Interview with Thea Lu


About the Interviewee: “Thea Lu is an illustrator, designer, and picture book maker based in Shanghai. She earned an MA in design strategy from China’s Tsinghua University and an MA in children’s book illustration from the Cambridge School of Art. Thea’s work has won the Sebastian Walker Award in the UK and has also been honored in Italy, Poland, and China. Here & There is her picture book debut” (Bio from author’s book, Here & There).

Find Thea Lu on the following platforms: 

A huge thank you to Thea Lu for taking the time to interview with us at Pine Reads Review! Her debut picture book, Here & There, will be available in English on April 23rd, 2024 from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers (Chinese and Korean editions are currently available). Check out our review of Here and There here!

Disclaimer: This interview was edited for length and clarity from a spoken conversation.

Danielle Francesconi: Hi, thank you for taking the time to discuss your creative works with me! First, I wanted to ask, what (or who) inspires you to write and illustrate?

Thea Lu: It’s very hard to say. I loved to illustrate from an early age, and if I had to name an artist from my childhood, I would say Jimmy Liao. When I was young, it was hard to access picture books, so Liao’s picture books were the only categories that I could read and aspire to. He is quite famous and successful—he did a lot of cross-age picture books. So, when I was young, I tried to imitate his illustrations and modify them based on my own style. At the time, there was a seed planted in my heart that I wanted to do illustration and picture books. 

DF: Have you always wanted to be an author? Did something specific draw you to this field of work? 

TL: I never thought of being an author. I loved to draw and, when I chose my university major, I thought, “Okay, I love to draw, and I want to study design.” I’m a very practical person, so being an artist sometimes means that you have to survive. When I chose my university major, I chose industrial design—but I also did a lot of graphic design and communication design in my BA and in my first MA. After my MA, I went to work as a design consultant at a design innovation company. In that working process, I happened to produce work in several children-related projects. So, I thought I could be a children’s book designer, or I could combine my love of drawing with something for children. I searched for jobs and courses, and I found that the Cambridge School of Art offered a picture book MA course, and I went for it. After that, and after graduating from my MA, I got quite confident. I really loved making books, both for children and for the general public.

DF: How would you compare your experience with writing versus illustration? 

TL: For me, I think they are together, so I never separate writing versus illustration. I always come up with the whole concept of the book—so the writing and illustrations. Picture books combine the arts; it’s not like someone just writing and someone just illustrating for that creation. They cross over. I never separate them in my mind; I think they’re just two key parts of a concept. I always start with a concept, and, when the concept is still rough in my mind, I sometimes use writing or I use the storyboard to compose the concept. After the concept becomes concrete, I maybe spend hours writing to iterate the words and terms, or I sometimes spend days experimenting with the techniques and media for the book. 

DF: Your illustrations are intriguing and beautifully produced; how did you develop your style? 

TL: That’s very difficult to answer. I have been struggling with my style for years. When I officially entered the picture book and illustration world, I realized that I can’t focus on one technique or one style. If you look through my website, you can see I can draw this way and that way. One of my tutors gave me direction, she said, “We never talk about style because style is a still thing.  When you develop style, it means you’re going to duplicate or repeat again and again.” She preferred me to use the word “visual language” or “personal language” because it develops along the way. When we are young, we speak this way, and when we grow up or go to another country, we learn more, and we speak in another way to use more sophisticated language. So, she directs me to thinking this way, she says, “You just develop as much as you can.” If you really enjoy experimenting and trying different techniques, you just let yourself go. In this process, you find yourself more and more—what you like and don’t like. Then, after years, you will realize what your own language is and what is your so-called “style.” Now, I just let myself go and after drawing and drawing. I know maybe I love something light and poetic. I love materials like ink and pencil. I know myself more and more in the process of finding my own language or finding my own style.

DF: Are there any picture books from your childhood that excited or inspired you? 

