Meet Award-Winning Children’s Book Illustrator LeUyen Pham.
tales of education and her early career
“One of the nicest things about the field that I’m in is that it allows me to constantly grow
and change and develop and learn.”
Although she never took an art class until college, children’s book illustrator LeUyen (la-win) Pham has illustrated over 80 published books in a variety of styles and genres over the past fifteen years (and has even written a few as well.) A unique combination of talent, humility, intelligence, passion, and an infectious laugh have helped propel her career in the competitive world of illustration. She strongly encourages you to follow your own compass, and to always draw in ink.
SHE WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE AN ARTIST
You know, I think I have always loved kids books. Probably because I was an immigrant kid, my parents didn’t read to me and I didn’t have a lot of books, so I was just one of those “library-obsessed” kids, like the nerdy kid who was best friends with their English teachers who were always referring me to books. But I didn’t think I was gonna do it for a living simply because my parents never thought that an artist could make it, and they never encouraged it as a pursuit to have.
In my family I’ve got three brothers and a sister, and all of us were encouraged to take professions that were money-oriented. So my sister became a doctor, my brother became a banker, my other brother became an engineer—it’s like they were each slated for a role, and I was supposed to be the lawyer. And I actually did go to UCLA and I was a poli-sci (political science) major there for two years.
I took a drawing class for fun—a humanities requirement of some sort– and I will never forget it. The art teacher there was a Fine Artist, and he had us bring in what we thought was a great drawing (of ours). And I didn’t know what a “great drawing” meant. I didn’t know that people used models or anything. But I went home and I thought, “I’m really gonna impress these people,” and I sat down and I made up these two figures dancing. I didn’t draw it from life so, recalling it in my head, I’m sure it was a horrible drawing, but at the time I was really proud of it. I put it up in class, and my art teacher went up, and he looked at it and he was like, “OK, so this is a nice drawing. Where did you copy it from?” And I’m really proud of myself and I say, “Oh, I didn’t copy it. I made it up.” And then he laughed and he said, “No. Where did you copy it from?” And he wouldn’t believe me, and I felt this small in the class and I was really upset.
So after class I took the drawing down, and I went to the head of the Art Department and I was explaining to him what had happened. The head of the Art Department was like, “You’re going to have to show me other drawings that you’ve done,” and I was thinking, “Wow—this guy doesn’t believe me either!” So I go home and I start digging through all of my high school drawings and sketches, and I literally just dumped the pile of drawings on his secretary’s desk and I said, “He asked for these. Let me know what he thinks.” And then a week later he gave me a call and he said, “I’ve made an appointment for you to meet with someone at the Art Center college in Pasadena. I want you to go. You’re in the wrong school—you don’t belong here.” It was amazing! And I was shocked, and I went to see the school, and they looked at my stuff and they said, “Yeah, you need to come to art school. Submit this as your portfolio and you’re done.” And that was it. I never looked back after that.
“I felt so right for the first time in my life”
UYEN GOES TO ART CENTER COLLEGE OF DESIGN IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA
I look back at art school with so much love. It’s as if my whole life I’d had a compass in my head, and yet I had never quite felt comfortable where I was. But that first week of art school—it was like I was slipping into a track that I knew was designed for me. That compass was pointing in the right direction. It was like a re-birth for me. It was amazing!
When my parents found out they were pretty upset that I had switched over, but no matter what they said, it didn’t affect me at all. It just deflected off because I felt so right for the first time in my life. There’s just no other way to say it. The compass was pointing true, and I knew I was going in the right direction, and I was just so happy to be there.
THE MOST IMPORTANT IDEAS SHE TOOK AWAY FROM ART SCHOOL
The thing that I carried with me is that in order to be good you have to surround yourself with amazing people. And that’s it. I mean, you could draw as much as you want, and you can on your own operate and learn all these things, but you yourself don’t grow as a person or as an artist unless you’re around other people who really inspire you, who really channel your enthusiasm and energy and challenge you. But you can’t get a great group of talented people just anywhere. That’s something that’s difficult to achieve. Art Center was definitely that for me. It’s just an amazing school. I met people who were impassioned by what they do. And it’s the passion that I think is attractive and where I think I drew my strength from.
