Oliver Chin is the author of more than 15 books, including the highly popular Tales of the Zodiac series, in which a new book is published each year, corresponding with the Chinese New Year. So far, there are nine books, with three more to go…
Although he has gone on to write stories for younger children, Oliver’s first two books were aimed at older readers. 9 of 1: A Window to the World is a powerful graphic novel set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It follows a group of high school students sent out into the community as part of a history project, to find and interview someone from a different background and with different views. The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man interweaves a biography of the famous Chinese-born basket-ball player Yao Ming with an exploration of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
Oliver is also the founder of Immedium, a publishing house with a special interest in Asian American stories. Many of the illustrators Immedium works with have a background in animation, and the company has gained a reputation for producing colourful, dynamic books. These include the best-selling Octonaut series by Meomi and picture books by award-winning artist and animator David Derrick. Last year Immedium published their first bilingual book, the English/Japanese Sora and the Cloud by Felicia Hoshino.
- Welcome, Oliver. You are both an author and a publisher – please tell us about your career path to where you are today (feel free to go as far back as you like!).
I’ve always liked to convey ideas through words and pictures. When I was growing up in LA, drawing was my favorite hobby. In high school, I drew cartoons for the school newspaper. I continued drawing in college, and became the first Graphics Editor of The Harvard Crimson, where I had a daily editorial cartoon and managed a stable of illustrators. Academically, I became interested in publishing too. I focused my Social Studies major on Mass Media and Popular Culture, and wrote my senior thesis on how the advertising of sports draws upon the themes of the American Dream.
Graduating in 1991, I wanted to keep drawing while gaining practical experience in media. So I started as a management trainee at Simon & Schuster, which was the largest US book publisher at the time. In my first year, I rotated through Trade Advertising, Paperback Marketing, Special Sales (selling books to non-bookstores), and Operations (which introduced desktop publishing).
After another year budgeting Special Sales, I wanted learn about another medium, so I did circulation for Children’s Television Workshop’s Sesame Street magazine, and then consulted with Pearson, Playboy, and Reuters. Then I decided to move back to California, where I joined International Data Group as a management trainee for PC World magazine. There I evaluated how computer products were marketed to customers across multimedia, Macs, and soon the web.
I determined that sales would be a good career skill to have. So I became Director of Sales and Marketing at Viz, which published Japanese animation and comics (anime and manga) in English. Handling many product lines (from graphic novels to DVDs, and CDs to advertising), I helped launch Pokémon (and other titles like Dragon Ball Z and Inuyasha) in America, which was quite a wild ride.
After experimenting at a Silicon Valley startup, I returned to be Director of Sales and Marketing at North Atlantic Books, a small Berkeley book publisher, where I promoted the comical picture book Walter the Farting Dog to be a New York Times bestseller. Meanwhile, I wrote my first two books, the sports commentary The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man and the graphic novel 9 of 1: A Window to the World. Next, I joined the website Alibris to encourage booksellers to sell their books online.
However, writing those two books brought me back to why I started drawing and working in mass media: to be creative and say something meaningful to an interested audience. So in 2005 I founded Immedium to publish wonderfully inspiring children’s books, and stories about Asian America and contemporary arts and culture. Creating 3-4 titles annually, Immedium has now published more than 30 books.
- How does it balance out, being both a book creator and publisher – are there tensions in how you give space to your creativity or do the roles dovetail nicely?
I founded Immedium to publish stories with talented creators who wanted to make engaging and original stories. Artists would enjoy more freedom to depict their mind’s eye. Artists, writers, and designers could speak directly with each other to improve their books, without an artificial, bureaucratic wall separating them.
My tension is whether the books I write are worthy of being published. But the roles dovetail when I can enable other artists to explore, push, and refine their worlds by providing them practical advice from my own personal experience. Hopefully, then I become more of a partner than just a publisher.
The epitome of this is when I encouraged Meomi to write stories for their characters the Octonauts. We published four stories in four years. Meanwhile, they designed the mascots for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Then The Octonauts became a popular animated TV series worldwide.
Similarly (though in the reverse process), we recently published two official adaptations for the animated TV series Justin Time. We met the series creator Brandon Scott years before, and now he redrew every illustration of both books so readers could enjoy these episodes in fresh ways.
- Your graphic novel 9 of 1: A Window to the World, set in a high school in the aftermath of 9/11, was published in 2003. Can you give us some background as to how you came to create it? Did you yourself encounter student reactions and responses to 9/11 similar to those you describe?
This was the culmination of my editorial cartooning experience. I wanted to put my pen where my mouth was. In the blowback after 9/11, there were lots of things happening in the USA and worldwide to complain about. But I didn’t want to be relegated to yelling at the TV or complaining to my wife.
While working at North Atlantic Books, I had an opportunity to pitch the idea of how an 11th grade teacher encourages his students to go out into the world to interview adults from different cultural backgrounds, and ask them, “Why is the world the way it is?”
