Thursday, June 5, 2014

Interview with NINJA! author & illustrator, Arree Chung

Thank you Arree for stopping by Kid Lit Frenzy to talk about your new book NINJA! and share something about the process of making it and also in answers some questions.

I just read NINJA! to a group of K/1 students and they really seemed to enjoy the story. Since many of my students are English Language Learners, we spent some time working on understanding the text and also how the visuals may tell a bit of a different story. One of the things the students wanted to know was if you pretended to be a ninja when you were a child? 

I didn’t pretend to be a Ninja but I did pretend to be Bruce Lee a lot. He could be a ninja, no problem! I still think he's really cool. I was always sneaking up on my dad and others. Oh, and I loved playing hide and seek with my friends in the parking lot.

On your website, you have character bios for Maxwell and Cassandra and even “Goldie” the Dragon. Were these based on children you knew or something you just created as part of the story? 

Maxwell is channeling the kid in me. Design wise, I love kids with long busy hair. His design is inspired by a lot of different influences. As for his personality, it's a lot of how I acted like when I was a kid.

Cassandra is loosely based on my niece.

I love her expressions. She's also the kind of girl who wants to do everything. I'm the youngest in my family, and I always wanted to do all the things my brother did. So there's a little bit of me in Cassandra as well.

When developing he characters, imagined Maxwell and Cassandra to be mixed race kids. There's been a lot of recent discussion about the need for diverse books in kid-lit and I am in complete agreement. I didn’t want to make it a big deal though. It’s just a matter of fact. So if you look closely, you can see that Mom and Dad have different racial backgrounds.

When designing the characters, I didn’t want them to look like specific kids; I wanted them to look cartoony so that every kid could relate to them. I still wanted to make specific enough; finding the right balance can be a little tricky.

Goldie the Dragon came much later in the process. I didn't discover Goldie until I was painting the book. I knew I wanted Maxwell to go into "ninja" mode and that I wanted to change the color palette to red. When I did, I felt something was missing. That's when the idea of a dragon appeared! I named her Goldie, the dragon that represents Maxwell's wild imagination. I felt the story gained more depth when she was added.

Along similar lines, did the ideas for the scenes in the story come from personal experiences? 

Well, I did sneak up on my dad a whole lot and I still sneak up on my mom. She still gets mad at me for doing that! At night, I still go on secret missions for milk and cookies but I feel much more guilty about it now.

I tried deciding, which was my favorite illustrative spread in the book. I realized that I had too many favorites (Maxwell surprising his father, Maxwell celebrating his accomplishments, Maxwell dishonored – just to name a few). Do you have a favorite illustration in the book?

I think my favorite spread, if I had to pick one would be the "I’m dishonored” spread. I think every kid can relate to that feeling, of “oh man.” It’s dark and lonely place to be and you know you shouldn’t have done it.

My second favorite would be the “mission accomplished” spread. Looks like we think alike!

When you are working on a book, do you have a particular process that you follow?


1. SKETCH STAGE: Loose sketches. Don’t be precious. Everything is a mess. Especially when you start. Play, be messy. It’s ok.

Take the best ideas and reduce.

Scribble lots. Be messy, then reduce.

Work on the words. Sometimes I write the words down on index cards to simulate page turns and test how it sounds out loud.

Tie it all together.

Take a nap. Look at it with fresh eyes. 

2. DUMMY STAGE: Make a dummy with loose sketches. Revise.

Show people you trust. Show kids. Show kids you don’t know. Revise. Make as many dummies as you need until you the story works.


Draw the character. Look at references. Dream. Have fun.

I like to look at lots of art and photos when designing the scene. I make inspiration boards and print them out.

Do research for the environments. Find photo research. Make lots of loose paintings. Practice.

Make a color script. Collect lots of interesting things.


After making a few sample illustrations, I get into production mode. At this point, I generally know how the book is going to look like. Most of the planning of the book is already done at this point so the final art shouldn’t be too difficult. It’s actually a lot of fun at this stage. You can just focus on making each illustration as awesome as possible.

Now that NINJA! Is about to be released, do you have any other projects that you are currently working on that you can share with us? 

I am doing a lot more books!

I’m illustrating a couple of inventive potty training books titled, “How to Pee.” They are hilarious.

I have lots of picture book ideas and more stories starring Maxwell. One of them is a ghost story that I’m really excited about.

And I’m also working on a middle grade novel about my experience growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese.) 

What was your own book journey like as a child and teen or did you find books later? Do you have particular books that acted as the backdrop to your life as a child and teen?

My journey to books is a long and windy one. I drew a lot as a kid but never took it seriously. Like a lot of Asian families, my dad wanted me to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I went to college and studied economics. I even worked in the business world for four years before deciding to be an artist. Quitting and going back to school to be an artist was scary but it was also the best decision I made in my life. In art school I fell in love with picture books. It’s where I belong. You read about my path to publishing on my blog:

What is in your TBR pile currently? 

I’ve been reading the Ivy and Bean series, lots of Judy Blume and Jack Gantos recently. Here’s a picture of my TBR.

I also enjoy biographies, economic books and good fiction.

What is/are your favorite indie bookstores and why?

Oh so many! I love Keplers, Books Inc in Alemeda. My favorite people are Jerry and Elizabeth. We talk books all day long there. Books of Wonder in NY and Vroman’s in Pasadena are great places too.

Thank you!

 Once again, thank you for stopping by and sharing more about NINJA! with us. ~ Alyson

Watch the Official Book Trailer for NINJA!

About Arree Chung:
Arree Chung makes picture books but he didn’t always do so. Once he made spreadsheets all day long and he decided that he wanted to make pictures instead. Arree learned how to draw, paint and think a little bit differently at Art Center College of Design.

In the past decade, Arree has worked in the games industry as a designer and Art Director. Arree’s first debut picture book, “Ninja!” publishes June 3rd, 2014. When Arree is not practicing his Ninja moves, you can find him playing basketball or riding his bike.  

Where to find Arree: website | blog | facebook | twitter | tumblr

Check out how to Ninjafy yourself at Ninjafy Me!

Check out Arree's journey to becoming an author and illustrator.  Don't miss the interview on Design of a Picture Book.

Reviews for NINJA! - Kirkus | Publisher's Weekly