Southern California author-illustrator LeUyen (pronounced Lay-Win) Pham is the 2020 Caldecott Honor winner and a NYT, Indies, and USA Today best-seller. Her successful collaborations include illustrating Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry series and Shannon Hale’s The Princess in Black chapter book series. LeUyen was also co-collaborator on Hale’s popular Real Friends middle grade graphics series. And there’s much more—over a million books in print more!
CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT: Welcome to Kite Tales! You wrote and illustrated your latest picture book, Outside, Inside (Roaring Brook Press, 2021). The book beautifully addresses how weird it was when everyone suddenly had to be inside. Even though the pandemic isn’t mentioned until the back matter, the way we felt during that time is clearly communicated. Was it harder writing this book than some of your others?
LEUYEN PHAM: I wouldn’t say this book was hard to write, I’d say it was more necessary to write. I’d never felt the need to record a book more than I had for this one. During those first blurry couple of months of lockdown, when the whole world’s brain just went to fuzz, I just remember trying hard not to absorb too much panic, or letting anxiety overtake me. I just remember going on walks with the kids and my husband, trying to take note of how quiet the world had suddenly become. I’m very much an “about-the-present” kind of person, and I remember trying hard to keep those early feelings alive and on my conscience.
On the one hand, so much had changed, and I worried for our world, for groceries, for germs, for my kids’ school, if our housekeeper would be alright—just anything and everything. And then, on the other hand, I had my boys with me and could squeeze a few more months of childhood out of them. I just took note of everything as we walked, and the words for the book came easily. I don’t think I wrote this book—I like to believe that I just recorded it. I recorded what the world was experiencing.
What I would feel alright saying is that this book was simply harder to make than any other book. I spent a lot of time trying to get the images just right, a lot of time going over newspaper articles and undercover footage of hospital scenes and first responders’ experiences. I really absorbed what was happening, and why it was so important to be doing what we were doing. I don’t think I’ve ever cried over illustrating a book before, but I did for this one. I really just let myself feel everything. I think the ending of the book might come off as saccharine to some, but to me, it’s honestly what I feel. Hope is not easy to achieve these days, but I hang onto it. I think it’s what makes me a picture-book illustrator. We write books for the hope of the world.
CVZ: On your website, you state that you draw or paint every day and have done so for nearly every day of your life. Do you adhere to a certain regimen?
LP: Not at all. Drawing is like breathing to me. It’s more effective than writing for me. Words often feel like lumpy dough in my hands—it’s very hard to shape into something meaningful. But pictures—pictures are like sculpting. You know how Michelangelo used to say that in every block of marble was an object waiting to be carved out? Maybe he didn’t say that, but something to that effect. That’s what drawing is for me. A piece of paper is something waiting for something to be carved out of it. It has all the potential in the world to me. Drawing is how I enter the world.
That sounds awfully poetic, doesn’t it? But the truth is, yup, I just draw every day. Sometimes it’s all day, sometimes it’s only for five minutes. Not because I have to, but just because I do. There’s always something new I want to try, or something I’ve drawn a million times that I want to do better.
CVZ: How does writing factor into this? If you’ve always drawn, when did you decide to write as well, and why?
LP: You know, when I was a kid, I was convinced that I’d grow up someday to write books, not illustrate them. I think I’d told myself that you couldn’t make a living as an illustrator, but I seem to recognize a lot of writers who were doing well. So I wrote a lot growing up.
When I first started illustrating, I was fresh out of art school and got my first book offer when I was only 22. I didn’t feel the need at all to write, I was quite happy being given manuscripts to illustrate. They kept coming, and I kept taking them. 9/11 changed all of that. After the terrorist attacks, NYC was never the same. And the publishing world changed too. It seemed there was a line drawn—everyone who had been doing books for a while and was doing well continued life as normal, and kept doing books. Those of us who were just starting out suddenly found ourselves with nothing—no more offers, no more books.
