Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Super Star Interviews: Charlene Chua

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month I’m tickled summer sunburn pink to be catching up with the fabulous children's book author-illustrator Charlene Chua! I'm a long-time fan of her delightful characters and gorgeous artwork! Charlene has created illustrations for everything from advertisements, apps and toys to magazines and, of course, books. And in fact, we are talking today all about her numerous children's book titles releasing both this year and next!!! Exciting! Originally from Singapore, she now lives in Ontario, Canada. 
You can view more of her artwork and books here!

One hug = yay! Tons of hugs = not so sure!

Q: Your adorable NEW picture book, Hug?, releases next month with Kids Can Press (Congratulations!! Hooray!) and we want to hear ALL about it! Give us the full scoop!

A: Thanks! Hug? is a pretty special book for me, since it's the first book that I've both written and illustrated. It's not the first picture book that I've ever written (there are several that have just not gone anywhere), though it may be the one I wrote the fastest. I think the Hug? came about one day when I was talking to my husband. I cannot remember exactly what we were talking about, but it eventually led to 'what if a whole bunch of animals kept wanting more and more hugs, and at some point it was just too much?'.

Beyond the fun images though, Hug? is a reflection of how I feel sometimes. When I wrote it, I just wanted to put a humorous spin on the scenario. In reality, the feeling of being quietly overwhelmed and then having an outburst can be an upsetting thing for everyone involved. In my own experience, people get confused and defensive; they don't understand why I am 'suddenly' upset, or they think I am being overly sensitive or moody. I think the animals in the book are nicer; they are genuinely confused but seem to at least have an inkling that maybe they had something to do with the situation!

I did want to make it clear that there is no real 'bad guy' in the story (well, ok, maybe the Tiger is a bit naughty!). The animals in the story aren't mean, they just want something from the girl and it doesn't occur to them that they're making her more stressed. On her part, the girl doesn't voice her objections until things become unbearable. It's kind of reflective of how society works sometimes. Sometimes people are quite oblivious to the harm they cause. Sometimes people don't speak up until they can't bear things any longer. Things flare up and fall apart, or fall apart then flare up.

It has been interesting listening to how others receive the book, and how they interpret the themes within it. Mental health, emotions and the importance of boundaries are some of the themes that keep being associated with the story. I never really thought about writing the story to specifically deal with those issues; if anything, I tried to keep the story somewhat ambiguous. But I am glad that people seem to think it is both a fun story and one that may help with larger issues.

Lastly, the book is also special to me because of my cat, Uno. I had been meaning to do a book with her in it for years, and so I decided to base the cat in 
Hug? on her. Unfortunately, Uno passed away just as the book was being completed (she was 17). So the book will always be bittersweet to me. The book is dedicated to Uno, and I think we have a sweet little photo of her somewhere in it.

(Psst! You can pre-order 
Hug? here:)
Barnes & Noble
Independent Bookstores

Would you like to dance? Mee-ow!

Q: Hug? is your first picture book as both author and illustrator. Many illustrators have the desire to make a similar leap to writing. Dish with us a bit about your process and approach to writing as an illustrator.

A: I'll try, but I don't really think of myself as a good writer! I can't seem to tell a story without pictures, so for now, the only things I've written are picture books and the odd comic script. Storytelling to me has a visual component, and since I can illustrate, I tend to lean in on that; Which means a lot of the time I have trouble writing longer pieces, because I get tired of writing descriptions of everything (why write an extensive description of a chair when I can just...draw it). However, it comes in useful, particularly for picture books, where there is a real need for word economy.

I tend to write out my first draft as quickly as I can, knowing that it will be trash. It is rare for me to write a first draft well over 1000 words, so even if it's all rubbish, it's no big deal. After the first draft, I do my first awful sketches. Mainly to try to tell the same story with pictures instead, and figure out the pacing. Sometimes, I also find out the story is visually rubbish at this stage—oh well! A picture book should have pictures after all, if the pictures can't tell the story, then maybe it has no business being a picture book (it could be a lovely short story, just not a PICTURE book).

After the awful sketches are done, I return to the text-only version. I normally do several drafts at this point, taking out as much description as I can (for I now know I can draw that pesky chair I spent 50 words describing). I take out as much from the words as I can, especially if they can be conveyed with the images. I might make notes on the awful sketches to remind myself about details I've removed in the text (e.g draw silly chair with red cushions and lion's feet for legs!).

