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Interview with author and illustrator Ed Young
by Marjorie Coughlan*

Ed Young was born in Tientsin, China, in 1931, and grew up in Shanghai, in a house built by his father, as recorded in his latest picture-book The House Baba Built. He later moved to Hong Kong, and from there to the USA, where he trained as an artist. He worked in advertising before illustrating his first book The Mean Mouse and Other Mean Stories in 1962.

Since then, Ed has illustrated more than 80 books, nearly half of which he also wrote. His versatility and the imaginative mixing of media in his art, as well as his artistic sensitivity towards each new book, have reaped him many awards, including the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China and two Caldecott Honors for The Emperor and the Kite and Seven Blind Mice, based on the classic Indian story of the blind men and the elephant.

Ed lives in New York with his two daughters and two cats.


Your new book The House Baba Built is the story of your childhood in Shanghai during the 1930s and through the Second World War.  You talk in your Author’s Note about the different drafts the book went through before you arrived at the final version.  Can you tell us some more about that, and how you came to tell your story through the history of the house?

Well, I didn’t intend for such an elaborate book when I first started it.  It began with my first trip to China after 20 years of being cut off, when I visited my father’s house with my sister, who was brought up there too, and her daughter.  We got ourselves into the house by telling the owners that my father built it and giving them some evidence of what the house looked like inside.  Being inside the house again evoked a tremendous number of memories, and I put some of these into verse as a sort of reminder of what happened in the house when we were growing up.  So the book started with maybe 14-20 verses of different moments in the house and I was just going to show comic figures/caricatures of us doing different things as a fun book.  However, that didn’t go very well…

Then I started to think about other ways of telling the story: in fact, in the end, I did the book a total of four times.  Each version was very different.  One was a dialogue with different features in the house, like the walls that we measured ourselves on, the banister we slid down, or the staircase that we jumped from.  In another version, I brought people in through the gate on a house-tour, and told them what happened in different rooms.  Then I tried a sort of pop-up book.  But I ran into the ground every time.  This published book is the fifth time around for me.

So I had four books that were pretty much ready to go.  I think each time was a little better than the last.   Each version was valid as a step and meant that I could proceed with the next one fairly quickly, once I had the concept in my head. Then my editors suggested that I make it into a story – and that’s what I was afraid to get into because at that point it became real. I had to do a lot of research into the history, photographs were gathered, and the pictures and floor plans of the house had to be really accurate.

Your editor Alvina Ling suggested bringing author Libby Koponen in on the project. How did that external viewpoint help you to find the shape the book was to take?

Initially I had reservations about teaming with a writer because I’d never done that before, especially about something so personal, but luckily Libby works the way I do.  She wrote more than could actually get into the book; I had more pictures than would fit.  After twenty years or so, the project had become so complicated because each attempt had left me with remnants of its colors. So we would just discard and edit.

How did it feel for you creating this intensely personal book?

There are a lot of stories in the book told through pictures but not in words.  There are some images that readers won’t even know what they are, maybe – but I know, so it’s really a reminder for me of my story!  It’s a record.  It is very personal and it definitely is a journal about my father. Once we went down the historical route, the book started with celebrating his genius thinking.  Then, I was doing it for my daughters.  Though they have no interest in what’s past at the moment, because they are teenagers, they will want to know one day.  In the end, I also came to realise that it was as much for myself because I got to know myself a lot better than before I’d started.

I have nearly always kept my personal life outside my work.  But as I have developed as an author, I have begun to feel more comfortable about bringing my own stories into the picture.  The first time was in a book about my children, My Mei Mei, about two adopted children. I brought all my family into it: the grandparents, my wife, myself, and my children, and that felt right at the time. This time around I feel it’s also timely.  We are going through a political crisis in the world right now that feels very similar to the way we felt then. I also feel that I needed to record my memories, and I don’t mind that a part of that is shared.

I consider myself very lucky to see the passage of time from past to present.  My mother passed away not so long ago; she was 105.  She saw the world in the late nineteenth century into the twenty-first century and in her lifetime, just within one person’s lifetime, the world has changed so much.  When she was born, Shanghai was a cow patch, it didn’t have much of anything – and look at it now. It’s just amazing.  When my father built the house in The House Baba Built, the country road where he built it was hardly a road at all.  It was on the outskirts with an embassy on one side and a farm.   Yet when I went back to Shanghai, I couldn’t find it!

Your mix of drawing and collage is a tour de force.  Can you take us through your creative process – for example, your use of different media in your drawing, compared with the silhouette cut-outs in tissue paper?

I wanted the whole composition to be like a scrap book.  I tried to make the words look like they’re written –so you have a picture and the words describing them, like in a photo album or a scrapbook.  The variety of styles appears casual but it provides the vehicle for the spirit of what I want to convey.   The mixture of media also partly comes from having bits and pieces that got left behind from the earlier versions.  In the end, I had so many pictures and so many words that it was going to be difficult to  fit them all together within the book – so some of the silhouettes became a sort of background with words over them. 