Today, I surround myself with friends who love their jobs, and love what they do– and they all do completely different things–but I still get that same feeling, that desire to accomplish more, to feel really happy with what I do. It’s all really based on how much you love what you do.
UYEN’S POST COLLEGE PLAN
When I was at art school the thing that kept getting drilled into me by everyone was that being a freelancer was very difficult. The one children’s book teacher I had keep telling our class, over and over again, that you can NOT make a living at children’s books. It’s just an impossible thing to achieve. 90% of people who do children’s books have another fulltime job. Only 10 % make it, and barely make it at that. And of those 10 % only 10% do really really well. And of THAT 10 % only 10 % are superstars. And so it just kept whittling down and down and down. And honestly—I just didn’t believe her.
I knew I wanted to freelance and that I wanted to do mostly children’s books, but I didn’t think that to do just children’s books was feasible. I’d just been told that it wasn’t happening. So I actually had very low expectations as to the artistic life that I was going to lead, but I just knew that I wanted to be happy doing it.
Even though I’d gotten a scholarship, I graduated art school with debt. So when I got out, with my immigrant mentality, I knew I wanted to get a job, and that I needed a plan. I’d taken a business course when I was at UCLA that touched on the fact that most people aren’t able to sustain themselves as freelancers. So I went back to that teacher, and I had him give me these very rigorous notes as how much money should I be saving, how much should I be putting aside for this for that. I was really adamant that I understand that part before I entered it. And then he’s like, “My first recommendation for you is that you get a job out of school. You get a job that you don’t particularly like that pays well so that it compels you to give it up because you don’t like it.”
At the time, DreamWorks had just opened as a studio, and it was attracting all this big talent from everywhere, and they hired just a few students out of school at the time. I remember thinking this would be a great way to pay off my debts, and to continue learning, and to be working with other artists. So I applied there and got an internship and started working at DreamWorks.
I had that business plan in the back of my head, so I went from being a poor student to being a poor layout artist. All the money I made went to paying off my student loans. So I paid off all my student loans within that first year! The following two years I saved all that money and remained living like a poor student. Other people were buying cars, and buying houses, and having kids, but I kept thinking, “nope, nope, nope, focus, focus, focus.”
So I saved up all that money, and then while I was at DreamWorks I started freelancing. I started submitting and I got my first picture book (Can You Do This Old Badger?) like a year out. It was written by Eve Bunting, who is like a legend in the children’s book world—which they tend to do. They tend to take seasoned writers and put them together with unknowns. It was such a nice project.
“…so I just told DreamWorks, “You guys are great! But I’m outta here.”
It was with a big company, and they were just so happy that I was such an enthusiastic person. When the book came out it actually sold really really well, and because I wasn’t really an established name yet, they came back and offered me like a three picture book deal. And I was thinking, “That’s it!” I’d saved up all that money, and my contract (at DreamWorks) is up, so I just told DreamWorks, “You guys are great! But I’m outta here.” And that was it. I left. I honestly did think that maybe I’d go back to DreamWorks if it all didn’t work out, but (she knocks on wood) it’s all worked out.
UYEN TRAVELS (AND DRAWS) THE WORLD
I spent that next three years continuing to live very poor, but living off my savings and the freelance jobs that I was getting. Literally every job I got, I spent the money travelling. Keeping Pasadena as my base, I went to Russia for a couple months to work with orphans. I went to Africa for a couple of months to go on safari. I went to Europe. And actually, what was really nice is that, for instance, when I went to Africa, I did all sorts of sketches. I came home and showed those sketches to editors, and I actually got a book based in Africa because of that! So I did that for about three years after I left DreamWorks and just took my stuff everywhere, and would literally do jobs on the plane as I was moving from one place to another submitting work via FedEx once I’d landed. It was a really nice time (joyful laugh)!
And then what stopped it was Alex (Alex Puvilland, her feature animation artist husband). I’d met Alex in Paris. I was living there, and he had taken some time off and we got together in Paris, and he convinced me to move to San Francisco.