The process is similar for comics, except that I tend to write it in a more script writing style (e.g Character 1: This is my line). I normally include a short description before every panel, to describe the scene or the character's state. Hug? follows this more closely than my normal picture book manuscript format. However, it is also kind of its own thing. I've included part of the original document that was shown for 

Hug? As you can see, it's not really an orthodox way of showing a picture book manuscript, but somehow it got the job done!

Which one would you like to read? How about all of them?!

Q: You have illustrated more than 12 children’s books! And your artwork is stunning—bright, fun and full of unique, distinct characters. Talk with us a bit about your illustration practice—daily habits, sketchbooks, process and inspiration.

A: Thanks! I have been very busy for the past couple of years, so I find myself doing some kind of work related art during the day, most days. When I'm not working, I like to relax with personal art. Usually, I like to draw or paint in a relatively inexpensive sketchbook (I like the cheap ones, I don't worry so much about 'ruining' the paper unlike in the expensive ones). However, earlier this year I got an iPad Pro, and I've been using that quite a bit in my non-work time. It's been handy in letting me explore some other kinds of artwork that are more grown-up in style and subject matter.

For book work, I tend to start by developing the characters, and then the roughs. I prefer working with pencil and paper at this point, unless I'm pressed for time. I normally use my computer for the sketch stage, since my sketches are fairly tight and are sized to the correct proportions for the final artwork. Color roughs are also done digitally; it's just faster and easier as I can change colors quickly to establish an optimal color scheme. Final art really depends on the book. Most of my projects are digital-only, and done in Photoshop. But some are a mix of traditional media and digital. The book I just finished was mostly painted in watercolor. I will scan art, then retouch and manipulate it in Photoshop before sending it to the client.

So light & lovely!

Q: Tell us all about your MOST favorite illustration projects: one from your past and one from your present.

A: I enjoyed working on a series of posters for McDonalds some years ago. They were for the mid-Autumn festival, Lunar New Year and Diwali. The art was displayed in select outlets, and the Diwali art also appeared briefly on a huge screen on Times Square during a Diwali parade. It was nice art, for a nice cause and having something up on Times Square (however briefly!) was kinda cool.

At present, I am finishing up artwork for a very special Valentine's picture book. It's titled Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild, and it is scheduled (at time of writing) for a Fall 2021 release from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I can't say too much about it other than it's a very lovely and special story, and I hope the art does it justice!

Summer adventure!

Q: Following the release of Hug?, you also have three new children’s books set to release in 2021! (Wowza!! Now THAT’s super star!) An author/illustrator’s job doesn’t end with publication, of course; this is when promotion kicks in! What advice would you give fellow author/illustrators on: 1) doing book events, 2) creating book promotional materials and 3) getting the best out of social media?

A: To be honest, this will be a new thing for me as well. Normally, I am not very involved with the promotion of the book as the illustrator.

From the book events I have done...book launches can be nice, but if you don't have lots of family, friends or fans, it's ok to not expect a large crowd. Talk to your local indie bookstore and tell them your expectations (for turnout) and work with them to create the best experience for everyone. Be nice and encourage people (especially locally) to buy your book from the indie bookstore. For events like festivals, if you're an illustrator or author/illustrator, consider adding an art activity to your book presentation (such as live drawing).

On promotional materials—I've printed bookmarks for some of my books, though in some cases the publisher has also given me bookmarks and posters to give away. It doesn't hurt to ask your publisher if they have any ready-made materials (so you don't need to spend your own money making these). If you want to make your own materials, a cheap and fun giveaway is a coloring sheet based off artwork from your book.

For social media —I really don't know if I'm the right person to give advice on this! I tend to use my Facebook page and Instagram to post up new work and announcements. My Twitter is a bit more active, but I try to limit my personal posts. I know some people maintain separate accounts to keep their work separate from their other interests. There are various reasons for this, but it's an option that some people do use.

O' Canada!

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: Probably one when I don't have to work (which is...not often) and the weather is good (I'm in Ontario—sometimes it feels like half the year is winter)!

Thanks so much, Charlene, for chatting it up with us here at Bird Meets Worm!! We're looking forward to the release of Hug?—congratulations!