There is enormous energy in the artwork, including some deliberate depictions of movement through time – like the battle of chopsticks over the rare bowl of meat, or your paper cut-out representing you and your siblings running up stairs. What, for you, does this contribute to the book as a whole?

Those cut-outs came about because I couldn’t quite convey the sound of the feet going upstairs.  Also, I was one of those people going up, so I didn’t actually see everybody running up the stairs, I just heard the noise and I have a very clear memory of that.  We couldn’t go fast enough so we had to jump several steps at once, making a tremendous amount of noise!  When you have five kids growing up, you make more noise than you can imagine.  Thinking about it now, I don’t know how my parents could stand it.  We banged the doors; and just imagine us skating on the roof! That roof was made of concrete and above the second floor; and the skates had steel blades, not plastic like they have now. We were not to be reckoned with!  Anyway, that was all part of the spirit I wanted to convey through single pictures.

What do you hope young (and not so young) readers who are outside those memories will draw from your family’s story?

I’ve noticed that many people have responded to this book by remembering the flavors of their own childhood homes: the smell, a certain kind of noise surrounding it, the colors and patterns, and all kinds of things that conjure up memories of their own childhoods.  I think this is universal because everyone grew up in a place, just that details might be forgotten until somebody else mentions something.   I had lived so long in the United States that I didn’t really think about all these things from the past.  Then, when my sister and I started talking about them, all of these memories started coming back, like measuring ourselves against a wall. All you need is to tickle your brain a bit and it all starts popping out.

You touch on your introduction to drawing – the frustration you felt at not being able to “get” on paper what you saw in your head.  As an artist, do you still get frustrated?

Oh, yes! But frustration is only something that I ascribe to something I’ve never done before.  If I find that I’m repeating myself, then I really haven’t learnt very much.  Frustration is really a self-assigned situation: if a story is challenging, then frustration comes with it.  I can have a sense something is going to be difficult but I will learn from that.  So I never think of frustration as being something defeating – I think of frustration as something challenging.

Of course, the situation I found myself in with The House Baba Built was at times very frustrating.  Even just this version took me two years and there were various times when I simply didn’t know what to do.  I had this house in my head and I couldn’t draw it out.  I got my brothers (both engineers) to show me the floor plans, so they wracked their brains but at first we couldn’t figure out how all those things fit.  There’s a closet that juts out of one room but it doesn’t come out on the other side so at first, we couldn’t figure it out.  It doesn’t mean anything to anyone who’s reading the book because they wouldn’t know the difference, but I couldn’t live with it!  I just had to get these things right, for my own satisfaction. 

In your Author’s note, you mention Wabi Sabi, for which you contributed the artwork.  The story of how you had to create a second set of illustrations at short notice after the first set went missing has become legendary.  With the second set, through happy necessity, you adopted wabi sabi principles in your collages – how has this affected your approach to collage since then?  Does wabi sabi continue to resonate in your life and work?

I was attracted to that particular story because of my own background: the principle of wabi sabi is Japanese and the term is Japanese, but it borrows a lot from the Chinese philosophy of beauty in the ugly, in the commonalities, in the things that people throw away.  Of course, I lived through the Second World War so it’s a common thing for me to save things because they might come in useful sometime.  So wabi sabi fits in with my kind of sentiment.  I also picked up Wabi Sabi to do simply because it was something that wouldn’t immediately be thought of as a children’s book.  It was a challenge to make it into something that’s easy to read, because it is also a very complex book – it has haiku, explanations, Japanese words and all of that -  and it had to be woven together so that people would not be confused by it.

When I finished the book, it was on the brink of my wife’s discovery of her cancer.  I handed it in, in a hurry, and that was when I lost it: but my wife had just come home after surgery, so I knew I wouldn’t have time to go and look for it. My wife passed away a few months later and I had my children to look after… and then the worst part, as far as thebook was concerned, was that everything I had used had been cleared up and thrown out.  All that was left was a really clean table…

Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually used wabi sabi while illustrating the book: so this time it had to be done with wabi sabi materials and that would make it better than the first version.  The feeling that I could make it better actually gave me the inclination and focus I needed, so the second time was a lot better; and also, because I had done the book once already, it seemed a lot easier.

I often visit schools and show both versions, just to let the kids know that a story is a story: that tellings of a story can be totally different from a single person, not to mention different people telling them. 

You have said elsewhere how the potential for growth in yourself and your readers is a priority in taking on new projects.  Looking back over your long career, in what ways have you developed as an artist?

