At first blush, picture book illustrator Stephanie Yue appears as soft as her sketches. Her voice and gestures are gentle and graceful. Yue’s renderings retain a warm and tender quality—even her SpongeBob pictures. Oh, and her hair is a delicate shade of pink. But don’t draw any conclusions just yet. This exterior belies an independent streak and a rough-and-tumble side.
Yue worked on the Nursery Rhyme Comics anthology, edited by Chris Duffy, as well as the “Mousenet” series by Prudence Breitrose. She recently finished a six-book children’s graphic novel series, “Guinea Pig, Pet Shop Private Eye,” written by Colleen AF Venable. For that effort, she was nominated for an Eisner Award, the Newbery of the graphic world. She also completed the final artwork for Such a Little Mouse, a picture book by Alice Schertle.
Today, Yue is homeless. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But it is true that she gave up permanent digs a couple of years ago. She carries her possessions with her on the back of a Vespa scooter. “It’s really great to be outside of your comfort zone,” Yue says about surrendering a traditional lifestyle for the open road just as her reputation was growing.
Yue grew up in Bejing, Hong Kong, and Atlanta, GA. After high school, Yue managed to convince her somewhat skeptical scientist parents that she needed to follow her passion and enroll in art school. After graduating from the Pratt Institute School of Art in New York, she settled in Providence, RI, carving out a living as an illustrator, all the while pursuing her other hobbies: roller derby and martial arts.
Yue says her interest in roller derby is natural for someone who enjoys full contact sports and a strong community, “just with more fishnets, and you get to choose a superhero name.” She transformed her roller derby experience into autobiographical mini-comic zines called “The Chronicles of Arnica.”
Still, she had the nagging feeling that she was “just coasting” in Providence. Then one Wednesday night in 2010, a local scooter club started blasting by her apartment, which was right by a main drag. The seed was planted. A few years later, when a neighborhood scooter shop closed, she grabbed one of the last floor models because, while she didn’t want a car, she was starting to think she needed more than a bicycle to get around.
“[At that time], I wanted to freelance, to have the flexibility of making my own schedule,” she says, adding that she also sought to do more of what she loved: riding and exploring. “I’m in a unique position that my work gives me a huge degree of freedom of schedule. I wanted to take full advantage of it while I could. I also wanted an excuse to leave Rhode Island. I was ready for a change.”
That liquidation-sale scooter was tiny, though. So after she obtained a motorcycle license, she purchased a 1983 Kawasaki 550 LTD “with one flat tire, that weighed a ton, but at $100, the price was right,” she says. A friend got her a repair manual.
“I inflated the front tire, pulled the carbs, cleaned them, and it started right up,” she recalls. She then promptly rode it from Providence to Laconia, NH, for the world’s oldest motorcycle rally. It was the first of many.
After a few such day trips, she read about extended travel on larger scooters. She found a 2009 GTS 250 Vespa, capable of taking on highways and elevation changes.
“So [in 2014], I sold my other bikes, gave up my apartment, and took off on the Vespa. Sounds easy when I say it like that,” she says about a process that took a year of planning. She took her job on the road, crisscrossing the country, while drawing more than 400 illustrations and posting them on her blog.
When Yue receives revisions or initial work, she makes pit stops with friends in Georgia, California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, or Texas. “Basically,” she says, there is a lot of running from cold weather.”
This past spring, a car hit her scooter. She ended up in the ICU with a lacerated liver and a hand that was “swollen [like] an apple.” After traveling a total of of 57,897 miles in 48 states, Canada, and Mexico on a scooter, she considers herself perhaps lucky that this was her worst accident. Her bike didn’t fare much better. Yue and her boyfriend, Fred, are in the process of putting the bike back together, though.
She now shares a small studio with Fred, where she is illustrating a book for Scholastic about a bunny. Pencil drawings of a first draft hang on the wall (see video below). She will later fill them in and finish them digitally.
Yue is uncertain what’s next. “I might convert a school bus into a studio that can haul scooters!” But, she stresses, “Taking to the road has been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and I’m happy to see where it will lead.”
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