Author/illustrator Brian Won was one of SCBWI’s 2016 Crystal Kite Award recipients and faculty for this year’s Los Angeles Writers & Illustrators Day, where he was a judge for the illustration contests and critiqued illustrator portfolios. He wore many hats–busboy, shoe salesman, library shelver, art director, and designer before making the leap to children’s books. Brian graduated from California’s Art Center College of Design with an honorary ninth term before co-founding National Television, a design and animation company. Read on for his insights and advice to author/illustrators and thoughts on illustrating for others as well as news about his current and upcoming projects!
SPL: It looks like SCBWI – from the 2012 Summer Conference to winning a Mentorship Award and a 2016 Crystal Kite Award – played a big role in your journey as an illustrator and an author. Why is mentorship and professional community so important in kid lit? How has it impacted you?
BW: The SCBWI plays a significant role in my growth as an illustrator/writer. The conferences provided a road map to publishing as well as surrounding me with amazingly supportive peers. Illustrating/writing can be a solitary experience, which is the perfect setting for self-doubt and insecurities to creep in. A conversation with mentors or fellow illustrators helps put things into perspective. Without this support group, I’d be a hot mess.
SPL: You were an illustration contest judge for this year’s Los Angeles Writers and Illustrators Day. What was it like being on the other side of the table? What were you looking for in a winning submission?
BW: It was a surreal and humbling experience to be a judge in this year’s LA Writers & Illustrators Day. In 2013, I attended the very same WID and submitted my portfolio for the competition. My work didn’t receive any recognition and I walked away feeling a bit deflated but inspired by the guest speakers, Dan Krall and Peter Reynolds. I would have never imagined I would one day return to be a judge! It was difficult to be on the other side of the table but after combing through all the wonderful work I found myself most attracted to the pieces that “solved” the assignment. I was also drawn to illustrations with a unique voice. Interestingly, the winning entries for the color and black and white submissions were from the same artist. I had no idea it was the same person.
SPL: A portfolio is so important for an illustrator. Do you have any tips on how to put together a good one?
BW: Your portfolio is only as strong as your weakest piece and you want to limit what weighs it down. While answering this question, I looked at my online portfolio and realized there are some pieces I should take out, too!
SPL: As an author/illustrator, and one who often illustrates other authors’ books, do you find yourself in a tug-of-war between this writers’ conference and that illustrators’ workshop or working on your own books vs. others’ projects?
BW: I don’t have a strict rule about balancing my own books vs illustrating other authors’ books. Each assignment presents new challenges and both are interesting to me. In fact, I find illustrating other authors’ books more stressful. If my illustrations don’t meet my expectations, I only disappoint myself. When I illustrate another author’s book, there’s a chance I will disappoint two people.
SPL: As an SCBWI conference alum, any tips for those planning to attend our upcoming Summer Conference (July 7-10, 2017)?
BW: I recommend everyone attend with an open mind. You’ll be surrounded by like-minded wall flowers. For some attendees, they may not receive any recognition for their portfolios but there’s also an opportunity to meet lifelong friends. I still keep in contact with people I’ve met from my first conference and root for them from the sidelines. Also find Edith Fine, if she’s attending, and shake her lucky hand. We shook hands and exchanged greetings moments before I received the mentorship spot in 2012.
SPL: When you’re starting a new project, what comes first for you – the illustration or the narrative? Do you have any characters hanging around, waiting for their own story?
BW: When I start a new project, the narrative and illustrations work in tandem. I may start with a phrase or an idea which then leads to an illustrated character study. Once the character is established, a voice develops and the writing soon follows. I have tons of characters, some even illustrated, but not quite ready to become a story.
SPL: Speaking of new projects, do you have any projects or news you’d like to share with us?
BW: My next book Hooray for Books! is coming out later this year from HMH. It’s the third of the HOORAY series. I am also illustrating several exciting manuscripts which will be completed in 2018. Although not book related, my son Charlie recently received his purple belt in Tae Kwon Do.
Brian Won’s books include Hooray for Hat!, Outer Space Bedtime Race, and the upcoming Spunky Monkey. In addition to the 2016 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, his awards include the Silver Medal by the Society of Illustrators and the 2012 SCBWI Mentorship Award. Find Brian on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.
All illustrations provided by Brian Won.
Sarah Parker-Lee is managing Editor of Kite Tales, book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, & content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs. She’s also available to edit your novels & writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history & sci-fi. Her humor blog, Dogs and Zombies: A Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, shambles towards your tasty brains April 24th, 2017. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel