Why Picture Books Matter

Max with LeUyen Pham
Max with LeUyen Pham

Maxwell with children’s book author and llustrator LeUyen Pham in Los Angeles

Children’s book author and illustrator LeUyen Pham has illustrated more than 90 books. “I try to make a world that I want to see, and that I want you to see, not the world that actually exists,” Pham told me last summer at the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in Los Angeles, California.

Pham, who was born in Vietnam, said that she creates enough ambiguity in her illustrations so that “everybody sees themselves.” Her books include The Bear Who Wasn’t There, A Piece of Cake, and All the Things I Love About You.

Pham worked at DreamWorks Animation before turning to children’s book illustration full-time. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, who is French and also an artist, and their two sons.  

Here are highlights from our conversation:

What were you like as a kid?

I was really shy, and the only way I could come out [of that] was to draw. From a really early age, I was drawing Star Wars figures and selling them for 10 cents or 50 cents. I also could draw Garfield and Snoopy really well. I was the class artist, and I made friends completely through my illustrations. I kind of feel the same now, except I'm less shy.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I actually studied law at UCLA [the University of California, Los Angeles]. A professor there saw one of my drawings and kept saying, “You’d make a great lawyer, but you belong in the art world.” He made an appointment for me to go to an art school to have an interview. They gave me a scholarship, and I was able to go to art school right away.

Can you tell us about one of the books that you’ve illustrated?

One that stands out . . . is a book called Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio. It’s about a girl who discovers that there’s never been a female president, so she runs for class president. It explains the process of the electoral college. It also talks about why it shouldn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man [if you want to be president]. It should be the best person for the job.

What is your advice for aspiring artists?

Spend at least an hour a day just drawing anything you see. Use a marker or a pen so that you don’t erase. Don’t throw any of your drawings away. When you finish a sketchbook, look at the first page, and then look at the last page. If you can see that you got much better from the first page to the last, it will be completely worth it. But you have to be able to see that you’ve actually grown in some way. So draw, draw, draw.


Photo courtesy of the author