Interview: Children’s Illustrators Ying-Hwa Hu and Cornelius Van Wright

Cornelius Van Wright, a native New Yorker, and Ying-Hwa Hu, who was born in Taiwan, are a husband-wife children’s book illustration team living in New York City. Cynthia Leitich Smith, the site author, is especially pleased to bring readers this interview from the illustration team of her picture book, JINGLE DANCER (Morrow, 2000). This interview was conducted via email in December 2001.

What were your first inklings that you might someday become a professional artist? What were your first steps in developing your talent?

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich SmithCV: I never really thought about becoming a “professional” artist. I just loved art. When I was little, a physical condition did not allow me to participate in a lot of physical activities (like gym), so the schools I went to always sent me for an extra period of art. My parents always encouraged it because it was a means of expression. My elementary school art teachers also found weekend programs that I could participate in. Before I knew it I was going to an Art High School and then an Art College.

YHH: Loving art was natural for me. Becoming an artist was part of a natural development. However, being a “professional artist” was not realized for me until I got my first assignment.

Did you engage in any formal art studies? If so, could you tell us more about these experiences?

CV: As I mentioned above, I did go to a high school that specialized in art and afterwards a college that also specialized in art.

YHH: I took private art lessons in my last year in high school. I then went on to study advertising and interior design in college. I also studied art education later on in America.

What first inspired you to devote your talents to children’s book illustration?

Alicia's Happy DayCV: I always loved to watch children’s programs on PBS stations (even as a young adult). When I started to explore the different types of illustration art I might try, I first explored book covers and looked into romance novel covers. I found that all the modeled people on the covers had a sameness.

The same figures (slim) the same kinds of noses the same kinds of skin. This was not for me. In contrast, I found that in children’s art it was exactly the opposite. There are so many different kinds of kids, all kinds of shapes and sizes… What beauty!…What freedom! And publishers of children’s art wanted to see these differences. This was the place that beckoned my heart.

YHH: After I married my husband, he shared his love for children’s books with me. I came to love it also.

How did you go about breaking into children’s publishing?

CV: When I was in my last year in high school, I did an internship with an advertising department of a retail store. I learned a tremendous amount about layouts and design. The company offered me a job to work for them part time as I finished high school and throughout my years of collage.

When I graduated, I worked for the company full time. Like I mentioned, I learned a lot and even had the opportunity to be the art director for a new Hispanic segment they were creating (Hispanic commercials) for a then newly recognized market.

Though I loved working there, inside I knew I still wanted to illustrate for children. So I used many of my lunch hours trying to get appointments to show my children’s art to publishers. When I finally got work I would use my evenings, weekends and vacation time to illustrate.

YHH: It was by chance that as my husband was delivering some work to a publisher he saw they were starting a series call Sweet Valley Kids and they were looking for someone to illustrate the interiors. He suggested me to the publisher and I made a few sample pieces for them. I got the job! This was my first break through.

What advice do you have for beginning illustrators?

CV: Well, the only advice I can really give to someone starting is you have to love doing it because you love doing it. It is not a get rich quick field. Also there are many divisions in illustrating. It is not just books but magazines, newspapers, book jackets, cups, clothing… etc. It is probably healthier to get a mix of things going on, not putting all of ones eggs in one basket. It is also important not to give up (this is where the loving what you are doing kicks in).

YHH: Allow your artistic instincts to help direct you in which area of illustration you want to go in.

When I speak about JINGLE DANCER, I often mention your status as a husband-wife team. Could you tell us a little bit about your working relationship? How do you approach a project together?

CV & YHH: We have been working together in one way or another since we married. We came from different art backgrounds. Neil was trained more from a commercial artist point of view. Ying-Hwa was closer to a fine artist. The two views can often clash–Neil saw fine art as rather undisciplined, and Ying-Hwa saw commercial art as being in a box.

We decided to learn from each other. Neil learned about just letting certain things happen in a painting (without controlling it) and the freedom in the medium Ying-Hwa used (watercolors–Neil used oil paints mostly at the time), and she learned to paint inside the box. Neil usually works on the initial layouts, and Ying-Hwa strengthens the characters. Now over the years it doesn’t really matter who the assignment comes in for, we both end up effecting the final product.

