The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/ Isabella Kung and Review of No Snowball!
Isabella Kung is an author and illustrator with a feline obsession.
Her illustrations have received accolades from institutions such as the Society of Illustrators, Spectrum Fantasy Art, 3x3, Creative Quarterly, and SCBWI. Outside the world of publishing, Isabella teaches illustration and watercolor classes at Storyteller Academy and Etchr Lab. She was also the past Illustrator coordinator of the SCBWI SF/South region. Isabella resides in San Francisco with her husband and two adorable – you guessed it – cats!
She’s the author/illustrator of No Fuzzball! (2020) and the illustrator of the board books 123 Cats and ABC Cats by Lesléa Newman (2021).
Her newest picture book, No Snowball!, released yesterday.
Welcome Isabella, I’m so excited that you’ve stopped by to chat with us. 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? )
I've always been an illustrator first with a storyteller’s heart, writing mostly syllabuses and lectures at the beginning of my career and focusing on my illustrations. The writing bug bit me later (about 7-8 years ago) when I was inspired after attending a few SCBWI conferences and hearing authors/illustrators speak about their journeys! I realized that writing is just another skill – like drawing or painting. As long as I have a good idea and the willingness to work on the craft, I will eventually be able to create a picture book that I’m proud of! So, I took a few writing courses and began my new goal of creating my own stories.
I write mostly in my studio. Truth be told, I don't have a writing schedule. I find it changes depending on what stage of the story I'm working on. If I'm really stuck on a problem, sitting down and trying to write for an hour every day right after I wake up really helps. Even if I didn't write a word, just by putting myself in that mind set and being quiet with my thoughts helps.
My favorite type of books to write are picture books, they are the most fulfilling format of storytelling to an author/illustrator such as myself. I can create a whole world, share ideas, stir imaginations, and evoke emotions with my words and my art - how amazing is that! The delicate balance between the words and the illustrations is also the kind of puzzle I can’t stop thinking about, and I feel exhilarated when I finally solve it. I love creating picture books and I love the audience I’m creating for. Children are amazing and it is an absolute honor to delight and entertain them, to teach and show them our world, to empathize and tell them they are not alone... By keeping them in my mind as I work, I feel ever the more connected to my inner child too. I have found no other format that checks all these boxes, so creating picture books will always be my favorite.
That's such a great description of picture books. What do you like to do outside?
I like to hike, dance, and my new pandemic hobby - roller skating. If I'm near the ocean, I love to snorkel and scuba dive too. I used to go sketching and painting outside too, though that habit has been put on hold these last 2 years. I think I should pick it up again!
I love that you pandemic hobby is roller skating! What was your inspiration for No Snowball! ?
It all started as a bluff when an agent casually asked if I plan on developing my story into a series. I remember I said yes without thinking and listed a few ideas off the top of my head (fake it till you make it, am I right?), and introducing a white kitten was one of them. That idea stuck and NO SNOWBALL! was pitched as a potential sequel even as I was submitting NO FUZZBALL! I just loved the concept of Queen NoFuzzball encountering her complete opposite – an itty-bitty, clueless, overly enthusiastic, and affectionate white kitten!
With that in mind, the nature of their relationship – the classic sibling rivalry and love, just fell into place. It was so fun writing such opposing characters and imagining their reactions to each other. I drew inspiration from my own experiences as the younger sibling who always wanted to be included; as the older cousin who got annoyed at my younger cousins; as the caring babysitter who watched over my host sister and neighborhood kids… of course, I learned a lot from my own cats' reaction to a foster kitten too!
Nothing like a new foster kitten to bring out the worst, and sometimes the best, in a grown cat. How hard was it to write a sequel to No Fuzzball! ? What was the hardest part about writing No Snowball! ? The most fun part?
Actually, it might be slightly easier for me because I know what works from the first book and there is a foundation to build on, but it’s hard to compare because the process and challenges are just so different. The hardest part was figuring out a good balance between introducing a new character to the book and adding new elements (eg. dialogue) to the story; while still staying true to the previously established voice, jokes, rules, and structures set up in the first book. [Isabella graciously shared some of her early storyboards.]
Text and Image © Isabella Kung, 2022.
