Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Interview with author/illustrator ANNA KIM

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:

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

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Interview with illustrator QING ZHUANG

Waiting, waiting, waiting... we all know about waiting that seems like it goes on forever. How about some blueberry pie, with a dollop of love, at the end of it?! That sounds like worth the wait! 

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.

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young? 
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/

Monday, January 13, 2020

A sweet tooth in France

When I am in France I love discovering beautiful and delicious patisseries! On my trip to La Côte d'Azur to visit my daughter, who is a new member of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, I have been doing a lot of bakery window shopping: always good to have many choices! Happy New Year 2020! Bonne année from France! 

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Interview with illustrator YINFAN HUANG

Let’s celebrate Yinfan Huang’s debut as a picture book illustrator: THE COUCH POTATO has just been published! Written by Kerry Lyn Sparrow, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sure to be a big hit with children. 

The story begins: “It didn’t belong there. No one knew where it came from. But there it was.” How does this family handle the appearance of a potato in their living room?  “Sparrow and debuting Huang cleverly and inventively reaffirm a universal family truth: never underestimate how a little annoyance can quickly escalate into a laughably big deal.” Publishers Weekly

Continuing my series of interviews with illustrators from The School of Visual Arts, I hope you enjoy this "talk" with Yinfan about the creation of her delightful book!

It is exciting to hear about an artist's journey to publication. How did THE COUCH POTATO get started? 
My agent recommended me to the editor of Kids Can Press, who was looking for an illustrator for the manuscript of The Couch Potato. And everyone thought it was a perfect match - the story is funny and quirky with dark-humor, which is exactly my style!

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  
Doing character studies! I love drawing people and their expressions. And it’s a very interesting and unique book - I love the fact that the main character, Mr. Russet, is a stay-home dad, and the mom, Mrs. Russet, is a working mom. This is not mentioned in the text, but you can see that from the visuals and subtext. I love that the book challenges gender stereotypes. 

And the most difficult part?  
Researching/drawing all the “messes” in a creative, not disgusting way!

When the author and illustrator are two different people, people often wonder if you had contact or communication during the making of the book?
I didn’t have any contact with the author during the creation of the book, which is normal. I communicated directly with my editor, who shared my artwork with the author during the late stage, and she was very pleased!

Where do you live and what is your studio like? What are your art materials?  
I live in a small studio apartment in Manhattan. Fun fact: I just got a small couch for the first time in my life and now I can’t fit my work desk in my apartment anymore! So I work at a co-working space now. I’ve been working a lot on the computer these days, and working outside of home helps me to concentrate, so the situation is perfect for me.

and after!

For The Couch Potato, I used color pencils to create my art, plus some gouache and watercolor, and then I assembled everything on the computer.  I’m not sure what I will do when I work with color pencils and paint again but my materials are very portable so I’m sure I’ll find a way to do it. 

What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young?
Yes! Ever since I was very young, I liked to draw and paint. In one of my earliest drawings when I was 5 or 6, I created this picture for a class assignment “When I Grow Up", of me painting as an artist! 

Here is another picture, "My Friend".
And I created my first “book dummy” when I was seven years old. It’s called “The Adventure of a Kitty Cat.” It was a hilarious story about a lazy kitty who tries to grow fishes out of a tree. (I think I’ve always had a unique sense of humor.)

When did you decide you wanted to do children's books?
Growing up in China, I didn’t have much access to children’s books, let alone picture books. I first started to think about creating children’s books when I finished college in China. I started to read many foreign picture books which I found at second-hand bookstores, and they opened up a whole new world to me. I wanted to create my own stories but I didn’t know how. I didn't really take a step until later when I decided to move to the US to study illustration.

Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs?
Oh yes. I didn’t get to do my first picture book, The Couch Potato, until many years later, after changing my school, my career, and my country. I did have the opportunity to illustrate two middle-grade novels for a Chinese publisher after coming to the US, but I was really determined to get into the American children’s book industry. It was so competitive, and I knew I had to get an agent. I sent out many emails to different agents to get representation, and I got so many rejections. Because I started out as an editorial illustrator, I considered myself more of an illustrator rather than author/illustrator, and I had not yet finished a complete dummy before this first book! It was not a smooth journey, but it's all worth it! 

Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?
I think seeing the dummy books and sketches of actual picture books from you and the visiting artists were very helpful. I also enjoyed hearing your own experience working with different publishers and editors throughout the years - all these little tales and details made me feel close to the publishing world.
I also attended the SCBWI winter conference after taking your class. It was actually my second time at the conference. Nothing came out of the first one, but I decided to give it another try and prepared my portfolio with new work I’d developed throughout the year. Luckily, this time my agent (Sean McCarthy Literary Agency) found me at the Portfolio Review - so it all paid off in the end!