I had to reinvent myself, and took myself to New York and pounded on doors and made meetings and hoped people would like my work. On that trip, I’d redone my entire portfolio, and then for good measure, had thrown in a book dummy that I had written as a present for my sister. I truly didn’t think anything would come of it—it was a little three-by-five-inch book that listed all the reasons why it was tough to be a little sister. I called it Big Sister, Little Sister. At best, I thought it would get me some quick illustration jobs. The first publisher I met with, Hyperion Books, bought the book on the spot. I was floored. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized that often the best books are when the art and the writing are truly married, and the best way to achieve that was with one person doing both.
It still took a while for me to feel comfortable with writing, though. Mostly, I just kept getting other manuscripts that I thought were just better than what I could do. Also, I really needed to pay rent, so I took what jobs I could. But a little bit of me is just really shy about writing. You can’t hide behind anything when you do both parts.
CVZ: Do you feel it’s important for an illustrator to have a recognizable style? If so, then how does their art stay fresh?
LP: Hah! I have to laugh at that, because I think the advice I give on this one goes against what most art directors would have you believe. I think it definitely depends on the kind of career that you want. If you have a recognizable style, people can find you much more easily. Art directors and editors can anticipate what they will get out of you, which makes their lives immensely less difficult. People really don’t like surprises. And when you look at the market, the big sellers definitely support this idea—we know before we pick a book up if it’s a book illustrated by Jon Klassen, Dan Santat, or Sophie Blackall. Their styles are gorgeous and so intricately tied to their names, and they’re all gold standards in the field.
I’d never really wanted that kind of career, was my problem. Not that I wouldn’t want to be Sophie Blackall any day! Wow, what a dream. But I just never could find a single style that I could tie myself to. I never found a way of painting that I thought I could do many, many times without getting tired of myself. My greatest joy (and greatest torment) is to force myself to try new things all the time. I really love switching up styles.
Early on, this was a major impediment to my career—each time I got offered a manuscript, I’d ask if I could try something new. And inevitably, the editor would treat me as though I was a new illustrator and ask for samples, and pay me much less. But I persisted, because in your 20s you’re stubborn, and frankly don’t owe any money, so I could take the risk. Now, years later, I LOVE this chameleon-like ability I’ve got. I love that an editor will contact me and say, “I can’t WAIT to see what you come up with this time!” It’s lovely, and it keeps me always on my toes. I never get bored, which means that I never get stagnant. It’s not the best for sales, I think, but it’s great for my sense of achievement as an artist.
CVZ: You’ve illustrated more than 100 kids’ books and have sold millions of books. Wow! Where do you go from here? How do you decide which project to work on, or do you just want to run away and relax?
LP: Is all that true? Wow, when you say it like that, it doesn’t sound real. I entered this field just aiming to pay rent, ya’ know? To get by doing what I love, something I would do even if I wasn’t getting paid. Sometimes I have to stop and remind myself what an insanely lucky life I have, that somehow I stumbled on to success, but by doing what I felt was right for my own self, sticking to my own path. How many people get to say that that gives them success? Just crazy.
How do I pick new projects? Same way I always have, really. Some stories just call to you. Bear Came Along was just like that—the minute I read the words, I knew what the book would look like in my head. It just came to being. Other stories come from working with fabulous writers—Shannon Hale and I have collaborated on so many projects together, I can’t imagine not doing something with her every year of my life. We seemed to find each other, like kindred spirits, and now throw ideas at each other with such joy, it’s like we’re twelve in our parents’ basement, just having fun drawing and writing.
And I have no problem these days going up to a writer that I love and just begging them to do a book with me. And I have a million ideas of my own I want to do.
Do I just want to run away and relax? Only for about a week. After that, my fingers start itching, and I have to get back to something new. It’s like there’s a train in my head, always going forward, always pushing for that horizon. I can’t seem to stop it. There’s no rest for me! Not as long as there are stories to tell. I don’t know where I go from here, but it’s always someplace new. And that’s good enough for me.
CVZ: In closing, do you have a piece of advice to help others?
LP: I feel like I’ve been giving nothing but advice! Maybe too much? Whatever you do, whatever you love to do, just do it all the time. ALL THE TIME! What did my hero Indiana Jones once say? “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” You said it, man.
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Author photo by Anouk Kluyskens; artwork provided by LeUyen Pham.