April 17, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #66: Thao Lam

Thao Lam's second picture book Wallpaper is a gorgeous and mostly wordless interpretation of what it feels like when faced with the universal childhood trial of making friends. Lam instills hope in her readers within a colorful and imaginative world full of fears and anxieties. Readers cannot help but connect with her work, and I'm so glad I got the chance to talk to her about her exquisite paper-collage technique in this book. 

About the book:
Wallpaper tells the story of a young girl whose family moves into a new house. Outside, she can hear other kids playing, but she's too shy to say hello. So she picks at the old wallpaper in her room––revealing an entryway to a fantastic imaginary adventure world behind the walls.

There, she runs between the vibrant and varied environments––surrounded by birds, swimming in a frog pond, in a herd of art-deco sheep––as she finds herself chased by a monster. He is frightening at first, until it becomes clear he simply wants to be her friend. When it comes time to go back to reality, the girl feels inspired with the courage to approach the other kids and say hello!

Let's talk Thao Lam!

LTPB: Let’s start by talking about your newest book Wallpaper. What was the impetus for creating it? Why did you choose to make it wordless?

TL: One afternoon while feeding my baby, a breeze came through the open window and out the corner of my eye I saw the wing of a bird from a fabric pattern flutter. With a new baby, I was sleep-deprived at the time so my mind was probably playing tricks on me. But the image stuck with me. I started building a scene around the bird stuck in a wallpaper pattern; around the idea of feeling trapped by your fear and anxiety. 

I was having difficulties flushing it out; the plot was taking a dark turn. I still wanted to explore fear and anxiety but connect it to something that kids could relate to. After much brainstorming and reflecting on my own childhood, I decided to write about the fear and anxiety of making new friends. I was shy growing up and it was really hard for me to make friends. This is something I think most readers can relate to.

I have a hard time putting my thoughts into words so it is easier for me to visualize/draw out my thoughts. When flushing out a story, it tends to play like a silent movie in my head so making wordless picture books feels comfortable for me.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters? How did your illustrations change as you got to know your characters?

TL: Once the storyboard is nailed down I start brainstorming the visual look of my characters. When I was plotting out Wallpaper I was visualizing a little boy with orange hair just because I really wanted to use the colour orange in the book, but as I was sketching out possible characters and getting feedback from the publisher, we went with the strongest character in my sketches, which was a little girl. It also seem fitting that the main character be a girl since the story is based on my shyness and anxiety with making friends. As I started working on the colour samples, I used myself as a model, black hair (minus the grey streaks), brown eyes and dark skin. I did end up using orange in the monster so everything worked out.

LTPB: I love the endpapers! How involved were you in the design of the book? How do you set about creating a set of endpapers? How do you use the endpapers as extensions of the central story?

TL: I am obsessed with endpapers! I feel like it is under used real estate. I am not very good at keeping things to 32 pages so I tend to use the endpapers as teasers. I like to offer up suggestions when it comes to the design of the book, at least to get ideas going among the team. The folks at Owlkids Books are great team to work with and we tend to feed off each other creatively. Working from home can give you tunnel vision so it is important that you get constructive feedback from a team you can trust. 

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

TL: I use scrapbook paper to create collages. I have always enjoyed working with my hands, cutting and gluing. The long laborious process actual allows me to zone out think about other book ideas.

My process hasn’t changed much from book to book but I have learned lessons along the way, like I now keep detail notes on the colour or paper I used when creating each character and scene so that art is consistence through out. I also like to set a challenge for myself with each book so I can evolve as an illustrator or writer. For Wallpaper, I wanted to learn all about wallpaper design. Which was quite challenging since I was cutting and gluing each repetitive piece by hand, nothing was photoshopped.

LTPB: How do you push yourself to try new things as a picture book creator? What are you working on now? 

TL: For Meow, the current book I am working on, the challenge was to write. It will be my first story with words. Meow is about a cat and it will be published by Owlkids Books for Spring 2019. This one will be different from the last two books because it will be my first attempt at writing. The art will also be slightly different; I have been experimenting with colour pallets and pencil crayons. I am really excited about how everything is coming together.

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

TL: I am a huge fan of Mo Willems so I would be thrilled if he wrote my autobiography. For Halloween, my daughter and I were actually dressed up as Gerald and Piggie. Mo Willems has such a unique perspective in storytelling and an amazing sense of humor. I think you will need a sense of humor to write my autobiography. I also love the fact that he never underestimates his readers in vocabulary, concept, and humor which is why I think his books resonates with all ages.

Selecting someone to illustrate my autobiography, that would be a hard one since there are so many illustrators I love. Currently, I am in love with Simona Ciraolo. Her colour palette brings a smile to my face. There is a care free spirit in the way she draws, something I have a hard time doing since I am detail oriented and a planner by nature.

Thank you so much to Thao for walking me through her process! Wallpaper published earlier this week from Owlkids Books!

Special thanks to Thao and Owlkids Books for use of these images!

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