Author-Illustrator Interview: Chieu Anh Urban on Developing Interactive Board Books

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on Color Wonder: Hooray for Spring! (Little Simon, 2016) This is your third novelty book. 


Cynsations readers may remember your debut Raindrops: The Color of Showers (illustrated by by Viviana Garofoli, Sterling, 2010) and the creative process you described then.

Thank you for having me back; it’s hard to believe seven years have gone by. I’m excited to still be working on novelty books, and appreciate the opportunity to share my process with you and the creative children’s book community.

Tell us about the Color Wonder series. How did this idea develop? What was your inspiration?


This story was a dream come true. Every fall, I begin working on my holiday card to send to publishing editors and art directors. My cards focuses on a special interactive format, and each one is hand-assembled.

A few years ago, I sent out a holiday card featuring sea creatures, embracing the holiday spirit with an interactive wheel format that showcased the concept of color-mixing. The editor at Little Simon was very excited about it, and that is how Color Wonder became a series.

Holiday card with interactive wheel format.

Were there things you learned working on your previous books that helped you with this project?

I am always working on my craft and developing ideas. I’ve learned to be patient and let my designs slowly evolve, until I feel they are ready for me to start layering format and concept together.

My color-mixing wheel format was sketched out in my art book over four years ago. Every now and then I would return to the drawings to improve the design, and develop story concept ideas that would compliment the interactive experience.

Interior spread from Hooray for Spring!

When you’re thinking about an interactive novelty board book, what are the top priorities for creators to keep in mind?

Chieu’s art work space

My goal is to develop a format that will provide fun learning, interactive story-time experiences. I want my novelty format to serve a purpose that works with the story and concept. The interaction with format and story should be fun and satisfying to the child and reader.

My biggest challenge is to keep printing production and cost in mind. Often times, I develop a project that I’m very excited about, but is cost-prohibitive, or difficult to manufacture.

You wear a lot of hats in creating these books: author, illustrator, graphic designer and novelty format designer. Can you tell us more about these roles and the creative skills you call upon to make interactive novelty board books?  


I have a background in communications art and design. I think visually first, with my designer hat on.

I often start my projects with a concept idea, for example, colors. I begin with sketches of how I envision the layout, format, and design to look. From there, the art and story starts to play a role. I work in all these pieces and see what transpires.

How does being a novelty format designer make your work stand out?

Chieu’s computer work space

I focus on creating a format that is inventive and unique, a design that is fun and fresh.

I also think about reinventing common novelty elements, such as die-cuts and wheels.

Being a designer helps me approach art and story in a different perspective.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been busy preparing art for my upcoming novelty books. This fall, Winter is Here! (Little Simon, October 2017), the second book in the Color Wonder series with color-mixing wheels will be published.

Quiet as a Mouse, and Other Animal Idioms (Sterling, 2017) is a fun guess-who novelty book with die-cuts, that will also be available in the fall.

In 2018, 123 GO! will make its debut. It is a number and counting novelty book with sliding vehicles on every page. I currently have a few novelty projects I am developing. Hopefully they will come together nicely.

Cynsations Notes

Chieu Anh Urban holds a BFA in Communications Art and Design from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts in Richmond. She began her career as a graphic designer and now works from her studio in suburban Maryland.

Activities, coloring pages and party collections associated with Hooray for Spring and Away We Go! are available on her website and her blog includes pre-school appropriate crafts related to her titles.

Chieu and her daughter at Hooray for Spring Launch Party

New Voice: David A. Robertson on When We Were Alone

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

David A. Robertson is the first-time children’s author of When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett (Portage & Main Press, Jan. 6, 2017)(available for pre-order). From the promotional copy:

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things about her grandmother that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long braided hair and wear beautifully coloured clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family?


As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where everything was taken away.


When We Were Alone is a story about a difficult time in history and, ultimately, a story of empowerment and strength.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

So much of my writing is aimed at creating social change, especially in the area of relations between First Nations people and non-First Nations people.

I believe that change comes through education; what we learn from history, and its impact on contemporary society. In Canada, we have a long history of mistreatment concerning the First Nations people. As Canadians, we need to learn about this history. So, my work tries to educate in this way.

In terms of young readers, I believe that change comes from our youth. These are the people who shape our tomorrows, and they need to walk into tomorrow informed on the important issues and histories. If they do, we’ll be in a pretty good place.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

graphic novelist-writer of Irish-Scottish-English-Cree heritage

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada looked at the history of the residential school system, and its impact, and from that research, including residential school survivor testimony and documentation, it came up with a list of recommendations.

