May 23, 2023

Let's Talk Illustrators #250: Lian Cho

Oh No, the Aunts Are Here, written by Adam Rex and illustrated by Lian Cho, is a laugh-out-loud story with inviting, diverse, and all-too-relatable illustrations, and I'm so glad I got to catch up with Lian about her illustration process. Let's dive right in!!

About the book:
Every family has its special aunt: the cool aunt, the wacky aunt, the scary aunt. But this family has ALL THE AUNTS.

Shhh, listen. Do you hear that?
Oh no. Oh dear. Oh . . . my . . . godmother.

They've traveled on planes, in taxis, and across state lines. And now they're here at the doorstep, a cheesy gift in one hand, the other poised for a pinch on the cheek.


Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Lian Cho!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Oh No, the Aunts Are Here? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Adam Rex’s text?

LC: In 2020, my agent passed along the manuscript for Adam Rex’s fantastic story. The first time I read the manuscript, I was so excited by the lyrical and hilarious prose which Adam had concocted. I knew that I had something very special in my hands. As I read the brilliant text, so many scenes came into my head. An iconic one which made it onto the final page was the spread where the aunts burst through the front door. Adam’s text had such energy that I wanted to translate this energy onto the page. What was funny is that I finished artwork for this book in 2021 and in 2022, the film Turning Red came out and featured a scene that was eerily similar to the one I had painted! I guess when it comes to aunts, there is no other entrance for them except for dramatic!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Oh No, the Aunts Are Here? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve?

LC: When I first read the manuscript, I had an immediate image in mind of the classic aunts most of us older folks think of. For me, I pictured an old aunt with red cat eye glasses, pearl jewelry and decked out in faux fur and leopard print. As I do with every book I work on, I began this book with research to learn more about my subject. If you’re further interested in learning about my process of using research, I wrote a comic about the process which you can read on my newsletter here.

When I first went onto Google and searched for aunts, the results confirmed what I was first picturing in my mind. But as I thought about it longer, I realized that aunts nowadays actually look more like me as opposed to the images that I can conjured up in my head. It was at this point that I was at a crossroads, I could either take the book in a conventional direction that had been done many times over, or I could try and modernize the characters so that it would be more relatable to the children who were actually reading this book.

What solidified my decision was a Christmas trip during this time to visit my partner’s family in Baltimore. My entire family lives in Taiwan, so Christmas is always a lonely time for me since moving to the US but my partner’s family always welcomes me into their family with open arms. As I was working on sketching and development for the characters of this book at their house, I suddenly decided that I wanted to pay homage to them by basing the mom, dad and little girl on them.

My partner and some of his family

How his family appear in the book

My partner has a little sister named Serena who was around 8 or 9 years old at the time. She is such a character and constantly puts on a hard exterior to strangers (or even family members). It took me years to win her over. But underneath it all, she is a sweet and caring girl. As I read the manuscript, it felt like the character was already Serena! I could picture her easily as the main character, sick of everybody doting on her and just generally irritated at everybody around them for being so over the top.

My partner’s family is a complicated one which has resulted in a convoluted family tree. They are by no means traditional but I like to believe that with more family members, comes more love. I feel like their family is a true reflection of a modern family in America, one that is diverse and comprised of a huge cast of characters. This was something I felt was important to reflect in this book.

With all the book banning happening in the US, I wanted this book to help diversify the shelf in a different way. I feel that for the past couple of years, there has been a shift to diversify books, which in itself is great. Publishers are releasing books that specifically address race or racial history. Bookshelves are lined with books about tough fights against racism, or highlighting specific racial aspects children should love about themselves. I love these books. I believe they are incredibly important and allow children to come to love themselves and understand others.

However great these books are, when I find myself venturing outside this genre into fantasy or humor, I find little diversity among these pages. In fact, in a 2019 study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, it showed that there are more animal main characters in picture books than human characters who aren’t white. Sometimes, children of color may want to read a book that is absurb and fun without being reminded of which part they must love about themselves or how much their ancestors have suffered. When they do venture out, they find books filled with characters who do not look like them, enjoying adventures and tales they can’t see themselves in.

Adam’s manuscript did not specify which race these characters were, and I myself have to admit that when I first read it, I pictured these aunts as white due to how much the classic white aunt character has permeated all the media I consumed growing up. What’s funny is my own aunts aren’t even white, yet my brain immediately went there! However, this is not the nature of the world, as it is made up of a beautiful spectrum of people of different races, genders and lives.

