A book I illustrated and I’m very excited about is coming out on the 5th October. It’s Little People, Big Dreams: Yoko Ono (Frances Lincoln 2021). In this post, I will share some of the artwork from the book and the inspirations behind them.
If you like picture books, I bet you have heard of Little People, Big Dreams. LPBD is a series of biography picture books for young readers created and written by Maria Isabel Sánchez Vegara. What makes the bestselling series extra unique is the use of a wide range of illustrators and I’ve been a big fan of the series. So, when my agent told me that Cuarto (FL is their imprint) and Maria wanted me to illustrate one of the LPBD books, it was a no-brainer. I said yes.
When I found out that the subject was Yoko Ono, my feeling was rather neutral. I was excited because she was a big name, but, apart from our nationality and similar long black hair, I didn’t particularly feel a strong connection to her. To be honest, I knew she was some sort of conceptual artist and a wife of John Lennon but that’s about it. Basically I hardly knew anything about her, but maybe that’s why this project became so interesting.
Along with the text, Maria gave me many visual references and quite specific suggestions for each spread. However, I felt I needed to do my own research in order to do justice to the story of a real person. My research mainly involved reading and watching Ms Ono’s interviews as well as articles on her exhibitions and biography. I came across a documentary film, John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (Michael Epstein 2018), and I found it particularly inspiring.
The one thing I didn’t need much research was the Japanese details of the first four spreads. I just used my own experience and knowledge. For example, I couldn’t find any interior picture of Ono’s childhood homes, but I imagined how they had been, based on my grandparents’ homes and places I’ve seen to in Japan. Since I’m Japanese, I wanted to bring some authenticity to this book, and I really enjoyed drawing these spreads. They made me homesick!
Sky is a recurring motif in Ono’s artwork. She often uses blue and white too. In an interview, she said:
“In those days [during WWII], I just looked at the sky, and it was so beautiful. And there was not many beautiful things in my life except the sky. And the sky was always changing, bright, beautiful. And so I really fell in love with the sky at the time.”
So I consciously featured the blue sky in many spreads. I also used the sky blue as a key colour (e.g. little Yoko’s clothes). Growing up in Japan during World War II, Ono’s family was often hungry. To keep her hunger away, she often turned to her imagination. In this spread, I used the sky to show her imagination.
In John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky, one of her former classmates at Sarah Lawrence College remembers Ono. She was often seen perching on an apple tree in front of the main building, writing haiku poems. For this spread about her poems, Maria suggested something different, but I really liked the little anecdote about her sitting on a tree and writing haiku so I counter-suggested this idea instead. Luckily, Maria liked it too.
Also, I thought it would make a lovely nod to one of her famous artwork, Apple (1966). Actually I put green apples here and there throughout the book. I wonder if you can find them all?
Reading about Ono’s early NY days (early 1950s) and her friends, I learned about art, music and literary movements I didn’t know about, such as the Beat Generation, beatniks and Fluxus.
She turned her NY loft (112 Chambers Street) into a performance space and hosted a number of “happenings” with her avant-garde friends. Her actual happenings seemed rather risqué (she set a painting on fire at one performance) but this is my picture-book-friendly interpretation of an evening at one of her happenings. The idea of Ono lying on the piano was inspired by a picture of her at her Fluxus mentor John Cage’s piano concert.
Although she is an independent person and artist in her own right, it’s almost impossible to talk about Ono’s life without mentioning John Lennon. He was her biggest collaborator in her personal and artistic life. Did you know Ono finally received a songwriting credit for Imagine in 2017, more than 40 years after the song’s release and decades after John acknowledged her poetic influence on the song? When I read about it, I felt enormous respect to Ono, thinking the “song of the century” wouldn’t have existed if John hadn’t met her. In John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky, an actor and Lennon and Ono’s friend, Daniel Richter said:
“I hear Yoko [in Imagine], because those are all her words. You know. Those words are… I love John, but those were her words. She was speaking through him. You know, I mean, I don’t think the world’s got that quite yet, but all of this… You know, the language that you see from the time they together, forward, is Yoko’s language. She taught him this language.”