Another element I had to carefully balance was the two main characters. I wanted the sequel to still be a No Fuzzball book but with a new co-star! Initially, I was worried about Snowball taking the spotlight away from Fuzzball.
Text and Image © Isabella Kung, 2022.
Fortunately, I found that the two characters complemented each other and their personalities only shine brighter together. The most fun part was writing Snowball’s positively upbeat response to every sassy thing Fuzzball says! I loved being able to embody both characters!
I really like the two cats and their personalities. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
I grew up in a very small apartment Hong Kong, so my parents didn't buy many children's books because we simply don't have the space. I did visit the library a lot and found my favorite picture book was The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka, Illustrated by Lane Smith. I still remember that book made me laugh out loud-till my stomach hurt kind of laughter! I'm pleased to own my very own copy now!
Is there something you want your readers to know about No Snowball! ?
That no cats, kittens, or dogs were harmed during the making of this book! Haha! All jokes aside, I hope readers can relate to the rivalry and love between Fuzzball and Snowball, just like in any sibling relationship. And no matter how annoying siblings can be sometimes, they are family, and it’s always better when they are on your side! I hope it encourages reluctant older siblings to take their younger siblings under their paws. And to the younger siblings, I hope they never feel discouraged to be themselves.
Such a great message for all siblings! How long did it take from the first draft to publication for No Snowball! ? What is the toughest part in general about writing for you? The most amazing?
It would have been a little over 2 years. No Snowball! was originally scheduled for a September release date, though due to supply chain issues, it was delayed till November 1st. The first draft was started right after No Fuzzball! was published in 2020, when my editor finally asked me about the second book. I zealously promised her a draft by the end of the month and gave myself a deadline for writing! (Something I have never done before!) I thought since I already have a concept, the setting, and the characters, it should be fine! I ended up anxiously staring at my screen for a whole week before solving the puzzle of how to reach the end of my story. Boy was that stressful! After my ah-ha moment, it was a mad dash to finish my submission by the date promised. I was proud of myself for accomplishing a draft so quickly but I don't think I should attempt it ever again.
For me, the toughest part is gauging the progress of my writing. I find it is harder to judge objectively in writing compared to when I'm illustrating. I can spend many hours pondering my story without writing or changing a single word. Some days it feels like I'm not making much progress at all. Sometimes it takes a while to determine if revisions and changes to your story are actually an improvement too. While I know it is all part of the process, it's hard not to succumb to frustration and self doubt during those moments. However, the exhilaration I feel when I do solve the problems in my story and the satisfaction of seeing my story evolve is priceless!
What is the biggest piece of advice you’ve gotten in your career so far?
That each person’s publishing journey is different. Most of them (including my own) are filled with twists and turns, rejections, and disappointments. There’s no such thing as an overnight success. Behind every success story is years of hard work and persistence. So try not to compare yourself to others (I know, it’s easier said than done!). Try to figure out what works for you and do your best, that's all you can control.
Control what you can, good advice. Are there any new projects you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have one story on submission about two twin Koalas who are similar in many ways but are very different at the same time! I hope it can find the right publishing home soon! I am also working on my very first near-wordless picture book. This story is very different from what I’ve created before. It is a very emotional and personal story for me too. I was trepidatious at first, doubting why I even want to work on something so out of my comfort zone. But this idea/vision has been revisiting me again and again for the last 4 years, so I feel compelled to create it! Like what Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in Big Magic, your “muse” will find someone else to tell its story if you ignore it time and time again, so here I am digging deep and working on it! (Happy now, Muse?)
Definitely a good point to remember. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
It's so hard to pick a favorite! The Lasson Volcanic National Park, the Joshua Tree National Park, and the Navajo Upper Antelope Canyon were a few of my favorite experiences. I’m eager to revisit some of the big ones like Yellowstone and Yosemite. I went there when I was a child but my memory is hazy, and I wasn't as appreciative of nature and outdoor activities as I am now. (Adobe Stock)
Thank you so much Isabella for participating in this chat and sharing your newest book with us!
To learn more about Isabella Kung, or contact her:
Review of No Snowball!
Returning for a sequel, the energetic, sassy kitty Fuzzball receives a surprise she's not sure she wants. This heartfelt and humorous picture book will tickle cat lovers and offer a gentle way to tackle the idea of a new sibling.
