My journey to becoming a Children’s Book Author and Illustrator

Ahead of the the publication of my first picture book, “ Ninja!” I thought it would be a good time to share my journey of becoming a published Children’s Book Author and Illustrator.
Yes, it’s a dream of mine that has finally come true and I have so many people to thank that have supported me: my family, close friends, Rubin (my agent), Kate (my editor) and many others. 
But it has not been an easy road and I wanted to share with you my journey.  Hopefully it can help and encourage you to keep going with your goals and take chances.  Maybe you’re like me.  You’re a Dreamer.  You’ve got big ideas and big ambitions but sometimes you feel lost.  You don’t know how to make those ideas happen. 


My parents immigrated to the United States in the 70’s, speaking little to no english.  Although they were professionals in Thailand, (mom was a nurse, dad a business man) they both worked blue collar jobs here to support the family.  We didn’t have much money and they stressed the importance of education.  They wanted better for my brother and I.  

Becoming an artist was not in the family plans for me.  Like many Chinese dads, my dad dreamed of me going to Stanford or Berkeley and becoming an engineer, lawyer or doctor.  I ended going to Davis and studying bio-chemistry which was close enough to keep the expectations at bay. 


But after the first semester, I knew chemistry was not for me.  I discovered something about myself.  I didn’t like everything; in high school I liked a lot of subjects because I was getting As in almost all of them.  I wasn’t getting straight As anymore and I wasn’t very good at Chemistry.  So I quit….er I mean, I switched to Economics.  I liked knowing how everything relates to each other and calculating demand curves wasn’t hard.  Dare I say, it was kind of fun?
After graduating from U.C. Davis, I worked as an consultant.  I made databases and complicated financial spreadsheets in Excel all day.  I hated it.  I thought I wanted to go to business school until I realized a lot of people I worked with had an MBA and were doing the same work I was doing.  They just got paid twice as much!  I wanted to do something that I cared about and loved.  I wanted to make something.  After all, I’ve always have been a Dreamer.  I’ve always loved making up my own stories and coming up with concepts.  But I didn’t want my ideas just to live in my head; I wanted to make things happen but I didn’t know where to start.
One day, while daydreaming of how great it would be to go to art school, I spontaneously visited Pixar’s website.  I wanted to see where they recruited from.  Somehow I found myself on their Jobs page.  I found a job that fit my skillset perfectly.  Two weeks later, I was hired as a production scheduler.  Was it a stroke of luck, chance or fate?


At Pixar, I didn’t make any art.  I wasn’t very good at art.  I was good at making spreadsheets.  Art was just a dream.  My role at Pixar was to make reports and production schedules.  But working at Pixar was a life changing experience.  I saw how a group of people who LOVED what they did, made the most beloved stories in the world.  I felt so lucky to be a part of it all. 

I got to see and hear Steve Jobs talk about Apple.  You could see Steve’s passion for Apple and the folks at Pixar were so passionate about their work; you knew everything they did was going to be good.  I started to see the recipe.  Love what you do and work really hard at making something great.  BTW, a lot of people at Pixar have amazing stories about acheiving their creative endeavors. 
At the end of three years at Pixar, I had an honest moment to myself.  I was 26. I knew I should really go for it or give up my dream of being an artist.  It was 2003 and I took the leap.


When I visited Art Center, I fell in love with the school.  There was amazing work hanging on all the walls and people walked about the campus with intent.  But I had sticker shock.  Art Center is a private school and the bill would cost me over $200,000.  As a economics major, I knew it made no business sense to go to Art School.  I already had a degree and a good job at Pixar.  My Dad wanted me to go to Business School.  I had a good GMAT score.  If I went to Art Center, I would have to burn through all my savings, drain my retirement and take on massive loans.  
I had a “Dear God…are you there?” moment.
I made a deal with God.  (Or so I thought.)  I said to God, if you give me a scholarship, I will attend Art Center.  If I didn’t get a scholarship, I wouldn’t go.
I didn’t get the scholarship.  
I didn’t know what to do.
Then a small voice inside me told me to believe.  Have faith.  With my eyes closed, I went.
I loved my time at Art Center.  Going in, I was NOT one of the best students in my class.  There were so many extremely talented artist.  Some were already accomplished.  
Art Center has a boot camp attitude.  Everyone works extremely hard.  Sleepless nights are common.   You saw people improve through sheer hard work.  Want to get better at drawing people?  Go to workshop.  EVERYDAY.  I learned that if you put in the work everyday, you could improve tremendously in just 14 weeks.  
I knew I wanted to make picture books after taking Steven Turk’s Children’s Book Illustration class.  I fell in love with the books I read as a child and discovered so many artists that I never heard of.  I loved everything about picture books.  The relationship between words and pictures.  How deep thoughts could be communicated and expressed in the most simple way.  How an artist could fully express his/her vision for a story.  I had discovered my calling.  To make books!  To tell stories!  It felt right but first I had to get a job.  Afterall, I had lots of art school debt!

