Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Meilo So

h1 July 2nd, 2012 by jules

There’s a lot I want to say about how much I enjoy the artwork of illustrator Meilo So (pictured here with her daughter), whether she’s working in watercolors or gouache or pencil, but I’ve spent so much time poring over her artwork that I need to just go ahead and post this interview before I’m found slumped over my keyboard. Really, I’ve been looking all googly-eyed at her website for weeks now.

Though I’ve enjoyed Meilo’s illustrated picture books over the years, it was her work in this Spring’s Water Sings Blue (Chronicle), poems written by Kate Coombs, that made me up and ask her about an interview. (I previously wrote about that book here at 7-Imp during a visit with Kate.) The Horn Book review describes Meilo’s illustrations for Kate’s poetry collection as none other than “splendid.” Indeed, they are. Very nearly breathtaking.

Meilo, who was born in Hong Kong, but now—as you’ll read below—lives in Scotland, has illustrated many beloved, acclaimed books. As I’m wont to do, I’ll let her art mostly speak here; you’ll see included below in our breakfast chat many illustrations from some of her previous titles, including some artwork from two beautiful books not available here in the U.S. The New York Times once wrote that Meilo’s illustrations are “luminous, the colors seeming to shine through the pages like a sunrise through stained glass.” You’ll see a lot of that below. Again, breathtaking.

Clearly, I’m a fan.

And this October, other Meilo fans will be treated to her artwork in Stephanie Spinner’s Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird (Knopf). Here’s a sneak-peek at that:

“By the time he was in his teens, Alex had learned to count up to six,
to add, and to subtract.”

For breakfast this morning, Meilo opts for pig liver congee. “It sounds gross,” she tells me, “but is really delicious: silky rice congee with thinly-sliced fresh liver, barely-cooked, with lots of ginger and spring onions.” I am always up for a culinary adventure. I don’t know if coffee goes with it, but I’ll brew some anyway.

I thank her for visiting today.

* * * * * * *

“My stall in Sail Yell”

Jules: Are you an illustrator or author/illustrator?

Meilo: Illustrator.

“Flowering out / of the frozen ground / a boat blossomed /
the dragon’s head / a lovely bud of red. / I Magnus was right.”

(Click to enlarge)

(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations from Janice Armstrong’s The Grumpy Old Sailor
(published in 2010, but not in the U.S.),
which took Meilo thirteen years to finish…

Jules: Can you list your books-to-date?

Meilo: Five most prominent in my mind are:

  1. [Jack Prelutsky’s] The Beauty of the Beast/Knopf
  2. [Janet Schulman’s] Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City/Knopf
  3. [Janice Armstrong’s] The Grumpy Old Sailor/So and Co books
  4. The Emperor and the Nightingale/Francis Lincoln
  5. [Kate Coombs‘] Water Sings Blue/Chronicle Books

Jules: What is your usual medium, or––if you use a variety—your preferred one?

Meilo: Watercolours mixed with drawing ink, but if I could have my own way, I would love to work entirely in black and white.

Strolling in Milan

Jules: 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?

Meilo: I don’t make any difference, really; I see all children as adults and all adults as children.

“Now the cat was so fat he could hardly move. …”
(Click to enlarge)

(Click either image to see entire spread in its entirety)

Spreads from Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop:
A Tale of a Very Greedy Cat

(Knopf, 2004)

Jules: Where are your stompin’ grounds?

Meilo: I live in Cullivoe, a small community in Yell, which is one of the northern isles in the Shetland islands, Scotland, UK.

“Some hawk experts thought that Pale Male would find a new nest site. But Pale Male would not be evicted. He and his mate returned in the spring and built a new nest exactly where the old one had been. …”
(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations from Janet Schulman’s
Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City (Knopf, 2008)

Jules: Can you briefly tell me about your road to publication?

Meilo: I had a very good agent when I left college in Brighton. He asked what story I would like to illustrate. Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor and The Nightingale came to my head (because it is sort of Chinese), and he managed to persuade Francis Lincoln, a UK publisher to publish it.

I worked a few more years in mainly design/magazine/advertising/editoral projects, until Janet Schulman, who died last year, asked me to illustrate a poetry collection called The Beauty of the Beast, selected by Jack Prelutsky. Since then, I started to focus on illustrating children books.

“Black and yellow / Little fur bee / Buzzing away / In the timothy…”
(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations from The Beauty of the Beast:
Poems from the Animal Kingdom
(Knopf, 1997),
edited by Jack Prelutsky

Jules: Can you please point readers to your web site and/or blog?


Spread and endpages from Janet Schulman’s Countdown to Spring!
An Animal Counting Book
(Knopf, 2004)
(Click each to enlarge)

Jules: If you do school visits, tell me what they’re like.

Meilo: Most of the time, children like to know how much I earn for being an illustrator.

