February 13, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #279: Xin Li

I am very pleased to present my conversation with Xin Li, author and illustrator of I Lived Inside a Whale. This is one of those books that I knew would be an interview on the site just from the moment I saw the cover (though the casewrap and endpapers didn't hurt either!), so I hope you enjoy learning as much about your process as I did!

About the book:
A quiet child in a boisterous family, Emma Wen dreams of a world that is peaceful and silent. When she reads about the blue whale - with a heart so big her father could stand in it - she has an idea. She fashions a boat out of household objects and sails from her bedroom into the mouth of a whale, where she settles in happily. Emma has finally found her peace and quiet. That is until another child, Owen Tang, arrives inside the whale and is loud, noisy and "everything she is running away from."

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

And check out the endpapers:

Let's talk Xin Li!

LTPB: Where did the idea for I Lived Inside a Whale come from? It seems very personal!

XL: Some years ago, I saw a video of the poet Sarah Kay reading her poem "A Bird Made of Birds." Before she read the poem, she told an anecdote about her friend finding a photo of an anatomical heart of a blue whale online. She mentioned that the heart of a blue whale is so big that a person could stand inside it. I found that so fascinating.

Fast Forward to early 2021, my world was rather chaotic back then, filled with uncertainty due to the pandemic, being a mother of a toddler, and working as a freelancer. I started to write as a way to calm myself down. Taking inspiration from my own life situation, I wrote about a girl feeling overwhelmed and wanting to find a quiet place away from the world. Remembering Sarah Kay's story, I placed her inside a whale. That was the seed for the story. From there, the idea grew. The element of being inside a whale led me to Pinocchio. Then, Pinocchio made me think about other classical stories, which led me to contemplate why we tell stories. Slowly, the plots of the story revealed themselves.

I did not realize my story would touch on the topic of finding one's own voice until I had written the entire story. Looking back, I think it was probably also a reflection on what was in my mind regarding my own artistic pursuit. I was at the beginning of becoming a full-time illustrator and was rather insecure about my own work and artistic voice. Starting to write was also a part of exploring my own artistic voice: What kinds of stories was I interested in making? How would my art evolve with the types of stories I want to work with?

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

XL: Dealing with my own insecurities about creating art was the most challenging aspect. At times, I sensed many versions of myself inside my head, each in disagreement. The most annoying version was the "Perfectionist Me", who kept telling me the art I make is not good enough. It took effort to keep that voice quiet enough so I could keep showing up at the drawing table.

The most rewarding aspect of the process was witnessing my growth as an artist while crafting this book and establishing connections with fellow creators through critiques, idea exchanges, and mutual support during rough times. Throughout the entire period of creating the final art for I Lived Inside a Whale, I maintained a bi-weekly chat with a writer friend. I also kept an ongoing dialog with my mentor Giuseppe from the Illustration Department. All these conversations served as a constant reminder for me to approach art from a place of love, and to learn enjoying the process.

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?

XL: Prior to this book, I mainly worked digitally due to time constraints and flexibility in post-editing.

With I Lived Inside a Whale, I experimented with pencil drawing and digital coloring. For some spreads, I painted backgrounds with watercolor and gouache and put the pieces together digitally. I wanted to use different mark-making as part of the storytelling device as well as for aesthetic reasons. It was experiments throughout the whole process. I did not have everything figured out upfront and did a lot of redrawing/painting in the process. It kept me fresh throughout the process. It also made me drowning in a sea of self-doubts at times.

After completing this book, I gained more confidence in working with analog media. I did the next book with a mix of acrylic on paper and digital painting.

Recently, I painted a few personal pieces in mixed media with watercolor, gouache, crayon, and colored pencil. I completely fell in love with gouache. I find the medium both very poetic and forgiving.

Every picture book is its own universe, and each story probably calls for a different visual expression. For me, it makes sense to try and experiment with different mediums and different mark-making for different books.

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

XL: Currently, I am illustrating a picture book written by another author and I am writing my next picture book also. Both books are in the super early stage, so I can not share much detail at this moment. In March, my illustrated book by Stephen and Lucy Hawking called You and the Universe publishes.

I am also experimenting with analog media, getting to know more about different materials, mark-making as preparation for making artworks for the two upcoming books.

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?

XL: Barbara Cooney! For some reason, your question made me think of the picture book "Emma" by Barbara Cooney. I always wish to grow old and keep painting, like Emma did in Barbara Cooney's story.

A whale-sized THANK YOU to Xin for talking me through her process! I Lived Inside a Whale publishes next week on February 20 from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Xin and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers for use of these images!

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