Today I get to introduce you to another funny and brilliant author-illustrator debut and you’re going to love it!
I first ran across Isabella Kung’s work during Inktober a few years ago. She was making these cats in wet ink that BLEW my mind. I became absorbed watching her work on these “cat inklings” as she called them and instantly fell in love with her work. If you’re curious, you can see plenty of process videos of these on her instagram if you scroll back a bit (and oh my goodness isn’t her instagram something you could spend forever looking through?).
Isabella Kung has illustrated for Candlewick Press, Committee for Children, P&H Publishing, 826 Valencia, and Ladybug Magazine. Her illustrations have received accolades from institutions such as the Society of Illustrators, Spectrum Fantasy Art, 3×3, Creative Quarterly, and SCBWI. Isabella currently resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable cats. You can learn more about her at her website. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
“No Fuzzball!” is the perfect author-illustrator debut for someone who loves drawing cats. It’s a hilarious book about a cat that thinks she’s the center of the universe (the queen of it, in fact) and her unruly subjects. Sounds exactly right for a story about a cat, doesn’t it?
I love animals, but cats will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ve had many cats as pets over the years and each one had a different personality. (Don’t believe me? Watch the 2016 documentary “Kedi” about the street cats in Instanbul!). BUT this story rings true, because we’ve all know those imperial types of cats that exist. Isabella not only captures that personality with such humor and glee, but her art work also shows that she is a person who knows the intimate details of cat shenanigans.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and painting? And how did you end up illustrating picture books?
Isabella: I guess I could say I started since I could hold a pencil. I always loved drawing and doodled all over my textbooks through elementary and high school. I was never encouraged when I was in Hong Kong though. Art was generally viewed as a hobby and not a viable career path. It wasn’t until I came to America, where my host family at the time was the first to encourage me to pursue my passion. It took years to convince my parents to let me go to art school. I learned so much! I discovered my love for illustrating, and REdiscovered my love for children’s books.
After graduating, I mostly illustrated other people’s stories and educational projects, the writing came later. I also taught illustration and watercolor painting at the Academy of Art University, participated in gallery shows, and made and sold my own merchandise too. I knew children’s books were a very competitive and slow industry, so I tried lots of different things that interested me and could provide an additional source of income. It was the only way to figure out what worked for my career and what didn’t. Now, I am pleased to be able to focus more time and energy on writing and Illustrating Children’s Books! Looking back, I’m so grateful for all the different career paths I took, because every single experience taught me a new skill that directly helped my publishing journey!
Me: You have an amazing track record of awards and publications. You have even illustrated the SCBWI Bulletin Cover (in Spring 2017), and you’ve also illustrated SCBWI founder Lin Oliver for the new column “Ask Lin.” How did you get those illustration jobs?
Isabella: Haha! That was a fun story. I was attending the SCBWI/SOUTH Golden Gate Conference in 2016, my portfolio won the Best-In-Show that year (yay!), and my Kite Surfing piece got some praise! I remember asking the lovely Illustrator Coordinator at the time, Lea Lyon, if SCBWI would be interested in using my illustration because their logo has a kite and every bulletin is kite themed. Lea was so kind and supportive, she suggested that I email Sarah Baker (who was the Director of Illustration and Artist Programing at the time, now currently the Associate Executive Director of SCBWI).
After researching, I realized there was no submission process for the bulletin and that particular opportunity was mostly by invitation. I was so nervous about emailing Sarah. I didn’t want to break any rules! That email sat in my draft folder for months. Finally, I thought, what was the worst thing that could happen? That email will be ignored or deleted, so I bravely clicked send. Sarah responded a month later with enthusiasm and the rest is history! I am extremely honored to be the second submission Sarah has ever accepted for the Bulletin and be a part of such a commendable list of illustrators, many of whom I’ve admired since I was young.
As for illustrating the well-respected Lin Oliver’s portrait, it all started with a sketchbook challenge. Years ago, I set a challenge for myself: to sketch every speaker I listened to at in-person conferences while taking notes. It was a great challenge! Conferences often start very early in the morning and last all day, it was tough sitting for so long, listening to lecture after lecture, no matter how interesting and inspiring the lectures are. By sketching each speaker live, I found that not only was it great drawing practice, but I was able to focus better and retain more information. I can easily refer to my sketchbook when trying to recall a presenter.
