How did you find your passion for children’s book illustration?
Ying-Hwa Hu: I had to take piano lessons as a child, and it felt like a chore. But in the waiting area at my lessons, there were always plenty of picture books. I was completely mesmerized by the pictures. That was the beginning of my voyage.
Cornelius Van Wright: When I was a child, I was often sick and would sometimes end up in the hospital. My parents would bring me books to take my mind off the situation. I loved those books. I still have many of the ones my parents gave me as a child, as well as those I collected on my own. Children’s books are still magical and continue to call to me.
What are your concerns when it comes to how your work impacts the books’ intended audience—children?
Van Wright: This is a biggie. We are often given assignments that deal with different cultures. We are big believers in doing our homework. We don’t just Google things—we try to speak to people of that culture and fully understand what we are illustrating. For example, I’ve asked friends I’ve met in local stores questions like, “How did you celebrate your grandson’s first Korean birthday? What was the significance of it?”
Sometimes, something in a manuscript raises a red flag, and we don’t know why it bothers us. That’s when we start to ask questions. Many times, we find out that the thing that bothered us stems from a stereotype or has a historical meaning that is demeaning. We bring these concerns up with the editors, and most of the time, the offending content is edited. Our basic philosophy is: if we can’t read it to our own children, then we won’t take the job—yes, there were times when we had to walk away from a sorely needed paycheck.
Hu: Developing a love of reading in children is a slow process. Every page of every book the child reads should be a memorable experience leading to the next phase of her or his literary journey. And that’s what I’m hoping for. I try to provoke curiosity and a fun reading experience in every book I illustrate.
How does your research process inform your artwork?
Van Wright: Doing our homework is very important when we wish to visually depict an event or something within a culture accurately. We try to get as close to a source as possible.
For example, we were working on a book where the story takes place in mainland China. In the story, the grandfather cooks breakfast and shares it with his granddaughter. So, what does a stove look like in mainland China? We can’t assume it’s like an American or a European stove. Fortunately, we met a couple who had just moved to the United States from China a few months prior to this assignment. We took a trip to their home and asked if they would describe what the stoves in mainland China are like. Ying-Hwa drew several sketches until they said, “That’s correct.”
Another example is when we illustrated the story Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree. The tree played a significant role in the story. What does a chinaberry tree look like? We live in New York and were told that they don’t really grow on the East Coast. I called the New York Botanical Garden—it had one sample of a chinaberry tree in the garden! I ran there with my camera, located the tree and took lots of photos. There’s something incredible about seeing what you are looking for in real life.
Tell us about a book you were proud to work on.
Van Wright: Instead of listing specific books, I will just say that the most enjoyable manuscripts allowed room for imaginative interpretations, not necessarily fantasy imagination. The manuscript described enough, but not too much, like a lion taking a lai see, or a lucky red envelope; a dancer at a powwow; or kids battling homemade “baddies.” Sometimes the words are poetic, enabling us to really stretch artistically.
What’s distinctive about working with watercolor?
Van Wright: Though I had dabbled in color inks, my main medium before I met Ying-Hwa was oil. When I saw the immediacy in her paintings, how beautiful and free flowing her images are, and how quickly watercolors dry—I’m thinking deadlines—I made the switch.
The flip side of this medium is that watercolors are not forgiving. You can’t just paint over it. So I do a lot of planning and testing, trying out new brushes and paints from different brands. I love that each color has its own personality and reacts differently to various papers.
Hu: It can be magical when colors blend into each other to create a one-of-a-kind effect, but it can be elusive. Watercolor is not controlled by the painter, but the more you practice, the more it works with you. It’s a medium never to be limited.
What are the unique challenges of illustrating children’s books?
Hu: Illustrating children’s books is the most rewarding and pleasant work I could ask for. But just as in any other profession, there are challenges. For me, the most difficult challenge is the multiple tight deadlines.
Van Wright: It can take a lot of research and a lot of time. If the story is historical and about African Americans, it can be very depressing when you read about what people went through—and are still going through. I know it is very important to tell the story so the next generation will not forget it, but I would be lying if I said that it did not get to me sometimes. A well-respected illustrator I had lunch with once told me that he also felt this way. His solution was to do many different kinds of books and refresh himself by working on fun animal books.
Hu: Finding the perfect manuscript is the ultimate reward, but most of the time, this doesn’t happen. That’s when we learn what it means to grow as an illustrator, and we do our best to carry the message of the book to its audience.