In 2015, I was going through emotionally pretty tough time (breakup, moving out, near redundancy and near deportation). That’s when I came across this quote by Francis of Assisi and it had been my mantra ever since. Fast forward three years, I found myself signing my very first book deal – my debut picture book as an author-illustrat to be published in 2020!
It’s been 4 years since I took the first step to be an illustrator. There have been so many ups and downs – both creatively and personally – but somehow I’ve made this far. At this milestone, I decided to take a moment to reflect my journey so far to be a children’s book illustrator. If you’re interested, please read on. There’s a little freebie at the end 😉
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.” – Dr. Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go
To tell you the truth, it’s not like I always wanted to be an illustrator. When I was little, I wanted to be a baker (because I wanted to eat cakes every day). In my primary school days, I had hundreds of different hobbies including knitting and dollhouse making. My teenhood was all about my classic ballet training, which I had started when I was 5. When I had finally come to term with the fact I wasn’t good enough to be a professional dancer, I moved to the UK to study filmmaking and I got a job as an edit assistant / technical operator, which I still do to this day.
But it was around the time I turned 30 when I realised the media job was not something I want to do for the rest of my life. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the job and people that supported me to build the life in the UK where I consider as my second home. But my heart was no longer in the job… So I started asking myself this question, “What is it that you can do every single day for the rest of your life?” And I was like, “Drawing!”
Drawing is the thing that gets me up in the morning and excited. And I was always drawn to telling stories through images so the idea of being an illustrator felt just right. I felt if I could do that for living, that’s me. That would be my dream.
However, I used to believe that you need formal art training or a degree to be an professional illustrator. I felt like everyone else had “She studied illustration at XX School of Art” or “She has MA in graphic design” in their bios, and my inferiority complex held me back. I was also scared to start a new career. So it took me almost a year to finally bring myself to take the first step.
Due to my financial and UK visa situations at the time, going to an art school full-time (or even part-time) at that time wasn’t an option. So I enrolled myself in a 10-week evening course in illustration at the Central St Martin’s. It was September 2014.
I wasn’t particularly interested in children’s books at that time. But one day I saw I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen (Walker Books 2012) in a bookshop (I can’t remember why I was in the children’s section). I picked it up, read it, and felt a punch in my face (not literally). It was nothing like picture books I had known. The artwork was brilliant without being sugar sweet. The story was simple yet unexpected, funny yet so dark. I loved every bits of the book and it opened up the world of children’s books for me. I was like, “This is what I want to do. I want to be a children’s book illustrator!”
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
The first half of my 2015 was tough. My 3-year relationship with my boyfriend broke down badly and I had to move out his flat. Going back from ‘living with my boyfriend’ to ‘ living with two roommates’ felt like a massive adulting failure. To make things worse, it was followed by near redundancy that could have led to deportation. I almost gave all up and thought of going home. But I didn’t. Instead, I endured and harnessed the negative energies into creativity as I often do.
That spring I enrolled myself in another short evening course at CSM; this time in children’s book illustrations. I also taught myself how to make picture books by reading books (see the reading list below) and attended talks and workshops on illustration whenever I could.
One of the talks I’ll never forget was by the current Children’s Laureate, Lauren Child. When she was a teenager, she thought by the time she was 30 she’d have a fantastic career, a house and a husband and all that. But on the morning of her 30th birthday, she woke up in her friend’s bed, which she was sharing because she couldn’t afford one of her own. At the moment, she realised things had to change. Four years later, her bestselling picture book, Clarice Bean, That’s Me was published. I promised myself to follow her example.
My self-confidence was all time low that year so I made myself try new things and get out of my comfort zone. That summer I started volunteering at Ministry of Stories, an East London-based writing and mentoring centre for anyone aged 8 to 18, as a writing and illustrator mentor. I even led some workshops even though I was terrified of public speeches and presentations! It was fantastic experience. I ended up being inspired by those amazing kids I met there!
