Today, I get the privilege to talk with an illustrator/author who debuted as a picture book illustrator for two books which came earlier this year and is now welcoming her own debut picture book Tea with Oliver which releases TOMORROW - August 8th.
HAPPY BOOK BIRTHDAY!
Mika, Thank-you for stopping by to talk about your debut book and writing/illustrating.
Hi, Maria. Thanks for having me.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)
I’m pretty new to children’s books and writing. I used to make mini comics while I worked as an animator for a children’s educational website. I self-published for a few indie comic festivals. They were about moving in with my grandparents during high school and mixed folklore and mystery but I never finished the story. Once I started trying to write picture books, I found my ideas and feelings came more easily and I decided to really pursue it full-time.
I work at home. My computer desk and drawing table are on different sides of the room. I usually like to write in the evening or in the morning straight from bed and before coffee. I have a 2-year-old so I am getting used to taking a lot of breaks. I write and draw new ideas in a small sketchbook and type them up later on the computer.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Large events make me anxious.
Which took longer – getting your agent or finding a publisher?
Both happened quickly but getting an agent took a little longer. I emailed 5 agents with pitches for two stories and waited about two months. When nothing came of it I made some new dummies and I was about to do a new round of agent queries when I was contacted by Erica Rand Silverman (my agent). I showed her the new dummies including what ended up becoming Tea with Oliver. We met and revised a few times before she offered to represent me. I think we worked on Tea with Oliver for another month or two before we sold the book to Nancy Inteli at Harper. Two months later, I signed a final contract. The whole process was very fast in geologic time.
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
There were so many. I tried to pass Frederick by Leo Lionni as my own story to a story-writing contest in my elementary school. The librarian took me aside and asked me if I had read the book and if I understood that I was plagiarizing. I knew I was doing something wrong but I didn’t really understand why and I figured no one else had read the book! Now I consciously try to tell a story only I can tell.
I also remember folktales and Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories by Florence Sakade in particular. I can picture the cover with Momotaro floating down the river.
What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)
Cities and people. I’ve always enjoyed people watching and eaves-dropping. And spaces and how they affect our lives. In Tea with Oliver, the main characters live right next to each other but they never seem to meet which is like many neighbors in the city. I’ve really enjoyed my last few apartments which have been on busy streets so there is always something going on outside my window. As a child, I loved Harriet the Spy and I am still drawn to restaurants which feature a dumbwaiter.
How do you shift between illustrations and writing? (Which comes first? Which is the hardest for you?)
I usually have a drawing of a character first. Then I try to figure out what the character is feeling and what their name will be. I usually just think about it for a few days while doing other non-work things (washing dishes) and then I can write a simple sentence in my notebook next to the drawing saying who they are or what the premise is. Hopefully an ending follows. Then it’s worth trying to type up on the computer.
The middle part is usually last and the hardest. When I get stuck I make a sheet of really rough thumbnails and just leave some pages empty for the time being. It helps me to imagine what might be missing. All these scenes will usually change but I like to work on the whole in layers as soon as possible.
With Tea with Oliver I made sure I had a complete manuscript before making my first dummy. That’s a discipline that works for me. I am more experienced and confident with illustration but I think the story is what counts in picture books. So I wanted to make sure that I had a solid story before diving in.
As a debut illustrator, you’ve illustrated two other picture books that published this year - A New School Year: Poem Stories in Six Voices (June 27th) and Harry and Clare's Amazing Staycation (Feb 7th). How different was it to illustrate your own writing?
I’d been working on the words and images of Tea with Oliver for a year with my critique group and then my agent and then more months of revising with my editor. We were revising words and images up until the final deadline. It can be hard to judge the new version without being confused by old versions.
When illustrating another author’s manuscript, you only ever see the final manuscript. So you spend a relatively short time with it in comparison. The challenge is understanding the tone and the character and the story as clearly as possible.
What is the hardest thing about being a debut author/illustrator? The most amazing?
I think the hardest thing after being published is finding time to write because now I am also promoting my book. The good thing about it is it gives you an excuse to visit schools and libraries and bookstores which are some of my favorite places and you can learn a lot about your audience there.
Reading my book in public for the first time to young strangers was surprisingly the most incredible moment of the whole process. I got to do it just recently and I thought it would be nerve-wracking like giving a speech but it was actually a deeply satisfying experience.
Is there something you want your readers to know about Tea with Oliver?
It’s a story about making friends and being a good friend. Oliver is inspired by a close friend of mine. It’s also about paying attention so you can receive the tiny messages that are being sent to you on the backs of old gum wrappers.
Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I’m wrapping up working on the follow-up to Tea with Oliver. It’s inspired by creative problem-solving.
ME: How exciting. I can't wait to see this second book.
Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or anything you’re glad you didn’t know about in advance?
This question has me stumped. I researched online about kid lit things and joined SCBWI from the beginning so that helped a lot. I was also lucky to have good friends in the industry that gave me advice.
Oddly something that comes to mind is my first SCBWI conference in NJ, I was still working at my animation job and my illustration portfolio was something I worked on in my free time so it was not that serious but I did make my own portfolio book in an accordion-style. An agent would open it and the whole thing would fall on the floor like a slinky or else it would not lay open on the table but kept slowly closing while the person talked. So just buy a simple portfolio.
I also think early on it’s been good to avoid work-for-hire and pro-bono stuff as an illustrator. I’d done it before in my early freelance animation days and it really didn’t pay off in other ways and makes you bitter.
ME: Great advice for illustrators and authors - know the industry standards for portfolios and manuscripts before you start submitting your work for review.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
Frogs. Frogs are very underrated. They are beautiful. They hop! When they get together they sound like a cross between a doo wop group and monks chanting.
ME: I like frogs too. Had this little guy sharing my patio the other day, it's much bigger than our normal PNW tree frogs!
Thank you, Mika for stopping by. It was wonderful to chat with you.
Thanks for the interview. You’ve gotten me thinking about some things I’d forgotten.
Be sure to comment either here or on Friday's #PPBF post on Tea with Oliver.
To find out more about Mika Song, or get in touch with her: