Ninja! and an interview with Arree Chung

Ninja! by Arree Chungby Arree Chung

published June 2014 by Henry Holt and Company, an imprint of Macmillan.

Friends, I’m so excited to have Arree Chung in this corner of the internet today. I met Arree last summer at SCBWI in Los Angeles, and am humbled every time I think about how we share an agent and a friendship. He’s an expert storyteller with a bright, animated style and a fresh perspective. Ninja! is his debut picture book, and it will be far from his last.

First, you should watch this short film. And here’s my confession. Arree sent this to me a number of weeks ago with the caveat that it was unreleased and not to share. Except: it was too awesome not to. So I showed it to my students, because single-digit-aged kids are pretty good at secrets and don’t have Twitter accounts anyway.

They loved it. And I mean L O V E D  I T. Each class, without fail, asked to watch it many, many times in a row. So we did.

Meet Maxwell, and then meet Arree.

breaker What has been the most surprising thing about this whole debut picture book thing?

The most surprising thing about the publishing process is how long it takes to actually bring a book to market (1.5 – 2 years).  My background is in games, where companies can publish with the click of a button and make updates via the internet.  The process gives me appreciation for the care that goes into the publishing process.  It also helps to have a great team of people to work with.  Everyone from your agent, publisher, editor and art director in making the book and then there’s publicity, marketing and sales folks that help in getting the book out. 1stCoverAn early cover design. An early cover design. Ninja_Revision_Notesrevision notes.

I’m fortunate to have a supportive publisher in Macmillan.  They have a great team of experts.  Each one helps you with a specific aspect of the publishing process.  I’ve learned so much.  I’m so grateful I’ve been in good hands.  I’ve worked hard to hold up my end of the deal and make something special.  With Ninja it was easy, because I loved it so much.

Who are your creative and/or literary heroes?

Oh, so many!

Authors:
Roald Dahl
E.B. White
Jack Gantos
Judy Blume
Jeff Kinney

Illustrators:
Russell Patterson
Chris Ware
Yuko Shimitzo

Author/Illustrators:
Shel Silverstien
Wolf Erlbruch
William Steig
Mo Willems
Peter Brown
Leo Lionni
Maurice Sendak
Ian Falconer
Jon Klassen
David Shannon
Bill Peet
Calef Brown

Comics:
Jim Lee
Scott McFarlane
Jeffrey Brown
Bill Watterson
Jim Davis
Charles Schulz

Animation/Film:
Brad Bird
John Lassetter
Guillermo Del Toro
Chris Sanders
Danny Boyle
Tim Burton
Nick Park (Wallace & Gromit)
Steven Spielberg
Hayao Miyazaki

Can you talk about the similarities and differences in animation and the picture book form?

I love both mediums for different reasons.  Both mediums can transport the reader into new worlds.  I love it when a book or movie captures my imagination and I am completely immersed in a world that has been built.  The world is invented but it feels familiar and the story resonates with honesty.  I hate it when a story is force feeding me a message and it feels like an infomercial or when a story rambles without a focus.  Storytelling is magical when it has both the imagination and heart and speaks to you directly and honestly.  A great story is so exhilarating.  There’s nothing in the world that feels like it.  I love both animation and picture books because they have the ability to create magic.

How they are different?  Well, I think the main difference is that film tends to be a passive experience.  The viewer is in a dream like state that watches the story unfold.  It’s like being suspended in a time capsule and you watch everything that happens.  You take the story in a more subliminal kind of way. NinjaCreepAway Spread14_15Books on the other hand I think are active experiences.  You as the reader actively interact with the words and pictures.  It’s like your brain is the film projector and is working to play the story.  Because of this, I think books are much more intimate experiences.  You go at your own pace.  You stop, question and wonder.  Sometimes you’re so engaged, you speed all the way through and sometimes you like to read slowly just because.  Readers engage books with their imaginations and a lot of the story is told in-between the words, the page turns and the illustrations whereas films are full experiences that use all the arts of composition, acting, music and visuals to put you in a state of suspension.

Both are magical and I love doing both so much.

Can you give us any behind-the-scenes information on how you created the short film? Did you get to know Maxwell differently in that format?

Yeah!  It was so thrilling to bring Maxwell to life.  I had a pretty good idea of who he is as a character after creating the book but actually seeing him move and casting Taylor Wong as Maxwell brought another whole dimension.

As for production, here’s a quick behind the scenes look of what it took to make the short film.  I plan on doing a much more in-depth look in a separate blog post.

We used 4 software tools: Photoshop, Flash, After Effects and Final Cut Pro.  The process was a highly collaborative effort between folks at MacMillan, myself and David Shovlin, the animator.  It was a ton of work to do but a ton of fun as well.ShortFilm_Process

In all, it took about 5 weeks of work.  David and I worked really hard on it and I’m really proud of what we created in a relatively short period of time.2013-09-09 23:23Where did Ninja! come from?

It’s been my dream to make my own picture books for a long time.  The first conception of Ninja came when I was in art school.  I jotted down “A boy goes creeping around the house dressed as a Ninja and causes trouble.”  That was probably in 2007 or so.

Maxwell_1st_CharacterSketchesNinja_Thumbnails        MaxwellScanNoPencil Ninja_Thumbnails        MaxwellScanNoPencil Ninja_earlySketches-1Early Ninja! thumbnails and character sketches.

