Author and Illustrator Interview: Sasha Beekman and Vivienne To

Author and Illustrator Interview: Sasha Beekman and Vivienne To

After a series of amazing interviews with creatives from around the world on my blog this year, including many different authors and illustrators, I’m very happy to be finishing up 2018 with an interview with two incredibly talented picture book creators.

Sasha Beekman (author) and Vivienne To’s (illustrator) beautiful picture book When You’re Going to the Moon is published by Affirm Press and a fabulous example of diversity in kidlit. It’s also very much about the imagination and pursuing dreams, which I love, and it’s filled with humour and a little whimsy. It’s one kids will want to read again and again.

I’m thrilled that Sasha and Vivienne took some time out of their busy schedules to chat with me not only about their book, but also about their creative lives, inspirations, thoughts on diversity, tips for other kidlit creators, and much more.

There’s so much to read, so let’s get right into it!

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Welcome, Sasha and Vivienne. Can you tell us a bit about your book, When You're Going to the Moon, and the themes/issues it explores?

Sasha: The theme of the story is simple. My favourite way of describing it is that it’s a ‘chase-your-dreams story’. At university I took a children’s writing class and at the time I noticed that we were reading kids’ books, one after the other, about really heavy themes like divorce, grief and illness. While I most definitely agree with the need for these kinds of stories, I felt that for my own writing, I needed to put something positive and uplifting out there in the universe.

When You’re Going to the Moon is about letting your childhood dreams run free and never conforming to the limitations of growing up, which is typically when people stop believing in those whacky dreams they had as a child.

Vivienne: When I first read Sasha’s manuscript, I was struck by a sense of nostalgia. I really connected with it, because to me the story is about big dreams, and I was such a huge daydreamer as a kid. It brought me back to that magical part of childhood where I believed that absolutely anything was possible.

Sasha, what was the inspiration behind writing this particular story? Did it change much as you were writing it?

Sasha Beekman (photo by Emma Pham)

Sasha Beekman (photo by Emma Pham)

My mother inspired this story. She was born and raised in Thailand and her family couldn’t afford to put her through any sort of education after primary school, so she had to stop going to school and instead work on the family farm. Because of this, as my brother and I were growing up my mother always made it clear that the only thing she needed from us was to finish high school. After that, it was up to us. We could do whatever it was we dreamed of doing, as long as we truly believed in it and did it well.

My mum never believed that any idea I had for my future was silly. I went through wanting to be an actor, a florist, an artist and now an author. She encouraged me always. And to have always had that sense of a dream within me and never letting it die – that’s what I wanted kids to believe was possible for them as well. Anything is out there for you if you want it. Even the moon.

Sasha, did you always plan to write the story in second-person, something that isn't seen all that often in picture books?

I did always want to write this book in the second person, mostly due to the fact that I wanted it to be as widely relatable as possible. When you’re being read this story, hearing ‘you’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ makes it a lot easier to put yourself in the situation and imagine yourself as the hero. That was the most important part for me, and that’s why it was always going to be written this way.

How do you hope readers will connect with the book, and/or what do you want them to take away from it?

Sasha: I hope that people will see this as an invitation to dream and to wonder and to imagine. I want every child, and even more so, children who look like the little girl in this book, to believe that they can achieve whatever it is they want to do in this life. They are the hero of their own story and what they want to do matters.

Vivienne: I hope that younger readers will connect with the sense of magic in this book. For parents and older readers, I hope they’ll be reminded of their own childhood dreams, and maybe smile about how big and crazy they seem now.

Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book?

Sasha: My favourite, favourite question to ask is ‘what would you bring with you to the moon?’ because I just know that kids come up with the most wonderful and outrageous answers.

Did either of you ever dream of going to the moon? Or do you spend a lot of time looking at it now?  (Personally, I love walking my dogs at night in summer so I can stare up at the moon constantly!)

Sasha: Constantly. I have an obsession with the moon and have written an inordinate about of short stories about it. Growing up in Darwin, there wasn’t a whole lot of light pollution so mostly from wherever you are, you can get a good look up there and see it full and bright. I spent a lot of time in my backyard doing that. I see the moon as something we’ll all probably get to eventually. But whenever there’s some sort of lunar eclipse or blood moon, I’m there staring at it, maybe even from the top of a ladder. I even have friends who know of this obsession and will text me to look at the moon when it’s particularly large or full or beautiful in the sky.