Anyway, this is my favourite spread in the book. The concept (a piano on clouds) was Maria’s idea, inspired by the Imagine album cover. I thought it’s brilliant. The flapper dress was inspired by the one she was wearing in the Imagine music video. Here I intentionally put Ono in the centre of the composition and made John less prominent by turning his face away to emphasise this book is about her, not him.
This is another spread featuring Lennon. Their famous, peaceful protest – Bed In (1969). Maria had a wicked idea for this spread. She decided to use the exactly same lines from LPBD: John Lennon (illustrated by Octavia Bromell) and asked me to mirror the Octavia’s illustration for her Bed In spread. Another brilliant idea from Maria!
COVER & COLOUR PALETTE
Cover is usually the last thing you illustrate when you make a picture book, but for this project it was the first thing I had to illustrate. It was tricky to say the least as my characters tend to develop and change as I illustrate the book. So I had to figure out how I was going to illustrate Yoko Ono pronto!
Since she doesn’t have an iconic costume or physical traits (e.g. David Bowie’s thunder bolt make-up and Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit), I wondered how on earth I could make her recognisable. What catches my eyes when I see her photos? The black, long, thick hair! In real life, Ono had a short bob when she was little, but I gave my little Yoko a long hair. Originally I wanted yellow background like the cover of Ono’s poetry book, Grapefruit (1964). But Maria and I decided to go for white to pair with the John Lennon book.
As you can see in this slideshow, I couldn’t settle on her skin colour and the volume of her hair for a while and I struggled to capture her friendly yet enigmatic smile. But thanks to Maria’s directions, we finally found little Yoko we are happy with.
I had to figure out the colour palette quickly too. I knew sky blue would be a key colour and I wanted to use yellow too. Since the main potion of the story is set in the 1950s-1970s, I built my colour palette around 60s inspired colour scheme.
Instead of a mere accessory to the world’s most famous singer, what I discovered through working on this book was an artist with a beautiful and unique vision and compassionate individual. The more I learned about Yoko Ono, the more respect I felt towards the Japanese artist who stayed true to herself against all the criticism and focus on making the world a better place, and the angrier I felt towards the media who had reduced the artist to “the woman who broke up the Beatles”.
I didn’t know before but I learned how much people had hated and blamed Ono for breaking up the Beatles (sadly some people still do). Her son, Sean Lennon, tweeted “if she had been a quiet pretty white girl with blonde hair and bangs you all would’ve just loved her” and, as an Asian living in the West, I agree. But Ono beautifully explains how she has been dealing with all these hates:
“The reason that I have so much love is because the whole world hated me. And sent me all these incredibly strong vibrations of hatred. And I thought, “What am I gonna do with it?” And I found a way of transforming that energy – such a strong energy – into an energy of love. So I have a lot of love.”
In a Jonathan Ross Show, she said it’s actually healthy to getting all these “jabs” and she even thanked the world! What a human being!
John Lennon once described Ono as “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everyone knows her name, but no one knows what she actually does”. It’s true. Even in our native land of Japan, people don’t really know her. This book landed on my desk like any other projects, but it ended up feeling like my mission to let the unknown artist rightfully known to the world (although I know she doesn’t need my help). The book also became a love letter to my new favourite Japanese artist.
Lastly, I just want to thank my friends who wrote their wishes in their native languages for the last spread featuring Ono’s interactive artwork, Wish Trees. They made the spread authentic, special and personal.
Love & peace,
Thank you for this lovely article- and for sharing your engaging, energetic illustrations. Very well done! :). I was a kid when the world was giving her unfounded grief- and I decided to learn more about her art. I love so much of it; from Cut Piece to Grapefruit, to FLY, to her half-a-room installations, to Season of Glass and beyond. It’s a pity it’s so hard to pass things on to the next generations (even with the internet) but I’m glad you had the chance to learn more about her work and to bring these illustrations to the world.