Jobs, Jobs and NO JOB!

I was fortunate to land a job right away at Walt Disney Imagineering.  I was living life; working and slowly paying off my loans.  By 2008, I was living and working in Seattle as a game artist.  I still dreamed of becoming a picture book author/illustrator but wasn’t working on it much.  I was busy.  I had a good job, a good girlfriend and was living in a fantastic city.  I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my kids book dream.  I was just living life.
I talked about my dream of making picture books all the time but didn’t work on it much.  Then I got the encouragement I needed.  My co-worker’s wife, Kim Baker (writer of Pickle) encouraged me to sign up for the SCBWI Washington Conference.  So I did.

SCBWI 2010

At the Washington Conference, Peter Brown was the keynote speaker.  Peter was the perfect speaker for me.  He also went to Art Center, worked in entertainment and made the transition to being a full time picture book author/illustrator.  I listened to Peter as he told his story.  How he stayed up nights, repainting his book for the second time on deadline while working a job.  You can see how much he loved his craft and how bad he wanted it.  He was going to do anything it took to make an amazing book.  (Peter hasn’t done too badly since 2010.) 

Then something really unexpected happened.  I won the best portfolio show!  

I was shocked.  I got in contact with a stellar agent. I was riding high. I was on my way.  Whoo hoo!  Picture books, here I come!  Quit the day job, right?  
Although I could draw, I was terrible at telling stories.  The agent told me that my stories needed “a beginning, middle and an end.”  He was right.  My stories weren’t very good.
Being rejected was painful but I knew what I needed to work on.  And I did.  I got a great piece of advice from an editor.  She told me to go to Barnes and Noble every week and read 10 books.  I did.


At the end of 2010, the game I was working on was not doing well financially so I was laid off.  Missing my family and lifelong friends, I moved back to the bay area.  I knew there was a healthy gaming startup community in the bay and shortly after moving, I was hired as a lead artist at Crowdstar.  There were many great benefits at Crowdstar: a good salary, free lunches, energetic twenty something co-workers and annual company trips to places like Hawaii.  But there were a downside I couldn’t stomach for long.  I hated the work.  

My job as a lead artist was to lead the team and make assets for a game called, “ItGirl.”  At the time, ItGirl was one of the hottest games on Facebook.  Players would buy virtual outfits.  The game at it’s peak had 1.5 million daily players.  ItGirl was a cash cow for the company and it all depended on selling virtual clothing items and creating virtual stores.  I managed the team and we produced lots of glimmery clothes.  It wasn’t what I had imagined for myself when I quit Pixar to become an artist.  I was still working on my stories at night but it was frustrating.  I was stuck.  I was miserable.  I hated doing mindless work all day (making assets) while I had creative problems to solve and not enough time to devote to it.  

So I quit for what I thought was a better opportunity.  I went to another gaming startup.  They hired me as an Art Director and I was excited about leading the charge on making a cartoony fantasy game.  I would get to own the aesthetics and design.  I put my dreams of making books on hold.  The salary was good and there were stock options.  I moved to the city into a nice apartment.  If the company did well, I could go back to making books, I thought.  Then the most unexpected thing happened.


I was out.
I was pissed off.
I won’t get into the details but let’s just say it was a very difficult place to work.  Hostility at the company was high and firings were commonplace.  The creative director even kicked a hole in the wall once and he constantly yelled and belittled people.  Being fired does not feel good but I was relieved to be out of such a bad working environment.  
Most of all, I was fed up.  I was fed up with not making my own art.  I was fed up with jobs that I was not passionate about.  So I made a promise to myself.  I would work harder than ever before on my own art.  I would make lots of things: cards, ebooks, games and of course picture books.  I didn’t have any expectations that I would break through that year.  I knew I had a long way to go with my writing.  I was working on a lot of stories but I was stuck on all of them.


I signed up for the SCBWI Summer 2012 Conference and the Illustrator Intensive.  
The assignment that year was to submit a manuscript for a book with loose sketches, a character study and one finished art piece.
I was so busy at the time.  I was trying to make ebooks and apps (still not done) and had very little time to work on the assignment.  I looked through all of my other dummies I had made previously but they all sucked.  I knew it.  So I went looking for a new concept.  
I looked through old sketchbooks from Art Center and found a scribble that said, “Brian isn’t just a kid…he’s a kid ninja!”
I started to think of all the chaos a kid ninja could create.  It was a simple idea.  So I ran with it.  I thought about it for a couple of weeks.  Then there were only two days left until I had to submit the assignment.  There was pressure; I knew this assignment would be seen by Art Directors, Editors and Agents.  I didn’t want to embarrass myself.
That night, I did something that I had never done before.  In one sleepless night, I went through 14 drafts of the story.  I worked quickly, deliberately and honestly.  I threw away 
ideas that didn’t work and challenged myself to come up with better ideas.  When the sun rose, I had a solid simple story.  I liked a few lines (I’m dishonored) and really liked the character that was taking shape.  I worked all day to visualize the main character and sent my work in.  
I did it!  I was done and I had very little expectations of what would happen at the Illustrator Intensive.