TL: Back to my childhood, I think the most memorable picture book was MR. WING (Jimmy Liao, 2003). It follows a character who is the “luckiest boy in the world;” he is the son of a very rich family and eventually attends a famous university. After university, he became a CEO of a very important company. One day, he realizes that there are wings growing out of his back. At the beginning, they are very small, so he tries to do surgery to cut the wings off, but it doesn’t work. They get bigger and bigger, becoming out of his control. Sometimes in a meeting, the wings flap, and sometimes he flies up in the air. He can no longer control his life, and the wings take him out of the city into a forest far away. No one knows where he is. He becomes free in the forest; he has no title. I think Liao plays with the two sides of luck in the story, not knowing what part of the man’s life is truly lucky.

DF: What drew me to your work were the immersive pages that unfold, expand, and have a variety of shapes, how did this physical and interactive style evolve in your work? 

TL: It’s quite intuitive for me because my background is design. I never think solely about beautiful illustrations and drawings; I always think about the whole concept of the book. I think about the hierarchy of the information and how people are going to interact with the book—the information and density of the book. When you’re a designer, you’re always thinking about the whole user experience rather than the artistic aspects. So, when I design the flaps, I’m not trying to only make a gimmick, it’s more like I’m thinking about the information hierarchy. I’m thinking, “Okay this is going to be a poetic, non-fictional book,” and I don’t want it to just be pouring scientific information on the readers, so I can keep the narrative needs simple as a poetic narration, and if you’re curious, then you can open the flaps for the scientific knowledge. In some cases, I just think maybe you can play hide and seek to reveal answers, or I wonder how the readers can hold the book in a way that the flaps create shadows. After I think this is clear enough for myself, I start the final artwork.

DF: I love that Here & There focuses on two characters with very different lives, but their experiences overlap at times. How did this idea for the picture book come about? 

TL: These two people, they have two totally different life choices on the surface, but they always feel fulfilled in certain moments; some feel that for the far away landscape and some feel that for the company of friends. It’s the connection with people that fulfill their lives. This book was inspired by two people I met in the real world. At the very beginning, the only thing I wanted to do was to make something based on their lives, but I also felt like I had to have a message to deliver. So, I just thought about and wrote about their stories again and again and again and asked myself, what was I going to say? I struggled for a while, but I remembered a sentence the boat guy said to me; he wrote that sometimes he feels distanced from his friends and family. I suddenly realized that this is a key sentence; both subjects feel distanced from the world, and it’s the people they met which fulfilled their lives. There are two levels of information to this book, on the surface it’s a story about life choices. Either you choose a nautic life or a settled down life. There’s no saying which life choice is better, it’s more so about the people that fill our life choices.

DF: What do you hope readers will take away from Here & There?

TL: I feel like, for children, they can only think about their life choices. In China, we talk about jobs or majors, but we seldom talk about what kind of life you want to live. So, I want this book to be an opportunity for children and parents to talk about their life wishes. I think that life choices should come first, and jobs or majors should support your life choice. For children, I think this can be an opportunity and takeaway for them. For the pure artist readers, I hope they can think about their life… where they are. Maybe they are at here… or at there and they can think about the people that they’ve met. Like in this book, the characters only met once in a café, but they both completed the other’s life in that moment. I think readers can think about their life choices and the people they’ve met.

DF: What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a picture book author or illustrator? 

TL: I would say to keep a very small notebook, small enough to put in your pocket and write down every idea in that book. I have one and I write down all my ideas, maybe some ideas I gave up and some ideas that I come back to and still feel excited about. Ideas flash and disappear quickly, so you have to write them down. They are going to be the inspiration pool for your whole life. Another piece of advice is to locate a specific time to work on the book. If we really want to be a picture book maker, we can say every Monday… or one hour per day, at night or in the morning… if you can get up quite early. Inspiration for the idea never just clicks, you have to spend time sitting at the table writing and illustrating again and again to let the story form. So, my advice is time and a tiny notebook. 

DF: Are you currently working on any projects that we might see in the future? 

TL: Currently I’m working on an illustration project with a poet. I’m doing the illustrations for her, but I don’t want them to just be a decoration, I want them to build up an implicit story beneath her poems. If you could see only my illustrations, maybe you can see a storyline underneath it. 

Danielle Francesconi, Pine Reads Review Writer and Social Media Intern