Tao Nyeu is an illustrator relatively new to children’s literature on whom I have a close eye (as well as Kirkus, who wrote in their review of Tao’s first title that it was an “intriguing, nuanced debut from an artist to watch”). She’s quickly becoming one of my favorites and sealed the deal with the artistry on display in her latest book, Bunny Days, released by Dial Books in January. Bunny Days features three slapstick tales of six curious rabbits; one paternal, ever-patient, and very wise Bear; and Mr. and Mrs. Goat, who are simply about their chores in the countryside, only to have their plans foiled by the inquisitive rabbits. The writing is good, and there’s a lot of humor, but it’s Nyeu’s stylized art that really stands out, what Publishers Weekly once described as possessing an “Art Nouveau-meets-psychedelic feel.” And if you saw her 2008 debut, which initially began as an MFA project, Wonder Bear, you know what I mean.
Tao works in silkscreens and water-based inks. The two titles under her belt thus far could serve easily as studies in line. Fluid, bold, and spare, they propel her stories forward. Tao also works in a bold palette; in fact, for Bunny Days a dominant color is assigned to each tale (blue, followed by mustard, and then green). These color choices make each story distinctive yet manage to pull them together as one cohesive whole, each story merging effortlessly into the next. It’s all what the New York Times has referred to as her “crisp palette.” For Tao, less is more, but it all adds up to a lot of satisfaction for the reader.
And both of Tao’s titles so far have also been beautifully-designed. For Bunny Days—and I am not even making this up, people—the dust jacket comes off and folds out into this gorgeous poster:
Nice touch, I say.
I could go on, but she’s here for a brief visit. “Brief,” as in economically-worded, but she shares lots and LOTS of art, and those, I have to say, are always my favorite interviews. The art speaks louder than words anyway, which would be why I always encourage interviewees to send as many images as possible. Big thanks to Tao for doing so. For our breakfast this morning, she opts for “toast with butter and honey and a soft-boiled egg. And cake. Any kind will do. Oh, and some hot fresh soy milk.” CAKE FOR BREAKFAST. I’m there.
Let’s get to the interview. First, we’ll set the table and get the basics from Tao before our seven questions over breakfast. I thank her kindly for stopping by.
7-Imp: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?
7-Imp: Can you list your books-to-date?
- Wonder Bear, Dial Books, 2008;
- Bunny Days, Dial Books, 2010;
- Manners Mash-up: A Goofy Guide to Good Behavior, Dial Books, 2011. Each spread in this book is illustrated by a different illustrator. I’m honored to be in their company!
7-Imp: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?
Tao: Water-based silkscreen.
7-Imp: If you have illustrated for various age ranges (such as, both picture books and early reader books OR, say, picture books and chapter books), can you briefly discuss the differences, if any, in illustrating for one age group to another?
Tao: I have only illustrated for the 3-5 age group so far. It will probably stay that way; we tend to be on the same wavelength.
7-Imp: Where are your stompin’ grounds?
Tao: Los Angeles, but I mainly stomp around my apartment. I don’t get out much.
7-Imp: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?
Tao: After working as a graphic designer for many years, I decided that I wanted to illustrate children’s books, so I applied to the MFA Illustration program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Wonder Bear was my thesis project and—after our thesis show, which was open to the public—I was contacted by Dial Books to publish it. It was a dream come true! Working with Dial has been such a pleasure.
7-Imp: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?
7-Imp: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?
Tao: I am currently thinking up a new book about an octopus and a squid. They are pals.
Our table’s set now for our breakfast interview—did I mention we’re having cake?—and we’re ready to dig in. Let’s get a bit more detailed, and I thank Tao again for stopping by.
1. 7-Imp: What exactly is your process when you are illustrating a book? You can start wherever you’d like when answering: getting initial ideas, starting to illustrate, or even what it’s like under deadline, etc. Do you outline a great deal of the book before you illustrate or just let your muse lead you on and see where you end up?
Tao: I always come up with my stories inside-out. I set out drawing an image that I think is funny, and then I build a story around it. I can’t create a story if there is no inner chuckle. For example, in Bunny Days the seed of the book came from drawing the bunnies on the clothesline. Funny, right? After I drew it I had to figure out why they were there and how they got there. The words, if there are any, come last.
2. 7-Imp: Describe your studio or usual work space.
Tao: I work out of my home in the second bedroom, which is also the guest room, the TV room, the ironing room, and the hula-hooping room. There is a desk for the computer, a desk for drawing, a light table for making silk screen separations, bookshelves full of inspiration, a TV for distracting, and a couch for napping. I used to rent a space downtown to silkscreen my images but have recently moved that set-up to my garage. Everything is still in boxes, though.
3. 7-Imp: As a book lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?
Tao: Richard Scarry’s Funniest Storybook Ever! That was and continues to be my biggest influence. I challenge you to find a funnier book. Other favorites were Beatrix Potter, Shel Silverstein, and a set of Yok-Yok books written by Anne Van Der Essen and illustrated by Etienne Delessert.
4. 7-Imp: If you could have three (living) illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?
5. 7-Imp: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?
Tao: Lately, I like to listen to nothing at all. Just quietness. I can’t listen to anything while I’m trying to come up with a new story. When I do know what I want to draw, I’ll usually turn on Pandora internet radio or NPR.
6. 7-Imp: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Tao: My daughter and I have identical belly buttons.
7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.
Tao: “Would you like some cake?”
Yes, please. Thank you.
7-Imp: What is your favorite word?
7-Imp: What is your least favorite word?
Tao: Sorry, I can’t think of one. I guess I like them all.
7-Imp: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
7-Imp: What turns you off?
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Tao: “Santa Maria!”
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you love?
Tao: My baby’s happy sigh.
7-Imp: What sound or noise do you hate?
Tao: The sound of a cockroach getting crunched.
7-Imp: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
7-Imp: What profession would you not like to do?
Tao: Stock trader.
7-Imp: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Tao: “Dinner’s ready!”
All artwork and sketches used with permission of Tao Nyeu. All rights reserved.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan. Thanks to Matt, Alfred now lives at 7-Imp and is always waiting to throw the Pivot Questionnaire at folks.