We caught up with two very successful illustrators and authors (and #OCADU alum), brothers Eric and Terry Fan. The brothers’ newest book, The Antlered Ship, is available now and getting great reviews.
Congratulations on the success of your latest book, The Antlered Ship, that you illustrated! What do you love about writing and illustrating children’s books?
Eric: Thank you! Speaking personally, I enjoy the opportunity to create an imaginary world and the challenge of sustaining a narrative over forty pages or so, which is the average length of a picture book. Before we started working in the picture book field I was doing t-shirt design, and stand-alone illustrations and so it was nice to tackle something more expansive. Picture books also had a big impact on both of us growing up, so part of the magic of creating a book is the hope that your book could have a similar impact on a young reader, and maybe even fuel and shape their imagination in the same way that we were impacted.
Terry: I feel the same way, and it's funny because many of our stories evolved from those stand-alone illustrations. Every illustration is a form of storytelling, in a sense, and sometimes when you're working on a stand-alone illustration you can't help but think of the broader narrative scope around it. The fun part about a picture book is unpacking that, and expanding and building upon the implied narrative of that one image.
The Antlered Ship
Eric and Terry Fan
What do you think makes a good children’s picture book?
Eric: The simplest answer I can think of is a book where the art and story fit together in such a way that both are elevated and seem absolutely inseparable from one another, but I don't know if there is a strict set of criteria that applies to all good picture books, since books fulfill different needs.
There are good picture books that are purely educational, and some that are designed to make you laugh or fire your imagination. I guess if there is one commonality, it would be strong storytelling and an original point of view; or a story with heart that tells the reader something about what it is to be human. When I think about picture books that have impacted me personally, it's a fairly eclectic mix, but I think the one persistent feeling that unites all of them is one of discovery; of a door opening.
When I was little, the first book to really do that for me was Where the Wild Things Are. I didn't so much read it as experience it; an imaginative transference of ego into another character, and another world. Then there are picture books that speak to me as an artist because they are so aesthetically sublime, as well as being compelling stories - books like This is Not My Hat, Du Iz Tak, The Gold Leaf, and The Snowy Day.
Terry: I agree. A good picture book to me is one that is transporting. Being imaginatively transported by a book is one of the most rewarding things about reading in general, whether it's a novel or a picture book. I do find myself drawn to stories that have interesting layers and depth to them - books like Virginia Wolf, Grandpa's Island, or Shaun Tan's The Arrival. I think about a wordless picture book like Sidewalk Flowers, how simple it is, yet how elegantly it conveys its message of appreciation and being present in a world full of distractions; how effortlessly it delivers its moments of poignancy and beauty without a single line of text.
Childhood is actually a time of powerful emotions, mystery, and wonder, and I think the best books tap into that in some way. Even a classic board book like Goodnight Moon carries some of that power and mystery. It's such a simple book, but also poetic and affecting in a way that's hard to articulate.
How did you get started in writing and illustrating books?
Eric: We both had a rather circuitous path into the picture book field. After OCAD U Terry and I both ended up working in jobs that were not art-related for many years, while still doing art in our free time. We also spent many years attempting to write screenplays with our other brother Devin. We had a literary agent in Hollywood, but never managed to get a script optioned, although there were a couple of tantalizing near-misses.
One day I was reading an article in the newspaper about a new t-shirt website called Threadless, which was one of the first crowdsourced websites. It was open to anyone who wanted to submit a design, and the designs were voted on by the community. There were a lot of talented artists submitting designs, and the competition was formidable. I think only one out of every thousand designs submitted was ever printed and sold on the site, and the designer received a $2,000 prize. We both started submitting designs, and we both ended up getting printed there quite a few times. It was the first time I had ever been paid for a piece of artwork, and it was a thrill to be chosen from so many designs. The nature of the voting process - which could be ruthless - also helped me hone my design skills, and understand what it was about my own art that resonated with people, and conversely what ideas fell flat. It was a great way to "find your rudders" as an artist, and of course there was the wonderful validation of seeing your design printed. (Eric’s Society6 page)
Big Chew art print by Eric Fan available on Society6
The Whale shower curtain by Terry Fan available on Society6
Terry: At some point Threadless partnered with a new website called Society6, and they encouraged people to upload art there as well. Society6 is a print-on-demand website that allows anyone to set-up a shop, like Etsy, except that Society6 handles all the logistics, printing, and order fulfillment. The revenue stream from Society6 eventually allowed me to quit my full-time job, and focus completely on art for the first time. It's also where our agent, Kirsten Hall, first noticed our artwork and approached us about representation. She also asked if we had any book ideas that she could present to publishers. Going back to what I said earlier about inspiration, Eric and I had collaborated on a stand-alone illustration called The Night Gardener, which started out as a t-shirt design, and we always felt there was a story around that image that was waiting to be told. That was the image and story concept we presented to Simon & Schuster, and it eventually became our first picture book. The book we're currently working on, Ocean Meets Sky, was also inspired by a stand-alone illustration.
How do you like working together as brothers? You both went to OCAD U…you’re both illustrators…and you collaborate on books. What’s the secret to your partnership?
Eric: Our very first collaboration was a book we did when we were kids, before we could read or write. It was called Many Years Ago, and was about dinosaurs, naturally. So it's something we've been doing for a long time. I think whether it was screenwriting, or illustration, we always recognized that different people coming together on a project could strengthen it, because each person is bringing something a little different to the project. It can be challenging, but in a very real sense every book is a collaboration, even when a single artist is involved; you're still collaborating with the editor and art director and writer.
Terry: It's kind of like being in a band, as opposed to being a solo musician. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve collaborated on art many times before, and submitted several collaborations on Threadless, so I think over time we developed a good vocabulary as far as working together. The sum of our individual styles is a third style, that is something unique to each one of us and in some ways greater than the sum of its parts. On the technical side, Photoshop has made things much easier as far as combining different elements that we've worked on individually.
What’s your best advice for young artists and designers just starting out?
Eric: Don't wait as long as we did before believing in yourself. The most important step to being successful is tearing down the barriers that you've put up for yourself. That's step number one before even attempting to confront the barriers that the world at large puts up.
On a more practical note, the best advice I could give is to get your work seen by as many people as possible. The landscape for artists is so different now than it was when we were at OCAD U. It’s possible to have your work seen by a much larger audience, a global audience, and there are so many avenues to get your work online - whether it’s social media like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or whether its online marketplaces like Society6. It can be a little daunting at times, but it’s definitely worth the investment.
Terry: I'd agree with all that, and add that when you're younger you have something that is invaluable, and that is the luxury of time. Looking back, I wish I hadn't been so careless with that resource, because it becomes more scarce as you get older. Take the time to draw every day, and create as much as possible. It takes time to discover your voice, and locate not only what is meaningful to you as an artist, but also what it is about your art that resonates with other people.
The Night Gardener