Vivienne: I was always fascinated by it, but I don’t think I ever dreamed of going there. I was too busy dreaming about going to Narnia (I’m dead serious)! I was definitely fascinated by space in general and learning about planets, moons and stars. These days, I still really love looking up at the moon. It’s particularly beautiful here in New Zealand, as I can see more stars at night too...there are less city lights drowning out their brightness.

This book revolves around the importance of big dreams, and alludes to the fact that as we get older we tend to discount our dreams and don't believe we can achieve them (such an important thing to discuss).

Can you tell us a bit about your creative dreams, and/or some of your biggest dreams as children? What do you do to help yourself stay on track to achieve dreams, and not get put off by other people's negativity or your own self-criticism?

Sasha: It’s really hard not to compare yourself to others or to succumb to that crippling self-doubt we all kind of go through stages with, but to keep myself grounded I honestly just like to think of my mother. She is just so proud of me and of what I’m doing and continually supportive. And if I think about the fact that she brought us to Australia and raised us here with the opportunities she never had, it really puts things in perspective and motivates me. And if I can make my mother proud, I should be proud of myself too. And to all the Negative Nellys out there I say ‘no, thank you’. I just don’t have the time or energy to be dealing with negativity, it’s so exhausting. I just drink tea.

Vivienne: I think that dreams are always changing and growing along with you, and that’s okay.

For my creative dreams, at first I thought I wanted to get into comic books...then I thought it would definitely be in fashion design...then books...then TV...then animated movies. Working on movies and books are what I ended up striving for. I wanted to be involved in telling stories.

When it came to staying on track to achieve my dreams, I was lucky in that I was surrounded by a lot of encouragement. This made a huge difference. Mum was incredibly supportive of us (‘us’ being me and my older brother, who now works as an animator at Disney). Mum came to Australia as a refugee from Vietnam with nothing, and to this day I’m still amazed that she was so supportive of our creative careers, rather than pushing us towards more traditional “safe” jobs. She wanted us to make choices based on love instead of fear. That’s why this book is dedicated to her, as she’s been so instrumental in us reaching those dreams.

I think that self-criticism is probably the hardest to overcome, at least for me. I was very hard on myself when I was starting out. All I could see was the huge gap in skill between the artists I admired and me. This lessened over time and I always tell myself that all I can do is focus on my own work and aim to be better than I was before.

It's fantastic to see a picture book addressing the lack of diversity in Australian children's books in an authentic, natural way. Do you think the market is slowly changing? What do you think parents, teachers, librarians and other book buyers can do to help support this progress?

Sasha: I do think it’s changing and I think that readers in general are ready and even hungry for these different stories. They’re tired of the same old white bread stories they’ve been fed their whole lives and they want to see the world around them reflected in the books they’re reading. We’re definitely starting to see varied characters who are representative of the people around us, be it PoC characters, characters with a disability, characters who are LGBTQI+.

People are finally realising that these stories have value and need to be heard, so I’m seeing publishers making a more concerted effort in the diversity of the authors/illustrators they’re bringing on, as well as the stories they’re putting out into the world. It’s giving me a lot of hope for what the children’s literature landscape will be like over the next five or ten years.

And to make sure that the creators know that there is definitely a demand for these stories, buy openly and widely and diversely. Give your child a well-rounded view of the world around them. It can only have a positive effect.

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Vivienne: I’m so glad you asked this. I really hope the market is changing, as lack of diversity is a big problem in our media in general. Australia is such a multicultural country and I didn’t grow up seeing characters that looked like me.

I’m actually a little more familiar with the US publishing market than the Australian one (as that’s the main area that I work in) and I’ve seen the market changing in the 6 years I’ve been involved in it. The push for more diverse books is gaining momentum and entire publishing imprints have been created just to feature stories from different cultures. I’ve been thrilled by this and I hope things are starting to change in Australia too.

