AN INTERVIEW WITH ABI CUSHMAN AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR OF ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking Children’s…
ON THE BOOK BIRTHDAY OF
1 2 3 CATS: A COUNTING BOOK
ABC CATS: AN ALPHA-CAT BOOK
Written by Lesléa Newman
(Candlewick Books; $7.99 each, Ages 2 to 5)
1 2 3 Cats: A Cat Counting Book
Meet cats from one to a dozen in this adorable board book introduction to counting with a feline twist. Author Lesléa Newman draws on her love for (and familiarity with) cats in a concept book for the very young, while illustrator Isabella Kung captures the animals’ movements and gestures in a way that is sure to delight.
ABC Cats: An Alpha-Cat Book
From curious to elegant, grouchy to inquisitive, rowdy to tangled to . . . well, unusual (who says cats don’t swim in the tub?), these twenty-six charming felines interact with oversize alphabet letters on rhyming spreads. Author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Isabella Kung offer a cat’s-eye concept book that makes the ABCs go down easy—and is sure to inspire many a repeat viewing.
Colleen Paeff: Happy book birthday, Isabella! It must be so exciting to have two books coming out on the same day! You had to paint over 120 cats for these two adorable books. Do you feel like you need to take a break from painting cats now?
Isabella Kung: Thank you so much, Colleen! It is exciting! They are my first board books too. And yes! 122 cats to be exact, more if you count the different painted versions on various materials to achieve the final results. Thankfully, I love cats so much that it is the one subject I have never grown tired of. Which is good, because I am working on the No Fuzzball! sequel right now!
CP: Hooray! Your author/illustrator debut is getting a sequel?! I’m really glad to hear that. I love Fuzzball. She has so much personality–as do the cats in your latest books. Was it difficult to create so many distinct cat personalities at once? How did you do it?
IK: Lesléa Newman’s words really help spark the inspiration – ideas for gestures, expressions, and body language came to me rather quickly, a little easier for ABC CATS, as each cat only appears once. For 1 2 3 CATS, I kept referring back to my notes about each cat and did my best to stay true to their initial introduction for the following spreads. For example, Cat Number Three was first described as sweeter than Cat Number Two – I drew her being sweet on Cat Number Two, taking the kitten under her wing. From then on, you can always find them together for the rest of the book. The hard part was actually determining what breed, size, fur patterns and colors each cat should be depicted as, which was more a design puzzle to solve, it was fun and challenging.
CP: Can you speak to the experience of illustrating a board book. Did you face any particular challenges?
IK: Illustrating board books is fun! Honestly, they are not that different from illustrating picture books. The main differences are being aware of the preferences of a younger audience and a slightly lower page count– no need to illustrate the title page, endpapers, and such. The biggest challenge was at the beginning when we were figuring out the style and artistic direction for both books. I was given the art note that they wished to see a style that is a combination between my children’s book watercolor illustrations like in NO FUZZBALL! and the loose, minimalistic Cat Inklings paintings in my personal gallery. This is a great idea and I was excited to try it! Though figuring out how to execute that made me nervous! To achieve the right balance between the looseness and simplicity of my Cat Inklings style with a clearer representation of cats and keep them recognizable (especially for 123 CATS where all the cats are recurring characters) took me two weeks of experimentation, a few failures at the beginning, but I am glad I finally found a good solution! And that is simply the natural progress of figuring something new in art (and writing too) – that you can think about it all you want, but unless it is actually down on paper or screen, and you can review at it objectively, you won’t be able to tell if it really works. You’d think I would be able to trust myself and the process by now and stop being nervous, but unfortunately, my emotions don’t always listen to my logic. I am really grateful to my Art Director, Lauren Pettapiece, and everyone on the team for placing their trust in me, encouraging me, and giving me the room to experiment. It was truly a dream job!
IK: The act of teaching is actually a great learning tool for myself. I have to really break down and analyze my own thought process, materials, drawing and painting techniques, in order to successfully explain and demonstrate to others. I’ve learned so much more about myself and my work over the years thanks to teaching. Teaching is also a wonderful way to share and connect with the creative community. As creators, our career is often an isolating path, it’s nice to discuss your craft with others who are just as excited to hear it. Not to mention, it can be very rewarding when students enjoy my class!
CP: I am mesmerized by your YouTube channel–especially the time-lapse watercolor paintings. How much time (in real-time) does it take to paint something like the No Fuzzball in Despair painting? And what is it about painting with watercolors that keeps you coming back to that medium time and time again?
IK: Thank you! I enjoy watching them sometimes myself, because most of my paintings take hours, so speeding it up to only 2-5 mins really makes it look magical! It makes me look 100% confident, too (not always the case)! The painting No Fuzzball in Despair, in particular, took me about 15-18 hours to complete.
CP: Oh, wow! It looks so fast in the video! What is it about painting with watercolors that keeps you coming back to that medium time and time again?
IK: I love painting with watercolor and other water mediums like ink, even though it might not be as flexible or speedy as digital mediums. I personally really enjoy the tactile aspects of traditional mediums. Working with watercolor is like working with a living being, you’ll have to study it, observe, and guide it to create the effects you want. Sometimes it even leads you to happy accidents! Which is hard to come by digitally when the undo function is so readily available. It’s more challenging, but the results are immensely satisfying as well! Also, I feel like I can get into the “zone” or access the elusive flow state more easily when working with traditional mediums, whereas, when I am working in photoshop, it tends to feel like work.