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?
Go to conferences and workshops, and connect with fellow illustrators/writers.  Don’t give up!

To see more of Yinfan’s work go to her websiteyinfanhuang.com 
And her shop: infunhandmade.com

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Interview with author/illustrator YUKO KATAKAWA

Nothing is greater for a children's book author and illustrator than that debut book finally being published! Congratulations to Yuko for her perseverance: her book has arrived! 

One big bear gets bullied by four small animals but he is more clever and imaginative than they realize and all turns out well in the end!

How did LET'S SCARE BEAR get started? What was the inspiration, and some of the stages?

I learned in your class that I could make a dummy book based on an old folk tale or fairytale instead of creating an original story.
So I started to work on a project based on a Japanese Rakugo story (Rakugo is the traditional art of comical storytelling in Japan.)  
My original idea was not to propose it as a book but as proof to editors and art-directors that I could create 32 consecutive pages with consistent art and characters.
In the original Rakugo story all the characters were human adults. I changed them to children. After I showed it to the art director, it was handed to the editor at Holiday House. She suggested changing the children to animals because she thought it would be easier for American children to relate to the story.

This is the original dummy book I created at your class

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  

Using my imagination to illustrate scenes that were not described in the story. (For example, making words with the spider web.)
I also enjoyed depicting their emotions using their movements instead of relying on their facial expressions.

And the most difficult part?  

These animals are very different in size, and it was difficult to put them together in the action scenes. Also difficult was drawing them in human movements when I don’t even know how they really move in nature! I had difficulty illustrating the second scene, where different sized animals gather in small mouse’s room. I worked endlessly trying to use different perspectives, ending up having an enormous amount of discarded drawings!

 I struggled: I drew a lot of different angles for the same scenes.


Where do you live and what is your studio like? What are your art materials?  

I live in a one bedroom apartment in Queens. I partitioned the living room and use half of the room as my studio.
Since I mostly do digital works using computer, luckily I don’t need a very big space.
I also have a desk set-up with art materials such as watercolors. For example, I paint various textures which I then install in my computer. 


What were you like as a child?  Did you always draw and paint since you were very young? 

When I was about 4~5 years old, my parents forced me to take lessons in piano, Japanese calligraphy, dance, abacus, and art.
I was not interested in any of them and quickly quit them all except art lessons. I went to art classes once a week for about 2 years until I was 6. I remember spending days and days just painting with watercolors and reading children’s books. During my teens, my major interest was reading comic books and I lost interest in painting. If my younger self found out that my own picture book was published, she would be really surprised. 

Manju is a delicious steamed bun with a sweet filling, and these treats are very important in the story. Do you have a special memory of manju from when you were a child?

There was a little homemade manju shop near my home. I would grab a few coins and run to buy some. They were so good! Whenever I eat manju now, the taste triggers happy childhood memories.

When did you decide you wanted to do children's books? 

I was away from art completely for a long time. Then one day, I looked back at my life. I remembered how much I used to love painting and I realized that I regretted not giving myself a chance to pursue my passion for art.  So, I started to take drawing classes and gradually started to think of combining art with my passion for reading.

Did you have some rejections along the way? What have been some of the ups and downs? 

I had many rejections. I was not upset about my dummy books but I was depressed when my portfolio was rejected.
Then I realized that a lot of judgement about art works is based on individual taste:  it does not necessarily mean that the work is bad just because some people don’t like it.
So, I felt down when I got bad reviews for a day or two, but then I gathered myself and kept on going.

I created many dummy books and only one book was published = proof of so many rejections!!

Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?

This might be something to do with my Japanese mentality, and I understand that each student has different reasons to take classes, but I was really surprised when students did not finish homework. I think it is so helpful to try to finish the assignments and receive feedbacks in the classroom. It did help me a lot.

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for illustrators/writers starting out now?

Work hard and be persistent. I think it is important to go to related events and conferences no matter how small they are and try to meet people. It also helps to join a group of people who do the same thing that you do, whether illustration or writing. I have a critique group I have met with for many years, friends that I met in your class! When you encounter hard times, these people can help you get through it with their experience, knowledge and friendship.

At a bookstore story time with Yuko.

Yuko told the story for the children in the traditional Japanese way with a special traveling box.

"Great for reading aloud" (from Kirkus Reviews) and "the delectable subject may have children demanding a manju cake before the end." (from Booklist)

For more about Yuko and her art, go to her website here