When I first met with commissioning editor Clair Hume about this book, she told me that Sasha didn’t want the main character to be Caucasian. Right after reading the manuscript I knew that I wanted to make this girl Asian. So I was beyond thrilled to hear this, and to know that Sasha and I were on the same page.

It was important to us to show this in a natural way. No fuss. This girl is Asian, but there’s nothing in the text that points to this. She happens to have a single mum, but that’s not specifically pointed at either. I made the kitchen a little like my mum’s kitchen, with the ever-important rice cooker on the counter and small rice bowls on the table. (I still have to tell mum that her rice cooker is famous!)

I’ve shown this book to friends who have said to me, “This character is you!” And I think Sasha has heard the same from people about her. My hope is that other readers will see themselves in this character too.

I think that parents, teachers and librarians have such an important role in what gets shown and read to children. The biggest thing they can do to support this progress is to get behind books that show diverse characters, and make sure the kids they are responsible for don’t only see one type of hero. I also believe that publishers, studios and we as creators have a responsibility to be more aware of what we depict too.

To me, it’s important that this becomes normalised. What we show in books, TV and movies needs to better reflect what we see in the world. We need to tell kids, “You can be a hero no matter who you are. Your story is important too.”

Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share with regards to working with the publisher and/or each other?  

Vivienne: Sasha and I have never met! We didn’t speak directly to each other during the making of this book (and have actually only communicated through Instagram comments so far). This is quite common to have a single point of contact at the publishing house and to communicate through that person. In this case it was our brilliant editor, Davina Bell. I really can’t say enough good things about her. She worked closely with both of us and gave thoughtful feedback that really took this book further to help realise its potential.

The more we worked on this book, the more I realised Sasha and I had in common. We both dedicated the book to our mums (which I didn’t know until I saw the final version), and we both had single mothers. I think this book came from the heart for both of us.

Sasha, biggest challenges in writing this story, or in getting it published? 

I think the hardest part of the publishing process is the waiting. It generally takes two years to make a picture book, and once I was done with my part of the process – the words – it went off to Vivienne to illustrate and I was so impatient to see the way she would interpret my words. I was hanging out for every little update our editor would send me along the way. But obviously Vivienne is amazing and an absolute genius and the illustrations ended up being perfect.

Vivienne, your illustrations absolutely blew me away! I’m curious - were there any particular challenges in illustrating this story? 

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A big challenge for me was figuring out what our hero does on her way to the moon and how to get her up there. There are only a few words in the text when she goes “up...and up” to the moon. This is often quite exciting for an illustrator because you can do almost anything and interpret it in your own way. The tricky thing was deciding what that was and exploring the different options. Does she fly up there...does she climb clouds and stars as she goes...does she encounter crazy aliens and see all types of rockets and satellites on the way?

In the end I chose to keep it simple and have her floating in the big expanse of space. I felt that the whimsical and thoughtful nature of Sasha’s text lent itself to large expansive double page spreads in the latter part of the book, and I didn’t want to detract from that.

Vivienne, can you tell us a little bit about your process? I know you have a background working as a concept artist for film and publishing. I imagine that affects how you go about illustrating picture books? Has your style changed much over the years?

Vivienne To

Vivienne To

I think my film background has definitely affected how I approach illustrating books. Film work was an amazing training ground. In a movie art department, you need to be able to make changes quickly and also throw out options that aren’t working without a second glance. You can’t get attached or take anything personally.

I still work digitally for speed and flexibility. Most of my film work focuses on character design, and I think that’s what made working on this book so fun. I was able to really let loose and design what this girl looked like. During the design process I asked myself questions like, “What would she wear if she picked her own outfit for the moon?”, “What things would she fill her bedroom with?”, “What kind of drawings would be stuck on her walls?”, “How would she move and dance?”

My style has changed over the years. I started in film doing very photorealistic animals and characters. Things like owls, dinosaurs and dragons...crazily detailed down to the feathers, scales or wrinkles. I’ve found that as I’ve worked for longer, I’m much more attracted to simplicity. I think you can say more with less. Our hero in this book just has little dots for eyes and a single line for a mouth.

I love mixing up styles and my work is still evolving. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise!