In Shetland, there is still an unspoken tradition of passing jobs from father to son. At my last visit to a primary school in Yell, a child asked if he could have my job after I died.

One of Meilo’s digital finishes

Jules: If you teach illustration, can you tell me how that influences your work as an illustrator?

Meilo: I did teach when I was younger — at Hong Kong Polytechnic. I had such good and big ideas to give to the students, but then I realised how inadequate I am as an illustrator to carry those ideas out, so I decided to stop teaching and work harder at being an illustrator.


“They entered a dark forest. A monkey swung down from the trees and blocked their way, showing his sharp teeth and chattering. …”

“But the oni did not take Uriko. Perhaps this was because she was born from a melon and did not have a belly button. …”

Spreads from Judy Sierra’s Tasty Baby Belly Buttons (Knopf, 1999)
(Click each image to enlarge)

Jules: Any new titles/projects you might be working on now that you can tell me about?

Meilo: I am working on two books just now — one for Schwartz and Wade and another for Chronicle books, but I’m not sure if I should talk about it.

What I can tell you is I am also thinking about a third book for my own publishing shed (So & Co Books, the most northerly publishing shed in the UK). I have done two books so far with co-writer Janice Armstrong, and this third one will feature a rural bus driver, traveling back to the old days.

Meilo’s drawing of co-author, Janice Armstrong

Mmm. Coffee.Okay, coffee’s on the table, and it’s time to get a bit more detailed with seven questions over breakfast. I thank Meilo again for visiting 7-Imp.

1. Jules: 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?

Meilo: I let the text/stories stew in my head for quite a long time. I usually like to try something new with each new book project, so I take that into account as well.

I like to form images or create characters in my head when I am doing other things — walking, washing up, baking, etc. Once I start putting lines or marks on paper, I more or less know exactly what I want to do.

Work-in-progress: A picture book by Lenore Look,
Paintbrush of the Gods (scheduled for a June 2013 release)
(Click to enlarge slightly)

A Midsummer Foy in-progress
(Click to enlarge)

“Then over the hill / in the soft summer sun, / music drifted…”
(Click to enlarge)

“Then fiddles / flew in a frenzy / of sound, / lifting our feet / to dance /
quadrilles and lancers / under the midnight sun.”

(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations from Janice Armstrong’s Midsummer
(published in 2011, but not in the U.S.)

2. Jules: Describe your studio or usual work space.

“The house and ‘Paradise'”


“Cockerel and his ladies”

Meilo: My work space is called Paradise. It is a red shed in the garden where I keep all my Chinese things, music, instruments, references books, books, and computer. I have a bespoke table, beautifully-made by a local carpenter, so I can work standing up.

“Inside Paradise”

“My daughter at my desk”
(Click to enlarge)

“The corner where I work”

“Favourite Chinese pattern”

“Tea cosy and daughter”

“Some of my books”

“My Orkney Chair”

“Looking outside from Paradise”

“Outside Paradise on a good day with geese”

“Outside Paradise on a snowy day”

“Outside the window with mist”

“Drawing on the sand”

3. Jules: As a book-lover, it interests me: What books or authors and/or illustrators influenced you as an early reader?

Meilo: When I was little, I loved reading Chinese translation of Western classic stories: The Arabian Nights, Tom Sawyer, David Copperfield, Treasure Island, Jane Eyre — that sort of thing. The worst thing is, I have yet to read the original English versions!

“‘What do you call this place?’ asks the monarch.”
(Click to enlarge)

Illustrations from Antoine Ó Flatharta’s Hurry and the Monarch (Knopf, 2005)

4. Jules: If you could have three (living) authors or illustrators—whom you have not yet met—over for coffee or a glass of rich, red wine, whom would you choose?

Meilo: This idea frightens me.


5. Jules: What is currently in rotation on your iPod or loaded in your CD player? Do you listen to music while you create books?

Meilo: I have the West Side Story original 1957 cast recording in my CD player just now, as my daughter is making up dances to dance to the music. I listen to Radio 3, a classical music channel when I work. Bach’s Partitas for keyboard are great to help with the flow of thoughts.

Bach’s Partitas

Meilo’s erhu

Beijing Opera (gouache)


6. Jules: What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

Meilo: Unfortunately, I am an open, blank book. Not a lot for people to know.

“Rolling your belly like a tide, / sweeping the little fish aside, /
billow and swell of midnight blue, / you’re as grand as a planet / passing through.”
— From “Blue Whale”

“The prim bell jar / with ruffled rim / my grandma used / to cover cake /
has learned to swim…” — From “Jellyfish Kitchen”

(Click to enlarge)

“Shimmer and run, catch the sun. / Ripple thin, catch the wind. /
Shift and splash, drift and dash. / Slow and gray, foggy day…”
— From “What the Waves Say”

(Click to enlarge spread)

“The famous author hesitates / to pick his pen up. / He is shy. But wait! /
He autographs the water / with a single word — / good-bye.”
— From “Octopus Ink”

(Click to enlarge spread)

Spreads from Kate Coombs’ Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems
(Chronicle, March 2012)

7. 7-Imp: Is there something you wish interviewers would ask you — but never do? Feel free to ask and respond here.

