October 13, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #159: Khoa Le

I was so thrilled to catch illustrator Khoa Le to chat about one of her newest picture books Sugar in Milk, written by Thrity Umrigar. Khoa is incredibly prolific at the moment, and this is a special interview because Khoa showcases artwork from several of her recent books. Learn about her process and check out her artwork below!

About the book:
When I first came to this country, I felt so alone

A young immigrant girl joins her aunt and uncle in a new country that is unfamiliar to her. She struggles with loneliness, with a fierce longing for the culture and familiarity of home, until one day, her aunt takes her on a walk. As the duo strolls through their city park, the girl's aunt begins to tell her an old myth, and a story within the story begins.

A long time ago, a group of refugees arrived on a foreign shore. The local king met them, determined to refuse their request for refuge. But there was a language barrier, so the king filled a glass with milk and pointed to it as a way of saying that the land was full and couldn't accommodate the strangers. Then, the leader of the refugees dissolved sugar in the glass of milk. His message was clear: Like sugar in milk, our presence in your country will sweeten your lives. The king embraced the refugee, welcoming him and his people. The folktale depicted in this book was a part of author Thrity Umrigar's Zoroastrian upbringing as a Parsi child in India, but resonates for children of all backgrounds, especially those coming to a new homeland.

Let's talk Khoa Le!

LTPB: How did you come to be the illustrator of Sugar in Milk? Were you familiar with the legend?

I think it was Thrity who chose me to be the illustrator for her book. I was not sure how it worked but later, after all the artwork was approved, I got a letter from a very kind and gentle Thrity telling me that she knew right from the start I was the right artist for her book. That letter really made my day.

I did not know the legend before reading the brief. And I think it’s so interesting that the legend is a very wise and deep story retold through the view of a young girl. Therefore the lesson from that legend is very sweet, approachable yet notably relatable in our time and age. 

LTPB: During the legend part of the story, the illustrations are wrapped in a decorative border that evolves over the course of the story’s progression. Can you talk a little more about the border and its evolution?

Since this book is a story within a story, I want to distinguish the current story timeline from the legend timeline. Therefore, for the legend timeline, beside using a more “classical,” traditional approach for the art style, I thought the border reminiscing a Persian carpet decorative pattern would set the mood for a “once upon a tim​e​” touch on the legend unraveling. ​As you can see in the book, the more the story reveals itself, the more the carpet ​completes. From just some unshaped threads, it evolved into a complete adorned tapestry, just like the tale began with a seed of word and grew into a blossom tree of wisdom.

LTPB: You are in high demand these days, with The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang and The Fish Who Found the Sea by Alan Watts among others. What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? How do you make a conscious effort to tailor your illustration style to each new manuscript?
Thank you for your kind words, I would not say that I'm in "high demand." Maybe this is just some very blessing time for me that I have the chance to work with many talent teams from different publications.

From Flash and Gleam by Sue Fliess

From Miriam at the River by Jane Yolen

From The Most Beautiful Thing

​​Often when I receive a new project, I would not get started on it right away. I read, and then let sometimes (if timing allowed)​ for the idea/the words sinking in my head. English is not my first language, but I have loved to read English literature since I was very young, so in a way, I think I have evolved an intuition to feel a certain "tone" of a story, a book. Then with that, I just imagine a style that would support the texts the most. Most of the time, my "art instinct" works quite nicely, still, sometimes it strays too far from the original vision which the writer or the editor team have for the book. If that happens, they would discuss with me their insight to help me switch to a better approach.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in Sugar in Milk?

​I still work on a very old Macbook with an outdated Adobe. I photographed or made my own texture with traditional medium like oil color, watercolor... sometimes with mixed chemicals.

LTPB: What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book about Shakespeare's most famous plays for a publisher from UK. There's a lot of artwork required, and I think it's a very challenging and interesting project.​

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?

​Hmm this is a very tough question since I never once imagined myself as someone who would have an autobiography. But if I have to imagine… Edward Gorey is my all time favourite writer and artist and I worship his twisted, dark sense of humor. He surely would make any autobiography none of a cliché and definitely something bizarre yet widely interesting. 

Thank you so much to Khoa for talking to me about her illustration style! Sugar in Milk published last week from Running Press Kids!

Special thanks to Khoa and Running Press for use of these images!

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