I’m always trying out different media with a view to enhancing my stories.  If I serve a medium by learning about it, then it will come and serve me.  It’s also a way to keep myself fresh. I don’t take any medium for granted.  For example, I love paper, but in The House Baba Built, I mainly used fabric.  Since that was new for me, I learned something.

Every time I do a book, it sort of keeps me alive, because I always feel there’s an appropriateness about that particular story in relation to my life at that moment.  Each book is different.  When I’m working on it, it becomes the only thing that matters.  None of the others is mine anymore.  We talk about these books as if they were mine, but they were made by somebody who was way back then.  Each book is like a child who has already gone out into the world: they have to stand on their own feet; they are nothing to do with me any more. At the same time, when I look back at my 80 or so books, each story means so much to me because it has something to do with something that was happening at the time. It’s a book for everyone else, but for me it’s really a part of my life.

You have alluded to the complimentary relationship between words and pictures that is inherent in Chinese painting as being one of the connections that drew you to children’s books. In your own author-illustrated books, which comes first, the verbal or the visual representation?

I was brought up seeing pictures and words complimenting each other, with the calligraphy of the words conveying meaning as a form of art.  Unlike in Western art where you maybe have a few words hiding someplace in the corner (a signature, but it doesn’t really mean anything), in Chinese art, words are an integral part of a composition.  The words help the pictures and the pictures help the words.  Sometimes the words become much more important and you put a little inky picture somewhere to emphasise the words.

Usually the visual part does come to me first, but then sometimes, when I’m telling a story, it is truly the words that come.  I’m very interested in poetry and putting pictures to poems to enhance the beauty of words. With Beyond the Great Mountain, for instance, the words came first. But this is all very recent for me: my telling stories started with Lon Po Po and I became an author with that book.  

When I do a children’s book with pictures, the words have a place: but then sometimes maybe you don’t even have any words on a particular spread, you just have pictures.  I compare them to the pauses in a piece of music.  They give you a sense of space and silence, and the sounds become much more prominent after that. So there’s a moment of silence, then you go to the next picture with some kind of anticipation. You are maybe compelled to see the next picture because it brings up a surprise of some sort.  Or there’s something that you would like to linger over, and then you see it move forward in the next image.  It’s really about communication between the reader and the turning of the page.

Beyond the Great Mountains is a multi-layered book that explores China through the roots of its characters.  It offers readers a very special reading experience; in what way was this book special to you?

My first book about Chinese characters was actually Voices from the Heart, and it actually came about thanks to Lon Po Po.  After I won the Caldecott Medal, I also won a Boston Globe Horn Book Award, but I had run out of speeches to talk about Lon Po Po so I thought maybe I should talk about something different: Chinese characters.  Chinese characters are my passion and for a long time, I have used them to teach myself about Chinese philosophy.

Chinese characters are actually pictures that are linked together to make meanings; and to me, the resulting pictograms are interesting because I’m basically a designer – I like to create symbols from pictures.  The pictures in a Chinese character contain meanings that you maybe don’t recognise until you contemplate them in silence: then they will speak to you; otherwise they leave you pretty much alone.  So for me it’s almost like an archaeological dig – I keep some of the characters on my wall and occasionally look at them.  Eventually they will tell me what they mean. 

Beyond the Great Mountains was actually first written on a scroll. I needed some words to introduce calligraphy to a class I was teaching, so I made a poem and that poem was “Beyond the Great Mountains”. After Voices of the Heart, people wanted to know more about Chinese characters, so I submitted my poem to Chronicle and together we worked out the “stepped” format of the book.  Beyond the Great Mountains was, for me, one of my perfect books, I think; I love that book.

Your Chinese heritage has played an important role in your work, but your books also explore other cultures (most recently, Seven Fathers, a Norwegian folktale retold by Ashley Ramsden).  How has your own experience affected your approach towardss cultural representation in your writing/illustrating for children?

I’m not conscious of being Chinese or American, I just express myself – but occasionally my English has a Chinese structure to it that I catch if I listen to myself.  Similarly, in a lot of my art, it is simply me expressing myself and I’m not aware of the Chinese aspects being there unless I stop and look for them. That’s because I trained in art in the West but I was brought up Chinese.  There is definitely a touch of Chinese in my art but I don’t even know where it is.  It’s not a conscious thing.  When I look through the span of my 80 books, even though at the time I wasn’t conscious of why I was attracted to each particular story, I do know they have some bearing on where I was in my life.  It’s only when you’re away from yourself that you can see that relationship.  But the most important thing is living life the way you are without worrying too much about it.

I first came to America to learn about Western culture and I thought I had left all my Chinese background behind.  To understand Western culture, I needed to get into the folktales and traditional stories. I wasn’t brought up know what Winnie the Pooh was.  I had never read it before I became a children’s book artist, or stories like The Wind in the Willows – all of these were new to me.  Folk tales and fairy tales were a way to get me into the minds of Western people.