Meilo: I wish the interviewers would ask me to draw them — and pay for the drawings.

“A favourite drawing my husband did of me”

* * * The Pivot Questionnaire * * *

Jules: What is your favorite word?

Meilo: “Cantabile.”

Jules: What is your least favorite word?

Meilo: “Urgent.”

Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Meilo: A lovely smell.

Jules: What turns you off?

Meilo: A bad smell.

Jules: What sound or noise do you love?

Meilo: My father and mother chatting in bed.

Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?

Meilo: Cats fighting.

Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Meilo: A baker.

Jules: What profession would you not like to do?

Meilo: A stock market broker.

Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Meilo: “Sing a song for me.”

Circle Under the Sun (linocut)

* * * * * * *

WATER SINGS BLUE. Copyright © 2012 by Kate Coombs. Illustrations copyright © 2012 by Meilo So. Published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Spreads re-posted (from this earlier 7-Imp post) with permission of the publisher.

All other artwork and images used with permission of Meilo So.

The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.

20 comments to “Seven Questions Over Breakfast with Meilo So”

  1. I am just speechless! Her work is not only splendid and luminous but gorgeous, soulful, far-reaching, inventive, radiant, breathtaking . . .


    How much do I LOVE this:
    “I see all children as adults and all adults as children.”

    Her studio is amazing, what a beautiful setting and view. It’s the kind of “dream studio” you imagine a favorite artist would have — only it’s not a dream, it’s real!

    Thanks so much, both of you, for sharing this feast of loveliness today :).

  2. Jules, thank you for enriching my view of Meilo So’s art and life. Oh, the Shetland Islands!

  3. I second everything Jama and Laurina say. So’s work is both transcendentally beautiful and earthly — truly my idea of paradise . I could look at it all day.Thanks.

  4. I do hope that Meilo will not give up using colour – her use of colour is so uplifting!

  5. Gorgeous, gorgeous work. I had seen a lot of it, of course, but somehow the name had never registered. Now it will.

    Never been to Shetland though have spent a good deal of the last 20 years in Scotland. I’d love to know how she found her way there.

    Thanks, Jules.


  6. Thank you for sharing. I love the studio tour. Meilo is so gracious allowing us to visualize her work day and environment.

    Sandie Sing

  7. Oh, that studio! Frick.

  8. So much beauty everywhere in this post!

  9. I am nearly speechless with the sheer beauty of her artwork. We have several of her titles in our library media center. But I think I need a couple just for me. I love the quote: “I see all children as adults and all adults as children”. As I’m sitting at my kitchen counter, I am thinking how very wonderful her Paradise truly is. Thank you both for the interview.

  10. Best interview I ever read.

  11. So many lovely images.

  12. I love her work as well! And the house! a dream!!

  13. Yay, Meilo! I continue to feel privileged that she did the glorious artwork for Water Sings Blue. So nice to see still more of Yell and Paradise, and I especially love the opening photo of Meilo and her daughter. Thanks to both of you!

  14. I guess I missed this since it was posted right by the holiday… The work here is disturbingly awesome. Good grief. It’s all so incredible, but I do have a special fondness for the stuff I see here from GRUMPY OLD SAILOR. (And of course she’s been snatched up by Schwartz and Wade.)

  15. […] “Until that show-off went flying by!”Early sketch and final illustration from Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great(Disney-Hyperion, June 2013)(Click each to enlarge)   This morning over at Kirkus, I write about Lenore Look’s Brush of the Gods, to be released next week by Schwartz & Wade and illustrated by Meilo So (whose work I love and who visited 7-Imp last year). […]

  16. […] week, I wrote here about the beautiful Brush of the Gods, written by Lenore Look and illustrated by Meilo So. Today I have some spreads from the book. […]

  17. So enjoyed you and Janice performing French songs at Levenwick hall last night. Really special. Gof bless you. Hope they made lots of money for the victims of the Nepal earthquake.

  18. […] Sources: Illustrator website Illustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

  19. I visited So Meilo solo exhibition in Hong Kong (Sept 2016) with 120 drawings about her family. Great ! They recalled memory when I was young. Then I search information of So on internet. Totally caught by her. I love her works, her style, her working red house, … everything, …. Thank you very much for drawing so many interesting, beautiful, funny pictures.

  20. […] Sources: Illustrator website Illustrator interview: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast […]

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