May 14, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #290: Minnie Phan

I am so pleased to share my interview with Minnie Phan, illustrator of Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This quiet book is touching and beautiful, and I'm grateful Minnie let me share her process of creating the character Simone and bringing her world to life with you all today. Enjoy!

About the book:
When Simone is awakened by her mom as a wildfire threatens their home, it is the beginning of a life-changing journey. On their way to take shelter in a high school gym, the family passes firefighters from a prison unit battling the fire. Simone's mom tells her that when she was a girl in Viet Nam, she was forced to evacuate her home after a flood. Joined by other children sheltering in the gym, Simone, a budding artist, encourages everyone to draw as a way to process their situation. After a few days, Simone and her mom are able to return to their home, which is fortunately still standing, and her outlook has changed. As Simone begins creating a piece of art with one of her new friends, she realizes that even though they are young, they can dream and work together for a more sustainable future.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

Let's talk Minnie Phan!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of Simone? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Viet Thanh Nguyen’s text?

MP: Simone came into being through an unusual process, for a picture book. First, I created a “sketch dummy,” or storyboard, of the story, with only pictures, no words. Then, Viet added words. We went back and forth a few times, until we were both satisfied with the story verbally and visually.

When I first pitched the storyboard to Viet, he thought it was great in the way that the best children’s stories are: simple and elegant, and yet with the potential to have lots of meaning layered under the surface. Viet wrote the accompanying text like a movie script, allowing us both to interpret scenes rather than just having the text appear in the book itself.

I was thrilled when I saw Viet’s text. It flowed like poetry and contained artfully woven complexity. By pushing the boundaries of the story, he elevated the initial concept into something deeply compelling and thought provoking.
As for teaming up with Viet altogether– we met in 2014 at an event hosted by Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), where Viet was launching his debut novel, The Sympathizer, and I was exhibiting art from my book They Call Us Viet Kieu. I was actually the very first person to ask him a question during Q+A! Years later I was given the opportunity by book publisher Minerva to pitch my project to a writer. I knew it would be Viet.

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of Simone? As you got to know the characters, how did your illustrations evolve? What about the evolution of the illustrations from black-and-white to color?

MP: Simone faces an enormous obstacle, wildfires, and in the story we stuck closely to her perspective and herself. Once we knew who she was–small in stature but big in imagination–we could see the world through her eyes.

I used color to represent Simone’s agency. Color is introduced during moments of processing, decision making, and connection. Above all, color signifies hope. In times of darkness or tragedy, hope keeps us moving forward.

The illustrations for Simone changed significantly throughout the process of making the book. It was hard at first to take multiple rounds of feedback, but I’m grateful to editor Maria Russo and art director Amelia Mack for encouraging me to push the illustrations. They weren’t afraid to tell me things that were or were not working. Ultimately, their opinions made for stronger illustrations and I love the final pieces. My breakthrough piece was the scene where our plucky protagonist and her Má drive away from the wildfire. The soft graphite and texture seen in the spread informed the rest of the illustrations in Simone.
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

MP: I used graphite, colored pencil, and watercolor to create the art for Simone. The medium I work in changes from project to project, however, I knew from the first draft of Simone that the finals would be done traditionally. The story is intimately told from a child’s perspective. I wanted the art to feel organic and soft to match the tone of the story.
I am a tools fanatic and enjoy testing different materials and brands. For Simone, I purchased seven brands of graphite pencils and tested their quality on several types of paper. Readers of this blog will be pleased to learn that I used Mitsubishi Uni graphite pencils (HB-8B) and Caran d'Ache colored pencils on Arches hot press watercolor paper.

I love working in traditional media for picture books and am always looking for editors and art directors who feel similarly. The right collaborator will support the time needed to create beautiful illustrations using traditional media.

LTPB: What are you working on now?

MP: I’m working on my author-illustrator debut. Stay tuned!
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?

MP: In a heartbeat, I would choose Japanese illustrator, Taiyo Matsumoto, creator of the comics Tekkonkinkreet and Sunny. He is a master storyteller whose work is vivid, dynamic, and cinematic. I love his work so much, I have a tattoo of his art on my right calf. He rocks!

A million thanks to Minnie for taking time to answer some questions about her beautiful process! Simone published last week from Minerva!

Special thanks to Minnie and Minerva for use of these images!

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