Almost two months ago, I received an email from the Sharjah Children's Reading Festival organisers informing me that the illustrations I submitted for their illustration exhibition had won a prize, and invited me to attend the award ceremony and the fair in Sharjah, UAE. So I packed my bags and flew to the UAE last week.
The illustration exhibition was held in a huge hall (what you see above is only half the size of the hall). We arrived on the day of the opening ceremony, when the prizes would be awarded. The organisers did not want me to "inform the press" until the awards were officially announced, so had not actually told me what I had won.
So I had arrived on the day not knowing what to expect. Words could not describe how I felt when I finally saw my Lili illustrations displayed, and realised that I had actually come in first.
I also made some new friends. From left, Junko Nagano, second prize winner, whose etchings are amazing in their detail; and Beatriz Martin, third prize winner, whose abstract illustrations of the story The Flamingo's Stockings are soothingly beautiful. Their winning works can be viewed here, along with the artists that were awarded an "Honorable Mention". Unfortunately, there are no photos of the actual award ceremony, which was presented by the Ruler of Sharjah.
Among the illustrations being exhibited, there were a number of favourites, some of which are shown here:
Honestly, there were so many that I liked, that this is really a teeny tiny sample of the 139 artists on exhibit.
The next day, I was part of a panel of winners, where we each talked about our own work (photo above taken by Mariacarla Taroni, who got an Honorable Mention, seated second from right).
The organisers also organised various cultural events for its guests, and I managed to attend one of them. There was a cultural event called Sharjah Heritage Days showcasing Sharjah's history and heritage, which we were fortunate to be able to attend. We were given a tour which then ended with dinner of local food.
I have been to the Bologna Children's Book Fair a few times, and I thought Sharjah would be similar, albeit less well-known. But while Bologna is essentially a trade fair, Sharjah is definitely more geared towards children and is more accessible. For instance, admission is free and it is open to the public. The stands sell children's books and toys. During weekdays, troops of children from schools attend the fair and there are art workshops and various kids' activities. It is very much a festival to celebrate children's books and children!
All in all, it was a great experience, one which I would not forget.
My next book is out! The Great Dragon Warrior, published by Epigram Books, is a story written by Ng Swee San, and I was commissioned to do the illustrations.
It was a whole lot of fun to draw lots of different dragons! Here are some pictures selected from the book.
Lili is not the first picture book I created. It is the second, but one of which I am most proud. Not least is the fact that it won third place in the Macmillan Prize 2013. I love Lili because I feel it is the most inspired work that I have done thus far.
I wrote and illustrated Lili as one of my projects while still on the MA in Children's Book Illustration course in Cambridge School of Arts. I remember sitting at my desk in 2012 trying to brainstorm on some project ideas just before the new semester started and we have to discuss them in class. Several people have asked me how I came up with the idea of a flame-haired lass. I can't say, except that I thought such a character might be cool. Perhaps I saw Brave on TV (I had scribbled "BRAVE" in my sketchbook). Right on the heels of that idea, the next visual image that came to me was friends roasting marshmallows in her hair. It was one of the first few images I sketched around the idea, and it was this image that convinced me to stick with the character.
My brilliant professor, Martin Salisbury, had reservations about the character, and wondered if it was suitable for a children's book. But I was so taken with the marshmallow idea that I stubbornly stuck to it. At this point, I had no story, no plot, and no "message"; just a character. So I began sketching things that might happen to a girl with a head of fire. What were the useful and destructive characteristics of fire? I considered whether the story would lean towards "humorous" (roasting marshmallows) or "dark" (burn down her village?). Should I chart out her whole life? Would she grow up? Would she find out that she descended from the stars, and eventually return to where she came from? Simultaneously, there were a lot of sketches of what Lili might look like.
But after three weeks, I still had no story, just a jumble of Lili's possible experiences. There were pages and pages of half-completed storyboards. (While three weeks may not seem a long time, I was under a project deadline and I assure you it seemed long to me then!)
Resolved sequence (before mini dummies)
Then one day, while I was walking home after grocery-shopping at Tesco's, it suddenly occurred to me that the story needed to end on a cheerful note, and the marshmallow scene would be the perfect ending. So she would have made friends by that point, but how did that come about? She saved her friends, that's what happened. And all the little vignettes rearranged themselves in my head, and there was my story completed within the 10-minute walk home.
With the main sequence more or less resolved, I shifted my focus to the text, stripping it down so that it doesn't repeat what was in the images. Then I created mini dummies, to check the pacing and flow, and to fine-tune the storyboard.
I also worked in sketchbooks to get the posture and expressions just right.
Very early on, I knew that Lili's hair was the main focus. The illustration technique/treatment needed to reflect this. There was no question that it had to be monochrome images with her hair the only colour. I experimented with how her hair should look, and what materials would be most suitable. When I tried oil pastel on the spread where Lili's hair almost fills the whole frame, I knew that this was the way to go.
Once I'm more or less happy with the text and layouts, I created an actual-sized dummy with relatively detailed sketches. This I would later transfer via a lightbox to cartridge paper for the final artwork.
Creating the final artwork didn't take too long once I had the actual-sized sketches, and the technique I employed was not labour-intensive, compared to full colour watercolour spreads for example. The final images were then scanned in and cleaned up in Photoshop.
Fat Fox Books
People have asked me what inspired the story. Did I know a redhead? What was the message I was trying to get across? Was the fire a metaphor for something? Every story that I have worked on is different. With Lili, it started with the character. A lot about the book is inspired; most of my ideas with this book came to me visually. I "see" the picture in my head and I sketch it. How did it turn out to be a story about being ostracised? It was simply the nature of the character; someone who is this different is likely to have problems fitting in. It just worked out that way. Also, in my head, I knew Lili very well and I knew how she would react given certain situations. So there was very little second-guessing as to whether she would react this way or that way.
I also think it is due to the creative environment I was in at the time. I was surrounded by highly talented people (classmates and tutors) who share the same interests and goals, and we inspire and encourage each other.
As a final note, I would like to add that I am usually reluctant to say what the story means or define the message I am trying to get across. I believe readers will interpret it through the lens of their own experiences, and connect with it some way. At least I hope so!
I now leave you with a video introducing Lili's story.
This video is made by Hirovisual.