The premise is a blend of fact and fiction, but the cast reflects the diversity of America and the world. People share not only differing perspectives of history but also acknowledge common experiences. Drawing two pages a week (to finish 9 of 1 within the one year of the anniversary of 9/11) not only allowed me to incorporate up-to-the-minute news, but also pushed me to make the storyline as germane to teens as it was to adults.
- How do you think the view from young people’s ‘Window to the World’ has changed over the last decade or so?
Today a lot of American kids don’t know what 9/11 was, and even many adults don’t really feel much impact from being in a state of perpetual war. Given the continuing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even America, unfortunately many of the same problems need to still be resolved. Nevertheless, I wanted to infuse 9 of 1 with authentic viewpoints that represented timeless truths. Therefore, I hope that a reader new to it would find it relevant today.
- Those who only know your work via your funny picture books for younger readers may be surprised to discover that your first two published books, written for YA+ readers, were serious and informative (9 of 1 and The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man, a blend of biography (basket-ball player Yao Ming) and Lao Tzu’s philosophy). What, if any, transitions have you gone through as an author?
Becoming a parent was the biggest transition. I became a dad when writing my first two books, and soon began reading children’s books to my son. Mainly at the library, I would regularly check out the old “classics” that I remembered as a child and examine new releases.
But after drowning in the ever-presence of licensed properties such as Thomas the Tank Engine or the entrenched shelf-occupation of Dr. Seuss, I just thought there should be room to create tales that had contemporary visual styles and fresh voices. I wanted to publish stories that adults and kids could both like, but in different ways. My personal challenge has always been to make a book that a parent could read to their child ten days in a row without either of them getting tired of it.
In addition, I wanted to create some children’s books that had Asian American themes and characters, since there was a dearth of them in the American marketplace.
- This year you have published The Year of the Horse, your latest book in the hugely popular Tales of the Chinese Zodiac series. As a twelve-year project, it is fairly unusual; and as a modern take on the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, I believe it is unique. Do you create each story as a stand-alone project or did you work it all out from the start?
I wanted to publish stories about Chinese traditions, but didn’t want to repeat familiar legends such as the Great Race (just like I wouldn’t want to rehash Mother Goose or The Little Train That Could). My friend Elaine Chu originally suggested doing a story on each of the twelve animals, and she did the graphic design for many of my first books.
It is the only series of its kind in English. Although, a few years ago I did come across a Hong Kong series in Chinese, which took a different approach (basically introducing the animal and not presenting a new adventure that defined the character).
I create each story before its year, but do consider how they build upon each other and function as a continuum. For example, it is gender balanced: the protagonists (as well as each of their best friends) are 50/50 split between male and female for all twelve stories.
- What for you has been the most rewarding aspect of the series?
Reading the stories in school assemblies has been the best part. Live performances with hundreds of kids bring the tales to life – the audience participates so the whole experience becomes theatrical and cinematic.
We know we’ve only reached a tiny fraction of the potential audience who can appreciate these tales. Our challenge remains to keep introducing the stories and sharing the series with as many families we can.
- Three illustrators have worked on the series to date – what has each of them brought to the stories?
Each artist was a professional animator who designed new character and expanded the universe for every year, but did so in a complementary and evolutionary manner.
Jeremiah Alcorn, (a Nickelodeon animator) infused his characters with a lot of joie de vivre. He set a fantastic foundation by fashioning a “Golden Book” look to the zodiac animals: this was clearly a modern interpretation but “classic” in terms of 1960s animation quality and principles. Yet each year he added more expressiveness and whimsy from Daniel the Dog to Olivia the Ox.
Justin Roth a cut his teeth on Baltazar and the Flying Pirates. So he tackled the Tiger tale much like the main character Teddy would have: he was true to the path ahead of him, but pushed himself to extend the boundaries. His interpretation of Rosie the Rabbit gives Bugs Bunny a run for his money!
Jennifer Wood, another Nickelodeon animator, added a lot of warmth and a softer but more vibrant “pastel” palette. Her creations for the Dragon, Snake, and Horse display a personal affinity for animals and a sensitive eye for detail and composition. She even handcrafted “one-of-a-kind” felt dolls for each character – I couldn’t ask for more passion from an artist!
- There are only three more animals/years to go — what will you do when you reach the end?
More people have been asking me this question recently, which stands to reason now that we are three-quarters of the way to the finish line. I haven’t thought much about it, since we’ve always been busy building the next brick in the road, so I don’t have a good answer!
- Your second Julie Black Belt book also hit the shelves recently. Asian American girl Julie is a feisty character and she provides a breath of fresh air in countering gender stereotyping. What was your inspiration behind these stories and can we look forward to more books about Julie Black Belt in the future?
The inspiration was observing a friend’s daughter take a taekwondo class. This was my first time watching kids do this, and I realized that a new generation of kids was learning a rainbow of martial arts.
