The Flamingo: An Interview with Guojing About Her Latest, Loveliest Creation
In the year 2015 I was leaving my longstanding job at New York Public Library to move halfway across the country to take on an entirely new life. It was a turbulent year for me, particularly as I’d felt so tuned into the children’s book world in NYC. How on earth was I going to keep up with everything, particularly when my new job had only a tangential connection to children’s books as a whole?
In a year of uncertainty, there were still new books for kids that I clung to. A lot of them I’ve since forgotten, but one has stayed with me over the years. The Only Child by Guojing was such a standout in 2015 that I couldn’t forget it if I tried. A haunting, wordless story, it took the author’s experience of being a lonely single child growing up in China while her parents left her alone every day, and turned it into a kind of wordless graphic novel/picture book that felt equal parts Shaun Tan, Raymond Briggs, and Miyazaki.
Now, this year, Guojing comes back to us with a near wordless tale. Suffused with color, on first glance The Flamingo feels like an entirely different creation than the author/illustrator’s other stories. Yet even the slightest scratch to the surface reveals the kinds of awe and depths we’ve come to expect from this international sensation. Here’s the description from the publisher:
“From a highly acclaimed illustrator comes a stunning graphic novel filled with adventure and wonder about an imaginative girl and her obsession with flamingoes.
A little girl arrives, excited for a beachy vacation with her Lao Lao. The girl and her grandmother search for shells, chase crabs, and play in the sea, but when the girl finds an exquisite flamingo feather in her grandmother’s living room, her vacation turns into something fantastical.”
Best of all, Guojing has agreed to speak with me today about her work and art.
Betsy Bird: Guojing, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you today. It’s been a number of years since we’ve seen a full graphic novel from you here in the States. THE FLAMINGO is such a triumphant return. Can you tell us a little about where the story originated?
Guojing: The original idea was far simpler, which often happens when I’m working on books. I thought a story about a girl caring for an egg that hatched into a little gray bird that would eventually turn into a beautiful pink flamingo had a lot of emotional and visual opportunities. I’ve always been amazed at how a gray baby can transform into a brilliant pink adult bird. It reminds me of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. The main difference is that no one initially accepted the ugly duckling, but in The Flamingo, the little girl’s love for the baby bird is there from the start. I wasn’t sure if the book was going to be a picture book or a graphic novel at first, but as the story developed, it became clear that it made more sense as a graphic novel.
I also thought a lot about parents letting go as their children grow up and how life is filled with many hellos and goodbyes. I am close to my mother and father, but because of college, my career, and Covid, for the past two decades, there has been a lot of distance between us. They still live where I grew up in the Shanxi province of China. I now live in Vancouver, Canada. I try to fly home once a year for Chinese New Year, but it’s not always possible. And I had my first child while working on The Flamingo, so the idea of parents raising children and then letting them go had even more resonance.
BB: Let’s talk about your limited color palette in this book. The sequences that happen today are subdued, with lots of grays and a duller, less brilliant pink. The memories are bright and candy-colored. So often it’s the other way around in children’s books, with the past in duller colors and the present bright and brilliant. Why did you choose to format the book in this way?
Guojing: I wanted the grandmother’s story to be imaginatively limitless, so I used the most vibrant colors to tell it. I thought the more subdued I made the reality pages, the more exciting the grandmother’s story would be—both to the reader and to the little girl. Using the two color palettes as the vocabulary for my drawings, I tried to build two distinct worldviews and sensory experiences. I hope the color shift will help readers travel easily between the two worlds.
BB: Was Miyazaki an influence on this book? There’s something about the brightly colored memory sequences that reminded me of his work.
Guojing: Who doesn’t love Miyazaki? He is definitely an influence, but I’m inspired by so much. I feel the influence of books, music, and especially nature when I am creating my artwork. I do think Miyazaki’s work and his world inspire so many artists working today. Recently I pointed out a beautiful sky to my husband. It was a gorgeous day with a bright blue sky above a bright green lawn with little white flowers, and he said, “It looks like a scene from a Miyazaki movie.” It’s hard not to see Miyazaki’s influence everywhere!
BB: One of my favorite books of yours was THE ONLY CHILD, in which a child takes a magical flight on the back of a large elk. Here you have a heroine who flies on the back of a beautiful flamingo. You seem to return to this image time and again. Why does it work so well for you?
Guojing: That is a great observation. I’ve spent some time contemplating why I’m attracted to these magical flights and have landed on a possible explanation. I was very close to my grandmother. When she died, the house that she lived in for fifty years—which my grandfather built—was torn down and replaced with high-rise buildings. This is happening all over China. That house was one of my favorite places, and many of my happiest childhood memories happened there. I wish so much that there was a magical creature that could fly me back to that house. In the artwork, I suppose the flying is a kind of bridge connecting me to my memories.
BB: How did you first come to comics? Did you read them as a child? If so, what were your favorites? And what are some of your favorites today?
Guojing: Yes, my childhood was filled with Japanese manga. Some of my favorites were Slamdunk, Sailor Moon, Saint Seiya, and Dragon Ball. Even as a young child, I was impressed with the creators’ storytelling skills. Growing up, I liked funny and fantastical stories, but now I’m more drawn to stories about contemporary life and social issues.
BB: You seem equally adept at creating picture books and comics. Do you have a preference? And what do you consider their relationship to one another?
Guojing: To be honest, I don’t think much about the book’s format when I start out. When the ideas first begin bubbling up, I’m not sure where they will lead me. I focus on my pencil and paper and try not to limit myself.
I know the market has to classify books to help readers find the right one, but for me the boundaries between picture books, graphic novels, and comic books are blurred. I worry that if I think too much about format, it may hinder my storytelling.
BB: Finally, what are you working on now?
Guojing: I’m working on a sci-fi graphic novel about artificial intelligence. It’s been a hot topic recently, and I am interested in exploring the relationship between robots and humans. It’s an exciting project, and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.
BB: And we can’t wait to see it!
Many thanks to Guojing for so patiently answering my questions today. Thanks too to Lena Reilly and Kathy Dunn for connecting us in this way. The Flamingo will be out on shelves everywhere September 20th. Be sure to look for it then! It’s a gorgeous piece of work.
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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