UYEN RELOCATES TO SAN FRANCISCO
So, two things happened at the same time. I moved to San Francisco, where the cost of living tripled for me—so I couldn’t be the poor student anymore, and I couldn’t get by doing this anymore. And the second thing that happened was 9/11. 9/11 happened and the bottom fell out from the publishing world. People stopped sending manuscripts out.
So in 2001 I literally had to start my career over again. I literally had to go from three manuscripts a year and multiple freelance jobs to nothing—absolutely nothing. And I freaked out, thought I might have to go back to Pasadena, but then also thought, “Let’s see what I can do.”
SHE HAS AN IDEA AND RE-BOOTS HER CAREER
So I started teaching (art classes at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco—teaching children’s books and a drawing class) on the side just to keep my income going, and I figured, “I’ve gotta re-boot my portfolio. I’ve got to go out and get more jobs.”
I didn’t have much money at the time, so instead of spending the 3 or $4000 dollars you usually spend for advertising, I decided I wanted to work with just very specific children’s book editors. So what I did was I went to a bookstore and I made a mess.
I piled up all of the books that I really really liked. Artistis that I liked, stories that I liked, and then I separated them off into publisher’s piles. I think I came up with about a pile of ten. And to those ten publishers I thought, “I’m gonna send them each a very individual, very specific, very personalized journal.” So I went home and I made ten little books that I sewed together. I printed them out as nicely as I could on my own printer on watercolor paper. I picked my best images. I created new images. I sewed them up into beautiful little bound books. I included a little postcard with each saying, “I’m coming to New York on this date. If you’d like to meet with me based on this just give me your number,” and then I stamped it and gave them a little check box—“Do you like it? Yes. Check here and give me your number. If you think it’s ok? Yes. Check here and keep me on file. If you don’t like it, check here and I’ll know not to contact you anymore.”
I sent off ten, and I got ten responses, and I met with eight editors, and I came back with six manuscript offers. It was great! It was the thing that re-booted my career.
After that I never had trouble finding work again. I started with those ten, and every Christmas I would send those same editors Christmas presents—little books so that they would keep remembering me. People are trying to get on my Christmas list so that I’ll send them books. It’s a very exclusive club of editors and I love it!
NEXT MONTH – PART II with author / illustrator LeUyen Pham
musings and advice…
ABBREVIATED BIO AND CONTACT INFO FOR UYEN
LeUyen Pham is a New York Times bestselling author/illustrator who has created over 80 books for children. Among her many titles are “Freckleface Strawberry” written by Julianne Moore, “The Princess in Black” written by Shannon and Dean Hale (optioned by Universal for feature development), the Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, “God’s Dream” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Bo of Ballard Creek” by Kirkpatrick Hill, “The Boy Who Loved Math” by Deborah Heiligman, “Mama Seeton’s Whistle” by Jerry Spinelli, “Shoe-La-La” by Karen Beaumont, “Templar” by Jordan Mechner (co-illustrated by Alex Puvilland), and “Bedtime for Mommy” by Amy Kraus Rosenthal. Her own books include “Big Sister, Little Sister,” “There’s No Such Thing As Little,” “All The Things I Love About You,” and “A Piece of Cake.” She lives in California with her husband and two boys. You can visit her online at
LEUYEN PHAM ILLUSTRATION
How Do You Pronounce LeUyen Pham?!? at Facebook
UYEN HAS AN EVENT COMING UP SOON IN SAN FRANCISCO!
Check out the details at
LOOK FOR UYEN’S NEWEST BOOKS COMING SOON
“The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party” by Shannon and Dean Hale (Fall 2015)
“Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead” by Michelle Markel (Winter 2016)
“The Bear Who Wasn’t There” self-authored (Spring 2016)
OTHER WEBSITES UYEN RECOMMENDS
HELPFUL BOOKS TO CHECK OUT
Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2015
Graphic Artists Guild Handbook
UYEN LOVES THE WORK OF MANY ARTISTS. A FEW INCLUDE:
Edmund Dulac, Ernest Shepard, N.C. Wyeth,Oliver Jeffers, Peter Brown, Jillian Tamaki, Emily Carroll, Benjamin Chaud