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Interview: Low Joo Hong on Creating Imaginary Worlds from Real Life

Low Joo Hong is a man with many names. By day, he is an arts educator; the former principal of the now-defunct Siglap Secondary School is known for his dedication towards a robust art education in schools. Elsewhere, he is Ye Zi 椰子, published author and illustrator of seven Chinese picture books, along with two others in English under the name J.H. Low.

His book, 此地无肉三百两 There is No Steak Buried Here, garnered an Honourable Mention at the McMillan Prize 2009, while Night in the Garden, featuring Singapore’s very own Gardens by the Bay, was on the shortlist for the Asian Children’s Book Award 2017. Together with Xinni T., a fellow artist and illustrator, he has created My Birthday Adventure, one of two personalised book options now available on Goguru. Learn what inspires his art and creations!

You have a background in fine arts. Why and how did you get into illustrating children’s books?

I started doing children’s books after attending the M.A. course for Children’s Books Illustration in 2009 with Anglia Ruskin University, U.K. The course exposed me to the world of children’s illustration and narratives. During the course, I was very motivated as a graduate student in learning to produce original stories for children’s books. After the course, I continued to write and illustrate children’s books as a form of hobby.

Can you walk our readers through your creative process? How do you decide what style or colour palette to use?

I think the creative process is one of those nebulous things. For me, as with many other artists, the creative process involves a lot of ‘seeing’, thus I am often on a lookout for interesting stories and illustrations, in bookshops, libraries, art galleries, souvenir shops, etc. Such ‘seeing’ provides me with many ideas, inspirations and artistic intuitions. These things are immensely useful for my own creative work, for example, when I need to decide on style, character design and colour palette, I would do a lot of trial-and-error and trust what feels right for me will feel right for my readers too.

For me, as with many other artists, the creative process involves a lot of ‘seeing’, thus I am often on a lookout for interesting stories and illustrations, in bookshops, libraries, art galleries, souvenir shops, etc. Such ‘seeing’ provides me with many ideas, inspirations and artistic intuitions.

How did you come up with the character design of Namchamcham?

When Xinni and I first had the idea for My Birthday Adventure, we wanted to create an imaginary world – Birthday Land – occupied by strange creatures. We decided to draw our ideas from rare animals that are unknown to most people because they have alien-like appearances and are fun to look at. Namchamcham’s character design is based on the Axolotl (see picture below). Can you see the resemblance?

The axolotl, pictured here, inspired the design of Namchamcham, a character in My Birthday Adventure.

Is any difference between ‘normal’ drawing and illustrating for children?

I think people often have the false impression that illustrating for children must be of a certain style. The fact is there are all kinds of illustration styles in children’s picture books, from very realistic drawings to highly stylised ones. If I have to make a distinction between ‘normal’ drawing and children’s book illustration, it would be that the latter usually involves much more character designing and visual narrative skills, which are often not required as much in ‘normal’ drawing.

What are some things that may be surprising about working as an illustrator?

This is a difficult question for me because I usually enjoy the creative process as an illustrator and a story-teller, thus I take most things, even surprising ones, in my stride. Perhaps the most surprising thing would be how much some members of the public often underestimate the effort and time needed to create a good children’s book, perhaps because of its simplistic and economical form. This is, however, not of grave concern because at the end of the day, what matters most is that children love our books as they flip through the pages.

Why did you choose the pseudonym 椰子?

椰子 is just a nickname I had when I was a school-going teenager. I use it in my Chinese books. For English books, I use J.H. Low.


My Birthday Adventure takes the reader on a fantastical journey to Birthdayland but it's no leisure trip; the bad Goopa has your birthday and it's up to you to remember it!

Filled with fun rhymes and bright images, each My Birthday Adventure book is made-to-order. You can specify the protagonist's name, which will also be on the cover, choose the gender, skin tone and of course, the birth date! Add your special dedication that will be printed in the book. Gift the love of reading with Marshall Cavendish Children's personalised books, now available on Goguru. 

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