By Edie Ching
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jeni Chen to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book Emet’s Box, out now!
Emet loves to paint. But grown-ups think he should spend his time doing more important things. When Emet stops doing what he loves, color disappears from his world. What does Emet discover within himself in order to bring color back into his life? A colorful story about following your heart.
You trained as a scientist before going back to get a degree certificate in art. Has your scientific background informed your artistic work?
Yes. I was just awarded an Artist in the Classroom grant to introduce the immune system to elementary school students through arts. We painted and made masks that represented different cell types and we acted out how the immune cells fight off invading viruses. It was a lot of fun. Actually, the first idea I had for a picture book years ago was about the immune system. Back then, I would force my little cousin to listen to my story of our awesome immune cells (laugh)! A good friend who is still in research (who also loved to draw) just asked me if I want to make picture books about science with him.
Emet’s Box is your debut picture book. Was it hard to get it published and how long did you work on it, from he initial idea to the finished book?
It was the second year I tried #PBPitch when Emet’s Box got picked up. I think I was very lucky that I was in the right place at the right time. The making of the picture book was a lot more work than I’ve expected. I got the idea in 2016 when my son was about 5 years old. I didn’t work on it right away but I went back to school and got a fine art certificate. I thought I needed to learn the craft before I could tackle this task. In 2018, I took a picture book class where I learned about SCBWI and met other creatives. Some of us decided to attend a SCBWI conference in 2019 and show our work. That motivated me to finish my dummy book and start submitting to publishers. I thought I could finish my dummy within a month but it took me almost 6 months and then another year to find a publisher. I kept working on my manuscript and improving my illustration during that year. After signing the publishing contract, it took me one year to finish the final illustrations. Now when I buy a picture book and look at the numbers of pages and the amount of work in it, I think I am getting a great deal with the price that I am paying!
You mention that your son inspired the book. How has he received it? And does he have a passion as Emet has a passion for art?
My son asked me to list all his information on the dedication page of Emet’s Box, including his full name, school name, home address, phone number, etc. I drew a comic about it here. Other than video games, my son likes to make things with his hands. Today, he made several Kunai (it’s like a dagger used by ninja). He made them out of cardboard, wood, ropes, aluminum foil and spray paint. He would not let me recycle any cardboard boxes in our house (laugh).
Tell us about your creative process since you are the author and illustrator. Which comes first, the text or the illustrations?
For me, I get images in my head first. A lot of my artworks are inspired by the books that I am reading. I am a big fan of Joseph Campbell. He said something like we are not looking for the meaning of life but the feeling of being alive. That got me thinking about what makes me feel alive and for me it was art. I saw this image of a boy (who looks like my son) and he loves colors so much that he would wear different colored clothes everyday (this part was more like me). Then I went to art school and I loved it so much that I got the ideas for the text. That’s why Emet is a boy who loves to paint. But it could be different things for different people. My hope is that my son and other kids can try new things and find what makes them feel alive!
What medium did you use to create the beautiful paintings to celebrate art and then the dark pages when Emet has given up his passion?
I tried different media when I first started working on the illustrations, to see which medium fits with the story best. That was a tip I learned from my picture book class. I tried watercolor, gouache, acrylic, ink and digital and settled on the latter three. I find it the most freeing to draw sketches with pencil on large pieces of paper. Then I would scan the pencil sketches into my computer and add colors. Some of the colors and splatters were done with liquid acrylics. One of my favorite spreads (the wordless one) was done with acrylics on canvas so you can actually see the textures of the canvas (and I love that). Some of the black–and-white illustrations were a combination of acrylics, ink, and digital. I scanned everything into my computer and combine them into the way I wanted them to look.
When Emet receives a book about color and first realizes color is missing in his world, the cover illustration seems to reference the work of Picasso. Who are the artists whose work inspires you?
Yes, I was thinking about Picasso. I started to appreciate modern art when I saw van Gogh’s Irises at the Getty Museum. Photos really do not do his paintings justice. I began reading about art history and modern art. I love abstract expressionism. I admire Matisse, Kandinsky, Franz Kline, Jean Basqiat, Adolph Gottlieb, etc (there are too many to list here).
Recently, I realized that I love using Chinese ink and brush so I started reading about one of the great Chinese painters Zhang Daqian. He was originally from China but moved to Taiwan, where I was born. I learned that he had met with Picasso for some idea exchange. Zhang Daqian went to the Dunhuang Grottoes on the Silk Road and copied the murals in the caves for several years. Then I found out my favorite picture book as a child, The Nine-Color Deer, was a story painted in one of those caves thousands of years ago! See if you can spot Nine-Color Deer in Emet’s Box!
What are you working on now? We look forward to more books that celebration the experience of being alive.
I do have new ideas for more picture books but right now I am working on several public art projects. I just finished three artworks that are printed on the construction hoarding of a new skytrain station in my city. I am also selected for a public art residency and I want to try interactive and experiential public art. The funny thing is that I never thought I would do public art! Now I believe that life is an organic process and you never know where it’s going to lead you. But I do believe there’s a higher consciousness guiding us. So I am just going to follow Joseph Campbell’s tried and true advice:
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.”
— Joseph Campbell, in the Power of Myth
When Jeni Chen was a little girl living in Taiwan, she wanted to be Madonna when she grew up, even though she couldn’t carry a tune. While living in Taiwan, Jeni watched Hollywood movies and dreamed of moving to America. When she was fourteen, her family immigrated to Canada, where she lives today. In high school, Jeni fell in love with the magic of science and ended up working in laboratories as a research assistant. It wasn’t until Jeni became a mom that she became inspired to draw comics. Jeni returned to school and obtained a fine art certificate from Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Finding her creative voice has led her to create public art installations and illustrate for children. Jeni wrote a story about how she feels when doing what she loves—art! That story is Emet’s Box. Jeni would love to hear from you about what brings you joy. You can find Jeni at www.JeniChen.com.
Edie Ching, a former school librarian, now teaches courses for librarians in the I School at the University of Maryland. She is an active member of Capitol Choices and former president of the Washington Children’s Book Guild. She has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, and Notable Children’s Book Committees and will serve on the 2023/24 Coretta Scott King Jury.