of character sketches and drawings on my studio’s floor, because that is how I create them and immerse myself in their world. .
What were you like as a child? Did you always draw and paint since you were very young?
I remember filling the edges of my school notebooks with doodles and character faces. I really wanted to learn how artists drew cartoons, comics, and manga faces. And so, I drew lots and lots of faces on the edges of my notebooks. Decades later, my notebooks are still filled with character drawings, but now they're in the middle of the notebooks, too.
How did you decide you wanted to be an author and illustrator of children's books?
It was not until I took Monica’s SVA class that I realized I’d love to be able to do this. It would take years before my first book came out, but the inspiration of wanting to be an author/illustrator happened in Monica’s class.
Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs?
I think rejection is par for the course in getting published. I waited a while before sending my dummy to agents, but I did show it to editors that participated in the reviews organized by CBIG (Children’s Book Illustrator Group). I remember crying and sulking for a week or more depending on the severity of their critiques, but I knew I had to push through. And so I kept revising and revising until I felt the story was ready to be pitched. And then, as I said earlier, I had to start from scratch and rewrite for another four years!
Do you want to give us a little hint of what you are working on now?
I’m creating the sequel to Danbi Leads the School Parade. While the first book follows Danbi as she discovers a new world, the sequel follows Danbi’s friends as they enter her world. And together, they all make an amazing discovery.
Is there anything you learned in class that has particularly stayed with you?
There is so much I learned from Monica’s class, so it's hard to pick one particular topic. But if I had to pick one, I'd say the importance of understanding and mastering picture books as an art form. Monica deciphered the constraints and limitations of the form through lectures and exercises. Those exercises were key for me to realize that the picture book form imposes definite limits on how to tell stories. Knowing that you have a limitation is paradoxically liberating, because the more constraints are imposed on your work, the more creative you have to be, and therefore you're forced to think extra creatively to achieve your best work. To me, learning these limitations and constraints, and overcoming them, was the biggest take-away from that class.
Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Making good books takes time - a long time. Stay true to what you believe in and keep on going.
Smart advice from professionals you respect is gold, no matter how hurtful they sound at first.
Revise, rewrite, and revise again, and don’t give up.
You can find Anna at artbyannakim.com and Instagram/Twitter @artbyannakim