“Where once people of color were merely talked about, we finally get to do the talking.” – An Illustrator Interview with Minnie Phan

Decorative header with image of illustrator Minnie Phan and the cover of her latest book "Simone."

Minnie Phan (she/her) is a queer Vietnamese American cartoonist, illustrator and writer based in Oakland, CA. Her work has been featured by Google, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the San Francisco Public Library, for which she illustrated a citywide reading campaign in 2022. She is the illustrator of the picture book The Yellow Áo Dài, written by Hanh Bui and the just published picture book, Simone, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. You can connect with Minnie on Instagram, X, & Facebook.

At Diverse BookFinder, we’re all about the importance of diverse, representative literature for children. What does representation mean for you? How has that changed over time, if at all?

Representation in the media is one step towards redistributing creative power.

For the first 35 years of the Caldecott, one of the highest awards in children’s literature, all of the winning books centering people of color were written and/or illustrated by people of European descent.* In the mid-20th century, artists and activists championing ethnic studies began demanding people of color have creative agency and control over who tells their story. 

Where once people of color were merely talked about, we finally get to do the talking.

Personally, I see decolonizing Vietnamese experiences in the mind of the public as an attempt to influence the Vietnamese community itself. Diversity in media means diversity in experience, personality, history, perspective, etc.  The more dynamic stories we tell of our diaspora, the greater our capacity to see our community and selves.

*Mei Li by Thomas Handforth (1939) ,  The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1963), A Story, a Story: An African Tale by Gail E. Haley (1971), The Funny Little Woman by Arlene Mosel (1973), Arrow to the Sun: A Pueblo Indian Tale by Gerald McDermott (1975)

What do you find to be the most challenging part of creating books for children today? What is the most rewarding?

The most challenging part of the processing is finding the right editor who believes in the story you want to tell. I do not like books that are diverse for the sake of being diverse. I want books with true heart and soul.

The most rewarding part of my job is engaging with kids and families who enjoy my books. I am filled with pride when I see a child embrace wearing an Áo Dài or hear parents say “I’m so glad my kids get to have the books I wish existed when I was growing up”.

You and Viet Thanh Nguyen were both affected by the 2020 Californian wildfires. What was it like illustrating these events from the perspective of a child? How did that shape your work?

The initial concept and storyboard for SIMONE emerged during the uncertainty of 2020. In the Bay Area, the year began with the COVID-19 outbreak shutting down schools and businesses. Then, the August Complex fires caused the air to become toxic and unbreathable. Later, temperatures reached record breaking highs across multiple cities. On September 9th, the sky turned hauntingly orange for 24 hours. It felt like the world was coming to an end. 

To soothe myself, I turned my attention to art and creativity. Since childhood, art has been a safe place for me to go; my constant companion; a door into and away from the world. 

These thoughts were on my mind while creating Simone. I wondered how children were dealing with everything going on in 2020. I thought about how important art was to me as a child who oftentimes felt powerless in the world. Through Simone, I wanted to say to children, “Hey, you’re not alone”.

Illustration by Minnie Phan from Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

On the left, black-and-white images of concerned individuals in an aid situation and a climate discussion; on the right, a colorful abstract portrayal of a girl holding a box of crayons, with wavy rainbow patterns in the background.
Illustration by Minnie Phan from Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The coloring in “Simone” is so intentional with its mix of grayscale and full color. How did you decide when to re-introduce each color into the world?

Color represents Simone’s agency. I introduce color during moments of processing, decision making, and connection. Above all, color signifies hope. In times of darkness or tragedy, hope keeps us moving forward.

Illustration by Minnie Phan from Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

It is split into two halves with the top half showing various drawings pinned to a wall and the bottom half depicting a group of animated children facing the wall. The drawings portray different scenes—some of houses, a rabbit in a pumpkin patch, a missing cat poster, a landscape showing a fire's aftermath, and an illustration of a firefighter and another worker with a 'THANK YOU' note.
Illustration by Minnie Phan from Simone by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

What inspired you to use this soft, crayon-like style for the entire book, rather than limiting it to just Simone’s art or imagination?

I want the reader to also feel like an artist, to see both Simone’s creativity and the way she processes the world.

If I were to have limited the soft, crayon-like style only to Simone’s art or imagination, I think I would have been separating her experience from that of others in her world. As if I were saying, “Here is an artist. This is how she sees the world. Everyone else? They’re different.” I want art to be a bridge for understanding and connection, not a gift limited to a select few. In expanding the style of the book, I hope to expand the universal power of creativity.

What was your favorite childhood book? What was it about it that you loved?

Book cover: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault.

I am among the many, many children who loved Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. My kindergarten teacher read it to the rhythm of pat-a-cake. I remember singing the words of the book to myself on the playground. I was also an ESL student at that age. The combination of words, music, and pictures was perfect for my child mind.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Diverse BookFinder audience?

Thank you for being a teacher, the noblest profession of them all.

Diverse BookFinder would like to thank Minnie Phan for her time and input.

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