Wen Dee Tan’s debut picture book Lili, about a little girl who finds it hard to fit in due to the nature of her hair, has already attracted a great deal of attention. Her style lends itself to animation and movement as demonstrated by Lili with her fiery red hair and the book was longlisted for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Award and is on the shortlist for the new Klaus Flugge Prize. Here she explains the thinking and ideas behind the book.
I developed Lili as one of my projects on the MA in Children’s Book Illustration course in Cambridge School of Arts. People have asked me what inspired the idea of a flame-haired lass. I couldn’t say, except at that time I was brainstorming ideas for the project and thought that such a character might be ‘cool’. Right on the heels of that idea, the next visual image that came to me was friends roasting marshmallows in her hair. It was one of the first few images I sketched around the idea, and it was this image that convinced me to stick with the character.
At this point, I had no story, no plot, and no ‘message’, just a character. I began sketching things that might happen to a girl with a head of fire, while considering the useful and destructive characteristics of fire. Subsequently, I had a jumble of Lili’s possible life experiences in little vignettes, and pages and pages of half-finished storyboards. I struggled with this for some time. Eventually it was during a walk back from Tesco’s one day that I had an epiphany: all the little scenes of everyday life arranged themselves into a sequence in my head which ended with the marshmallow scene. I finally had my story!
Even early on, I knew that Lili’s hair was the main focus. There was no question in my mind that it had to be monochrome images with her hair the only colour on the page. I experimented with how her hair should look, and what materials would be most suitable. When I tried oil pastel on the spread where Lili’s hair almost fills the whole frame, I knew that this was the way to go.
I also felt that with a monochrome palette, the images have to be simple. I pared back both image and text, and removed anything that was not absolutely necessary to the story-telling. Also with a minimalistic approach, I knew that layout and composition was really important. I worked on thumbnail storyboards, then mini dummies, and eventually actual-size dummies to fine-tune both layout and text. I also worked a lot in sketchbooks to get the posture and expressions of characters just right.
Once I was happy with the actual-size dummy, I used a light box to transfer the image onto paper for the final artwork. I didn’t trace out the image, but rather used it as a guide to get the layout and expressions on the final artwork right.
Most of the ideas in the book started out visually. The text evolved together with the images through the storyboarding process. Everything was very much character-driven, from the illustrative approach to the eventual plot. I think that was what made the process of developing Lili’s story so enjoyable: figuring out what happens.
Lili is published by Fat Fox Books, 978-0-9928-7284-7, £10.99hbk