In 2012, I decided to do the Illustrator Intensive at the SCBWI Summer Conference.  We were given an assignment to submit a story along with a manuscript, thumbnails, character sketches, and a finished illustration.  Up to that point, I had been writing stories for years but was stuck on many of them.  For the workshop we had to write down answers to the following questions:

WHO
WHAT is the dilemma?
WHERE does it take place?
HOW is the problem solved?

This really helped me a lot.  Previous to this, many of my stories didn’t have focus and wandered a lot.  Ninja was a big break through for me as a storyteller and I had lots of people who helped guide me through it.   I’m so thankful for Rubin, my agent, and Kate, my editor.  The more I worked on it, the more the world and character took shape and gained depth.  It was so much fun to make.

Do you remember any art you made as a kid? What was it?!

Yeah, I made a lot of ninja stars and origami.  I was also obsessed with Legos.  I loved to build cruiser space ships and large fortresses armed to the teeth.  Whenever my uncle bought us Legos, we would make the thing we were supposed to make and then tear it apart and then make what we wanted to make.  Making your own thing was much more fun.

I was a huge comic book reader and collector as well.  I bought all of the X-men, Spiderman, Spider-ham, Batman and Spawn comics.  I still buy comics.

I also really love the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I used to record all of the episodes.  In fact, I used to press pause on the VCR and trace drawings of the Ninja Turtles by overlaying paper onto the TV.  At school, everyone thought I was the best drawer, but I never told anyone my technique til now!  Eventually I copied so many drawings I could draw it out of memory.  I tried to do the same technique with Transformers but that wasn’t nearly as successful because I didn’t understand perspective as at 12 year old.

And now what’s next for you?Ninja_GhostStoryI’ve got a lot of things I’m working on.  I have lots of Ninja stories to tell with Maxwell. (I’m so excited about all of them!)  One of them involves an old Chinese folktale involving ghosts!

I’m also illustrating two Potty Training books for kids that are hilarious.HowToPeeillustrations from How to Pee

I have lots of picture book stories I’m developing and I’m also writing a middle grade novel titled Ming Lee, All American.  Ming Lee chronicles my experiences growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese).  It’s deeply personal and is funny in that Louis CK, embarrassing but honest kind of way.  I would describe it as Judy Blume meets Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Of course, it is its own thing that I am figuring out.  I have a sense of what I want it to be but you never know what it will be until you get there.

Ming_Lee_Cover MingLeeHairCut

breaker A huge thanks to Arree for this peek into the mind of a master craftsman. Be sure to get your hands on Ninja! this week!

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A Penguin Story

{by Antoinette Portis}

I heard Antoinette Portis speak this summer at SCBWI in LA and she was a sheer delight — funny, smart, and so willing to share her creative process. I missed an opportunity to pick up a signed copy of this book earlier this summer at Once Upon A Time in Montrose, and have been kicking myself ever since. I’d say soaking up her picture book brain in person was a worthy replacement.

Take note of these bright, beautiful endpapers. We’ll be back for these.

Edna, our penguin heroine, sees endless white, black, and blue. She doesn’t complain or act like a brat about it, but she is convinced there is something else. And off she goes in search of it.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this illustration. She’s been shimmying up and down icebergs and sliding long distances through the Antarctic snow, and she won’t give up. And here, you, the reader, can rally for her because SHE’S RIGHT! She doesn’t know it yet, but you do, and even though you loved her before, you love her a billion times more now.

Can we talk about color again? I know we just went all tetradic-fancy-color-scheme-boom last time, but I just can’t help myself.

Ok, so after Edna flies through the air with some fish bones, she lands face first in a snow drift. NEXT TO THE SOMETHING ELSE. (Sorry for yelling, it’s just so…something else!) The page turn here is out of control amazing, so I’m not gonna spoil it for you. But trust me, when she digs her little penguin head out of this bank and realizes where she is and what she sees? Exhilarating.

This something else is orange. ORANGE. Of course! Antoinette Portis could have made it red or yellow or green, but orange! The Antarctic scientists have orange gear, orange planes, and orange homes.

Colors in a complementary color scheme exist directly opposite one another on the color wheel. Here, blue and orange. Edna’s real world and her something else. Design schemes utilizing complementary colors are especially vibrant and strong, because when paired together, each makes its complement appear brighter. And isn’t this Edna’s realization? That her world is brighter because she knows of the something else? What Antoinette Portis did visually to carry this story is nothing short of dazzling.

But why is this endpaper green? No spoilers. Read this one, watch this one, experience this one.

Summer According to Instagram

So whoa. The past few weeks have been madness.

Fun, glorious, overwhelming madness.

I traveled across the country to get my little sister hitched.

I read an AWESOME book on that plane by Jon Skovron, designed by the always impeccable Chad Beckerman.

She tied the knot. I got to stand next to her.

I took a picture of Thomas Jefferson’s backside in the lobby.

I attacked the LA SCBWI conference with all the excitement of a hyper squirrel and all the daze and glaze of an overtired zombie. New friends, fresh ideas, and all the courage in the world.

One of countless unreal moments (seriously, I danced in a flash mob. Many, many moments.) was this panel of picture book creators Jon Klassen, Antoinette Portis, Dan Yaccarino, Eugene Yelchin, and Lee Wardlaw.

Fires aren’t funny, WHOOP is.

WHOOP is the kooky, mushy word that represents my heart right now. Family, fun, and a big fat AMEN for picture books.

Coming up? Back to design, back to the picture book with the incomparable Saul Bass and his Henri Walks to Paris. Can’t wait for you to see it!