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Benson Shum is a Southern California author-illustrator of more than five children’s books. His latest, Anzu the Great Listener, came out January 10. It is the sequel to Anzu the Great Kaiju (2021) and a Kids’ Indie Next pick for January/February 2023.

Kite Tales: Welcome to Kite Tales, congratulations on Anzu the Great Listener! What was the original inspiration for Anzu?

Benson Shum: Thank you so much! I always loved the world of Kaijus, the idea that these monsters tower over cities and are larger than life. But I wanted to know more. What was going through their heads? Did they all want to be destructive? What if they’d rather talk to their city rather than destroy it?

KT: Did you always know there would be a sequel? Is there more to Anzu’s story?

BS: Yes, we signed a two book deal when Anzu the Great Kaiju was acquired. Though we didn’t know what the second book was going to be about. We came up with the idea after the first book was done. I hope there will be more Anzu stories! I would love to explore more of Anzu’s world.

KT: Visually, Anzu is one of the cutest characters I’ve ever seen. How did you come up with his look? 

BS: Thank you so much for saying that! I wanted Anzu to have a familiar look and yet a little different. He has the structure of a dinosaur and dragon, but I wanted to make him unique with some features. Like his nose and his spine. The nose and spines are inspired by his superpower of flowers, hence his flower petals spines to make him more unique.

KT: In Great Listener, Anzu has fully embraced his flower powers and the story opens with him tending his bonsai tree. The tree acts as a frame/metaphor throughout the rest of the story and at the end you include facts about bonsai trees. Any particular reason you chose a bonsai tree?

BS: I chose a bonsai tree because first, they are beautiful and delicate. And second, it takes a lot of time and patience to care for a bonsai. I thought it paired and framed the story where we learn about listening as a metaphor for what Anzu and his neighboring city go through.

KT: As an author-illustrator, what comes first for you: the words or the images? Or do they come together?

BS: It’s different for every book. Sometimes the images come first. Then I’ll do a sketch/painting and then write the story from there. And sometimes I’ll start with the story/text first, then come up with the imagery afterwards. 

KT: How does the process of illustrating your own work differ from illustrating someone else’s?

BS: Illustrating my own work is a little different than illustrating someone else’s text. When I’m writing and illustrating, I’m already roughly picturing what it will look like in my head while I’m writing. Nothing is solid yet, but pictures come to mind and that helps me tell the story. When I’m illustrating someone else’s text. I’m focused on the text, the line breaks, where is the rhythm, the page breaks, the pages turns, and I take all those into consideration when coming up with sketches.

KT: In addition to being an author and an illustrator, you’re also an accomplished animator. What inspired you to enter the kid lit world? Did you have any reservations or fears about working in a different medium? 

BS: Thank you. I’ve always loved children’s books. And when I found out there was a Children’s Book Program at our studio (Walt Disney Animation Studios) I applied and fortunately got accepted and from there wanted to learn more about the industry. Yes, I still do have fears about working in different mediums. My first book was done digitally, and everything else I’ve done since has been watercolor and ink. I wasn’t sure how that was going to go at first, but I loved it. 

KT: Any advice for illustrators who want to write or writers who want to illustrate?

BS: For illustrators that want to write, read a lot. And especially read in the genre you are writing for. It’ll help with your own writing. Analyze why the author chose those words. We have a limited amount of words in PB books, so every word is chosen for a reason. For writers who want to illustrate. Go for it! Don’t worry about making nice drawings. The idea is to get the feeling from what you have in your head onto the paper. The more you draw the better you’ll get. Drawing from life is really important. It’ll train your eye to be more observant.

KT: Who are some of your kid lit inspirations?

BS: It’s hard to choose. Mary Blair for her color and design sense. Quentin Blake‘s work is incredible There is so much life to his work with just a few strokes of ink. Christian Robinson for his shapes and designs, and so many more.

KT: Finally, if you were a kaiju, what would your superpower be?

BS: If I were a Kaiju, I would love to have the superpower of water. Water can be a force of nature but also calm, still and serene at the same time. It can be any shape and it goes with the flow.

KT: Thank you, Benson!

Thank you for having me on Kite Tales. It’s an honor. You can find more of my work on my website www.bensonshum.com and on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok at @bshum79

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Benson Shum is a children’s book author and illustrator. Benson uses watercolor, ink and digital tools to create his illustrations. His book Anzu the Great Kaiju received a starred review from School Library Journal and both Anzu the Great Kaiju and Anzu the Great Listener were selected as the Kid’s Indie Next List recommended by ABA (American Booksellers Association) for 2022 & 2023. His book Alex’s Good Fortune was also selected to be part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Aside from writing and illustrating, Benson is an Animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he was a part of such films as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Frozen 2, and Encanto. Originally from Vancouver, BC, he now lives in sunny Southern California.

Images provided by Benson Shum.