CP: What’s your advice to people who like drawing, but get discouraged by their lack of natural drawing ability?
IK: Drawing and painting are just skills, skills that anyone can learn and even perfect. Natural abilities will only affect the speed that you learn your craft, never let anyone (even yourself) tell you that you can’t draw or paint. All it takes is dedicated practice, draw and paint every day if possible. Start with the basics and don’t get frustrated if you make mistakes. We’ve all been there, it’s all part of the learning process, I still make mistakes! There are so many courses and workshop options nowadays, you can easily find something by an artist you like too.
CP: What are three art tools you wouldn’t want to live without?
IK: My watercolor palette, all my painting brushes and my trusty Pentel pocket brush pen with black ink!
CP: You’re the Illustrator coordinator of the SCBWI SF/South region of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Has taking on that role had any impact on your work as an author/illustrator?
IK: SCBWI is such a wonderful organization, joining it really helped me connect with others in my community and learn more about the professional industry when I was just starting out; going to SCBWI conferences also sparked the desire to write my own stories too. So when I was asked to step up to this role, I said yes because I really wanted to give back and contribute to our region. I’ve gained the experience and confidence in organizing and planning events (and now virtually as well); I got to meet and invite fantastic industry professionals that I personally admire; and most of all it gave me the opportunity to personally meet my editor for No Fuzzball!, Kait Feldmann, through one of our annual conferences!
CP: I really related to something you said in your interview with Stephani Martinell Eaton on the Cynsations blog when you were talking about the challenges of being an author/illustrator. You said, “Even when I do have time in between projects, it is hard to truly rest and exercise self-care. There are stories on the back burner that need to be worked on! Art experiments waiting to be explored! New tools to be learned! Promotional materials to be done!” Have you learned any useful tricks to help you deal with that particular challenge? I could use them!!
IK: Haha! I do have some tricks, though I must say, my tricks are less effective during this pandemic. My productivity has been a bit fickle during this trying time, but I’m trying to be kind to myself and take things one step at a time and dedicate time off. The best trick I can recommend is to set up various achievable goals and deadlines for yourself. I usually have 3-4 big goals in mind for the year. Then I break it down to a digital monthly to-do list, adding to it throughout the year as things come up. Then I have an analogue weekly planner that I slot these tasks into each week and cross them off as I go. That way, I am not overwhelmed by everything I need to do and can just focus on getting through each week. I do pay close attention to how much I can actually achieve and fine-tune my planning if needed. There’s no use setting way too many unachievable tasks and goals on your plate, that only cause more disappointment or frustration. Now that trick helps with getting most of my responsibilities done, though writing or coming up with ideas is a whole other ball game. I found just dedicating a creative hour every day, even if all I do is stare at my manuscript is helpful. Eventually, ideas will flow and solutions will reveal themselves to me as long as I show up consistently to work on them. Or if schedules allow, a work retreat somewhere else is an amazing treat to the creative mind!
CP: Speaking of retreat, what would a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, look like for you?
IK: A perfect day– that means no urgent emails, family and friends, or home duties interrupting, right? It might look something like this: (FYI, I’m a night owl so please adjust the timing to your sleep schedule)
10am – 12pm – Wake up, grab coffee and water, writing time.
12pm – 1pm – Lunch
1pm – 5pm – Illustration work
5 pm – 6 pm – Exercise or Meditation
6 pm – 10 pm – Dinner / Family / Relaxation time
10 pm – 2 am – Illustration work. If no pressing deadlines, then personal art explorations.
2 am – 3 am – Wind down, read and prepare for bed.
CP: Wow. That sounds amazing. Now I have to ask … How often (if ever) do you get to experience a day like that?
IK: Lol! I think I only maintained this schedule for a short period of time (about 2 months) 3 years ago. It was a time before I got any offers for my book, and right after taking a break from teaching and freelance work. During that time, I wanted to give myself a 6-month break from work to invest in my writing and focus on all the neglected back burner projects. I dug deep, took classes, and got a lot of creative work done! Though I wish I enjoyed that time more, it was also a period of time I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt and depression. I’m glad I hung in there and pushed through these difficult emotions! Now, I’m usually juggling multiple projects and deadlines, so it is almost impossible to have a perfect creative day! I hope later this year I’ll get to try this again.
CP: I hope so, too! What’s next for you?
IK: I’m currently working on the sequel for No Fuzzball!, scheduled to hit the shelves in Fall 2022, as well as creating another online course for Storyteller Academy with Julie Downing. Once all of this is completed, I look forward to a well-deserved break and hopefully, I’ll turn to some of those back-burner projects waiting on my attention.
CP: I look forward to seeing what antics Fuzzball gets up to in the sequel. Thanks, for chatting, Isabella. I really enjoyed it!
IK: Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions! I enjoyed it too!
Isabella Kung is the author/illustrator of No Fuzzball! (Orchard Books | Scholastic, 2020), about a fuzzy feline despot who rules the house with an iron paw. Continuing her feline obsession, she also illustrated over 120 cats for the board books 123 CATS and ABC CATS by Lesléa Newman (Candlewick Press, 2021). Outside the world of publishing, Isabella teaches illustration and watercolor classes at Storyteller Academy and Etchr Lab. She is also the current Illustrator coordinator of the SCBWI SF/South region. Isabella resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable – you guessed it – cats! She is represented by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary.
Purchase your copy of all of Isabella’s books here.
FOR MORE ON ISABELLA KUNG:
ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:
Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books). Click here for more info.