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Interview with illustrator Meilo So
by Marjorie Coughlan*

Meilo So was born in Hong Kong and educated in England. She studied at the Brighton College of Art and her first picture book was published in Hong Kong soon after she graduated. Since then Meilo has gone on to illustrate many highly acclaimed books, including poetry anthologies compiled by Jack Prelutsky and Marilyn Singer's trilogy of elemental poetry books - and recently, the stunning Water Sings Blue with poetry by Kate Coombs.

Animals and birds feature greatly in Meilo's work, She is the author-illustrator of the hilarious Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop: A Tale of a Very Greedy Cat and the illustrator of Doris Orgel's The Cat's Tale: Why the Years Are Named for Animals. Her most recent book is Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird, A True Story, written by Stephanie Spinner.

In 2009 Meilo established So & Co Books, 'the most northerly publishing shed in Britain', in the Sheltand Isles, where she lives with her husband, artist Ron Sandford; their daughter and a menagerie of pets.
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Can you tell us something about your background and how that has influenced you as an artist?

My grandfather was a theatre stage designer from China. After he retired he ran a mannequin workshop, so as a child I was familiar with fibre glass nudes lying around. Eagerly watching my uncle painting eyes and lips on their blank faces, I desperately wanted to lay my hand on paintbrushes.

How did you come to be living in the Shetlands?

My husband wrote me a postcard from Shetland on his visit to a friend back in 2001. He was raving about the place, its music, its friendly people, and also some excellent rural schools. It seemed an ideal place to bring up our daughter, who was one year old at the time. Although I was deeply rooted in concrete (I was born in Hong Kong), I wanted to give my child an alternative upbringing to the one I had, so we moved.

This move from the south of England to the top of Scotland was easier than I thought at the beginning. However, I did lose all the physical connections with my Chinese family, other illustrators, and friends from college. I also lost my space for working, but I started to learn how to use the computer for sending artwork and keeping in touch with people and I was able to rent an office space very cheaply nearby.

Do you have any pets and do you use them in your art?

I have at the moment two cats, two cockerels, and four hens and my daughter keeps a rabbit of her own.

Snowball, my white cat with patches of grey colours on his back, is my favourite model for some of my artwork. He gives me some great characters of a cat, laid-back and playful, smart and stupid, loving and grumpy, and very greedy at times.

Meilo So with Snowball

You have illustrated two stories about cats. The first, your own retelling of an Indian folktale, is Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop, about a rather selfish and certainly very greedy cat. What appealed to you about the story?

It was the ending that I particularly liked about the story. I love the fact that the greedy cat’s friend, the parrot readily forgave everything his cat friend had done to him, the parrot simply wanting to take back the two cakes that he had made for himself and spending the rest of the evening helping his friend to sew up the belly. That is an ideal world.

What were some of the challenges in creating the book, particularly the artwork, which gets really close in to the action of the cat eating everyone who comes in his way?

The big challenge would be to make something macabre like eating your friend and other humans charming funny, lyrical but believable.

Your other cat story is The Cat’s Tale (written by Doris Orgel), about a grandmother telling her granddaughter the story of why there is no cat in the Chinese zodiac. Was your model the same cat as in Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop or is it a coincidence that they both look alike?

The model for The Cat’s Tale is Snowball; the one in Gobble Gobble Slip Slop is based on the expressions of Snowball, but with a different body. I wanted to make the greedy cat more monstrous with spiky hair, and Snowball with his round patches seemed too placid for that.

How did the stories’ different cultural backgrounds influence your approach to the projects?

It is great when you get stories to illustrate from different cultural backgrounds.  It provides an excuse to research into their styles of painting, design, folk art and costume for inspiration. In The Cat’s Tale, I intentionally used two different styles as there are two storylines going on at the same time. When the cat told his story, I based the illustrations on Chinese peasant painting - using flat colours (gouache) and more decorative designs. When the narrator told the story of the grandmother and the girl, I used minimal watercolor.

You work in a variety of media but you tend to use watercolor when illustrating books. Why is that?

