Interview: Illustrator and Author Emila Yusof

MWD Interview - Emila YusofEmila Yusof is a self-taught illustrator. She has written and illustrated a number of very popular picture books in Malaysia, as well as a series of craft handbooks for children. Her whimsical characters are much loved and her talent has gained her loyal fans both locally and internationally, especially through her award-winning blog, Emilatopia. Emila has been a featured illustrator at a number of book festivals, including the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore last year, where she was Guest Illustrator. We met there but far too briefly, so it is great to catch up with her now!

Emila lives in Ampang, Kuala Lumpur with her husband, their 11-year-old son and her five cats.

  • Welcome, Emila. Can you remember your first drawings?

Yes: a typical beach with lots of coconut trees and seashells. There were mountains as a backdrop.

  • When did you know you wanted to be an artist and create picture books?

When I could not find the picture book that I wanted…

  • You are self taught – which artists and/or styles have inspired you along your path of discovery?

A lot. Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Kay Nielsen, Cicely Mary Barker, to name just a few.

  • How would you describe your own style and what are your preferred media?

I dunno… cute? My preferred media: watercolour and coloured pencils.

illustrations by Emila Yusof

Strawberries sketch by Emila Yusof, done while at the 2014 Bologna Book Fair

Strawberries sketch from Emila’s visit to the 2014 Bologna Book Fair

  • Where do you like to work?

I like to work in my little studio corner. I can’t seem to draw with concentration anywhere else.

  • Most of your picture books are self-authored but you have also illustrated Legendary Princesses of Malaysia, written by Raman, featuring stories about ten different historical and fictional characters.  What did you enjoy about this project, and were there any particular challenges?

I was hoping to contribute my own re-telling of these stories but my publisher thought it would be best if they were retold by a good writer such as Raman. I illustrated it based on a simple brief from the publisher. The challenge was drawing the clothing. Not many people agreed on not covering up the bodies with more clothing but I based my illustrations on the stories’ historical contexts.

Legendary Princesses of Malaysia by Raman, illustrated by Emila Yusof (Oyez! Books, Malaysia, 2013)

Illustration by Emila Yusof from Legendary Princesses of Malaysia, written by Raman, (Oyez! Books, Malaysia, 2013)

Princess Cik Siti Wan Kembang
from ‘Legendary Princesses of Malaysia’

Illustration by Emila Yusof from Legendary Princesses of Malaysia, written by Raman, (Oyez! Books, Malaysia, 2013)

Princesses Santubong and Sejinjang
from ‘Legendary Princesses of Malaysia’

Illustration by Emila Yusof from Legendary Princesses of Malaysia, written by Raman, (Oyez! Books, Malaysia, 2013)

Princess Ulek Mayang
from ‘Legendary Princesses of Malaysia’

  • Please tell us about your popular first book, My Mother’s Garden and its sequel My Mother’s Kitchen.  Where did your initial ideas come from for both stories? Do you have any plans to create any more books featuring the same imaginative little girl?

The initial idea came from within my home. The garden and the kitchen were both based on my mother’s. And yes, my next stroy in the same series is going to be My Father’s Farm. I am currently illustrating it. It’s based on my father’s and father-in-law’s farms combined. After much deliberation with my publisher, we have also decided to name the girl: she’s called Dina.

Dina, Emila Yusof's small travel companion

Dina also accompanies Emila on her travels…

My Mother's Garden by Emila Yusof (One Red Flower Press (Malaysia), 2010)

Illustration from

Illustration from ‘My Mother’s Garden’

Illustration from

Illustration from ‘My Mother’s Garden’

My Mother's Kitchen by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Illustration detail from 'My Mother's Kitchen' by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Illustration detail from My Mother’s Kitchen

Illustration from 'My Mother's Kitchen' by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Illustration from My Mother’s Kitchen

  • Are you a keen gardener/cook yourself?  And what about your son – have your books inspired him in the garden and kitchen, do you think?

Haha. Not so, though my mother is. My son has actually been inspired to create a children’s book himself. He has drawn some comics – half way, but I think that’s a good start. I’ll be persuading him to finish them.

  • Lil’ Guardian Alphabet was also published last year, and, like My Mother’s Garden,it focuses on Malaysian flowers – but it perhaps contains more of an element of fantasy? Can you take us through the process of how the book came into being – were there any hiccups or surprises along the way?

Knowing that I like to draw fairies a lot, the publisher Oyez! suggested that I come up with my own fairies (without wings). Then we decided to name them flower guardians. When I did the first set to showcase at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2010, I was having problems with my eyes. My glasses didn’t help me much with drawing the little details. After getting new glasses, I was able to come up with a new set of flower guardians, and they looked much better!