I adore the iguana that makes an appearance in this book! I believe it was based on your grandmother's pet, Sasha? Did you always want an iguana to make a cameo in the book, or was that something that came about later on, during discussions with Vivienne? 

YES! The iguana is based off of my grandmother’s iguana. I used to think it was a dragon because at the time it was living there, I was very young and it was a very big lizard. Sometimes it would escape and the children in the village would spot it wandering the streets and all help to catch it and return it to my grandmother.

And actually, Rochelle is the name of my best friend’s big sister, which I did not realise until I had written the story. Rochelle the iguana existed from my very first draft of the book, but it was really Vivienne who gave her such a personality and I think that’s why everyone adores her so much. She’s a loveable little grump, which is very relatable.

What influences do you think shape your work?

Sasha: My influences come from the ideas I would have as a child, and how I find myself interpreting those same ideas now as an adult. My hope is that this way, I’m creating a story that’s both enjoyable for the adults reading it aloud to the children, and for the children reading along as well.

Vivienne: My early influences still play a big part in shaping my work. Everything I loved as a kid, like animated movies, TV, books and comics. Once I got older, I started to be able to fill out my influences with real world experiences and travel.

Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?

Sasha: Oh goodness, it’s too early to say anything concrete but the next book I’m writing is inspired by my brother, just as my first was inspired by my mother.

Vivienne: I can’t share any future projects just yet, but I do have another book out now called There’s A Baddie Running Through This Book written by Shelly Unwin. It’s completely different, but super fun with a thieving raccoon and all sorts of animals and shenanigans.

Do you have a favourite children's book (or top three) that you can never get enough of?

Sasha: Three books I just constantly re-read are If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Erin E Stead, Still Stuck by Shinsuke Yoshitake and The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

Vivienne: There are so many books that I love, but my top three would be:

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers

What's something you wished you had known earlier in your career?

Sasha: I think I’m still in the early stages of my career, but maybe at the start it would’ve been helpful to know that there is absolutely no rush. Things can sometimes take time and that is definitely okay.

Best investment you've made during your career?

Sasha: Studying Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT University. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t gone through this course. I had amazing mentors who encouraged me all the way and the internship program is how I wound up at Affirm Press in the first place. I would really recommend it.

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Vivienne: I did almost every workshop and course I could get my hands on. This included a lot of online classes too. I’m not sure if I could really point to one in particular, but as a whole they really helped me learn and grow early in my career.

Where do you do your work, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?

Sasha: The only way I can do work is if I am not in my own house. I get too distracted by my cat and my pantry. I like to handwrite things first, so sometimes I’ll do that in a park somewhere if the weather’s good. Otherwise I like to sit in my local library where I have failed to learn the Wi-Fi password on purpose, so that I can actually get some work done without distractions. In any setting, a pot of green tea goes a long way.

Vivienne: I work out of a home office here in Wellington, New Zealand. I don’t think I have any particular rituals, other than drinking copious amounts of tea. Mostly I try as hard as possible to stick to a strict routine and treat it like a full time job with set hours (though the reality of freelance work means I often end up working more, not less!).

What got you into creating books?

Sasha: Loving books got me into creating them. I’ve always loved stories and very vainly think that I have a lot of interesting stories to tell. Hopefully people like reading them and I can keep doing what I love.

Vivienne: I have always had a great love of books. We didn’t have the money to travel or do much as kids, so books were my favourite escape. It felt only natural to start illustrating for children’s books. The variety of stories and subject matter means that it’s always interesting!

Any tips for other creatives?

Sasha: Dream big, dream fiercely and honestly nap if you need to.

Vivienne: Don’t compare yourself to other people. There will always be someone better or faster or more popular or (insert some other amazing thing). All you can do is focus on yourself and what you can control.

Oh and this is incredibly boring, but I’m also going to say: take care of yourself. This is something I always need to remind myself of too. It can be a challenging job and this can be easy to forget. Take breaks and stretch...make time for friends and family...get outdoors...look into the distance!

What about a favourite word or quote?

Sasha: Bliss.

Vivienne: “Only emotion endures” - Ezra Pound

I love this quote because it reminds me that it’s the overall feeling and message that’s important. That’s what people will remember.