I cannot remember illustrating any particular artwork in which I only used watercolour; in fact, good quality watercolour is so expensive that I would rather not get addicted to it! I often mix everything together, as long as it’s all water based. The only trouble with doing things this way is that it is very hard to guarantee you can make the same colour again.

You have a gift for illustrating poetry – in fact, I think some of your first illustrated books were different poetry anthologies, is that right? What do you particularly enjoy about poetry projects?

Thank you. My first major books for American publishers were indeed two poetry anthologies (The Beauty of the Beasts and The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury, selected by Jack Prelutsky). The only thing I would say is how brave it was for the editor (Janet Schulman, who died last year) to have chosen me, a Chinese illustrator whom she had never worked with, to take on such major projects.

I suppose when accompanying poetry, it might be best for the illustration to be quite open and spare, to enable the readers to fill in the space between the words and images themselves.

Water Sings Blue, which came out earlier this year, is a collection of water poems (written by Kate Coombs). Did your Shetland home provide you with inspiration?

It certainly did. I live five minutes from the beach; the lack of people in the book probably let the cat out of the bag.

You have also set up a small printing press in the Shetlands, So & Co Books – can you tell us about it?

I have not got a printing press, just a tiny publishing shed from my garden. For 13 years I had a story in my head about a very grumpy sailor who lived on an exotic island . At first the character was extremely dark and unpleasant (based on a real character) and he had a bad end. I could not interest any publisher in it; my agent in London at the time worked very hard to help me rewrite the story so it would be more publish-able.  However, it had changed so much from the original script that I lost interest in it for a while.

Then Janet Schulman brought the story up again.  She helped to make it more child friendly, and I did understand what she was trying to do, but somehow it never got going. When I moved to Shetland, that seemed to be a more suitable setting for the story, as there are a lot of retired sailors around. I felt excited with the story again, and I thought that a friend, Janice Armstrong (a lovely Scottish singer who had never written a children's story before) would be the perfect person to rewrite the story for me, which she did.

The next step obviously was to publish it myself, and suddenly I had started the most northerly publishing shed in the United Kingdom! Now and again, I would sit quietly and read the published The Grumpy Old Sailor, and every time I felt a lump in my throat; it is a beautiful story (and beautifully illustrated, of course!).

My idea for the publishing shed is to have a set of four books featuring the various adventures of the same set of children and their encounters with different people, and each book set in a different season. The Grumpy Old Sailor’ was set in winter, and A Midsummer Foy (Foy means party in Shetland) was set in summer - that was published in 2011. Janice and I have plans for the third and fourth books.  One is about a girl who is only able to sing when the Northern Lights are showing: that would be set in late autumn time; and finally, for the springtime, a rural bus driver travels back in time (by accident) with his bus full of folks.

Please tell us about your involvement in When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, by J. Patrick Lewis and involving several illustrators.

I was glad to be able to illustrate some adult subjects, like human rights, gay rights etc. I love all the variety. I was particularly flattered to be able to illustrate the poem about Ann San Suu Kyi.

You have had a busy year - Alex the Parrot written by Stephanie Spinner also came out in October. Like When Thunder Comes, it is based on real people and events – how does that affect the way you approach a project?

In one way it is easier to have real people and events because you have something to base your ideas on, rather than conjuring things totally out of the imagination. I need to take great care to portray the characters, though.  For example, Alex the parrot: he is a parrot with an attitude, so I am not worried about getting all the markings and feathers and features correctly as long as he seems ‘Alive’, ‘Cheeky’ and ‘Bossy’; while when portraying Pale Male the Hawk, he is always dignified and majestic, never jokey. They all need to be convincing without being tied down with tiny zoological details.

What are you working on at the moment and what plans do you have for the future?

I have just finished Brush of the Gods written by Lenore Look, to be published by Schwartz Wade Books in June next year' and am just about to finish the illustrations for a new book called My Mom Is a Foreigner. It's by Julianne Moore, who wrote the story in memory of her Scottish mother and will be published by Chronicle Books.

I am starting two new book projects now.  Again, one has a Chinese cultural background, and the other is more universal. Then after that it will be time to get onto the singing girl and rural bus driver, for myself.

