2015 / 4月
Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by David Mayer
Husband-and-wife team Huang Yi-chin and Tsao Juei-chih have been producing picture books for several decades. He comes from a television screenwriting background, while she holds a master’s degree in law. He excels in storytelling, while she is best at taking in a complex picture and getting to the heart of the matter. These strengths have enabled the duo, despite their lack of formal training in the visual arts, to cut a unique career path in the world of picture books.
Huang studied cinema in school, and as a television screenwriter authored a number of blockbuster prime-time TV scripts, including Love and Dragon in the Sky. But by chance he came across a picture book, and was instantly attracted by the highly expressive images and text. He decided to start making picture books himself.
While an avid drawer from childhood, Huang never studied the visual arts at school. Nevertheless, the professional expertise he had picked up as a student of cinema enabled him to better seize upon the poignant heart of life’s moments. Says Tsao: “Perhaps it’s his experience in screenwriting; he just really knows how to approach a story from a very unique angle.”
Before signing up for classes at a school run by noted illustrator Lucy Chen, Huang had already decided to start taking steps to become a picture book author. To that end, he went to Japan to study the language, and though he didn’t take any course directly related to the making of picture books, he did go each week to attend book club meetings at Crayon House, a well-known children’s bookstore. Participants took turns talking about the stories set out in various picture books, and 20 or more books were discussed at each session. These sessions greatly improved Huang’s Japanese, and he learned a lot about picture books in the process.The legal eagle and the artist
Tsao Juei-chih, who goes by the pen name of Tao Ledi, was enamored of drawing since childhood, and in her last year of junior high was hoping to gain admission to the arts and crafts department at National Hsinchu Teachers College. With that goal in mind, she attended a sketching course every Sunday for a time. But the entrance exam covered lots of subjects she’d never formally studied, including oil painting, watercolors, and more. In the end, she was not admitted.
After entering a regular high school, she set her art implements aside. She eventually obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law. In her third year as an undergraduate, she started doing legal work and discovered that she tended to get emotionally involved in the casework, and was unable to maintain an objective detachment. Realizing she wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, but not knowing what else to do, she simply toughed out the degree and went on to do a master’s program.
In graduate school she was required to study German, but discovered that Lucy Chen was running illustrator courses in the same building where the German classes met. Her long-buried passion for drawing was reawakened. She signed up for a course with Chen, became increasingly addicted to the act of drawing, and went on to attend several consecutive courses on the making of hand-drawn picture books.
Her studies in the department of law had taught Tsao to establish facts and follow them to their logical conclusion, which is quite different from the logic of picture book making. She frankly admits: “That’s why my first few years in picture book making were really difficult. By nature, I’m very serious and reserved. But if you’re not very good at storytelling, then drawing pictures isn’t going to be at all interesting.”Met in a club
After Lucy Chen’s students held an exhibition of their works in 1996, Huang Yi-chin wanted to do something to ensure that the end of the exhibition wouldn’t mean the end of their picture book making. So he got some fellow students together to establish a picture book club. Huang was selected as the club’s president.
It was during the exhibition that Huang and Tsao got to know each other. Before that, they had been enrolled in different classes. As fellow members of the picture book club, they shared a common interest in making picture books. Eventually they started dating, and decided to be the first readers of each other’s picture books. One natural step at a time, they launched together upon their picture book careers.
The picture book club was a purely private group that received no official funding. Motivated by a simple love for picture book making, the club members would shell out personally each year to put on exhibitions, and this tradition has continued now for 19 years.Doing it all by hand
The couple have always drawn completely by hand, and eschew the use of computers. This applies to the whole process, from paper cutting to applying tape, laying down the base colors, hanging out the drawings to dry, and drawing the images. To get a rich color, they will often put on two or three coats. Each step takes a lot of time. And that is why each drawing is one of a kind. “The result is utterly different from what you get with a computer printout,” says Huang.
Tsao and Huang often get their story ideas from childhood experiences or observations of everyday life. Huang, for example, decided to base Are You Hidden Yet? on the children’s game of hide and seek. They both feel that the point of making a picture book is to entertain, not to teach kids some deep lesson.
Tsao likes for the colors in her picture books to be rich and warm. She is a stickler about having a balanced composition, and pays close attention to how different swatches of color are used. In Spotted Dog, there is a springtime scene with a riot of flowers in full bloom. While making the scene, she filmed herself as she laid down the colors, so that viewers could see how she composed the scene, one color at a time. While the clips were edited down to about one minute, in actual fact it took her a week to complete the image.
The characters in Huang’s picture books come in a wild variety of styles. He cares most about the overall effect, and bridles at restrictions. Who says bears have to be black or brown? His book Whose Is This? features a big bluish-purple bear.Two careers converge
Just because a picture book is finished doesn’t mean it will be published right away. More often than not, the process takes years. Tsao’s first picture book, So... Very... Itchy!, was finished in 2001 and won the top award in the picture book category at the 9th Chen Guo Zheng Children’s Literature Awards, but was not actually published until 2006. And then it was another six years before she again went to publication with Birthday Tree.
Having first started making picture books in 1988, Huang first published in 1999, when he won the 3rd Mandarin Daily News Reed Pipe Award for Children’s Literature for Mr. Urumqi’s Vacation. Now, in 2015, 16 years later, he has reworked the earlier book, publishing it again under the title Mr. Urumqi’s Thousand Little Lambs, which features brighter colors than the original. Quite clearly, a pleasing story will stand the test of time. All these years later, kids still get a kick out of Mr. Urumqi.
Back when it all began, Huang and Tsao had only planned to be each other’s first readers. And, in fact, they often faced off against each other in various competitions. But after many years together, they came to see that their different strengths were mutually complementary. In 2012, the two collaborated for the first time to produce Spotted Dog. From the very start, when Huang first conceived of the story, he had planned to turn it over to Tsao to do the illustrations.
It was a simple love of drawing that first attracted the two toward picture books. With never a thought that they would ever publish, they simply kept on for the pure joy of it. Now that they’ve each published multiple picture books, they feel more sure than ever that this is what they’ll be doing for the rest of their lives. Huang chuckles: “We’re a bit older now, but in the field of picture books, we still qualify as young newcomers. We still have a lot of stories that we want to draw. Our dream is only just getting started.”