December 7, 2021

Let's Talk Illustrators #199: Jocelyn Li Langrand

I feel so lucky to have caught Jocelyn Li Langrand on her debut picture book If You Miss Me. This book is sweet, heartfelt, and entirely beautiful, and I'm thrilled to share with you all how Jocelyn created it. Enjoy an inside peek at her process!

About the book:
Charlie loves to dance her way through life with her grandma. They may not always be together, but each time they part Grandma says, If you miss me, look at the moon. Then winter brings unexpected change, and not even dancing feels the same. What will Charlie do? Will Grandma come to see her dance again?

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Jocelyn Li Langrand!

LTPB: Where did the idea for If You Miss Me come from? Who inspired the characters we meet?

JLL: It’s a personal story, the idea came to me rather by surprise. After set out to write a children’s book, I buried myself in as many Children’s books as I could here, because I read different children’s books growing up in China. I had many ideas and turned 4 of them into full book dummies but realized I was subconsciously rewriting stories from these other readings. One day, I came across a quote online stating “Debut authors should start writing about what they are obsessed with.” The moon came to my mind immediately! I’m not obsessed with it, but it’s unique to me. I often talk about it with my close friends. I think of my grandma when looking at the moon, she practically raised me while my mom worked around the clock. This particular connection with the moon helped me got through losing her while away from home. It represents hope and comfort wherever I go. And right there, sitting at my breakfast table, I knew this was the story I need to write. Me, my grandma, the moon, and how it’s all connected.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of the story and the visuals in If You Miss Me? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve?

JLL: You may not believe me but I didn’t intend to write a book about loss. Oh no, If You Miss Me started as a fantastical adventurous dance story. In the earliest draft, Charlie (who was nameless) loved to dance and her grandma was her biggest fan. But after grandma went away one day, Charlie made a plan to find her. Charlie kept on dancing with her stage growing up with her: from her school to town, to city, to country, to the world and eventually, to the moon. She knew her grandma was there, and found her! The story ended with Grandma and Charlie having a beautiful reunion on the moon. In this draft there were world tours, space travel and animals. No mention of death. The ending was ambiguous and open to interpretations. It even had a different title: The Secret Moon Plan.

Following several rejections, I realized the sensitivity and gravity of the subject. While we Chinese kids grew up with the most mythical stories about afterlife, others don’t have the same ancient myth references. There is a clear cultural difference when it comes to speaking about death.

It took me some time, many revisions, and tears (from both my agent Jennifer and I as the book reminds her of her late father), to realize that Grandma had to pass in the book to tell the story I wanted to tell. I wondered how to do so delicately, for my young readers? Without evoking more sorrow and a feeling of losing my grandma all over again.

One day, I had this idea with the train, coming and going and just train tracks. Suddenly, the story came together again. My editor Jess Harold suggested to split the sketch train scene from half a spread each direction, to full spreads. With the shape of the train and the width of the book, the result was poignant.

I explored several endings and realized all versions shared a common scene, a reunion. But instead of writing a wishful fantasy, I wrote one showing how I personally connect with my grandma now. It’s reunion though the most powerful force, love. Because in the end of the book, Charlie saw Grandma with her heart. She was able to overcome her pain through the unique connection she had with her grandma, and once she saw that, Charlie, and I, both got the reunion we wanted. This version of the story found a dream home at Scholastic in the third round of submissions. My agent Jennifer said to me overjoyed that, “I think this is the story you wanted to write in the first place Jocelyn.” She was right.

Oh, I got carried away! Illustrations, yes! Since Charlie is a dancer, I got to draw or shall I say design costumes! I drew 19 outfits for Charlie in this book! My favorites are the Chinese inspired ones, they came from my childhood, I danced when I was young. For the finale red dress, I even asked people to vote on my social platforms. The most popular vote was No.6 below. How cute! I also want to thank the internet for its incredible amount of ballet references.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium for illustration?

JLL: I used the procreate app on iPad to draw this book. First, I sketched thumbnails on paper to pace out the pages and design rough compositions. Then I brainstormed details digitally. Being able to draw in layers is a lifesaver. It also removes the pressure of being precise because you can always revise. And with the large number of brushes, strokes and textures available, I can achieve the hand-done feel I like while being digital, the beauty of technology!

The only down side is getting the right result in print. Converting RGB to CMYK is a tricky business. The only solution I could think of is test proofing. Our manufactory timeline collided with the pandemic so we only got one proof for If You Miss Me, it was as good as we could hope for! But could we benefit for one more? Yes.

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

JLL: I’m glad you ask! I just finished drawing Year of the Cat written by the brilliant Richard Ho. It’s a hilarious retelling of the Chinese zodiac great race. I acted like camera woman in this creative process to capture the drama and action in each scene, it was so fun! Here is a sneak peak, I can’t wait for Richard and I to share more.

I am also working on my second book as an author and illustrator. A story of a group of neighborhood friends leading an investigation to find a missing Panda, following some unlikely food clues!

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?

JLL: What a fun question. It would have to be Jimmy Liao! The immensely talented Taiwanese author and illustrator known by his Chinese pen name 幾米. His stories are imaginative, wondrous, poetic, therapeutic…I can go on and on. I read his books as a kid for the art, as a teenage for the words, and now as a parent and artist that can truly understand the deeper meanings. The Sound of Colors in particular, forever changed the way I tell stories. Besides, wouldn’t it be fitting to be drawn by the one that inspired you to draw in the first place? Jimmy Liao is a legend but in my wildest dream, we are best pals.

A million thanks to Jocelyn for taking time to answer questions about this heartfelt debut! If You Miss Me publishes TODAY from Orchard Books!

Special thanks to Jocelyn and Orchard for use of these images!

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