I am happy to welcome debut illustrator Qing Zhuang to Cynsations today to talk about her journey and what motivates her to create books for kids.
What first inspired you to write/illustrate for young readers?
Books were my best friends. Growing up, I had a lot of things I wanted to say but couldn’t do so directly, partially due to language, economic and cultural barriers as an immigrant child so drawing became my mode of expression. Working in a school has also added new dimensions to my experience of childhood and what it means to grow up.
Every child deserves to experience beauty, wonder, tenderness, understanding and joy. For some children, books are one of their only sources of these experiences. This is what motivates me.
As an unagented illustrator, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?
After many years of going to the same Winter SCBWI conference in NYC, I decided to try the New Jersey one because I had heard so many good things about it.
I entered their themed competition and won in the “unpublished” category. I also participated in the portfolio show.
I believe this is how I gained the fortune of attracting Kelly Carey, author of How Long is Forever? (Charlesbridge, 2020) as well as the Charlesbridge editor’s attention.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the editor asking me to read the manuscript and decide if I want to illustrate it or not.
As a member of a community underrepresented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?
I know many people who are parents or grandparents of children who are multiracial or adopted or in a blended family. I also have many students who are multiracial or adopted or simply don’t look like their caretakers for another reason.
As well-loved as they are, these students sometimes struggle immensely with their identity and loving what makes them unique. I kept them in my mind when I began designing the characters.
Even though I am not in a multiracial family or relationship, I felt very sympathetic to those struggles with identity and acceptance. It was my own minuscule way to tell that student or friend that they matter, that their “forever love” is worthy of being seen and celebrated.
As an illustrator-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?
I love being both illustrator and teacher. The throughline is a love of books.
I am obsessed with picture books and graphic novels and constantly order books or buy signed copies at book events to share with students. It’s not a small amount, but I can’t help it.
It’s absolutely my favorite way of connecting with children, even more than making art with them—which is super fun for me!
Obviously, working with children teaches me so much about them. Sometimes they inspire new stories, it could be the way they dressed or reacted to an ordeal….
I wouldn’t be able to just dream it up just from drawing from my own childhood experiences.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable?
I started off a bit rocky. Art school was confusing for me. I didn’t feel I fit in and generally felt tired all the time. So after art school, I had to take a long time to figure out what kind of art I wanted to make. I felt pretty guilty and lost!
Along the way, I saved up money and took Monica Wellington’s continuing ed class at SVA and through several open-ended assignments, I began to find some semblance of an “ah-ha.” I had to really edit myself and decide that even though I had this experimental streak, if a children’s book portfolio is what I wanted to make, I needed to start my career with a clear vision.
I needed 15 good pieces in a singular style so that editors know what I can do before I branch out to new territory.
Another factor is the emotional piece. I went to grad school to study art education. Teaching art to children reignited my excitement about making art. Learning about teaching and child development was a welcomed new challenge and made me feel strong and independent.
It is extremely difficult to be a teacher, and I am humbled and inspired by it every day. It also provides necessary structure in my life!
Lastly, I met supportive people. The emotional and life experience factors cannot be underestimated in my artistic development. To anyone who is feeling the way I felt, I say: Keep going and be patient!
Qing Zhuang is an illustrator and aspiring writer-illustrator in New York City. She came to the United States from China as a child and grew up mostly in Brooklyn. She has a Master’s degree in art education and a BFA in illustration from Maryland Institute College of Art. How Long is Forever? written by Kelly Carey (Charlesbridge 2020) is her first picture book.
Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.