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(How) Can we read? Interview with Charlene Chua
I feel as if Charlene Chua is one of those underrated illustrators whose work you’ve seen, but might not be able to identify by name. (She has illustated over 25 books, after all, so the chances that you’ve run into at least one of them, somewhere, is pretty high.)
My family first fell in love with her books when we were introduced to the lovable, indomitable Amy Wu in Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang. Amy’s quest to make the perfect bao — full of frustration, setbacks, and finally, success — is not only incredibly relatable but also the perfect example of growth mindset in action.
Then it was Fishing With Grandma by Susan Avingaq and Maren Vsetula. We’re an ice fishing family, and naturally, since it’s one of my strategies for raising readers to connect reading to everything and everything to reading, I’ve been on the lookout for titles that depict this activity for years. There aren’t a ton of them, but Fishing With Grandma is (an excellent) one.
And the best part, for us, is that the characters in this book — written by Avingaq, who is Indigenous Canadian and Inuit, and Vsetula, who has lived and worked in Nunavut for over a decade — don’t ice fish the way we ice fish as white people here in southern Wisconsin but rather, in their own way, upholding their own First Nations cultural traditions. (My kids love pointing out the differences, and it has led to several good conversations about why people might do the same things in different ways, which leads to further discussions about how we are different but also alike. This is valuable stuff, and all for the cost of a paperback picture book.)
I could go on and on about Chua — and how you should run, not walk, to get your hands on her books — but she does such a great job of speaking for herself, I’ll just get out of the way.
Here’s her biography, from her website, including some fun facts 🐱
Charlene Chua (she/they) has illustrated many things over the years for kids of all ages. Her illustration work has won several awards, while books she has illustrated have been nominated for OLA Blue Spruce & Silver Birch, Lambda Literary Awards, USBBY Outstanding International Books, Shining Willow Award, and others.
Charlene’s author/illustrator debut, Hug? was published by Kids Can Press in 2020.
Charlene was born and grew up in Singapore, and moved to Canada in 2007. They started work in 1998 as a web designer, and went on to become a senior designer, web producer and interactive project manager. However, what they really wanted to do was draw pictures all day. In 2003, they decided to give it a go, and after a few years, they became a full-time illustrator.
When she is not making art, she enjoys cooking, reading, and playing with her cats. She now lives with her husband (and cats!) in Hamilton, Ontario.
- ‘Chua’ can be pronounced several different ways. I suggest ‘CHOO-ah’
- I’m nonbinary!
- My pronouns are She and/or They. Either or both are fine.
- The cat in Hug? is based on my cat, Uno, who crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2019
- I really, really, really... like cats.
And I really, really, really like Chua.
How long have you been illustrating for children? What called you to this work?
I guess it depends on when you want to start counting! The first professional (i.e paid) illustration jobs I did were for children; as a teenager in the mid-late 90s, I did some illustration work for a Singapore kids’ magazine and an educational publisher. But I really only started focusing on children's books around 2015. I guess after years of trying to do other kinds of illustration, I found that what I enjoyed drawing and what got me hired the most was stuff for kids, especially books.
Your illustrations have so much color, energy, and life in them — can you talk about your process?
For my own work, I try to not think too hard about what I want to draw. I'll just come up with something and along the way I usually add things that I think are funny, whimsical, or silly. It's a lot easier with children’s art and I think kids enjoy the results a well.
You’ve illustrated a couple of books that address topics long ignored by the children's market — a sweet Valentine's Day story about two girls in Love, Violet (by Charlotte Sullivan Wild) and a board book about gender expression in Bye, Bye, Binary! (by Eric Geron).
Why is it important for children to have books that reflect their own experiences as well as the experiences of others?
I think that we have always lived in a society filled with people who are not like us. It is not possible to live in a society whereby everyone thinks exactly the same thing about everything, and if we ever got to that point I think there wouldn’t be much point to existing anymore since we’d all be robots. I feel it is better to develop a sense of empathy and understanding of other people, and that practice should begin in childhood. The consequences of failing to cultivate those sensibilities are sadly apparent throughout human history, and continue today; we constantly see groups of people trying to oppress others out of fear, or dismissing another group’s concerns because they cannot/don’t want to empathize with them.
As for representation — well, let me share a personal thought. Recently, Michelle Yeoh has played many characters in both science fiction and fantasy. I am 42 years old; I cannot express, in any concise way, the sense of joy in seeing a character who looks like me in these roles, and also the intense sadness of having to wait till my middle age to see it be so. I do not wish for today’s children — whether they are BIPOC, LGBTQ, disabled, neurodiverse — to have to wait as I have in order to see themselves in stories. There’s something about seeing yourself in stories, something that opens doors in the mind. I think that experience should be open to all, not just people from the dominant group.
What are a few titles, recent or otherwise, that have stood out to you as being so excellent you wish they were on the shelf in every home and classroom?
I don’t know if I would recommend them for every home and classroom, but some of my favorite picture books are:
War by Jose Jorge Letris and Andre Letria
Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch
Louise I, King of the Sheep by Oliver Talec
I also really enjoyed Bathe the Cat by Alice B. McGinty and David Roberts (ed: Me too!)
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new you can tell us about? (Just want to add here how excited my own children are for the next two Amy Wu books!)
For 2023, I have a couple of picture books coming out — Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance (book 4) by Kat Zhang [on May 30] and Boy's Don’t Fry by Kimberly Lee in November.
I am currently working on an illustrated chapter book series (the first book of which is coming in 2024), a vampire picture book, as well as Amy Wu and the Lantern Festival (book 5).
A big thank you to Chua for taking the time to grant me this interview. I am incredibly excited to read her upcoming titles.
For more information about Chua’s work, visit her website. She also has an Etsy shop where you can buy signed books and prints of her artwork. And be sure to seek out her books at your local library and bookstore (or order them online). You won’t regret reading any of them, I promise.
Thanks for reading today, and always,
P.S. Bookshop.org links in this post are affiliate ones — meaning I get a tiny commission if you use any of them to make a purchase. I appreciate your support!