Interview: With The Stroke Of Her Brush, Mika Song Brings Diversity To Books

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Question: What is your favorite artist technique?

Answer: My favorite artist technique is dry brush – that’s where you take an inky brush and blot it dry to draw a rough line. I think it is a nice way to draw hair. Right now I’m using watercolor crayons for a book by Heather Gale about a young girl who wants to dance with the male hula group. I think the bolder colors will work for the story. It doesn’t come out until summer 2019 so you’ll have to tell me what you think when you see it.
Q: I noticed in A New School Year: Stories in Six Voices that the children you drew were very diverse. Why do you think diversity is important in children’s literature?
A: I grew up in the Philippines and went to an American school. My father is Japanese-American and my mother is Filipino. I grew up feeling different. I think diversity in literature is important because when you see yourself or your experiences represented in a book for the first time it’s like finding a long-lost friend. It opens up the possibilities in a person’s mind about how they might be in the world. I just finished illustrating a picture book – A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey. It’s written from the point of view of a boy on the autism spectrum. I am neurotypical, but the writer makes the character so relatable. I think diversity in literature is important for that reason too, to help us understand different points of view.
Q: I also noticed that all the children have lines under their eyes. Why did you draw it like that?
A: Ha that’s a good question! I use those lines to make the faces look more emotionally expressive. The characters in Sally Derby’s A New School Year have a lot on their minds so the lines help them look worried or weary like they just ran up some stairs or bleary like they just woke up. Also it is a way to make cheekbones by making the eyes look deeper and the area below the line look brighter and closer. Lately though I am using color and shading more than lines. Now that I think about it I used to draw mini-comics when my drawings were in black and white.
Q: Do you prefer to draw people or animals?
A: I like drawing people because I like drawing emotions. My animals have very human characteristics so even if I’m drawing an animal I’m really always drawing people. Oliver in Tea with Oliver is based on a close friend. And I just sketched some squirrels that remind me of my three-year-old daughter. Animals can be good for telling some stories because they can be any age or race the reader imagines for them to be and they can sleep in a hollow tree or drive a truck without anyone wondering if they are old enough and where their parents are. So far I have only drawn animal characters for my own books and humans as an illustrator working on other author’s book. Maybe one day I will write and illustrate a story with a human main character.
Q: What character in A New School Year do you think you’re most like?
A: Mia because I am very absent-minded and was often late for class because I was reading or day-dreaming. I had a blanket like the one in her bedroom.
Q: When you were in school, did you face any worries about the first day?
A: I grew up without siblings (I’m ten years older than my brother). So I really looked forward to the start of school and being around peers. I remember seeing my kindergarten classroom for the first time and seeing paper on the circle tables with new crayons laid next to them and my teacher (Teacher Carla) and thinking I love this! That feeling stayed with me all the way until high school. For high school I moved to live with my grandparents in Hawaii and started a new school. I didn’t know anyone and that was very stressful. I found the library and books helped. Also the art teacher was nice and used to let me hang out in the art classroom during my free time.
Q: Do you prefer to be the author or illustrator on books?
A: I like both. Working on another author’s manuscript is very exciting because you read the story before anyone else. I like being able to put my experiences into my illustrations and interpreting the characters to look like people I know. My kids in A New School Year are based on the kids I met when I was a reading tutor for a PS in Chinatown, NYC and also my own memories of school in Honolulu and Manila. I based Carlos’ dad on my friend’s dad so it’s fun to be able to do that. But there are stories I want to tell that no one else will so I also have to write to be happy.
Q: I’ve never been to the Philippines before, but I know you have. What is the best thing about the Philippines?  
A: The best things about the Philippines:
1. The people are the most fun
2. Mango shakes
3. Road trips to La Union
4. Suman
5. The many bookstores
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A close-up of final art from A New School Year by Sally Derby with lot’s of dry brush going on
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Sneak peek of the last page of the book A Friend For Henry by Jenn Bailey [Chronicle, Feb. 2019]
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Me working on the drawings for a hula book
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One of my fave drawings was made for a poster for a children’s book festival in Queens Museum of Art a few years ago. I used to live in Sunnyside, Queens so that’s a scene from under the 7 train where my favorite taco truck (El Vagabondo) would park. The library in Sunnyside at the time was way too small for all the kids living there so I thought a book truck would have been a good idea. They have since renovated the library.
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Picnic with Oliver, the follow-up to Tea with Oliver

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