Many of your picture books reflect characters from ethnic/racial communities underrepresented in children’s literature. Do you have a particular interest in such books? Would you like to speak to their importance or what they mean to you?

Sam And The Lucky MoneyCV & YHH: We come from different communities, yet we come from the same community (the Arts). We always had fun discovering things about each others’ communities-music, culture, language, history, food, etc. It is the same in children’s literature. It is always very rewarding to dive into a culture and learn things that are distinct about a culture, yet we find children tend to have the same joys, tears, ups and downs. We hope to be a part in bringing as many different kinds of children and cultures to picture books as opportunities allow. It is important for children to see different cultures but in a humane way that they can identify with the book, not allowing the culture to become a cartoon and stereotype.

What are the challenges in researching and completing a book that reflects a community outside of your own? How have you faced these challenges with past projects?

CV & YHH: We respect all communities, and because we do, we put a lot into research. We never go to one source but to as many as possible. We go to friends or neighbors who may be of that background and get information. Yet at the same time, we try avoid the stereotypes that can pervade a readers perception of a culture.

As odd as it may seem, because of our combination, we are more aware and more open and very interested to learn about cultures. This excites us and is part of our artistic quest.

Likewise, what aspects of your own lives or experiences have you brought to your illustrations?

CV & YHH: We have two young children. We have many friends with children. We have the privilege of knowing many friends from different parts of the world and some of them have children. These experiences and relationships of our everyday life we bring to our illustration.

Many readers and critics have commented favorably on your beautifully realistic watercolor illustrations. Where do the features for these characters come from? Your imagination or models or both perhaps?

We try to use friends and neighbors for references. Many times we use the references with a dose of imagination.

The texts of your books are by various authors. How do these stories come to you? How do you select which ones to illustrate?

CV & YHH: We are usually offered the texts through the publishers. Our rule of thumb of taking a manuscript is: can we read this book to our children and feel good about it?

What do you love most about being a children’s book illustrator? What is most challenging about it?

JewelsCV & YHH: Being a children’s book illustrator has been wonderful. The editors, art directors and authors in the field are some of the nicest people to work with.

The challenge in the field is beginning to be felt by most of the people we know. We live in a pop culture society now that seems to be racing towards more outer image then content. Music is not as much about music as it is about the video that sells it. It is a commercialized slippery slope.

With the great consolidation of a lot of publishing houses and the mega bookstores squeezing out the independent smaller bookstores, the quick bottom line is effecting many children’s books. Books need time to find it audience, but it feels like increasingly it is beginning to turn into a number’s game. Hopefully, this is a phase that will be reversed.

What can you tell us about your latest books—what they’re about and your experiences working on each?

(a) ALICIA’S HAPPY BIRTHDAY by Meg Starr (Star Bright, 2002): A little girl walks through her neighborhood on her birthday. We are having fun with this book giving it a playful feeling.

Snow in Jerusalem(b) SNOW IN JERUSALEM (Albert Whitman, 2001): This a story about how two boys from different parts of Jerusalem have to work together to find a cat they have independently befriended. We sent out the final art for this book the very week fighting first broke out in Israel. At first we thought, what awful timing, but then we thought, no, no, now is time children need to hear this message of hope. We hope the message will be received.

(c) COMING HOME: A STORY OF JOSH GIBSON, BASEBALL’S GREATEST HOME RUN HITTER by Nanette Mellage (Bridgewater Books, 2001): We hope this introduction to Josh Gibson will spark an interest in people to learn about this important baseball player who did not get due recognition during his lifetime.

The fact that you have three 2001 books suggests that you’re very busy! What is your schedule like? What about a typical work day?

CV & YHH: Well, life is busy but not always because of art work. Like we mentioned, we have two children which is a full time job in and of itself.

In illustration, we are always in three phases at the same time. One, finishing the work we have right in front of us. Two, researching work coming up. Three, looking ahead to try and acquire more work.

It is very difficult to juggle all of these things because in art you have to be in a certain rhythm and mindset for things to flow. It is not a one plus one equals two process. You have to feel the painting taking shape. So the day is spent working and trying to get into that sweet spot where you feel the painting happening—before it time to pick up the children from school.