Guest interview of illustrator Qing Zhuang
Often there is a cloak of mystery surrounding the relationship between an author and an illustrator. When illustrator Qing Zhuang signed on to illustrate How Long Is Forever?, I did what every good author is instructed to do. I sat down and zipped my lip. The idea, and it is a smart one, is to allow the illustrator freedom within their creative process without being hampered or interrupted by the pesky author.
It was hard. And I was grateful when the editor sent me sketches and asked for my feedback. But I wonder, what did that process feel like from Qing’s perspective? Let’s ask.
Qing, I’m so happy that you are joining us at 24 Carrot Writing as we celebrate our Annual Illustrator’s Month. Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming an illustrator?
Sure! I studied illustration in college and spent many years afterwards trying to improve my work. I went to SCWBI conferences making incremental progress. I had a lot of growing to do, personally, practically and artistically. So even though I had some good foundational skills and recognition from teachers in my school years, my work was all over the place. It took a long time to figure things out when I graduated. Meanwhile, all my talented friends were getting cool art jobs, awards, reasonable income, name recognition and not horrible dates! Dang! Sometimes I’d cry on the bus after getting yelled at by some grumpy and condescending customer at my retail job. This is not what I’d imagined when I won the children’s version of the Ezra Jack Keats bookmaking contest in 6th grade and decided I was going to become a great writer-illustrator! Alas, I marched on in my tortoise pace.
Eventually my work improved and I tightened up my portfolio by taking out work that didn’t fit and focusing on a singular style as best as I could. The road here was not super glamorous and not without doubters so it takes a lot of conviction within myself that this is what I must accomplish in this lifetime. I took my portfolio to the NJ SCBWI conference and met Karen Boss our Charlesbridge editor there. The rest is history!
A few months after Charlesbridge bought How Long Is Forever?, I received an email from editor Karen Boss letting me know the Art Department had identified three potential illustrators for the book. I went into major cyber stalk mode. All three were fantastic, but the drawings on your website had me convinced that you were the best pick. Did you know I wrote a four page email back with pics from your website as proof? How did you first hear of the project? And what made you sign on?
I wish I could read why you liked my work best out of the three! The competition is SO fierce! I signed on because of how simple but deep it is. This is a story that can be as sweet or thought provoking as you want it to be. I just remember gazing up at the sky as a child getting lost pondering the nature of time and forever-ness.
“How Long is Forever?” Can spur such a philosophical discussion with young ones but it can also be about the down to earth experiences of familial love and the creature comforts we share with the people we love.
It can be about losing a grandparent. When I showed the manuscript to my now husband, he started tearing up. He said it reminded him of his own grandfather who used to make him Chinese pancakes and that was his favorite memory that he will keep forever of this person whom he loved so much. I knew that this story can potentially mean something special to each reader so I was excited to be a part of it!
Qing, I'll send you that email. But for the readers here, I'll share a few of the illustrations Qing had on her web site that made me fall in love with her talent! Here is a reason number one on why illustrates should set up a website, make it easy to find, and populate it with your work!
What was the first thing you did when you received the manuscript to illustrate? What was your process?
I made many thumbnail sketches, researched reference photos and did character designs. I based the farm on the Queens County Farm as well as the farm at Manhattan Country School, where I teach. They have a fantastic farm program and children make wonderful memories at its farm in the Catskills every year.
One of the exciting things about working on this project is the opportunity to try to honor the joy of spending time in the farm and in nature. In this age where many children spend hours doing virtual farming and building in a video game I think it’s really special to have a book that explores just running free and asking questions and investigating out in the world.
But as a city girl who also spends too much time online, I needed to do a lot of research on things like tree species and tractors and which way a weathervane blows (the arrow points against the source of the wind). It took many tries to get it right. This could be said about every stage from beginning to end. Sometimes the illustrations didn’t fit the layout or just something was off with the pacing and I had to scrap it and do it over! I am so grateful to have the patience of the editors because the book really improved from every version.