It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended.  The panel of experts picked a few stories to critique and they gave honest and blunt feedback.  There wasn’t enough time to review all of the stories.  I wondered if they would review Ninja.  I hoped they would.  And then they did!  They showed this image of Maxwell.
The crowd laughed.
We went through the story.  The expert panel gave me notes.  They loved the character and the overall story but felt the end was a little random and abrupt.  New ideas flooded my mind and during the break, I went up to the panel during the break to thank them and share my new ideas.
Rubin and I worked on developing Ninja and submitted it to two publishers.  They both came back with interest!  Eventually Ninja was sold to MacMillan as part of a three picture book deal!  I couldn’t believe it.  Was this really happening?  I was going to make the most of it.  I felt so lucky to have a great agent and then I met my editor Kate.  From the first phone call, it felt like we were old soul mates.  


Now, I had to make the book.  MacMillan wanted to get the book out on their 2014 list.  The publishing process takes well over a year so I needed to finish the art in three months.  I worked harder than ever before and I loved every minute of it.  
I can’t tell you how many nights I stayed up.  But I didn’t mind it.  It felt like Art Center days, where you knew what you wanted to make and just had to put in the work and make it.  I was excited.
Ninja is the best thing I’ve made to date.  The best ideas and designs were made after I had been frustrated and tried many other things.  I learned how to push through all the bad ideas and to trust that at some point, the right solution would surface.  For Ninja, the Dragon and the red color palette of “Ninja Mode” was a late discovery.  Those elements add so much to Maxwell’s fantasy. 
At the end of making the book, I was exhausted but proud.  
So the rest is history, right?  Easy peasy from now on right?  Probably not.  I know this is not an easy path but I love it.


It’s been a bumpy ride.  In 5 years, I was laid off twice, left one job and was fired from a crazy boss.  Startup life certainly isn’t for those with weak stomachs.  However, those jobs were good experiences for me to have because I learned lots and it grew my HUNGER to make books.  

My Dad never wanted me to go into art.  Like all parents, he wanted the best for me and he didn’t want to see me struggle.  But the struggle is what I’m most proud of.  I’ve stuck to it.  I had a dream and I took a chance.  I hear other success stories and it’s the same.  You never know until you try.  You have to have faith, grit and fortitude.  

My Dad is also one of the inspirations for what I do.  I remember how he was so frustrated with his manufacturing job.  He was an avid reader, a writer and an intellect.  He was so talented and intelligent.  Yet, day after day, he went into a production line to work because he had a bigger responsibility.  He was a family man.  Mom and Dad have made the great sacrifices so that Art and I could chase our dreams.

A lot of my friends are parents now and I see their love for their kids.  It’s an amazing thing.  Thank you to all the parents out there.
When people ask me how long did it take to make Ninja, there are several answers.
1. Three months (Time it took to illustrate it)
2. Eight months (Time from conception to completion of art)
3. Ten years.  (When I choose to follow my inner voice and quit Pixar till now)
Being an artist is not easy.  But if you’re a dreamer like me, it’s a the only thing that keeps you alive.  You feel most alive when you’re creating.  Embrace it.  I feel like I’m just starting.
Take chances.  Whenever something doesn’t work out, don’t fret too long.  There are always amazing opportunities around the corner with kind people to help.  But you have to get your butt off the couch and find them.  Put in the work.
1. Listen to that voice inside of you.
2. Don’t be afraid to quit.  
3. Take leaps of faith.
4. Scribble and keep a notebook.
5. Write down your dreams and the things you absolutely want to do.  They WILL happen.  
6. Work on your craft EVERYDAY.
7. Find mentors.
8. Don’t give up.  Rest when you need it.  Try again.
9. There are kind people out there that will help you.
10. Be kind and help others.
I’m going to see if I can find Ninja! in a bookstore.  I’ll probably bring tissues and cry all over myself in the book isle.  Children will come and ask me if I’m okay, and I’ll ask them if they like Ninjas.
Neil Gaiman: Make Great Art
Jimmy Valvano: Cutting Down The Nets

Blog Contributors

Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award. 

Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.

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