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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Dow Phumiruk

Dow is the author of a contemporary fable, Mela and the Elephant (2018) and the illustrator of two nonfiction books - Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines (2017) and her newest one, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 releases TOMORROW.


ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

DOW: Thank you for having me here!

I am an author and illustrator, heavier on the illustrator side for the moment. I’ve been a serious children’s book illustrator for the past seven years - since I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Being a part of this group really inspired me to pursue art and writing professionally.

My main workspace is in my family room, where I have a desk and digital tools. I like to be out in the open where I can be aware of what is going on in our household (perhaps when all the kids are grown and gone, I’ll migrate to an actual room that I’ll call my studio)! Occasionally you will find me on the sofa drawing in a sketchbook. I draw any time I am relaxed at home - it's my "happy place."

I don’t think I have a favorite type of book to illustrate yet, but as an author, picture books are my top choice.

It's so important to be there for them and modeling a successful career at the same time. You're amazing. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I talk to myself A LOT.

Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I remember being six or seven and sitting on the school library floor next to the shelves with a copy of Cinderella, a version I have deduced must have been by Mary Blair. I was completely enamored not so much by the story as by the sparkle and glow of her illustrations. I also read Amelia Bedelia books, Judy Blume books, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Witches of Worm. I also loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which a librarian recommended to me.

How wonderfully eclectic! If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

I would tell children that it’s okay - in fact, it’s FANTASTIC - to be YOU. I want kids to embrace the fact that there is no one else out there just like you, and that it’s great to be unique. If we ALL feel different and like outsiders, then actually we are the same!

I love that idea. Let's recognize our similarities in our differences and uniqueness. Do you prefer being the author or the illustrator of a book? Why?

Being both author and illustrator would be my first choice, but if I had to pick just one: illustrator. I am much more comfortable with creating art than putting together just the right words. In fact, I am really fast with art and painfully slow with writing!

As an illustrator, what is your favorite medium to work with? Your least favorite or hardest?

I love working digitally. It’s easy to stop and start and is so forgiving (except if you accidentally save over a piece you meant to keep!!). Usually I start with a hand drawn pencil sketch imported into Photoshop. My main workhorse is my Wacom Intuos 4 tablet. I also have a MobileStudio Pro tablet for working away from my desk. I sometimes sketch on my iPad Pro. I am always discovering new tools and techniques, which I find fascinating!

Watercolor seems to be most difficult for me, as I can’t think in terms of leaving areas white and unpainted. It feels backwards! But as I gain experience, I am starting to enjoy it more. We’ll see!

What is the hardest thing for you about writing and illustrating children’s books?

As an author, I have a hard time finding a good arc. It takes a long while before I can figure it out.

The hardest part in illustrating is accurately portraying all parts of the characters and story. Because "a picture is worth a thousand words," I feel I have to learn what all those words are before I can capture the meaning in my one picture!

That's a thought-provoking idea. How different was the experience of illustrating Counting Katherine from illustrating Maya Lin?

Though the two women are both strong, independent, and groundbreaking, they are very different in background: personalities, eras, type of work. The biggest difference in creating the art therefore is style of my art I chose for each. I used much more muted greens and blues from nature for Maya Lin, while for Counting on Katherine brighter, bolder colors seemed a better match.

What made you want to illustrate Counting Katherine?

This is an easy question! It’s because I loved working with Christy Ottaviano, my editor for Maya Lin. I have much respect for her. I think she has such a good eye to bring the best out from our work. When she approached me with the project, I already knew it would be a good one. And when I learned more about Counting on Katherine, it was an easy decision to join in on bringing this woman’s story to attention!

I am so glad you did. The book is stunning. What/who was your greatest inspiration as a child? What/who is your greatest source of inspiration now as a writer and/or as an illustrator?

As a child, my mom had a ton of influence over me. I wish she were still around to see how I turned out. Nature is my current greatest inspiration. I love to hike and admire nature as I walk: new wildflowers, cloud formations, the pretty birds or deer I see.

Every day, every walk, is different and holds an unusual treasure, if we look. What is the best thing an author can do to help an illustrator? The worst?

Write your best story would be number one most important thing. This means many revisions, including after receiving feedback on it from critique sessions. The worst is if you are not a team player with your publisher. They have your book's best interest in mind, and you can trust them.

You have a fictional picture book coming out in October, Mouse’s Christmas Gift, is it harder to illustrate fictional or nonfictional books?

I do think it’s a little easier to illustrate fiction. However, sometimes fiction has a realistic basis. In this story, I had to learn what I could about early turn of the century dress and scenery - anything from outerwear to nightgowns and church buildings and light fixtures. Sometimes it is not obvious. For example, small town churches back then may or may not have had electricity. Also tricky in fiction as well as nonfiction is the consistency of characters, and the style in Mouse is realistic, so then all the body parts must look real~! Interesting that you must do research for fiction illustrations as well. What's something you want your readers to know about Counting Katherine?

I can’t wait for readers to know about Katherine Johnson herself!! She’s amazing! And she will be 100 years old this summer! I want people to think about all the changes she’s seen in her lifetime, so that we can just imagine what we might accomplish in our lifetime.

What a great sentiment. Many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Counting Katherine? Could you share one or more with us?

I used math homework from all three of my daughters as reference for many of the math backgrounds in the book!

That's fun to learn! Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have a couple new book projects in the works with Viking! I can’t say much right now as we are negotiating the contract, but I will be both author and illustrator of both of these!

I will be keeping an eye out for their announcements! Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or are glad that you did not know?

I didn’t know how wonderful the relationships made in the industry would be: with other creators, with the book editing team, with our audience. It’s a million times better than I imagined. I didn’t know how long it would take to break through. No one can know this, obviously! But I am so glad I stuck with it.

Relationships and patience, the backbones of publication. Is there something you wished an interviewer would have asked you?

I'd like to share advice. Follow your dreams but keep a foot on the ground. That is: be wildly ambitious, but have a backup plan.

I'll bite. What's your backup plan?

My back up plan: medicine! Right now I teach first and second year medical students part time. But if my creative career stalls or dead-ends, I will try to teach more hours. The hard part is that I have to keep both of them going for now, and it gets crazy busy at times.

Here's to being able to just do one job. What is your favorite animal? Why?

Cat. Maybe it's because I can't have one - I have family members who are allergic! I also love hamsters.

Thank you, Dow for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you so much for having me here!

Be sure to stop by Friday for the Perfect Picture Book Post #PPBF of Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13.

To find out more about Dow Phumiruk, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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