When I was a child, I read tons of Chinese stories, full of historical heroes and the like, and my father would read English books to us: stories like Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Robin Hood.  So I got to know stories for older readers, and I was very eager because those were exciting stories – with wonderful pictures.  My father was more comfortable with English than Chinese.  He’d studied abroad – in fact, I’ve been to the University of Michigan to look for my father’s picture in the Engineering Hall. He was one of the first Chinese who came to this country for a Western education.

How do you envisage the future, such as e-books, affecting what you do?

I think technology has transformed the way we communicate and definitely books are on their way out.  Paper books are going to be challenged by more and more e-books; and increasingly, in the future, books will be stored in special places for people to go and experience, like paintings in a museum.  Books will become rare and you won’t go into a place and see books on the shelf as a regular thing.  People will have to go to a special place to turn pages.

Paper books are my kind of dance.  I do that.  But I can see how more and more my children are looking at screens and turning pages on a screen.  Paper itself will become rare and a thing of the past in their lives and in their children’s lives.  Even so, at heart I’m a designer – I will continue to design whatever there is a place for at this juncture between paper books and e-books.  There will always be a place for design, and a place for works crafted by hand…

And there will always be a place for stories.  Stories will never die – that’s eternal.  As long as we have a soul, there will be a story.  And as long as there are people, each person carries at least one story.  This is where life is.  Telling stories is really people expressing themselves.  As long as we have a mind, we will be telling stories; and as long as life is lived, the classic stories will always be there – that’s eternal and it’s universal.  So I think the world will survive, even if we don’t have paper books!

Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

I’m working on several books – I usually have four or five books that I’m stuck on, talking about frustration! I’m working on one for Little Brown about two musicians of the jazz era, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie: the relationship between them and the music they played.  Again, it’s a challenge to transform words from sound and show the colour of sound, the dialogue between sound, colors and shapes.  So I took a bite, and now I’m stewing in my own juice.  But when it becomes a book, I will be satisfied.  And that’s how I grow – I feel I can grow if I can take myself into unfamiliar country.

* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor

Posted November 2011

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Ed Young

By Ed Young
(selected bibliography):

The Masterwork of a Painting Elephant, written by Michelle Cuevas (Frances Foster Books, 2011)

The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China, text as told by Ed Young to Libby Koponen
(Little Brown and Co., 2011)

Seven Fathers, retold by Ashley Ramsden
(Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press, 2011)

Moon Bear, written by Brenda Z. Guiberson
(Henry Holt and Co., 2010)

(Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press, 2009)

Tsunami, written by Kimiko Kajikawa
(Philomel Books, 2009)

Wabi Sabi, written by Mark Reibstein
(Little Brown and Co., 2008)

Twenty Heartbeats, written by Dennis Haseley
(Neal Porter Books, Roaring Brook Press, 2008)

Tiger of the Snows
Tenzing Norgay:
The Boy Whose Dream Was Everest
, written by Robert Burleigh
(Atheneum Books, 2006)

My Mei Mei
(Philomel Books, 2006)

Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem of China
(Chronicle Books, 2005)

Shanghai Messenger, written by Andrea Cheng
(Lee & Low Books, 2005)

The Sons of the Dragon King
(Atheneum Books, 2004)

I, Doko: The Tale of a Basket
(Philomel Books, 2004)

What about Me?
(Philomel Books, 2002)

Monkey King
(HarperCollins, 2001)

Cat and Rat: The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac (Henry Holt and Co., 1998)

Voices of the Heart
(Scholastic Press, 1997)

Donkey Trouble
(Atheneum Books, 1995)

Little Plum
(Philomel Books, 1994)

Iblis, by Shulamith Oppenheim
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994)

Moon Mother
(Harper Collins, 1993)

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, written by Eleanor Coerr

Red Thread
(Philomel Books,1993)

Seven Blind Mice (Philomel Books, 1992)

Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China
(Philomel Books, 1989)

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China, retold by Al-Ling Louie (Philomel Books, 1982)

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, written by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis
(Henry Holt and Co., 1973)

Golden Swans of Chaiyapitom, written by Kermit Kruger
(World Publishing, 1969)

The Emperor and the Kite,written by Jane Yolen
(Philomen Books, 1967)

The Mean Mouse and Other Mean Stories, written by Janice May Udry (Harper & Row, 1962)

More on PaperTigers:

Visit our Gallery Feature of Ed's work.

Follow our many references to Ed and his work on our blog.

More on the web:

Visit Ed's website

Read Ed's interview with 7-Imp.

Read more about Beyond the Great Mountains and Wabi Sabi in Ed's interviews with Cynsations.

Read about this presentation Ed made to young school children, based around Beyond the Great Mountains.

Find out more about Shanghai Messenger from the features on Lee & Low's website.

Photo credit: © Gordon Trice


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