Posted December 2012

*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor

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Meilo So's photo

More on PaperTigers:

Check out some cats and more in our online Gallery featuring Meilo's work.

Read a 2003 interview with Meilo.

More on the web:

Visit Meilo's website.

Watch Meilo's YouTube videos featuring music played by the ffancytunes ensemble with Meilo on piano and Janice Armstrong, author of Meilo's So & Co books, singing; and beautiful artwork by Meilo's husband Ron Sandford.

Read 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast's interview with Meilo, and revel in all the artwork on display.

Read the Author Spotlight on Meilo at Kids@Random.

..................................................

By Meilo So:

Brush of the Gods
written by Lenore Look
(Schwartz & Wade, 2013)

Alex the Parrot: No Ordinary Bird, A True Story
written by Stephanie Spinner
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2012)

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders
written by J. Patrick Lewis; also illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engel & John Parra
(Chronicle Books, 2012)

Water Sings Blue: Ocean Poems
poems by Kate Coombs
(Chronicle Books, 2012)

A Midsummer Foy
written by Janice Armstrong
(So & Co Books, 2011)

A Bunny for All Seasons
written by Janet Schulman
(Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2012)

Tales from the Little Wooden House Under the Mountain
written by Johanna Byrne
(Little Wooden House Books, 2010)

The Grumpy Old Sailor
written by Janice Armstrong
(So & Co Books, 2009)

The Cat's Tale: Why the Years Are Named for Animals
written by Doris Orgel
(Roaring Brook Press, 2008)

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City
written by Janet Schulman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)

That Special Little Baby
written by Jane Ann Peddicord
(Harcourt, 2007)

Brother Juniper
written by Diane Gibfried
(Clarion Books, 2006)

The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom
selected by John Prelutsky
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme
poems selected by Jack Prelutsky
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Central Heating: Poems about Fire and Warmth
written by Marilyn Singer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hurry and The Monarchwritten by Antoine O. Flatharta
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

Gobble, Gobble, Slip, Slop: A Tale of a Very Greedy Cat
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

Fairy Tales
writen by e.e.cummings (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2004)

The Evergreen Tea House: A Hong Kong Novel
written by David T. K. Wong
(Muse Publishing, 2003)

How to Cross a Pond: Poems about Water
written by Marilyn Singer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

A Bunny for All Seasonswritten by Janet Schulman (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)

Footprints on the Roof: Poems about the Earth
written by Marilyn Singer (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)

Moombeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats: A Treasury of Chinese Holiday Tales, Activities & Recipes
written by Nina Simonds, Leslie Swartz & The Children's Museum, Boston
(Gulliver Books, 2002)

The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoptionwritten by Jean Davies Okimoto & Elaine M. Aoki (Houghton Mifflin, 2002)

Beastly Tales from Here and There
written by Vikram Seth
(illustrated edition: Phoenix 2002)

Countdown to Spring!: An Animal Counting Book
written by Janet Schulman (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)

Tasty Baby Belly Buttonswritten by Judy Sierra (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)

The Ugly Duckling: From the Story by Hans Christian Andersen
written by Kevin Crossley-Holland
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)

It's Simple, Said Simonwritten by Mary Ann Hoberman
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)

The Tale of the Heaven Tree
written by Mary Joslin
(Lion Children's Books, 2001)

The Cat who Covered the World: The Adventures of Henrietta and his Foreign Correspondent
written by Christopher S. Wren
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001)

The Merchant Enticed by the Pearl of Great Pricewritten by Mary Joslin
(Lion Children's Books, 2000)

The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury
selected by Jack Prelutsky (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)

Poetry Please! 100 Popular Poems from the BBC
foreword by Charles Causley
(Orion Books, 1999)

The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom
selected by Jack Prelutsky (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997)

The Monkey and the Panda
written by Antonia Barber
(Frances Lincoln, 1996).

Wishbones: A Folktale from China
retold by Barbara Ker Wilson
(Prentice Hall & IBD, 1993; new edition: Frances Lincoln, 2009)

The Emperor and the Nightingale
(Frances Lincoln, 1992)

 

 

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