I grew up in an American media landscape where the only Asians on TV were cooks, coolies, or kung fu flyers and could only speak heavily-accented English. I watched the TV series Kung Fu, though I didn’t know Bruce Lee wasn’t allowed to star in his own story, and that David Carradine was cast in “yellow face” as his substitute.
So I thought the time was ripe to introduce an authentic face. Then I had to slap myself in the head to knock off my own blinders, and make the protagonist a girl. I’m glad I caught myself and made that decision: many readers have told me that Julie has been an inspiring role model for their own daughters.
It was apt that Charlene Chua illustrated the first story. A talented artist (Chinese from Singapore), she really made Julie everything I could have asked: a likeable yet real Asian American girl who has emotions and habits and aspirations that kids identify with. The book came out before Kung Fu Panda and the reincarnated Karate Kid (with Jackie Chan), which underscored how Hollywood continues to recycle and reinforce obsolete stereotypes. Our Julie sequel was a long time in coming, but Charlene finally had the time to continue the story. I’m glad I waited for her since she pushed the envelope and injected another level of richness and vitality.
- Looking forward, what do you see as the future of children’s book publishing and where do you see Immedium within that?
I try to avoid being Nostradamus, especially since the marketplace, technology, and consumer preferences change so quickly.
I do think future clinical studies will confirm that kids will still benefit from reading real books and playing on real playgrounds (versus just staring at and tapping on electronic devices).
In that future I hope Immedium will still be introducing appealing characters in exciting escapades for them to immerse themselves in. As a multicultural publisher, I’d like to provide stories about other Asian customs, like we did recently with Felicia Hoshino‘s well-received Sora and the Cloud, which was our first Japanese-themed and bilingual book.
- What projects are you working on at the moment and what treats does Immedium have in store for us?
David Derrick (a Disney animator formerly with DreamWorks) is producing his fourth storybook for this fall: Play with your Food features a small “pre-dinosaur” who pulls out all the stops to convince a larger predator to toy with his dinner instead of eating it.
At the same time, we plan to publish our first Spanish bilingual story, Good Dream, Bad Dream, which was successfully funded on Kickstarter. Created in a bold comics style by the art studio Liberum Donum, based in Bogotá, Colombia, this story is about how a dad tells his sleepless son that people have always relied upon mythic, legendary heroes (powered by their own imaginations) to turn bad dreams into good ones.
Meanwhile, I am busy collaborating with the artist Alina Chau to produce The Year of the Sheep for 2015. She is a professional animator, who has contributed to many best-selling video games as well as the LucasFilm animated TV series Star Wars: the Clone Wars, and recently illustrated another Immedium “Asian-themed” story: The Treehouse Heroes & The Forgotten Beast.
- Thank you very much, Oliver… Before you leave us, we are just going to put you ‘In the Spotlight’ for our ten quick-fire questions…
The first book you remember reading as a mirror of you and/or your cultural background?
Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese (1938). This was more a “funhouse mirror” as it gave a wildly distorted image, depending on the viewer’s perspective. I gravitated toward it because it was one of the few children’s books that featured Asians. But I realized that my skin color wasn’t a “highlighter” yellow, my eyes weren’t slanted slits, and all Asians don’t look alike – or indeed like the ones in that book.
Reading preference – paper or e-book?
The last book you read that opened the window onto a new-to-you cultural landscape?
Countdown by Alan Weisman. He is a globe trekker who pulls back the curtain on the socio-economic history of many countries and cuts to the chase of common concern.
If you could ‘match-make’ any authors and/or illustrators to collaborate together on a book, who would you choose?
I’d pair up Richard Scarry and Bill Peet. It would be like putting peanut butter together with chocolate.
On holiday, lie on a beach or hike up a mountain (you may include any conditions necessary to your choice!)?
To best enjoy a beach requires some exertion in getting there. So hiking to the shore sounds like the ideal combination.
Initial ideas – notebook or computer?
Both. I print out an MS Word template and then write in notes by hand. Then I rinse and repeat.
Most personally precious object on or within one metre of your desk?
It would either be my 18-inch ruler or my check book. Seriously, it is my collection of DVDs, which archive all the computer files from the books that Immedium has published.
Something you have done or want to do because of reading a book?
Well, my wife has impressed upon our family the edification of getting to know our hometown’s hills better by foot, so we’ve been living Stairway Walks in San Francisco: The Joy of Urban Exploring by Adah Bakalinsky and Mary Burk.
Something about yourself that might surprise even your friends?
In the summer, I made 9 three pointers in 30 seconds at the NCAA College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Missouri – high score for the night!
A peep at what today’s work entails?
I plan to review the first storyboard draft of The Year of the Sheep, illustrated by artist Alina Chau.
Thank you, Oliver, for joining us. I’m looking forward to reading The Year of the Sheep when it comes out.
Books highlighted here by Oliver: