August 13, 2019

Let's Talk Illustrators #116: Dream Chen

I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat illustrator Dream Chen about her illustration and story processes for Butterflies on the First Day of School, written by Annie Silvestro. The illustrations are as sweet as the story, and it was delightful chatting with Dream. Have a read (and a look!).

About the book:
Rosie can't wait to start kindergarten--she's had her pencils sharpened and her backpack ready for weeks. But suddenly, on the night before the big day, her tummy hurts. Rosie's mom reassures her that it's just butterflies in her belly, and she'll feel better soon. Much to Rosie's surprise, when she says hello to a new friend on the bus, a butterfly flies out of her mouth As the day goes on, Rosie frees all her butterflies, and even helps another shy student let go of hers, too.

Let's talk Dream Chen!

LTPB: When you read the text for this book, what were you most excited to draw? Did your illustrations change as you got to know the characters? 

DC: When I first saw the text, I was most excited about having a chance to draw kids from different nations and set different personalities for different kids. As a matter of fact, my illustrations changed a lot because the editor accidentally send me a script that had not been updated so the original main character is a boy named Alex instead of a girl. I have already explored pages of character design and even started to make sketch versions of interiors. One day I got this big apologetic email from my editor saying that the text has been revised multiple times, the final version is a girl character. So I had to make changes accordingly.

LTPB: What challenges did you encounter when you drew the illustrations for this book? What was the hardest part? 

DC: Although I was excited about drawing a variety of faces for this book, I feel it is also a challenge. It took me a lot of time to figure out what the whole class looked like with variety of different characters. For example, I have set the personalities for these two boys as “gossip boy,” so if you look at the different pages in this book, they are always chatting.


Some kids are more outgoing, others are more introverted. The little boy here with the yellow hair is apparently an extrovert kid: go through the whole book, you will find him actively leading the conversation and talking to girls. 



Isabella, whom Rosie helped at the end of the book, is a very shy kid. I wanted to show this character early in the book, so if you look closely, you can find her on the bus, in the classroom, or hidden behind a door early on in the book. Although the text only mentioned her in the last few pages, I hope my readers build a familiarity with this character though my illustrations. 


As an illustrator, I also want to tell extra story using just visual cues. For example, I designed a new character, a cat in the book, which is not shown in the original text, but appears in the book everywhere. Because I have a lovely cat named Meatball, I wanted to add this little extra character to make the story more interesting.



The author designed a nice surprising ending that Mom also has butterflies in her belly and worries about Rosie’s first day at school. As the illustrator, I designed a little Easter egg on the back cover, showing that not only humans have butterflies, animals can be nervous too. Mrs. Mancini has a golden retriever named Barney, and I drew a golden retriever on the back that shows how the cat is so nervous to meet the dog, butterflies burst out of its chest.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

DC: I use variety of methods to create illustrations. I create line sketches and rough color references on the computer, and then later hand-draw my final colored art on paper.

I like the hand draw texture that can never be created though computer. I use acrylic, color pencil in my final art.

For all the butterflies in the book, I tried paper collage in my sketchbook and scanned them into Photoshop.

I love to explore different media. I used to draw a lot of digital illustrations, but now I want to gradually direct myself to hand painted illustration. 

My process for this book follows the old-fashioned way, reading text and deciding the text split, making sketches, design layout, exploring the character design, and then testing the page turn in the form of dummy book. 

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

DC: I am working on my own picture book idea, and hopefully I can sell it to a publishing house in the future.

The story is about a little girl named Mindy exploring the forest with her dog: on every page the girl discovers a new animal. However, after turning the page, she finds out it is just a common object. She doesn’t know that real animals are curiously watching her in the dark. I feel it is very interesting to show that the girl is looking for animal friends, and the animals are secretly watching the girl. We as the readers are watching all of it. Who is watching who? To make this idea more interesting, I want to use a cut-out technique. On the first page, the animal silhouette is cut out, and when you turn the page, you find the truth. 

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

DC: I really admire Beatrice Alemagna’s work. If I have the honor to invite her to illustrate my autobiography, that would be pretty amazing!

A million thanks to Dream for taking time to answers some questions! Butterflies on the First Day of School published from Sterling earlier this year!

Special thanks to Dream and Sterling for use of these images!

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