It’s always exciting to discover a new illustrator, so I can imagine Boxer Books delight to find Fifi Kuo and commission four picture books from her straightaway. And it was no surprise to find that Kuo’s first picture book, I Can Fly, is longlisted for the Klaus Flugge Prize and shortlisted for the Read it Again! Picture Book Award and the Huckepack Picture Book Prize. Kuo’s second book, The Perfect Sofa, dropped through my post box just as I was looking for a new sofa – and her message that we should be grateful for what we have – sometimes the perfect fit is right in front of us all the time – couldn’t be more spot on.
Smitten with Kuo’s expressive, spirited illustrations, and the neat messages behind her books, I was delighted to be able to ask Fifi some questions. And Fifi kindly answered in English for us, even though it isn’t her first language.
The penguin features in both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. What is it about the penguin that makes it such a good animal to illustrate and use to express human emotions (anthropomorphism) in picture books?
I believe that every creature in this world has their own emotions and feelings. So I don’t really consider giving an animal human feelings because I just see that an animal has feelings! I especially love to draw animals. When I’m drawing them I feel happy. When I was making ‘I Can Fly’, I realized that somehow, and I can’t explain why, drawing a penguin made me much happier than drawing other animals. I live in a tropical climate whilst penguins live in the South- Pole, somewhere I haven’t visited, so I have to imagine the extreme cold. I’ve loved penguins since I was a little child and this may be because they are different to birds in the way that they do not build a traditional nest and because they do not fly in the sky.
An unfinished Fifi Kuo panda and penguin illustration
The panda and penguin are best friends. How do you make them interact so that they appear so well fitted together? (I’m particularly thinking of the illustration on your website that shows Panda posing as a statue, and Penguin attempting to sketch him!)
After I created the penguin, I felt that she must be a bit lonely because she didn’t have a friend. I thought that as penguins and pandas are both black and white, they would look perfect together. Never mind about where they live! I like to think about what characters have in common and why they might attract and I suppose, without thinking, I decided on an Asian animal because I live in Taiwan. But when I am drawing I don’t really think about how to do something. I just fall in love with my characters and wish they had been my friends when I was little. I was an only child so often felt lonely. I am sure that children read pictures and sometimes drawings can express feelings better than words. Children can see how close Penguin and Panda are without me repeating their feelings in words.
An illustration from I Can Fly
There is a strong element of humour in your picture books. Where do you think this comes from?
Oh! I really appreciate that you said that because I don’t consider myself to be a humorous person but I do think humour is important. Sometimes I make serious points but without preaching. I think it is much better to be kind, gentle and funny. Children can learn things effortlessly and I would rather they relaxed and enjoyed the book. It might be that they pick up what my message is first time or they may get it later. For example, in The Perfect Sofa, the message is really to appreciate and value what you have. New is not always best and, of course, friends are important. But I hope children will enjoy discovering that themselves and have fun on the way.
Do you own the perfect sofa?
Nope, unfortunately, I don’t have my own perfect sofa. But fortunately, I can always look forward to it!
I found out that I wanted a sofa when I got homesick after I had to move out from the campus accommodation when I was studying for my MA degree in Cambridge. I found it really hard, as an international student, to find a place to live. During that time, I started to think about what makes me feel at home. Then I discovered I’m totally a sofa-person.
I love to collect almost EVERYTHING … which often drives my parents crazy. These things also help me to feel at home. I collect labels, leaves, soft toys, candy papers, stamps, letters, cards … many, many things. Personally, I find it really hard to throw things away especially the things which bring back happy memories. It is funny how things can evoke memories.
What message do you want children to take away from your picture books?
My initial intention is to deliver the message of love. I believe there are many kinds of love. Many people love to go out shopping in a quest to find the perfect item or piece of clothing but what I think is important is shared experience and discovering that you can be happy when you are content with what you have and kind to other people. It is nice to look at familiar things with new eyes and to discover that new is not always best. Even better to have a friend by you when you make that journey. Sometimes life tells us that nothing is totally perfect but if we look we will find some tiny thing or person that could be perfect. All we need to do is to see it and cherish it. Sometimes you already have the perfect things!
Which illustrators/children’s authors influence you?
Raymond Briggs, Wolf Erlbruch and I feel passionate about Jimmy Liao (not just because he is also Taiwanese). I think he should be much better known in the UK. He is an absolute genius and shows us that picture books can be enjoyed on so many different levels and that they are for everyone. The artists also show us that children can understand difficult subjects, such as loss and death, which adults sometimes find difficult to discuss.
Did you have a favourite book as a child?
The Snowman. I still love it! I read it in Taiwan when I was very young and had never seen snow. I love the friendship between the boy and the snowman and the bird’s eye view of the world. Of course, it is a wordless picture book but I would still say that I read it and each time, I still find something new in Raymond Briggs’s fabulous pictures.
You’ve said you like to draw trees and houses – what is it about these that attracts you?
I studied Landscape Architecture in my BA degree, and that’s the thing I was most familiar with when I first learned ‘illustration’. When I studied illustration, I used to draw trees and houses because they were in my comfort zone. I’m the person who almost always lacks confidence. Even now, I still think I’m not a ‘good illustrator’, but I’ll always try my best to keep going and telling stories. I love what I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything else, but I still need to gain confidence.
What was your reaction upon hearing your book deal?
I couldn’t believe it. I was SO happy. One book is good – 4 is out of this world. David and Leilani at Boxer Books are so good to work with. They listen to my ideas and help me grow. I feel so lucky. It is like a dreamy journey. I am filled with thankfulness.
Can you give us an idea of your work desk/bench? Is it near a window? Do you have a special pen?
A big table is definitely necessary. It’s near a window… I love the window! I love the light and the fact I can look out and day-dream.
I love to recycle things to make homes for my colour-pencils. Better than buying plastic storage items!
Usually, my working table is totally a mess. Sometimes I clean it up when the switch in my brain is accidentally turned on to clear-up mode!
I don’t have any special pen, but I do have a few colours I always love to grab. I like to illustrate in different ways using pens, inks, collage … I love to experiment. And I will always continue to learn, to see things as if I am looking at them for the first time and to draw from the heart.
With huge thanks to Fifi Kuo. Each of Kuo’s picture books is unique, but equally each pulses with emotion and humour, and the drawings are gentle and endearing, fierce and funny. I highly recommend a look at both I Can Fly and The Perfect Sofa. You can buy I Can Fly here and The Perfect Sofa here.
Everyone Can Draw and The Magic Hug: A Book about Emotions are published later this year.