Lil' Guardian Alphabet, by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)


Faries from 'Lil' Guardian Alphabet' by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Illustration (Flame Lily) from 'Lil' Guardian Alphabet' by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Flame Lily illustration from Lil’ Guardian Alphabet

Illustration (Pitcher Plant) from 'Lil' Guardian Alphabet' by Emila Yusof (Oyez!Books (Malaysia), 2013)

Pitcher Plant illustration from Lil’ Guardian Alphabet

  • You have also created a series of craft books for children.  Is that an alter-ego Emila I spot teaching the children from within the books’ covers?  What were the challenges involved in putting the series together?

Hahah! Yes, the publisher (PTS) came up with that alter-ego idea. The challenge was that I did everything myself, from writing to illustrating to photographing the crafts.

Malaysian children's craft book series by Emila Yusof (Buku Prima Karangkraf (Malaysia), 2014)

Diya dan Biji Durian (Diya and the Durian Seed) by Emila Yusof (Petronas Gallery (Malaysia), 2010)

  • I have also spotted a Malaysian book cover on your website – Diya Dan Biji Durian.  Is it, as I am led to think, about what could be one of Malaysia’s national fruits, the both loved and loathed durian?

This was a project organised by the Petronas Gallery, involving ten picture-book illustrators – Words+Pictures=Book: Contemporary Malaysian Picture Book Illustration. My husband actually came up with the idea, and later I translated it into writing and illustrations. I wanted to create more localised picture books, hence the durian.

  • Can you describe the Kidlit world in Malaysia – do you feel part of a community, or do you tend to work in isolation?

I feel, both: sometimes I feel I belong and sometimes I don’t, because sometimes they include me and sometimes they don’t.

  • Do you read with you son? Do you make a point of looking out for books by Asian authors?

We read a lot of different books by different authors/illustrators. I don’t differentiate between them; I read them all. If I can afford it, I will buy; if not, I will go to the library with my son and read.

Pok Amai Amai: A Selection of Malaysian Pantun, by Emila Yusof

  • You have generously licensed many of your drawings under the Creative Commons Licence for one-off personal use, but last year you spotted some of your work being used commercially without your permission.  Unfortunately copyright infringement via the internet is relatively difficult to spot.  Was your situation resolved satisfactorily?  Has your experience made you more wary about publishing your work on line?  What do you think artists can do to protect their work?

I contacted them and told them about copyright on images on the Internet. In cases where my illustrations had been used for commercial purpose, I asked them to pay me for the usage. For individuals who do not give credit, I will ask them either to credit me (and put a link to my blog) or to remove my images from their website/blog, if they do not wish to give proper credit. The only thing I think that we can do is to educate people about the copyrights. Over time, I get fed up with the frustrations of this issue but my friends stand by me and encourage me not to give up.

  • You have a professed love of travelling – what do you like to do when you travel?  How have your travels influenced you as an artist?

I like to take lots of photos. I like to sketch buildings. Travel has opened my eyes to experience different places, people and cultures. The world is made up of all sorts of colours; I love the richness and vibrancy of it (Oh, I love autumn!). And I think that is reflected in my work – the highly saturated and vibrant colours.

'My Kuala Lumpur Scrapbook' by Emila Yusof

  • What are you working on at the moment – and future plans?

I am working on My Father’s Farm and a few other books that I have written but have yet to illustrate.

  • Thank you, Emila – I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you and getting know your books a bit better.  We’re just going to put you under the MWD spotlight before you go!

Emila Yusof in the MWD Spotlight

The first book you remember reading as a mirror of you and/or your cultural background?
Can’t think of any. Would my own book count?  My Mother’s Garden. The girl was actually based on my childhood; I used to have braided hair like that.

Reading preference – paper or e-book?
Paper. I need to feel the paper. Thank God for FSC-certified paper, if not I would always feel guilty as I love trees.

The last book you read that opened the window onto a new-to-you cultural landscape?
Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian.

Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

If you could collaborate with any author and/or illustrator on a book, who would you choose?

On holiday, lie on a beach or hike up a mountain (you may include any conditions necessary to your choice!)?
Hike up a mountain halfway. Take a cable car after that.

Initial ideas – notebook or computer?

Most personally precious object on or within 1 metre of your desk?
A five-tier set of drawers full of original artwork.

Something you have done or want to do because of reading a book?
Writing and illustrating my own travelogue after reading An Illustrated Journey: Inspiration from the Private Art Journals of Traveling Artists, Illustrators and Designers by Danny Gregory.

An Illustrated Journey by Danny Gregory

Something about yourself that might surprise even your friends?
I don’t know how to bake a cake!

A peep at what today’s work entails?
Preparing my Dina paperdoll to travel to Frankfurt Bookfair 2014! She will appear on my Instagram and Facebook as we travel together. I hate doing selfies! [Ed.: You can see Dina’s adventures in Frankfurt on Emila’s Instagram.]

All images are used here with permission and are ©Emila Yusof. Reproduction forbidden

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