NINJAS, PENCILS AND BOOKS: PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR ARREE CHUNG

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Arree Chung is an award-winning writer, illustrator and overall cool guy. After a tour of duty at Pixar, he broke out on his own and now has an award-winning series, Ninja! that received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, has been named one of Amazon’s best books for 2014 and one of NPR’s best children’s books of 2014. He also has book deals for four more picture books! He also founded Live in a Story, a company that transforms walls with wall decals and canvas prints from picture books.
 
Lucky for us, he will be teaching some picture book classes at Writing Pad. In his one day workshop, you will do hands on creative exercises and leave with the seeds of your first children’s picture book. By the end of his five-week class, you will have completed a draft of a stellar children’s book and even have the chance to test it out on a small audience of kids at a reading at Writing Pad!
 
We were fortunate enough to get an exclusive interview with Arree, where he discusses how he got started as an author, where he gets his ideas, and some tips for picture book authors who want to get published. Find his book here: Ninja!

 

1. Tell us a bit about yourself! Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Who are you reading at the moment?

 

I grew up in the Bay Area, I studied Economics at UC Davis and developed my artistic skills at Art Center. For hobbies, I love sports, theater, movies and of course, books!
 
I just finished This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. It’s beautiful.

 

2. How did you know you wanted to write children’s books? Do they have their own pros and cons as opposed to writing for adults?

 

I never thought about writing children’s books until I went to art school in my mid twenties. I had a keen interest in picture books because I love storytelling and picture making. When I took Steven Turk’s Picture book class, I fell in love with the genre.
 
As for pros and cons, I think they are just really different. When writing for kids, you need to tap into that inner child and write age appropriate material without being condescending. You have a different set of tools and challenges. You can use pictures to tell your story but also need to keep in mind a shorter word count. In those ways, making stories for children can be different but the overall principles of good storytelling are the same.

 

Ninja_Interior_53. How was working in production at Pixar helpful to you in your career as a picture book author?

 

At Pixar, I saw first hand how great stories were made. The crew at Pixar work relentlessly on story. They keep at it and make many drafts of the story. Seeing the creative process at Pixar first hand helped me understand the importance of process. I also observed their design process when it came to the visuals. Again, everything was crafted around the story.
 
4. Where/how do you find your inspiration for books like Ninja!?

 

The idea for Ninja was found in an old sketchbook from Art School. I had scribbled, “Brian isn’t a kid, he’s a Ninja.” Many years later, I found that small idea and made it into Ninja! Who would have ever thought that little idea would be my first book!
 
I get ideas all of the time- usually when I’m traveling or in the early morning but you never really know when your muse is going to visit. That’s why I always keep paper and pens nearby. Hanging out with kids is another great way to come up ideas for stories.

 

5. Do you find that it simplifies the process to be the writer and illustrator?
 
Absolutely! I find it’s a more fluid process. Sometimes I start with pictures and sometimes I write just words but usually I work with the words and pictures together. You don’t need to be a great artist however to make a dummy. Working on a dummy will help you think about how to tell your story visually. Don’t worry if you can’t draw well. In the class, I’ll show you how to make a dummy even if you have limited drawing ability.

 

Ninja_26_27FV26. Do you have any advice for aspiring children’s book authors?

Read lots. Work on improving your craft consistently.

When I first started making picture books an editor advised me to visit the bookstore each week and read 10 books. It was great advice and I made it a weekly practice for years. I saw what was selling in the marketplace and noticed how the writing was crafted. To improve, I started transcribing the manuscripts, noting where the page turns were. This was a huge breakthrough for my understanding of how picture books are made.

 

7. What are the most common mistakes made by newbie children’s book writers?

 

The most common mistake I see is preachy storytelling. Newbies often want their book to have a moral or to “help kids” in some manner but it ends up making for a preachy story. Nobody really likes to be preached to. Rather, people love stories that they can relate to or stories that capture their imaginations.
 
A few other common mistakes are bad page turns and lengthy word counts.
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8. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process. Do you find the story first and then develop the characters or is it the opposite. Do you have a special you go to write? What is it like?
 
My creative process is pretty fluid in the beginning. It’s all about getting the idea down on paper. It can be doodles or words. It’s usually both on loose pieces of paper that I organize into folders.
 
From there, I work on getting my ideas into a dummy. Working in a dummy format as early as possible is important because you’ll start to work with the limitations of the book format. You’ll consider trim size, page turns and layout of pictures and words. For this stage, I use Genius Scan (mobile app) to make pdfs quickly and InDesign to layout my own dummies.
 
9. What are students going to learn in your picture book class?
 
Students will learn my process for making a picture book dummy. They’ll learn some useful exercises in coming up with an idea as well as practical techniques in making a dummy. Most importantly, they’ll learn how to revise and work quickly so they can further develop their stories.

 

10. What tools do you use in developing your imagery?
 
At first it’s just pen, paper, scissors and tape. That’s all you need to make a dummy and to develop your ideas. After you have your story locked in, I use art materials such as gauche, watercolor and color pencils to visually develop the art style for the story. In the later stages of making the book, I use Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign to design and refine the artwork.
 
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11. How do you channel your inner kid?
 
I try to approach the world with the same curiosity and excitement that kids do. Be open to possibilities and wonder. Asking the question, “what if” to yourself is a great way to tap into that inner kid. And nothing beats hanging out and playing with kids.
 
Thanks, Arree. That was fascinating. Don’t miss your chance to study with Arree! His one day workshop and five-week picture book class start soon and are almost full.