Outside, Inside: The LeUyen Pham Interview and Trailer Reveal
Check this little cutie out:
Look familiar? He’s the mouse from A Piece of Cake by LeUyen Pham, of course! I’m no designer, and no one has ever mistaken me for one, but one thing I know is that when it comes to Christmas tree decorations, few things are better than ornaments inspired by children’s books. I’ve always had a soft spot for A Piece of Cake, not simply because I have an ornament for it but also because it was the rare picture book that the Caldecott Honor winning artist Ms. Pham both wrote and illustrated.
Now, LeUyen has a new book that she’s both written and illustrated coming out. Called Inside, Outside, it’s going to strike you as a kind of mirror. This is COVID life writ large on the page. The boredom and the frustration, absolutely, but also the love and connection. I took some time to speak with Ms. Pham about the book and she is allowing me to premiere its book trailer.
But before we get to all that, word type things!
Betsy Bird: First and foremost, how the heck are you doing right now? How’s your family?
LeUyen Pham: Exhausted. To my already overloaded schedule I’m adding teacher, full time cook, and insomniac. All this aside, we’re fine, thank you. The kids, unbelievably, transitioned pretty well to online learning. And my husband is the best — he’s taking on one kid while I take on the other. Although lately we’re more like tag-team partners than husband and wife. Date night?! What’s that? But we’re counting our blessings, and trying to make the most out of all of this. If a few grey hairs and bags under my eyes are the worst I’m getting out of this, I’ll consider myself lucky.
BB: That all sounds eerily similar to my own family. I’m just amazed you can tap into any kind of creativity during all this. When did you first start working on this book? I know it takes a while for something to get to publication. Did you have any worries while creating the book that by the time it came out it wouldn’t be timely anymore?
LP: This was not a normal book experience for many, many reasons. To begin with, I’m not sure I had much of an idea that this book would come through okay. It’s earliest forms were hazy to me, unformed, nonsensical. Just a mass of thoughts that had to go down on paper because I had no place in my brain to keep them. And mostly they were just visuals, like slices of my mind. The idea of forming them into a book was almost like a muscle memory — it’s just how my brain makes sense of things. When I first contacted Connie (Hsu, my editor at Roaring Brook Press) about the idea, it was just a mass jumble of images and incoherent lines. Connie had to sift through all of that to make sense of it, to make it a book. I think Connie saw it as a book, and she set a real deadline to it. I had a month to pull this off, if we wanted to print this in a timely manner. I know that sounds crazy, but I was up to it. It gave my mind focus during those early days of lockdown, too. It felt good to put it all onto paper, to make sense of a strange time.
I didn’t worry at all about the book coming out and not meaning the same thing anymore. Connie and I had early on talked about making certain that the book worked beyond this timeframe, beyond this moment, that it contained a truth that didn’t rely on current events. As Connie said, this book had to have a reason beyond the lockdown to exist, that in ten years time a child could still pick it up and find it relevant. Its main function is the main function of any children’s book — relay a story, find humor in truth as well as poignancy, and to keep a child wanting to turn the pages. I hope the book manages that.
That being said, I think we all had the hopes that by the time of the book’s release, the world would have eased into a more normal state again. That hasn’t come to pass yet, so I think the book needs to also be able to comfort.
BB: I’m rather fascinated by the range of COVID-related picture books that we’ve seen coming out. There are so many different ways to talk about the virus. Some go through the medical explanations of what a virus is and some offer advice for people who can’t be with their families during the holidays. Yours is just a really simple concept of going from the outside into the inside. Did you always know precisely how you wanted this book to go or was there some trial and error?
LP: I think the books that came out immediately were the ones that were attempting to dispense information. In some cases, people simply didn’t have enough facts at hand, or were relying on sometimes unreliable sources. Picture books were a natural conduit — a means of communicating facts in a comforting, instructable manner. This book really isn’t about the virus. It’s about what humans do in the face of an enormous international crisis. All the stories coming out, all the images we were bombarded with from around the world — to me, they all came down to one thing. We all had to go inside. That was the universal instruction. When I realized the simplicity of this one objective, the book fell into place, because it’s an instruction that immediately suggests its counterpart — going outside. It already sounded like a nursery rhyme. It set the pace for the book, weaving from one end of a spectrum to another. I know you’re going to think I’m weird, but I can’t for the life of me remember whether or not we intended anything, whether anything was planned out in the way books normally are. I didn’t see a pattern, I was just recording things as they happened to make sense of them. The whole time was a blur. It was also a book that relied on everyone around me to give me input — from my kids giving me their thoughts on things, to my husband’s observations, to my agent Holly’s encouragement to keep going, to Connie and the whole crew at Roaring Brook Press to relate to me their experiences. I keep saying this — I really didn’t write this book. I just recorded what the world was experiencing. That it came out in coherent form is still a bit of a shock to me.
