January 30, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #277: Tang Wei

I recently had the absolute pleasure of talking to seasoned illustrator and debut author Tang Wei about Grandma's Roof Garden, translated by Kelly Zhang. This book is special for so many reasons––I think it's particularly worth noting that the text is told in rhyming couplets and quatrains reminiscent of Chinese nursery rhymes and folk chants––but the most important reason is how special it was for Tang to create. Enjoy our chat!

About the book:
Granny may be old, but she's certainly not feeble - or idle! She's built a splendid vegetable garden from scratch on the rooftop of her Chengdu apartment building. She collects thrown-away produce and feeds it to her chicks and geese - or composts it for the garden. She waters, weeds, and teaches the neighborhood children to care for the garden like she does: with love, patience, and pride. And come harvest time, Granny gathers her fresh produce and cooks up delicious meals for her friends and family...or gives them their own bags of yummy treasures so they can cook on their own!

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

And check out the endpapers:

Let's talk Tang Wei!

LTPB: Thanks so much for taking time to talk to me!

TW: Thank you for the invitation. I’m so glad to answer your questions!

LTPB: Where did the idea for Grandma's Roof Garden come from? Why did you decide to be author this story, as well as be its illustrator?

TW: The inspiration for this picture book came from my ever cheerful and hardworking Apo (paternal grandma). Whenever I visited her place, she would take me up to the building’s roof to admire her "horticultural masterpiece." She would tell me all about how she took care of her garden, and the joys of sharing homegrown organic produce with others. She derived great pleasure and satisfaction from doing these seemingly mundane things. Apo's zest for life and her determination to create a self-contained, sustainable oasis within such limited urban space gave me much inspiration. I felt compelled to record her story in a way I’m good at.

I believe that in picture book creation, the illustrations and the text are complementary and intertwined—they must work together to fully tell a good story. So, taking on the roles of both author and illustrator seemed like a natural choice for me. Plus, the process of trying to polish the text through multiple rounds of revisions early on helped me to discover the most suitable artistic medium and illustration style for telling this story.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

TW: I think the most difficult part of creating this book was controlling the narrative rhythm and flow as a whole: how to make the text concise yet interesting and memorable, how to keep the illustrations spontaneous and expressive but still accurate. Finding the perfect balance between all these elements was no walk in the park for me. However, the strong inner desire to share this story with the world gave me the motivation I needed to overcome the challenging phase of endlessly repetitive revisions and fine-tuning.

The most rewarding part is that I've been able to use the beautiful medium that is a picture book to tell the very personal story of my family member's ordinary but sparkling life. And I feel doubly fortunate that the book has received love from so many reading friends. I wish to thank Levine Querido, our partner publisher, for working with an excellent translator to bring out an authentic flavored translation of the story to Anglophone readers.

LTPB: What is the difference between being an author-illustrator vs illustrator? Which do you prefer?

TW: Being an author-illustrator is tough, but it also gives me a lot of creative freedom. I can set the tone of the story, and decide which part to tell with words and which part by pictures. When I try to find the best way to express something I feel strongly about, or when I encounter a point of uncertainty, my desire to write or draw is stirred up even more, and the whole process becomes like a treasure hunt.

As an illustrator, I often collaborate with other creatives on different types of projects. Before I decide to take on a project, I would first assess whether the author and I share similar experiences or emotional connections to the work, and whether the author and editor can give me enough creative freedom. Next, I would have a discussion with the author to mutually explore the most suitable medium and method of creative collaboration before moving on to completing the project. If I know I have written a good story, I would prefer to be able to illustrate it as well.

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?

TW: Before the text of the story was fully rendered, I experimented making art using various media and techniques: mixed media collage, acrylic painting, wool felting, and more. After the text was completed and polished, I decided to skip the more visually complex illustration styles and go with something that would better match the rhythm and atmosphere of the story. I ultimately chose to use a combination of colored pencil and pastel drawings because their gentle, muted tones and delicate textures give off an airiness which echoes the cozy, relaxed atmosphere of my hometown, and is well-suited for telling this simple and down-to-earth story.

Since every book is different and targets a specific readership demographic, finding the best artistic medium & storytelling style is a process of creative experimentation. It just so happens that exploring the use of different illustration styles and mediums has always been a favorite pastime of mine.

For my picture book The Free Toys Shop, I collected a bunch of nicknacks such as used stationery, bottle caps, scrap cloths, small buttons, cardboard paper, plastic bags etc. and made art with them using collaging and painting techniques to convey the theme that even everyday junk can be given a new life.

I also collaborated with an American poet on his chapbook: I used colorful powder pigments to evoke a dreamy, poetic atmosphere. When I tried to share a story about eggs and peas with kindergarten students, I used crayons to illustrate it.

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

TW: As part of my picture book project The Free Toys Shop, I have been collaborating with a local forest kindergarten to create a "recycled objects crafts market." Children tend to think that the toys they design and create with their own hands are the best toys, so I hope that my story will not only exist inside a book but can be brought to life. Maybe when children start to look around for materials to create their own toys, they will also discover new ideas and inspirations.

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

TW: This is such an interesting question! If I had the opportunity to write a picture book autobiography, I would ask my daughter to illustrate it. (Of course, she would have to first agree to take on the project!) I love her naturally playful style—the bold lines, the vibrant blocks of color, and so much life!

Through her paintings, I see the small details of life that I have often overlooked, and I feel energized to create even more.

Thank you again so much to Tang for taking time to walk me through her process! Grandma's Roof Garden published earlier this year from Levine Querido!

Special thanks to Tang and Levine Querido for use of these images!

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