My second picture book, When the Sun Goes Home (Orchard Books 2021), is a story of the sun who hides his loneliness behind his glorious smile.
The very first idea of the book came to my mind while I was walking to work. It was an image of the sun having a TV dinner by himself in front of the TV set (don’t ask me why). First it made me giggle, then hooked. I asked myself “Does anyone know what the sun is up to after he disappears beyond the horizon? What if it’s not what we expected? What if it’s rather quiet and lonely?” The sun is a symbol of happiness and positivity in many cultures. I never thought the sun could be lonely, but, come to think of it, unlike the moon who is always surrounded by billions of stars, the sun seemed a bit lonely up in the sky. That thought sparked the story about hiding true feelings.
Writing and editing was the hardest part in making of this book because I tried to put too much into the story at first. The first draft was packed with a LOT of content – a lot of messages, a lot of scenes, a lot of descriptions. It was too complex for a picture book. It also didn’t have a quite right “picture book” feel. But my then editor, Emily, patiently helped me simplify the story and find a focus and the right tone.
For example, here’s the lines from the first draft:
Sometimes he wishes he had a friend to spend a quiet evening with. Maybe they could watch a film or play a board game together. But, unlike the Moon who is always surrounded by stars, the Sun is quite lonely.
And here are the lines in the final draft:
How lucky the moon is, thought the sun. She always has the stars for company.
I wish I had a friend.
I also learned how to enrich the simplified story through illustrations, instead of more words and scenes. In the first draft, there was a scene where the sun mistook the diva-like moon’s popularity for being loved. I cut the whole scene but it was implied in this spread in the background.
Thanks to Emily (and later Frances), after about 15 rewrites, When the Sun Goes Home became a story about the importance of sharing emotions and asking for help.
For artwork, I usually start with very small and roughly doodled thumbnail sketches, and I play with compositions and layouts until I find pace and overall balance that work. Then I do slightly bigger thumbnails then made-to-measure roughs. I usually make hand-drawn sketches for every pages. Then I scan the sketches and colour them digitally.
One of my favourite parts of making a picture book is choosing a colour palette. I knew from the start light blue and yellow would be the key colours for this book. I often turn to films to find colour inspirations. I found inspiration for this book from one of my favourite films – The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson (2007).
Probably this bedroom spread was the trickiest. The framed jigsaw puzzles on the wall were originally based on famous paintings about loneliness (e.g. Nighthawks by Hopper), but I had to change some of them due to copyright concern (I thought they were safe 😅). So I changed them to cat theme paintings. In hindsight, I think this version worked better to hint the sun’s loneliness (and this is also funnier).
I studied filmmaking at university and what I found most interesting was “mise-en-scène”. In film analysis, the term refers to everything in front of the camera, including the set design, lighting, and actors. Basically, in good films, even tiny details are often there for purpose; to add meanings, to create a certain atmosphere etc. I really like the concept and, even though children are most unlikely to notice, I like to use it in my illustrations, like the pile of self-help books to show the pressure the sun feels. For one of pages, my publisher suggested to change the cup noodles to more child-friendly pizza, but I stuck to my guns because I liked the lonely connotation of eating cup noodles for dinner (and it’s also funnier).
In this book I definitely had fun with layouts and texts to bring more drama to the story, with a great help from my art director, Paula.
I certainly felt a massive pressure to make this book as good as my first book, Avocado Asks, but I was lucky to have a very supportive team at every step of the way from the beginning to the end in the process. So big thanks to Emily, Paula, Frances and Hachette team!
The funny thing is that I saw a lot of me in the sun character AFTER I finished this book. During the second lockdown in England, my mental health got to the point I really needed help. Generally I’m not good at asking for help mostly because I’m scared of what people think of me, just like the sun in my book. It took me a while until I finally asked for help because the first step was the hardest, but I’m glad I did. Many children (and adults alike) have gone through tough time during this pandemic. I hope this book will bring some encouragement to the readers. When The Sun Goes Home is ultimately about being kind to yourself because asking for help is one of the most courageous and kindest acts you can do for yourself.