June 25, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #293: Bo Lu

I am so excited to share today's interview with Bo Lu about her debut picture book Bao's Doll! This is a hugely personal book for Bo, so it was an absolute honor to pick her brain about how it all came together. Enjoy a peek at Bo's process with me!

About the book:
Whenever Mama says, "when I was a little girl in Taiwan, we had nothing," Bao stops listening. Mama does not understand Bao, and Bao certainly does not understand Mama.

So when Bao desperately wants a doll––specifically, the beautiful, blonde All-American Artist Amanda doll that everyone else has––Bao takes matters into her own hands and steals Amanda from the store. After getting caught, Bao's chest feels heavy like a giant rock. But gradually, the awkward silence between Bao and Mama shifts to honesty, and eventually, a deeper understanding of what binds them.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Bo Lu!

LTPB: Congratulations on your debut!! Where did the idea for Bao’s Doll come from? How long did you work on the book before it was ready to be published?

BL: Thank you so much! It’s been quite a journey. Bao’s Doll draws inspiration from my own experience of moving from Taiwan to Kansas as a child, a time when I often felt out of place with the language and the culture. The birthday parties in Kansas were far more extravagant than the ones we had back home. I often found myself longing for the presents the other kids had, especially a Barbie doll with a boombox. My desire was so strong that I ended up stealing one! It was my husband who encouraged me to write about this and other childhood mistakes, of which there are many.

When I began writing Bao’s Doll, I thought it was about this big moment from my childhood when I stole a Barbie doll. But as I worked on the story it became about a girl who made a doll that looked like her, about the complex and imperfect relationship she had with her mother, and ultimately, about connection and hope. The cover process reflected this internal journey.

Cover idea #1

Cover idea #2

Cover idea #3

Cover idea #4

Cover idea #5

Final cover

Growing up, I found stories portraying warm and nurturing mother-daughter relationships as very distant from my own. I have always had a hard time connecting with my mother, and she probably feels the same way about me. Writing this story has somehow become a way for me to make sense of and maybe even make peace with this hard to understand relationship.

This story flowed more quickly compared to my other works, likely because it is so deeply personal. Delving into this particular event of my childhood for the first time unlocked a torrent of emotions. The manuscript itself took about three months to revise, but exploring and refining the art style took about a year.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Bao’s Doll? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve?

BL: Bao’s image is based on my daughter Nora, who had that haircut until she was old enough to tell me she wanted hair like Elsa’s. Sigh. Initially, I dressed Bao in yellow to make her stand out against the red vinyl booths in the Chinese restaurant setting. However, I realized that I wanted her and her surroundings to reflect and embody one another. I ultimately chose red for her clothing, inspired by my own upbringing in Taiwan, where my aunts often dressed me in red as a symbol of good luck. It felt more authentic to me somehow.

The visual style of the book initially had a painterly feel, but it gradually evolved towards a softer, pencil-like texture. This change added a more intimate and nostalgic quality to the illustrations, which felt more apt for conveying the emotional depth of Bao’s journey.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding? What lessons did you take away for book #2?

BL: The most challenging part of creating Bao’s Doll was navigating my inner critic. My first three-star review on Goodreads triggered the familiar "I’m not good enough" narrative, and even during significant moments, like right before my launch date, deep-seated feelings of unworthiness would resurface. But showing up for myself, time and again, on the page, became my antidote to these doubts. On the days when I didn’t know how, I was fortunate to have a wonderful group of book friends who showed up for me. We all have mama trauma, and we call ourselves "Sister Moms."

The most rewarding moment came when, after years of never discussing this “stealing” event from my past, I finally mustered up the courage to give my mother the book, along with a note that said, “I hope this is the beginning of something new for us.” A couple of days later, she surprised me with a text: “I like your book. It’s simple, but it says it all.”

At that moment, a small window opened, allowing us to see each other. Even if that window closes, I hope to find my way there again. I hope this book finds its way to those who might need it, so they may know their truth is also my truth and that it’s okay to hope.

For my next book, I hope to trust myself and the process more. Creating something out of nothing is hard! And putting it out in the world is vulnerable, but we don’t have to do it alone.

The lesson I’m taking into the next book is to trust the process and lean on my support system. Creating Bao’s Doll taught me the importance of vulnerability and the power of showing up, not just for myself but for each other.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book, and why?

BL: I created Bao’s Doll using Procreate. At the time, I was balancing a demanding full-time job at a tech company while mothering two toddlers. The flexibility to steal an hour here and there, often during nap time, to sketch on my iPad was invaluable. Those stolen moments added up and made it possible to bring this book to life.

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

BL: I am working on my second picture book about a little girl who immigrated to the US. Feeling lost in the language and her environment, she finds a way by using creativity and magic to create a world where she belongs.

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?

BL: Cátia Chien! She is not just one of my favorite illustrators; she is also my mentor and a constant source of inspiration. Her illustrations always evoke a profound emotional response in me, often leaving me reflecting long after first seeing it. What I particularly admire about her art is how it invites readers to bring their own interpretations and experiences to it. This space, where the reader is able to make up the last 10% of its meaning, makes it such a powerful way for personal connection.

Cátia is also a true champion of other creatives, who deeply understand the emotional challenges that accompany this journey. I often find myself turning to her for support and guidance, much like I would with a therapist! Her empathy and insight would make her the perfect person to bring my story to life.

Thank you so much to Bo for talking to me about this touching debut! Bao's Doll published last week from Abrams Books for Young Readers!

Special thanks to Bo and Abrams for use of these images!

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