for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
I love picture books, especially the ones like Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong's Work for Sustainable Farming (Tilbury House, 2018) that combine beautiful art and help me learn something new.
Debut illustrator and fellow Epic Eighteen member, Melanie Linden Chan creates a gorgeous visual scrapbook to convey the work of the late Chinese scientist Pu Zhelong, who helped villagers in China learn about pesticides and sustainable farming.
The story, written by Sigrid Schmalzer, professor of history, and her first book for children, is based on her academic book, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China (University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Melanie, welcome to Cynsations. I can’t wait to hear more about your work.
Tell me what first inspired you to illustrate for young readers.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been an artist. I have lived and breathed the creative life. As a kid, I told everyone I knew that I was going to go to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and then become a Disney animator. I was an AP art student in high school.
I chickened out on going to the big art school in the “big” city (I was a shy girl from the suburbs), so I went to my local community and state colleges instead and got a fine art degree. But after graduation, it was like all my creativity had stopped.
I wasn’t making art like I wanted to, or selling my paintings like I had hoped I would. Somewhere along my journey, I got lost and found myself in the woods, so to speak.
Then I got this great idea for a YA fantasy novel. The story idea completely consumed me. I started reading more, and writing more, and researching my ideas. But my story wasn’t getting anywhere, and I sort of got stuck again. (Probably because my binder’s worth of notes was massive!)
One day, back in 2009, as I was reading one of the Percy Jackson books (by Rick Riordan, Hyperion), I realized how cool the cover art was. And I thought, hey, I could do that, right? I could paint cover art.
(This is how deep in the woods I was. I didn’t even see the big picture just yet.) So I looked up the artist, John Rocco, and saw that he had illustrated picture books as well.
(Still didn’t see the big picture.)
Then I saw that he had gone to RISD, my old dream school. I thought, hey, if I can write a book like I’ve always wanted to, I could go to the school I dreamed of! I looked up what sort of programs they offered for continuing education, and then I saw it (finally, the big picture!):
Children’s Book Illustration!
I’ll never forget that moment, staring at the computer screen, and realizing what was missing in my life.
All of my most beloved childhood memories flooded back to me: they were about books. Picture books! As a child, I had studied them, read and reread every one of the ones I owned (often in one day), and I even created my own little Post-It Note books and stories just for fun.
When playing “store” with my siblings I’d always be the book maker and seller and my favorite moments in grade school were when we were asked to make our own books, and edit them in turn as a class. I guess it never occurred to me that I could make a career out of this kind of art- my absolute favorite kind.
I immediately signed up for the Children’s Book Illustration Continuing Education program at RISD, and I have been pursuing a career in illustrating children’s books since then.
Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?
I learned how to draw by mimicking Disney characters, Ed Emberely, and Hannah Barbera cartoons. I was also obsessed with comic strips.
I took AP art through high school and got a BFA in college. But by the time I had completed college, my style, although often on the fun (or funky) side, took a classical turn and I moved away from the cutesy cartoons I had loved, and instead focused more on painting florals and nature scenes in oils, as well as the occasional pet portrait.
After my Life epiphany of epic proportions, I started illustration courses at RISD and had to reaquaint myself with pen and ink, watercolor and designing characters of my own. I got ahold of every book on the topic of Children’s Book Illustration that I could find.
I fell in love with Trina Schart Hyman’s work, as well as Arthur Rackham, W.W. Denslow and some of the other oldies-but-goodies I had never known about before.
With every new assignment, I learned something new, whether it be about the craft, the materials, or about myself. I read more picture books and mimicked their different styles.
I learned that sometimes the things that I liked to look at were not the same things that I enjoyed creating. Eventually I discovered that I like to work in a few different styles, as each story has its own personality and I like to match that personality with the right look. I now have three different ways I like to illustrate- one is a flat, comic-like vectorized look; another style has ink line work and watercolor, and the last is a textured acrylic method.
During the creation of Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean, I continued to learn more about myself and my style. For this particular project, I used pen nibs and brushes for my various ink lines, and water color for my hues, and then I incorporated different textures through a digital collage method.
What about this manuscript called to you as an illustrator?
The Chinese culture, the setting, and the book’s theme.
My husband’s family is Chinese. They own a Chinese restaurant, and I have been working there with the family since I was 16.
Over the course of our relationship, I have learned so much about the culture, from food, to superstitions, to family life. During my college years, I often preferred to take Asian studies courses to those about other countries.
I have learned how to speak basic Cantonese without any formal training. But most of all, my biggest inspiration and influence came from our trip to China in 2005. We visited the village where my father-in-law law grew up.
|Photo from Melanie's China Visit|
And on top of that, the environmental theme of the book really spoke to me. I had been working for a couple of years on a middle graphic novel/journal hybrid about the water cycle, and the importance of the balance of ecosystems. So this was right down my alley.
|Fields in China|
I was surprised at how many challenges I had to overcome during the production of this book. Just the act of going through all the proper motions and deadlines was a new challenge to me.
I hadn’t had a real deadline for anything in ages!
The next challenge I came across was all of the research.
The art had to be historically and scientifically accurate, as we were telling a story about a real scientist’s life and work. It was difficult because in 1950’s rural China, there wasn’t a lot of access to fancy things, such as cameras and film. So there were very limited visual references I could use to make sure I was drawing the clothing, village, and laboratory tools correctly.
One such challenge included this crazy saw that Professor Pu would have used to cut wood. Thankfully, my husband’s uncle was visiting us around the time I was drawing this saw, and he was able to help us find images of some antique saws from China.
The biggest challenge of all was my home life during the creation of this book. When I signed the contract, I was pregnant with my first baby and we had just moved into our brand new home.
So my entire home and studio were all boxed up, and my mind was all over the place. Trying to concentrate on art when one is in “nesting” mode is nearly impossible. I also didn’t know that pregnancy hormones can affect a mother’s eyesight, so that was a challenge.
One day I found myself drawing with my nose practically to the paper and I couldn’t understand what was suddenly wrong with me!
My son was due before my deadline, so thankfully my publisher, (God bless that man, Jonathan) extended my deadline.
So the last few months finishing the book included moments of awkward painting during pumping sessions, constant interruptions by a fussy baby, and some calmer days of working while baby wearing.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
By far the worst moments are the rejections.
They say that one should celebrate each rejection because it means you’re putting yourself out there. But it hurts! It really does!
As an artist, generally I like to make the art because it makes me happy. And often, if you’re lucky, it makes others happy, too. But when you send your picture book manuscript and art samples to art directors and agents, and they say no to your hard work, well. That hits you hard in the self-esteem.
Self-doubt is an awful critter, and it can really get in the way of one’s creative mojo. It even visited me multiple times during the creation of Moth and Wasp, and if it weren’t for my amazing critique group members, I probably wouldn’t have made it through unscathed. (Jeanette, Jennie, and Anne, you saved me!)
The best moments? Getting that phone call to say that my art was wanted. Me! My art. It’s crazy. Other awesome moments were sharing the news with family and friends, and customers at our family restaurant, and that I was going to be a published illustrator.
The best feeling of all wasn’t when the book came in the mail. The best feeling came before that. When I realized I had accomplished so much over the course of the past year- bringing a life into the world, and bringing a world to life.
With all the challenges I had faced, I somehow did it all. I haven’t been more proud of myself.
University of Rhode Island, participated in RISD's Children's Book Illustration Certificate Program and is a member of SCBWI.
She works in a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, and pen and ink to create books for children that open their minds to other cultures and ways of life.
Her goal is to make the world a better place, one book at a time!
She lives in Rhode Island with her family.
Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.
In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.
Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.