The growing popularity of homegrown children’s books has given illustrators specialising in this field more opportunities to shine.
BY MELANIE LEE
Published on 7 November 2015
BY MELANIE LEE
According to the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS), there are around 15 illustrators in Singapore who do regular work with children’s books, and a handful of full-time illustrators who take on ad-hoc children’s book projects.
Up until today, there has yet to be an artist regarded as the Quentin Blake or Beatrix Potter of Singapore. However, given that the children’s book scene in Singapore is undergoing a modest renaissance in recent years — with over 250 titles published in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil from 2012 to 2014 — it’s a good time to uncover these hidden talents.
Illustrations are particularly important for picture books (for ages two to eight) and middle-grade books (ages eight to 12) because they play a key role in making a story or subject matter come alive.
“Children’s book illustrators are storytellers like the author, except their narratives are told in images and not words,” says David Liew, who has illustrated over 25 children’s books.
Likewise, Stephanie Wong, illustrator of The Diary of Amos Lee, believes that “illustrators brand the stories by setting the look and feel, and enhance a child’s reading experience”.
However, there is a tendency for illustrators to get sidelined. Liew recounts being approached by people who want to self-publish children’s books, but regard illustrations merely as a way to ‘prettify’ text. “They would say the readers are only kids and not adults, so I should be charging much less,” he recounts.
Despite such challenges, the satisfaction in illustrating a children’s book is still invaluable for some, including Andrew Tan (aka drewscape), illustrator of the Sherlock Sam series. “I’m more drawn to illustrations that tell stories than purely decorative illustrations. It’s a nice feeling when the final product looks good and people seem to enjoy a book I’ve illustrated. It makes me want to do more books,” he says.
Illustrators like Tan and Wong would not have ventured into children’s books if not for the First Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing Initiative by Media Development Authority (MDA) and NBDCS, which awarded them grants to get their books published.
While this programme no longer exists, a similar initiative by NBDCS, known as the Scholastic Picture Book Award, provides unpublished Asian writers and/or illustrators publishing opportunities every two years. Given that the market for children’s books in Asia is still in a nascent stage compared to children’s books in the West, these awards are necessary for nurturing talented children’s book illustrators in the region.
There are also children’s book illustrators who go the grittier route of getting their work out there. Patrick Yee is one example. He is possibly Singapore’s most prolific children’s book illustrator with over 110 children’s book titles under his belt. He is also a two-time winner of the Macmillan Prize for Children’s Picture Book Illustration. After graduating from Camberwell College of Arts in London and getting two children’s books published, he felt motivated to meet with big publishers from the United Kingdom.
“There were countless rejections, but I listened to their criticisms and made improvements to my illustrations,” reveals Yee. “Eventually, Orchard Books published my Rosie Rabbit series, which was translated into 10 languages.”
While the path of a children’s book illustrator is challenging, there are resources for those toying with the idea. The annual Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) brings in an international mix of children’s book authors and illustrators to share their expertise. It may also help to join a like-minded community such as the local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). At the end of the day, the most important thing is to keep at the craft. Says Yee, “The more ideas and art you come up with, the higher the chance of getting your work published.”
Established children’s book illustrators share their views.
“Don’t just make the work good enough. Take it as an opportunity to do something that will impress and surprise yourself.” — Andrew Tan illustrator of the Sherlock Sam series.
“Build up a database of ideas and images by reading widely, watching lots of movies, and being exposed to a huge variety of visual depictions.” — David Liew illustrator of the Ellie Belly and The Adventures of Squirky the Alien series of books.
“Try to expand beyond Singapore as the book market here is small. Whenever you go on a holiday, to places like the United Kingdom, United States or Taiwan, take your portfolio along and arrange to meet with publishers.” — Patrick Yee illustrator of Harry Grows Up: The Early Years of Lee Kuan Yew and the Bo Bo and Cha Cha series.
“It takes many people to put a book together. Try to rise above disagreements and criticisms and see other people’s perspectives. However, pick your battles and fight for what you think is right.” — Stephanie Wong illustrator of The Diary of Amos Lee and the Whoopie Lee series.