This is a big reason why I wanted the characters of this book to be diverse. The great thing about diversity in books is that not only do the children who find themselves represented on the page feel validated in their existence, but those who are not represented are able to learn to see other people who may not look like themselves as main characters. This helps to create a generation of children who will grow up to become empathetic and caring adults.

Sorry that was extremely long winded and I don’t know if I even answered your original question! In terms of the visual evolution, since Google wasn’t giving me a good enough range of aunts, I ended up going onto stock photo websites as well as family albums to get reference images of aunts. There was a lot of sketching that was involved until slowly these characters began to take on a life and personality of their own.

Small sample of reference images I used to develop the aunts

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

LC: The most difficult part for me when working on this book was figuring out all the backgrounds and settings for the characters to reside in. The characters came easy, but designing backgrounds was like pulling teeth. There is one spread where it is an aerial cutaway of the house that shows all the different rooms alongside characters interacting in each of the rooms. It was so difficult to get the perspective down as well as figuring out the styling for the rooms that I nearly gave up. I spent close to 23 hours on just on sketching and figuring out this spread alone.

The sketch that took 23 hours to perfect

There was a lot of research I had to do to cobble together information I could use to design these spaces. I watched home tours on Youtube and browsed interior blogs to find as much reference as I could. I took photos of my mother-in-law’s van which ended up turning into the car in the book. Many of the plushies that are featured in Serena’s room are actual plushies which she owns in real life.

However it was all worth it because all that painful sketching leads to the most rewarding part of this book which is creating the final artwork. This book is entirely painted traditionally and it’s such a great feeling when all the sketches are done, the text has been finalized, all editorial notes have been added and I can just sit down with a cup of tea and get to painting. Finally seeing all these characters come to life in color is the best feeling of the entire process.

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

LC: The illustrations in this book were made with a mix of watercolor, gouache and colored pencils on 140lb hot press watercolor paper. I usually start with painting a base layer of watercolor to bring out the lights and darks. Then I paint the background with watercolor and add the characters with gouache which gives them some more substance. After all the painting is done, I go in with colored pencils to bring out details such as expressions or clothing.

In terms of a preferred medium, I have a tendency to enjoy making my life harder so I am always switching mediums.

LTPB: How does your process change from book to book?

LC: The basis for my process always starts the same with every book. I go through research, development, sketches, revision, then final art. The biggest par that changes from book to book is the medium that I make the final art with. I really like to match mediums with the story at hand. My first book, The Oboe Goes Boom Boom Boom, was loud and striking so it felt right to do it digitally in Procreate with real acrylic textures and collages. My second book, It Began with Lemonade was set outdoors in nature and featured a flowy river in the hot summer sun for which watercolor felt like the best way to approach it. This book features a story that is warm yet exciting at the same time, so by combining soft watercolor with punchy gouache, it gave me the feeling I felt when I first read this story. Recently I have been enjoying gouache more but I may pivot to colored pencil on my next process. Who knows!

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

LC: Since the beginning of my career, I’ve been solely illustrating. However, two years ago I decided to venture into author/illustrating picture books. It has been a wild ride to say the least but I’m loving every moment of it. I am currently working on final art for my second author/illustrator picture book which I unfortunately can’t share anything from at the moment. But my first author/illustrator picture book comes out this September.

It is called Oh, Olive! and is about a little girl, named Olive Chen, whose parents are successful artists that paint deadpan squares and triangles. They hope and wish for Olive to become an artist just like them, but she prefers to splash, splatter or even lick! It was a really fun story to work on and it gave me a chance to experiment with my art to create some beautiful pieces.

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?

LC: I would want Shinsuke Yoshitake to illustrate it. He is one of my favorite illustrators and although his style is pretty different from my own, I think he would bring such a funny twist on my life. If it were to be an autobiography, I would want it to be in a diary format and I think Shinsuke Yoshitake would be able to bring so much humor and nuance to my story. He would have the ability to add on funny commentary to my life which I would thoroughly enjoy.
All the thank yous here to Lian for talking to be about how she made this book! Oh No, the Aunts Are Here TODAY from Chronicle Books 2023!

Special thanks to Lian and Chronicle for use of these images!

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