I am so pleased to welcome author-illustrator Isabella Kung to discuss her journey to publication and to share her inspiration for her debut picture book No Fuzzball! (Scholastic, 2020).
What first inspired you to illustrate for young readers?
I always loved reading children’s books and the love only grew as I aged. They continue to fuel me with imagination; allow me to escape to a world of wonder; connecting me to my inner child.
When I was a young college student going through art school, I found myself constantly picking fairy tales or other children’s literature to illustrate for assignments. I enjoyed drawing animals, nature, children, mermaids, trolls, and witches.
Around the same time, I fell deeply in love with watercolor. In this fast-paced digital world, the children’s books industry remains to be the only illustrative field that still embraces and even celebrates traditional media.
Picture books are also the format (other than comics) where the illustrations are just as valued and significant to the story as the text. Without the illustrations, the story will simply be incomplete.
With all that room to stretch my muscles as an illustrator, along with my love for storytelling and my interests in subject matter, choosing to create children’s books was a no-brainer!
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
No Fuzzball actually started off as a wee-little character designed for a set of emojis, inspired by my two cats Bubo and Bella, the ultimate muses and loves of my life. I also happened to be obsessed with black cats during that time. I must have created more than 25 emoji stickers.
Designing emojis is actually very similar to doing a character sheet, so I got to really know her personality by drawing her expressions and body language. And with that, my main character, Queen No Fuzzball was born!
Her personality is a combination of both my cats. Bella was the one with the smarts and attitude, she only does things on her terms. Bubo was the one who wanted attention from everyone and was the silliest goofball. Everything No Fuzzball does in the book, I have observed my girls do in real life (with the exception of putting dirt on the dog bed). I’m pleased to say the endpapers of my book are filled with those original emojis, a perfect nod to No Fuzzball’s origins.
My character’s popularity grew on the internet and at conventions and fairs too. People were drawn to her and they wanted to know her story, and I wanted to tell it. I want the world to know about my beloved Queen!
I was still new to writing back then, they say write what you know, and I know cats. But like all cats, No Fuzzball is secretive and full of mysteries. It took a long time for me to figure out her story, that even a Queen couldn’t live without her family because she loves them. And as cliché as it sounds, I had the biggest story breakthrough while I was in the shower!
What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?
I find the biggest challenge is the persistence it takes to create a picture book, especially as an author-illustrator. From conception to starting the first draft; the numerous revisions for manuscript and storyboarding; finessing the character designs to get it just right and picking a suitable stylistic direction; and finally completing all 32 – 40 pages. It takes months and sometimes years to complete a book.
For No Fuzzball!, it took almost four years (on & off) and a total of fourteen drafts before it got picked up by Scholastic, and then another six months to complete the illustrations. It’s no wonder why our line of work is often referred to as a labor of love.
All that time and effort can take a toll psychologically (and who am I kidding, physically too! My back!). It is easy to get burnt out with long projects like making a book, especially while juggling multiple books.
I find myself feeling creatively depleted and needing time to recharge, which admittedly, is not something I am particularly good at. Even when I do have time in between projects, it is hard to truly rest and exercise self-care. There are stories on the back burner that need to be worked on! Art experiments waiting to be explored! New tools to be learned! Promotional materials to be done!
Finding that balance between personal life and work life in order to maintain that persistence is the biggest challenge for me. Hopefully, it will be challenge I will face less and less, I have many more stories I want to bring to life!
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
Let’s start with the worst moments and end with the best moments, since it happened in that order in real life. Back in 2018, I was with a different literary agent, and have been represented by her for almost two years. I have heard nothing back on my submissions and had assumed publishers were not interested in my stories. It led me to my darkest moments of self-doubt and depression, wondering if I had made a mistake.
I remember contemplating whether I should just stick with illustrating and give up on my dream to publish my own stories. I had taken a break from teaching and working on other freelance projects that year to focus on my own stories and took a writing course with Jim Averbeck at Storyteller Academy.
It turns the agent had done unethical business practices that shocked the publishing industry. The news spread quickly on Twitter, I still remember the shock of reading it on my phone, two days before I was supposed to depart on a big international family trip.
Fortunately, the entire kid lit community was sympathetic to all of us who have been represented by her. Some authors, editors, and agents kindly offered to provide feedback or open their submissions for us.
I stayed up all night and queried three agencies right before heading to the airport. I, along with every one of her clients, was devastated.
Fast forward to a month later, I signed with my dream agent, Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency! After one more round of revision, No Fuzzball! was out on submission.
Within two months, I got a call from my agent about my very first offer! That phone call was one of the best moments of my publishing journey, I was over-the-moon elated! Especially after everything that has happened, I almost couldn’t believe it!
It just shows what a good agent can do, and how the worst moments could potentially lead to the best moments down the road! No Fuzzball! ended up receiving two different offers and I went with Scholastic.
The second-best moment of my publishing journey was when I received my author’s copies. The joy of holding my book in its final form was remarkable! My dream finally felt real! And of course, the launch day itself was my third best moment.
Despite canceling all my original plans to celebrate due to the pandemic, I was overwhelmed with the love and support shown through the web. It was the first time I ever saw pictures or videos of kids holding my book, reading my book, and even kissing my book!
What’s more, the day ended with a highly customized, mind-blowingly cute launch party on Animal Crossing organized by my editor Kait Feldmann. She has forever raised the bar for all editors! It was even featured in a Publishers Weekly article. I now have such fond memories of this very important day, which would have been a blur because I was physically stuck at home just like any other day. I am forever grateful to Kait, Jenn, my friends, and the lovely Scholastic peeps that helped make this launch more than I could ever hope for.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?
Each person’s publishing journey is different. Most of them, including my own, are filled with twists and turns, rejections and disappointments. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Behind every success story is years of hard work and persistence. So try not to compare yourself to others (I know, it’s easier said than done!).
Always listen carefully and take time to process critiques, whether it is from an industry professional or your critique group, even if you do not agree with the feedback initially. And work hard on improving your craft and don’t be afraid to experiment! When you think you are ready, join SCBWI, network, connect and submit!
Isabella Kung is the author/illustrator of No Fuzzball! (Scholastic, 2020), about a fuzzy feline despot who rules the house with an iron paw. Living up to her cat-obsessed reputation, she also illustrated over 120 cats for the board books 123 Cats and ABC Cats by Lesléa Newman (Candlewick, 2021). Other clients include Committee for Children, P&H Publishing, 826 Valencia, and Ladybug Magazine.
Her illustrations have received accolades from institutions such as the Society of Illustrators, Spectrum Fantasy Art, 3×3, Creative Quarterly, and SCBWI. Isabella currently resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable cats. She is represented by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Learn how to draw Fuzzball on KidlitTV Ready, Set, Draw!
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. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.