The highlight of the year was definitely the Picturecamp, a week-long picture book masterclass in Spain, hosted by a Spanish illustrator, Jorge Martin. I learned ins and outs of picture book making from amazing illustrators – Benji Davies, Chris Haughton and Alexis Deacon and I met wonderful fellow students. This turned into some lasting, true friendships and amazing support network.
“The moment where you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever being able to do it.” – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
The following year was challenging in a different way. It was hard to keep the motivation and momentum I had gained from the Picturecamp going. I joined the Association of Illustrators and I worked hard on my portfolio, book ideas, dummy-making and networking throughout the year; for example, in May, I volunteered at Barnes Children’s Literature Festival to meet and talk to the guest writers and illustrators there. But you start to doubt yourself when the progress is slow. You feel like you are not going anywhere.
So, it was nice when a few of publishers responded to my self-promotional postcards I had sent out. Actually, a couple of my illustrations ended up featured in an Irish children’s poetry magazine! It was unpaid but it was something. Also that summer I finally got my permanent residency in the UK after 10-year battle with the Home Office!
Life has some particular moments that have changed your course of life or put you on a right track. One of my turning points happened in March 2017, during my first Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Thanks to my friend, I got to show my dummies to one of my favourite publishers. He liked my stories but my illustration style wasn’t quite right for them, so he gave me some art directions. Taking in his suggestions, I started to experiment with more bold and flat colours, using digital tool, and then something clicked! My work became stronger and more unique to me. It’s a kind of irony as I used to be stubbornly anti-digital illustration, but I’m glad that I listened to the suggestions.
That summer I lost my day job when the company I had worked for 7 years went bankrupt. Luckily I managed to find a similar job in media relatively quickly, but that experience motivated me to put more effort into becoming a working illustrator. So I opened my Etsy shop and I had my first market stall at the House of Illustration Illustrators Summer Fair with my friends.
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2018 is the year of the dogs, which is my zodiac sign, and I feel like all my hard work in past years has begun to fall into place.
For my second BCBF, I was more prepared with stronger portfolio and dummies and better battle plan. I had a couple of very successful meetings with publishers, one of which led to another book deal I’m going to sign soon. I also found out that I was selected for The Illustrators Showcase on the Bookseller Magazine’s BCBF special edition!
A few weeks after the BCBF, I got an agent. Our relationship has been going great. She got me a meeting with a publisher that led to my first book deal I signed recently! (Hope to tell you more about the book when the time is right.)
“Sometimes, I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Weirdly the last four years felt both long and short. A month ago, I found myself nervously sitting in a reception area of one of the biggest publishers in UK to discuss my book ideas. Did I know that I will end up there when I enrolled myself into the CSM evening class four years ago? No, I didn’t. But I believed I would. I always did in the past four years. If you want to achieve something, it’s important to have faith in your own abilities, even if you need to make a leap of faith.
Sitting in the reception was surreal. I was like, How this happened?? But, looking at all those framed artwork from bestseller books on the reception walls, it suddenly sunk in. Then I was overcome by a funny feeling – a mixture of excitement and fear. Excited because my dream was coming true. Scared because it was becoming real, no longer just a dream.
I’m glad that I took the first step four years ago, and I am grateful to my family, friends and people on social media who gave me warm supports over these years. However, this is not the end of my story. Far from it. I hope to keep sharing my on-going journey to become a children’s book illustrator with you, and hopefully you will find my story encouraging or simply interesting (please let me know what aspect of my journey you want to hear in future posts).
Thank you for reading!
WAIT! DON’T GO YET!
To say thank you for reading my blog and your support, I’d love to share the wonderful quote by Francis of Assisi with you. This quote has been a great help whenever I get overwhelmed in jugging my day job and illustration work, or get feeling ‘left behind’ by comparing myself to other people who are seemingly ahead in life (career, marriage, buying house, kids etc). To download a A4 print quality artwork, please click the link below. And feel free to share!
The Fundamentals of Illustration (2nd edition) by Lawrence Zeegen
Illustrating Children’s Books: Creating Pictures for Publication by Martin Salisbury
Children’s Picturebooks: The art of visual storytelling by Martin Salisbury & Morag Styles
The Illustrator’s Guide to Law and Business Practice by Simon Stern