Author/Illustrator: Isabella Kung
Cats, new siblings, family, and humor.
Her Majesty is back in this hilarious and quirky picture book follow-up to Isabella Kung’s No Fuzzball!
Queen NoFuzzball is the ruler of her home and she enjoys basking in the adoration of her subjects. But a new kitten, Snowball, has arrived to her queendom. Fuzzball fears that this new stranger will be a threat to her throne, but then realizes it could be an opportunity to train an heir. Could Snowball shape up to be the perfect princess that Queen NoFuzzball is looking for, or will Snowball just be nothing but a royal pain?
Young readers will fall in love with Kung’s irresistible and adorable illustrations that are paired with funny, lovable characters. This picture book is perfect for cat and pet lovers everywhere!
You may have heard about me.
Yes, I am the one and only Queen NoFuzball.
Hear my subjects chant my name.
What I LOVED about this book:
She's back . . . the aloof, troublesome, yet adored feline head of the house - Fuzzball buzzes about on her personal conveyance device. I love that she still assumes her name is "NoFuzzball" instead of believing that her "subjects" are reprimanding her actions. If you skipped them, or just glanced quickly, take a moment go back and look at the wonderful front endpapers. Using a series of vignettes, Isabella created what could be seen as a character study of Queen NoFuzzball. Haughty, cute, curious, and mostly in total control of her realm.
Text and Image © Isabella Kung, 2022.
Life is good, until NoFuzzball bumps into a surprising, mysterious box. Working it open, she finds . . .
Text and Image © Isabella Kung, 2022.
the most adorable kitten, ever! I mean just look at that face! Have you ever seen a sweeter, huggable little puff of a kitten? And kudos to Isabella for capturing the perfect, "death to the intruder" face which I've seen on my cats' faces. As well as a few older siblings not entirely convinced the squirmy, stinky, yelling thing mom brought home should stay.
With a perfect capture of the angry outrage (puffed to the max and hissing) and perturbed retreat of an older cat, Isabella manages to capture both the rocky introduction of two animals (especially cats) and an older child's annoyance of always having a younger sibling tagging along. Things don't look good, until Snowball launches a "surprise attack" on the poor dog who's just been quietly watching everything - sending him cowering behind a plant. Which encourages Queen NoFuzzball to see if Snowball has what it takes to stay.
But Snowball humorously fails every test. Kids are going to love Snowball's antics, especially when she tries to hide. I think the adult readers will chuckle too seeing a bit of their toddlers in Snowball's actions. Particularly the old "if I can't see you, you can't see me" disappearing trick. And I adore NoFuzzball's exasperated look.
Text and Image © Isabella Kung, 2022.
When Snowball gets into a real jam and the family starts yelling "No Snowball!," Queen NoFuzzball notices and decides to offer advice. Oh, the mayhem Snowball causes! The final spreads are tender and funny. But the real star for me were the back ending papers! They continue the story with a wonderful series of vignette interactions between the two cats. Humorous, heartfelt, and honest to the daily life of these two cats, they also channel a bit of the jumble of emotions that siblings often have toward each other. And provide a perfect set of bookends for the book.
This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves cats. It might even make a few dedicated dog lovers chuckle. It is also a great book for older siblings welcoming new babies or smoothing out a few sibling wrinkles. Using the cats as surrogates allows for a little emotional distance and a bit of empathy (who can't feel sorry for poor adorable Snowball's rough welcome). Overall, this heartfelt, humorous book is a treat to read over and over again.
- make a couple of paper bag cat puppets and create your own story for Fuzzball & Snowball
or your own cats.
- what do you need to have if you adopt a cat (or a dog, lizard, hamster, etc.)? Make a list or draw a picture of everything your pet would need. What changes if you have two?
- are you an older sibling (or cousin) or a younger one? Draw a cartoon or write a story as if you were the youngest or oldest. Then switch and draw or write the same thing again. How different is it? Why?
- pair this with the heartfelt sibling book Maple by Lori Nichols, the humorous book, My Brother the Duck by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman, or another funny cat book Max Attacks by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Penelope Dullaghan.