BB: Oh, I see now! So this may be beating that idea into the ground but much along the same lines, the words “COVID” and “virus” are never named. Even before I understood your reasoning, this felt like a very careful, conscious decision. Can you explain again to me why you made that choice?
LP: I really want to say that yes, it was. I want to make myself sound like a better put together person than I am, that everything was planned. But the truth is, those words never found its way into the book, because they weren’t the crux of the story. I wasn’t recording what Covid is. I was observing how we should care for each other. What amazed me during this time was how much it brought out the best in so many people. Just walking through my own neighborhood, seeing grocery lists scrawled on garage doors so that neighbors would pick up things for each other, the number of chalk drawings, the painting and signs that went up, the teddy bear hunts, the evening whistles and cheers for emergency workers — I can’t remember another time in my life when I felt community so deeply. Which is so ironic, considering that we were supposed to stay away from each other. In that light, the words “Covid” and “virus” never found a place in this book. They didn’t even come to mind.
BB: Was there ever a temptation to go wordless or did you always imagine the book with text?
LP: That’s a really interesting question, no one has asked me that. I don’t think I ever thought of the book being wordless. But I think you could easily go through the book and not read anything, and it would be the same story. I think I put words to it, because I was still trying to understand things myself. I hardly consider myself a very strong writer, and I’m not able to bend words as well as I’m able to bend lines on paper. But in the same way there’s a visual pattern, there was a verbal pattern. It all just came together, very organically. Sometimes words need to fill the space in your mouth just as pictures fill the space in your eyes — all instruments of the heart to communicate.
BB: Was there some aspect of the lockdown that you actively avoided putting into the book in some way? Or something that you cut that just didn’t belong?
LP: I think I tried to include every aspect I could, which made the book hard to do. We all experienced this time differently — some of us were lucky and had jobs that were amenable to our needs. Others were going through terrible transitions. So many feared for their health. But suffering in India isn’t the same as it is in Los Angeles, and to show all that was hard to do. I saw so much footage of what was happening in other countries. And then to experience what was happening in hospitals — if only people could view the footage of what our nurses and EMTs and doctors have to go through, wearing a mask would be a foregone conclusion. I didn’t want to omit any of that. I keep hoping this book will be a launching point for discussion, for both adults and children, to understand how far-reaching the effects of this situation are, and how little of us is required to make it better.
There’s probably only one spread that didn’t make the final cut, and that was an image of how wildlife has been thriving during this time. I was really moved by the idea of animals roaming the streets, populations of wildlife increasing in parks, panda bears finally mating. In the end, this was too fanciful to put in the book, but it’s a reminder — that life goes one, even if the economy stops.
BB: This is all marvelous to learn. Finally, what else do you have coming out in 2021?
LP: These past few months have been busy for me, and I’m once again realizing how lucky I am to have chosen this career. I have three projects with Shannon Hale coming out — Princess in Black #9 (have we REALLY done 9 books now?) about a MERMAID PRINCESS! The final book in the Friends series FRIENDS FOREVER, about Shannon finding herself at last in the eighth grade. And finally, ITTY BITTY KITTY-CORN, a picture book that we came up with together while we were touring. Shannon is my closest friend in the children’s book world, she is the most fun person to work with, and can give a simple idea so much teeth it bites. Kitty-corn is about a sweet little artistic kitten who knows in her heart that she is something else — a UNICORN. It’s a book with just the right message about being who you are, and knowing who you’ll be. And it’s got kittens and unicorns and geckos and parakeets in it.
Thanks, Betsy, for giving this book attention. It’s a special one, with a message that I hope resonates. I hope when the world calms down, we can go hang out and grab a coffee…
BB: Oh, yes please! I would like that very much.
And on that note, may I present to you the trailer for Outside, Inside by LeUyen Pham:
Many thanks to LeUyen for so patiently answering my questions and thanks too to Morgan Kane and the good folks at Macmillan for this premiere.
Outside, Inside hits shelves everywhere January 5, 2021.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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