One of those recommendations was that the residential school system’s history needed to be taught in school as early as kindergarten.

When I saw this, I recognized that there weren’t many resources for teachers (i.e. books) that addressed the residential school system for younger learners.

So, I set out to write one, and that’s how When We Were Alone came about.

I wanted kids at that young age to learn about the system in a way that they could understand and engage with.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

For me the challenges mostly involved sensitivity and appropriateness. This is a difficult history to tell, especially to younger learners. So, I needed to tell the story in a good way.

It took a lot of research and consultation, it took finding the right rhythm in the passages to connect with readers, and we needed to find the right illustrator, too, which we did in Julie Flett.

Of course, writing these stories always has a psychological effect on you as the writer, too. Understanding that the kids you are writing about really went through these things is tough. But knowing that kids will be learning and growing and sharing makes it worth it.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

Also illustrated by Julie Flett

I have the benefit of having five children. So, I’ve read my share of children’s books. This helped in terms of finding a good structure for When We Were Alone, and rhythm.

These two things are very important, and there are certainly some commonalities in books that really work in terms of how they are told, not just what is told in them.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

Read a lot of children’s books, or YA books. Figure out styles, structures, approaches from the best. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to write a good story that really connects with your reader.

It always comes down to reading first, and then hard work and a bit of skill.

Summer Children’s-YA Lit Diversity Conversations

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Over the summer, the children’s-YA book community has continued discussing diversity, decolonization, authenticity and representation both throughout the body of literature and the industry. Here are highlights; look for more in quickly upcoming, additional update posts.

Mirrors? Windows? How about Prisms? from Uma Krishnaswami. Peek: “…cultural content in children’s books needs to be woven into the story so the authors intention is not stamped all over it.” See also Uma on Tolstoy Was Not Writing for Me.

Twelve Fundamentals of Writing The “Other” and The Self by Daniel Jose Older from Buzzfeed Books. Peek: “Every character has a relationship to power. This includes institutional, interpersonal, historical, cultural. It plays out in the micro-aggressions and hate crimes, sex, body image, life-changing decisions, everyday annoyances and the depth of historical community trauma.”

Diversity in Book Publishing Isn’t Just About Writers — Marketing Matters, Too by Jean Ho from NPR. Peek: “For past projects, she has researched segmented audiences ranging from retired African-American women’s books clubs, South Asian soccer organizations, Trinidadian-interest media outlets both stateside and abroad, to extracurricular programs geared toward South Bronx teens.”

Looking Back: Diversity in Board Books by Joanna Marple from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “…that children as young as six months can judge others by the color of their skin. Even if a caregiver never mentions race, children may well use skin color on their own, along with other differences, to judge themselves and others.”

Drilling Down on Diversity in Picture Books from CCBlogC. Peek: “We’re keeping track of the things people want to know. Just how many picture books have animal, rather than human, characters? How many books about African American characters are historical? How many feature LGBTQ families? Or Muslims? Or people with disabilities? How many are by first-time authors or illustrators?”

Children’s Books and the Color of Characters by Kwame Alexander from The New York Times. Peek: “They all believe I am writing about them. Why is this so much harder for the grown-ups? Is race the only lens through which we can read the world?”

On White Fragility in Young Adult Literature by Justine Larbalestier from Reading While White. Peek: “…we white authors can support Indigenous authors and Authors of Color by reading their books, recommending their books, blurbing their books, and recommending them to our agents. When we’re invited to conferences, or festivals, or to be in anthologies, make sure they’re not majority white.”

When Defending Your Writing Becomes Defending Yourself by Matthew Salesses from NPR. Peek: “Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.”

There Is No Secret to Writing About People Who Don’t Look Like You: The Importance of Empathy as Craft by Brandon Taylor from LitHub. Peek: “The best writing, the writing most alive with possibilities, is the writing that at once familiarizes and estranges; it’s writing that divorces us from our same-old contexts and shifts our thinking about ourselves and the world around us.”

How Canada Publishes So Much Diverse Children’s Literature by Ken Setterington from School Library Journal. Peek: “Considering that the entire Canadian market is about the size of the market in California alone (roughly 36 million), publishers must rely on sales
outside of the country.”

Biracial, Bicultural Roundtable (Part One, Part Two) by Cynthia Leitich Smith from We Need Diverse Books. Peek: “According to a 2015 Pew study, 6.9 percent of the U.S. population is biracial. According to the 2010 Census, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people identifying themselves with more than one race rose from 6.8 million to 9 million.”

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