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A 'Lovely' World of Inclusivity

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An image from Jess Hong’s children’s book, Lovely. Image courtesy of Jess Hong.

For many of us, our first introduction to art and storytelling is through children’s books. Most of them featured favorite characters, taught us the alphabet and how to count to 10. Others were nursery rhymes our parents used to lull us to sleep. Some of the most memorable books were the ones that conveyed basic, but important, life lessons: How to get along with each other, learning to share and appreciating what you have. 

Jess Hong, a graduate of the School of Illustration at Academy of Art University, recently debuted her own children’s book, Lovely. The New York Times’ Sunday Review included Lovely among its preview of picture books inspiring empathy and with good reason: The picture book explores a world of differences—big, small, curly, straight, loud, quiet, smooth, wrinkly—all to say that every single person is, indeed, lovely. Academy Art U News spoke with Hong on her inspiration for Lovely and how she discovered her art through the Academy.

How did you find the Academy of Art University? Your LinkedIn shows that you have a bachelor’s in international studies, what drove you to pursue a second bachelor’s in illustration?

I think I just did some research on the different art schools in the Bay Area and felt that the Academy aligned well with what I wanted out of an art education. I also had a few coworkers that were either currently enrolled or had attended at some point—I was selling shoes at Nordstrom at the time, quite a career change!

Ah yes, my random bachelor’s degree in international studies. Ages ago, when I was 17 and freshly graduated from high school, I wanted to go to art school, but my parents shut that idea down. I got into UC Irvine, which was the route they wanted me to take, so I was simply following their wishes. I wasn’t driven and quite directionless so I picked my major randomly and just graduated with it. I had a string of odd jobs until I decided to go back to [art] school when I was 27 to pursue what I always wanted to do with my life. In a lot of ways it’s better that [art school] came so late in life: I was mentally and emotionally ready to dedicate myself fully to school. I know I didn’t have the work ethic I needed to excel at the Academy when I was 17, so it all worked out for the best.

Your art is described as “fun, fresh and whimsical.” How did you develop this style?

It’s so strange to think of my artwork from when I started at the Academy and where it’s come to now. It was a slow progress of building a good base with foundational knowledge and techniques, and then being able to explore style and subject matter as the classes advanced. The things I like to draw the most have always been silly and cute subject matter and I got to do so much of that in my last semesters. The two classes that stick out to me are Illustration 2 (with Thomas Gronbukt) where I first learned how to paint with watercolors, and Illustration 3 (with Gordon Silveria, director of Digital Art Technology) where I learned how to use Adobe Illustrator. Both of the mediums were completely new to me and I fell in love with them right off the bat. Both of the teachers I had for those classes were amazing, creative, and pushed me to explore and develop my own style.

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An image from Jess Hong’s children’s book, Lovely. Image courtesy of Jess Hong.

Why children’s books, specifically? Did you have any personal favorites when you were growing up?

 I was interested in the children’s book courses because I knew there would be many projects that would be narrative-heavy, fun and a good vessel to continue exploring and developing my personal style. After taking Children’s Book 1 with Julie Downing, I loved the class so much that it only felt natural and right to take the advanced children’s book class. 

Some of my favorite picture books growing up were Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak; The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister; The Stinky Cheese Man by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith; and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.

How did you develop the ideas and art for Lovely? What is the process for putting together and publishing a children’s book?

Lovely has been a long process and went through a lot of changes from the initial ideas I had for it. When you take Children’s Book 2, you are basically creating your own children’s book from start to finish (dummy state), so you spend a good chunk of the beginning [process] exploring and refining ideas. I initially wanted to do a conceptual book that featured and broke down women’s beauty standards in the 20th century; I still wanted to tie in the notion that beauty comes in different forms and for the book to have an overall message of inclusion. From that point it evolved into something much broader but much more inclusive—instead of covering just women, Lovely has all kinds of people.

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Academy of Art University School of Illustration graduate Jess Hong points out her children’s book, Lovely. Photo courtesy of Jess Hong.

The New York Times' Sunday Review included Lovely in its feature on children’s books that teach and inspire empathy. In what ways can picture books—and art in general—impart important lessons to children, especially in such turbulent times?

When I started creating Lovely, the election of Trump was just a budding state but I know many of us were already feeling a sense of unease. The socio-political climate at the time heavily influenced me to take the book in a different direction than the one I started with. Currently, I feel like it’s very easy for people to feel divided, scared and disheartened by how things have progressed since the election and I’m so thankful Lovely is being released when it is. It’s never too early to teach young children that differences should not only be accepted, but also celebrated. I think it’s easy to teach kids good messages worth learning when they’re being delivered by engaging, fun illustrations. I hope very much that Lovely can make a small amount of difference or bring comfort in these turbulent times.

Any other upcoming projects for 2017?

I’m still waiting for inspiration and a good idea to come to me for a second book! My full-time illustrator position at Papyrus is currently keeping me on my toes.