We are very privileged to feature Naomi Kojima for our Meet the Storyteller as we celebrate From Asia With Love: A Feast of Asian Literature – our current bimonthly theme.
How long have you been an author/illustrator of children’s books? Do share with us what made you decide to become a children’s book artist.
I have been making picture books for over thirty years. My childhood dream was to become a writer and illustrator of children’s books. I wanted to write long stories and illustrate them with beautiful pictures. That dream went into hiding during my teenage years. Then in my senior year of college, I studied children’s literature under a wonderful English literature professor. I read many children’s books, and my childhood dream came back. I knew in my heart that I wanted to make children’s books. I made what would become my first picture book, Mr. and Mrs. Thief during my last year in college. But I had no idea how to start on the path as a writer and illustrator of children’s books. After graduation, I went back to Japan and worked as an art teacher at an International School.
Some years later, my husband and I moved to a college town in Massachusetts, and I met children’s book author Jane Yolen. It was Jane who helped me start my career in children’s books.
I went to the monthly meetings she organized every month in a small library in Hatfield. The group was then called the Society of Children’s Book Writers SCBW, now the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators SCBWI. From Jane and SCBW, I learned about publishing and how to make picture books. I worked on Mr. and Mrs. Thief, and shared the dummy at the monthly meetings and received critique. After a couple of revisions, Jane told me that Mr. and Mrs. Thief was ready.
I made appointments with five publishers in New York City. The editor at the second publisher I went to, T.Y.Crowell, an imprint of Harper & Row then, showed strong interest in Mr. and Mrs. Thief and another picture book dummy, The Flying Grandmother. Three weeks later she called and gave me a contract for both books. Once my books were published in the U.S, it was not difficult to find a publisher for Mr. and Mrs. Thief and The Flying Grandmother in Japan. The two books were published the following year in Japan, as translated books from the U.S. I have been writing and illustrating children’s books since then.
What are some of the joys and difficulties that you have encountered so far in creating books for children?
It is always wonderful when an idea or the first line of a story pops up. I tell the story over and over in my mind, build up the characters, ask them questions, and think of different ways the story could go. The time when I am working on the finished drawings is also a happy and joyful time. It is the in between parts that are difficult; putting down the images and ideas on paper, and constructing and designing text and illustrations to make them fit in 32 pages. I am often heart broken when I have to take out the illustrations and sentences, which I had spent hours making. I am always amazed how complex and meticulous the process is to make a picture book. No matter how many picture books I make, it never seems to become easier! But I am not complaining. I enjoy making picture books.
How did your love affair with children’s books begin?
I think I loved children’s books from the beginning of my life. When I was about two years old and still living in Japan, my grandmother told me she would take me to a bookstore in town. She said I would leaf through, page by page, all the children’s books in sight. My patient grandmother would be worn out by the time I finally chose a book. I am sorry I exhausted my poor grandmother, but I am very glad she kept taking me back to the bookstore.
Who are some of your greatest influences (both contemporary and classic authors/artists)?
As a young child growing up in the US, I read many of the Golden Book series, and I loved the illustrations. I later realized that the illustrations were by great artists such as Gustaf Tenggren, Feodor Rojankovsky, Garth Williams, Alice and Martin Provensn, and Gertrude Elliot etc.
My parents had a couple of hardcover compilations of cartoons from The New Yorker, and I loved to look at them. They were not children’s books, and I did not understand the captions, but I thought the black and white cartoons were so interesting and sophisticated. I think my love for black and white illustrations started with these cartoons.
When I was older, The Ship That Flew by Hilda Lewis, and the Narnia Books by C.S. Lewis were my favorite books. I admired the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone, (The Little Book Room by Eleanor Farjeon), Walter Trier (Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner), E.H.Shepard (Winnie the Pooh, by A.A.Milne) and Pauline Baynes (the Narnia books).
Now that I am very grown up, I admire the work of Chihiro Iwasaki, Tove Jansson, Susan Rotraut Berner, Kitty Crowther, and Charlotte Voake.
Have you always known that you will be creating books for children when you were younger? Or did you intend to do something else with your life?
I did not know that I would be creating books for children, but my dream was to be someone who wrote and illustrated children’s books when I grew up.
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