I also gave myself an optional challenge to show my sketches and introduce myself to some of the speakers, it’s an ice-breaker for a shy introvert like myself. I am lucky I was brave enough to show Sarah after she presented that day. I guess it left a lasting impression! I was incredibly honored to receive Sarah’s email when SCBWI decided to add the new column “Ask Lin”. I was really nervous too! I’m so glad I was able to capture Lin’s warmth and do her lovely smile justice!
Me: Wow! That’s great. This is your author-illustrator debut, but it’s not your first illustrated picture book. What illustration method or techniques do you use the most in making picture books? Can you talk about your art process for this book?
Isabella: For picture books, my most used illustration method is to work big to small, and from loose to tight. As we all know, making a picture book often needs several rounds of revisions (and so much more when you are also the author). It is simply inefficient to spend too much time on details at the beginning stages, you can also risk getting too attached to elements that could be cut or changed, thus clouding your judgment and getting in the way of creativity and experimentation.
The beginning stage of illustrating lays the foundation of every picture book. After proper reading and researching, I do small rough drawings, called layout sketches or storyboard, of all 32 or 40 pages, usually laid out on the same piece of paper. This is the stage to really design the book as a whole, making sure there is a good flow or rhythm, that the illustration compositions are varied and interesting, and making room for the big moments to land. There are so many things to consider! That’s why it is important to keep this stage loose and focus on the big picture first. All the stages afterward, are just polishing/tightening up the smaller details and executing your vision.
The process for No Fuzzball! is only different because I am also the author. I started working on the storyboard for the story by draft No.3. It was still early and I knew the writing was not ready. I wrote many more drafts after that and there were more alterations and changes than I can count. However, starting so early was completely necessary, because finding the fine balance in telling the story between illustration and text was crucial. There was no way I could achieve that until I drew it out.
Me: I’ve followed you on Instagram for several years now, ever since I first discovered your amazing cat Inklings for Inktober back in 2017. What inspired you to paint cats with ink like that? Why are cats one of your favorite subject matters?
Isabella: Wow, thank you so much! Honestly? I was procrastinating on working on something else and noticed some Sumi ink sitting in my closet, forgotten and unused for years. I decided I should get messy and do some experimentation with it. I was also obsessed with black cats at the time and loved that in certain lights or angles, parts of their bodies almost become ambiguous.
Cats became one of my favorite subject matters because they are beautiful, elegant, and smart, yet goofy. Plus I have two wonderful muses in my life. I’ve always loved animals. Growing up, I’ve had hamsters, goldfish, and tortoise, but my two cats, Bubo and Bella, were my first fur babies as an adult. They were the love of my life and a subject matter I would never grow tired of.
Me: Aww! I love that! And I love “No Fuzzball!” It is everything I expected it to be (so funny!) and more. What inspired this idea? Was it hard to write the story?
Isabella: No Fuzzball started as designs for a set of emojis. Designing emojis is actually very similar to doing a character sheet, I got to really know her personality by drawing her expressions and body language. She was gaining some popularity online and in craft fairs too, multiple people even asked if there is a story behind this sassy black cat. Despite knowing this character’s personality well, I didn’t have a clue what her story should be.
I started by trying to figure out her motives, desire, preferences, and reactions to different scenarios. It took probably 2 months to come up with the main plot of the story, and as cliche as it sounds, I thought of it in a shower, despite working on it at my desk for months! Fourteen drafts and 4 years later, it finally got picked up by Scholastic. It was definitely hard writing the story. No Fuzzball was maybe the 3rd picture book story I ever wrote, so there was definitely a learning curve. I was also teaching and accepting other freelance illustration projects at the time and No Fuzzball often has to be set aside. At one point, I didn’t touch it for almost a year! I’m so glad I didn’t give up on this story.
Me: And I love that you used those emojis on the end papers! What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Isabella: How difficult pacing a humorous picture book can be! Pacing stories for the allotted picture book space is challenging as it is, now imagine balancing that with the tempo and rhythm of a joke too. Making space for jokes to land after a page turn while making space for big emotional moments too is quite the balancing act! My editor and I went back and forth a couple of times to get the pagination just right. Sometimes pushing a few words back a page can make a world of difference!
Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers and/or illustrators?
Isabella: Each person’s publishing journey is different. Most of them, including my own, are filled with twists and turns, rejections and disappointments. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Behind every success story is years of hard work and persistence. So try not to compare yourself to others. (I know, it’s easier said than done!) Listen carefully and take time to processes critiques, work hard on improving your craft…and when you think you are ready, join SCBWI, network, connect and submit!
Great advice Isabella. Dear readers, this book will make its debut next week. Keep an eye out for it and snag a copy. This is one that will be read over and over.