My manuscript did not have illustration notes and aside from the editor asking me for “minimal” feedback on your illustrations, we didn’t connect until after the book was sent to print. I might have sent you a quick “you’re doing great, keep it up” pep talk email but I wonder what direction you got from Karen Boss and/or the Charlesbridge Art Department.
There were many discussions about the layout of the story because ultimately the words and their legibility are paramount. So depending on where they decided to put the text the whole composition and even perspective of the scene had to change. There were also discussions about the type of tree that would be in the book.
The character designs also took a couple of tries. I made many different potential Masons and the editors picked the one we know and love pretty easily. But I had to redo all my designs of grandma and grandpa because they looked too old fashioned. Somewhere in me I am still pouting that I wasn’t able to do the sweet and chubby grandparents in my initial sketches because it’s kind of my nature to be sappy and nostalgic. However, I’m also glad I was challenged to make more contemporary looking grandparents, especially with our very hip and artsy grandma design who I based off of my college art professor. I also tried to make grandpa kind of cool looking so I ditched the overalls and gave him a jean jacket and nice shoes. Someone said he looks like Ernest Hemingway. My friends make up stories about how they met as young artsy hippies and decided to retire at a farm where the grandma makes pottery and takes photos of pastoral landscapes.
Anyway, many changes were made at all stages of the book. Anytime anything changes it affects the whole book. For example, there were these cute bird feeders hanging on the house porch but they were blocking the text, so I had to edit them out of all the pages. Another example is the editors wanted me to depict teeth. Stylistically, I rarely drew teeth so at the last minute I had to photoshop in the teeth of all the characters. Haha! Now you know how the sausage is made.
It is important for all children to be able to recognize themselves in the books they read. The manuscript never offered a physical description of the character and you smartly took the opportunity to present Mason with darker skin and his grandparents with light skin. Can you talk about that decision?
I just want different types of families to be portrayed because whatever we see in the media gets legitimized and embraced. It’s wonderful now to see so many books and other kinds of media beginning to embrace a diversity of experiences. In the school I work at, there are so many students who are adopted, from a mixed or blended family, or simply don’t look like their caretakers for some other reason. I also have friends and professors and colleagues who are in such families. I am excited that a sweet book about love and timelessness can reflect them too. I mean why not? Teachers and parents now are so good at discussing questions about different families if they do come up. For my character designs of Mason, I featured many different looks, actually referencing some children I know. It’s just how I work, I don’t like to just make stuff up, I tend to care about it more if it is based on things and people I know in real life.
You recently signed with an agent! Congratulations! How did that happen? And how is it changing how you are working? What are you working on now?
Thank you! For the past couple of years different literary agents have reached out to me even before I had a real dummy ready to present to them. I knew that getting an agent is a long term commitment and didn’t want to rush and find someone I don’t feel right with. So I worked on How Long is Forever? and didn’t think too much about representation because I wanted to focus on my debut book!
After the book was sent off to the printers, I started to read some interviews of the different agents I had been acquainted with but they didn’t seem to fit. At a portfolio review, the reviewer suggested that I query Wendi Gu of Sanford Greenburger Associates, so I wrote her name down and read her online interviews. Those interviews resonated with me. Then I saw her speak at a virtual panel and found her to be very professional and warm. I still felt like I wasn’t ready to reach out because I am a chicken. Then an editor at Holiday House who I had met a year ago emailed me asking me if I have finally written a story for them. I had a dummy in progress about grocery shopping with my mom which I sent anyway to see if there would be any feedback. To my surprise they enjoyed it and offered a deal! I really wanted an agent to help me negotiate this time so I reached out to Wendi and fortunately she replied right away! We had a few Zoom meetings and now I can feel very glamorous and tell people to contact my agent if they want to work with me!
Qing Zhuang is an illustrator and elementary educator based in New York City. She holds a BFA in Illustration from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, and a MA in teaching from School of Visual Arts, New York. How Long Is Forever? is her debut as an illustrator. She is represented by Wendi Gu of Sanford Greenburger Associates. Qing's debut as both author and illustrator, Rainbow Shopping will launch from Holiday House in the summer of 2022. To learn more about Qing, visit her website at www.qingthings.com.
To purchase a copy of How Long Is Forever? click here.
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