The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
Our guest: LeUyen Pham is an author and illustrator whose books include Big Sister, Little Sister, Bedtime for Mommy (written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal), and the Little Badger book series (written by Eve Bunting); she is also the illustrator of actress Julianne Moore’s Freckleface Strawberry series. Uyen’s latest authored book, There’s No Such Thing As Little, was released by Random House on April 14, as was The Princess in Black (written by Shannon and Dean Hale), which she illustrated.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
My earliest memory are these Vietnamese fairytales my mother used to read to my little brother and I. It was right after the Vietnam war, we had settled in Southern California, and there were very few books in Vietnamese my mother could find, as she couldn’t read English. But surprisingly, there was a volume of Vietnamese fairytales at our local library, and my mother would read them to us. They’re pretty grisly by western standards, with the Vietnamese version of Cinderella ending by boiling the wicked step sister in oil, and then turning her into a paste that the step mother ate without realizing. As a kid, I loved it. (Editor: The Vietnamese version of Cinderella is Tam and Cam, left.)
2. WITH WHICH CHILDREN’S LITERATURE CHARACTER DO YOU MOST IDENTIFY?
Ah! That’s easy: Turtle Wexler, from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. She was the younger, less-noticed, clever sister to Angela Wexler, family darling. I completely related to her desire for attention, her hopeless crushes, her jealousy and profound love of her older sister, everything. She is my literary doppelganger for sure.
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
As a kid, it was a toss-up between Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Beverly Cleary, because she got me hooked on reading series-style books, and Judy Blume, because the lady told it as it is. As for illustrator, I was huge fan of Hillary Knight. I loved his illustrations for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Eloise, and his own Where’s Wallace?, which I still adore.
4. IF YOU WERE THROWING A KINDERLIT PARTY FOR FIVE GUESTS, WHO WOULD YOU INVITE?
OOH! That’s a fun one. Let’s see. I’ve pick Margaret Wise Brown (because I don’t know that she realized how long lasting her books would be), Edward Gorey (because the guy rocks), J.K. Rowling (because I’m a Harry Potter freak — yes, you heard it here first!), Elizabeth George Speare (because oh how much do I love “The Witch of Blackbird Pond”?!), and Calvin (who would, of course, bring Hobbes).
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
This might be a simple answer, but honestly? Good writing. Even if a story is awful, if an author knows how to parse her words and string together things that sound lovely, I’ll stick through to the end. Maybe it’s because I love reading books aloud, and now that I’ve got kids, I read them everything from picture books to chapter books to non-fiction, and the ones that I love reading the most and they love hearing the most are the ones with just lovely lovely writing. Even if the stories don’t make sense. Not sure that that one is much of a universal answer, but it is so in my case.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT
This is a cheat, but I think my work doesn’t have a defining characteristic, and that’s its defining characteristic. I have multiple personality disorder for sure, and can never stick to any one style or look for long. But somehow, even with all that, most people can still recognize that it’s my work. Go figure!
7. IF YOU WERE TO DIE AND COME BACK AS A CHARACTER FROM CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, WHO WOULD YOU LIKE IT TO BE?
Max, from Where the Wild Things Are, because the little guy seemed pretty fearless, and I’ve love to feel that way.
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I don’t know that I can answer that one. Every time I finish a book I can’t look at it, I’m so tired of it, and so self-critical that I think it’s the worse thing I’ve ever done. Then I bury it and start the next project. Thank goodness in this industry, it takes about a year from when you finish to when the book is published, because when the bound book arrives at my door months later, I can appreciate it then. But my work is ever changing, and because I’m in the unique position of doing so many projects in a given year (I think I’ve published over 80 books by now), any dissatisfaction I have with one project, I carry over into the next and address it then. So I guess you could say I’m always going back and redoing my work.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
This is going to sound like the ultimate hokey answer, but I swear it’s true: Carpe Diem.
I was just the right age when the movie Dead Poets’ Society came out: 15, shy, book-crazed, looking for inspiration. I saw that movie and just breathed in the message. Became a huge reader of transcendental verse. And later, through college and art school and really difficult years, and especially having Asian parents who really didn’t value the same things I did, I think I really held onto the message that your life is what you make it, that there’s value in art and writing and seeing all that beauty in the world. So yeah, carpe diem!! Make your lives extraordinary!
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
There is no work process to describe. I’m up at 7, have the kids out by 8, and am at my desk/computer by 8:30. Usually work in my pyjamas until forced by the FedEx guy knocking at the door to change into something halfway normal. Try to take breaks for yoga every hour, hour and a half, and then yoga just consists of a five minute stretch. Pick up the kids at 3 pm, so take a break from work until about 8, then back to the table! Typical day can end anywhere between 10-11 pm, though on deadline I can easily work til 2 in the morning. Usually on Saturdays too. I work on typically 5-6 books a year, so I’m always always working. Sketching is the hardest part, where all the thinking is involved, so that always takes forever. But once I start painting, my automatic thinking comes in, and it’s not hard. That’s usually when I’m thinking of the next project, while I’m finishing up the current one. My brain is always engaged. My husband says I’m a machine that just doesn’t turn off.