Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien are book creators, who live and work together in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. In 2015, their unpublished children’s book ‘The First Journey’ won the Scholastic Picture Book Award. They had written and illustrated the manuscript in just two weeks to meet the competition deadline. Last year, ‘The First Journey’ was published by Scholastic Singapore. I asked Quang and Lien to tell us more about their story.
What was the inspiration for your picture book, The First Journey?
In southwest Vietnam, our country, there is a natural phenomenon called the ‘floating season’. It’s when the river overflows and submerges all the land for about four months. During this time, boats are the only means of transport and a lot of kids have to go to school by boat. This is the inspiration for our book about a boy who goes alone to school and faces many strange dangers lurking in the water.
You are both author/illustrators of children’s books. How did you work together to create this beautiful picture book?
We love to talk to each other about the strange ideas that occasionally pop into our heads. When we made this book, the first image that came to us was a tiny boy rowing his sampan on the great river with a giant python swimming under him. We were both impressed with this image and decided to write a whole story about this boy, a little boy alone on a big river going to school. And it is not fantasy, it’s their reality. If you ask why school is such a big matter, it is because we Vietnamese, who live in a third world country, know that education is the only way to have a better life for ourselves and our families. We named the little boy ‘An’, which means peaceful in Vietnamese. We worked together on the plot and then sketched the storyboard. I drew all the pages with black ink and Lien coloured them digitally.
The illustrations in The First Journey are stunning. Can you describe your artistic process? What are the main influences on your work?
At first, I made several dummy sketches and showed Lien. She added more important details to these sketches and I drew the character and the background in separate layers with pen and ink. Then Lien combined them on the computer and coloured them. We discussed and offered advice to each other while working side by side. We tried our best to make the book’s illustrations as good as possible. We wanted to draw wide, large scenes to show how tiny humans are in Nature, while An (our character) stays brave and strong.
We take inspiration from our favourite illustrators, such as Shaun Tan, Victo Ngai and Bao Pham. The main influences of our work are real landscapes in southwest Vietnam. The Mekong River and the melaleuca forest are wonderful and we just draw what we see. We want to introduce the beauty of our country to the world.
This is your first published picture book. Has it made a difference to you?
We made this book in two years and it was a great time to learn about making children’s books. We had a chance to work with professional editors and improve our knowledge about children’s books. We have also met many illustrators and authors of children’s books since this book was published. Lien and I started our own studio, Kaa illustration, in Saigon. There are only two of us and three cats in a small apartment. We have got to do the thing we love the most: drawing stories. This book has changed our life in an unexpected way. It really was our first journey.
The First Journey is written and published in English. Are there any plans to release a Vietnamese version?
The Vietnamese version of this book was released in Vietnam in July 2017, two months after the English version was released in Singapore.
What other projects are you currently working on?
Now we are working on children’s picture books with some publishing houses in Vietnam and Europe. We have been working together under the pen name, Kaa illustration. We are currently working with many other illustrators on a Vietnamese folktale project. It gives us a chance to research Vietnamese culture and old painting techniques and how to combine them with modern techniques. We both feel excited about this project and we hope it will be released soon.
Not many Vietnamese picture books are available in English. Which books would you like to see published outside Vietnam?
If possible, we hope every picture book in Vietnam can be published around the world. But if we had to choose, it would be Linh Nam Chich Quai illustrated by Ta Huy Long. The book is about Vietnamese mythology and the illustrations are incredible. You can see more about this book here
Thank you for your time, Quang and Lien!
You can find out more about Quang and Lien’s work on Facebook @kaaillustration and their website
Author/illustrator photographs, sketches and book illustrations courtesy of Phung Nguyen Quang and Huynh Kim Lien.