Tao Nyeu was unhappy in her job as a web and graphic designer for an advertising firm. Then, as she was browsing in a bookstore in the picture-book section, she realized what she wanted to do. Nyeu put together a portfolio and applied to the School of Visual Arts’s MFA program, and was on her way to becoming a children’s book author and illustrator. Nyeu talks about her lucky break and her most recent book: Squid and Octopus (Dial, June, 2012). The story stars two quirky friends whose characters and personalities are revealed over four vignettes.
Is it true that your first book, Wonder Bear (Dial, 2008), was actually your thesis for the School of Visual Arts?
That’s right. My plan was to create a children’s book with the goal of getting it published. My advisor said, “Don’t create what you think publishers want to see. This is your time to do whatever you want.”
|Squid and Octopus (Nyeu) ©Tao Nyeu|
Was it published right away?
Sometime during the middle of the academic year, we had a guest critic from a children’s book publishing house. I thought, “Now’s my chance to get my foot in the door.” But the art director said, “This is interesting, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for.” It made me think, “I just created the most unpublishable book ever, so I’ll just make the best art possible.” Even though it was devastating at the time, that comment helped me let go of everything and do what I wanted to do. I lucked out, Lily Malcolm [from Dial] came to our thesis show, and it was good news from then on.
Did the project change from the book that was your thesis to the book that was published as Wonder Bear?
It barely changed at all. The size was the same; we added two spreads, to fit the format, which helped the story. [Lily] has been my art director and Lauri Hornik my editor ever since.
Both Squid and Octopus and your earlier Bunny Days (Dial, 2010) contain short adventures within a longer story. Does that format come naturally to you or was it planned?
The idea of shorter stories came about through collaborating with my editor and art director. It seemed the most natural course for the characters. The development was very collaborative in that respect, and lots of fun.
In the sequence, “The Hat,” where a pair of boots floats down into the ocean, one boot to Squid and the other to Octopus, they independently arrive at the same idea about what each boot’s purpose is, despite the fact that everyone they meet suggests another use for the footwear.
These two characters can rationalize anything, so it always works out in a way. To them it’s not so much about right or wrong, but rather, “Can you make it right?” Which is what we do as people. Like them, we make up our own rules, to make sense of it all.
The message of “The Dream” is such a great one—we may not all be superheroes, but we have our own strengths and talents. Where did that come from?
That was from having watched the “X-Men” movies. Whenever I came out of the theater after watching one of these films, I always felt super lame and thought, “I can’t do anything.” Then I thought, “Well, there are other things I can do.”
|Squid and Octopus (Nyeu) ©Tao Nyeu|
Can you describe your process? How do you illustrate using silkscreens?
It’s sort of like a stencil process through a mesh screen. You have a stencil of an image on your screen, you pour ink over it, and push it through the screen with a squeegie onto the paper beneath it. You do that one color at a time until you build up your image. My work uses very limited color. It’s not like painting, where you can use a lot of colors—well, you could, but it would take a really long time. Every color you see is its own screen.
You can overlay the colors. The order in which they are put down—blue first versus yellow first would affect the color green you get. Black line is always last, so it goes on top.
That sounds complicated. Do you plan out the illustrations in advance?
I make mini-silkscreens of the characters and the scenery to figure out what colors I want to use, what’s the best combination, and what paper looks good. The technical things I figure out with smaller pieces, postcard size. Once I nail down my colors, it’s pretty much set. I do the sketches, and then I’ll use color pencils to make my blueprint for the finished piece.
Do you get attached to your characters? I noticed that the star of Wonder Bear seems to be the same bear as the caregiver in Bunny Days. I also noticed the bear, Mr. and Mrs. Goat, and the bunnies in Squid and Octopus. Are they in this book for you or for your readers?
It’s definitely fun for me. You come up with a character, and they go off and they’re still doing other things, but noow and again they pop in.
The one thing I learned at school is please yourself. There’s no guarantee that you can please others. I find it fun to do these sideline narratives. They begin to appear the more you doodle and make sketches. Maybe Yum Yum, [one of the characters in Squid and Octopus] will be in another story one day.
Jennifer M. Brown is the children’s editor for Shelf Awareness, a daily enewsletter for the publishing trade. Her website Twenty by Jenny recommends titles to help parents build their child’s library one book at a time.
This article was featured in School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered every month for free.