A Storybook Career

Children's book illustrator LeUyen Pham knows what it takes to appeal to a demanding audience-five-year-olds and their parents.

Almost everybody thinks they can write children's books," sighs prolific author and illustrator LeUyen Pham. They see the cute pictures and the simple story lines, Pham says, and think, "Yeah, I can do that." But most newbies miss the rhythm and cadence that extremely short stories require, she says. Most of all, they don't realize that the stories need to be just as appealing to parents as they are to children.

"If you're going to be reading a book with a kid 20 to 30 times, the parents better like it as well," says the 34-year-old Pham. "A good picture book creates a bond between a parent and a child, when they're reading it, and hopefully entertains the parent in such a way that they feel some type of nostalgia for what they're reading."

This instinct for knowing both what kids are going to enjoy and what parents are going to buy has made Pham one of today's most sought-after children's book illustrators. Last year, Pham illustrated actress Julianne Moore's first children's book, Freckleface Strawberry (the title is a name that Moore was teased with as a kid), which will soon go into its second printing. In addition to collaborating on a followup with Moore, Pham recently illustrated a book written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream, and is working on her second solo book (her first, Big Sister, Little Sister, about sibling rivalry and love, was published in 2005).

Pham, whose family escaped the Communist takeover of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), in Vietnam, and immigrated to California when she was two, always knew that she wanted to draw for children but wasn't sure whether she could make a decent living at it. After attending the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, she landed a job as a layout artist drawing background scenes for DreamWorks Animation SKG, working on movies like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado. Despite earning a six-figure salary, she soon grew restless, particularly after hearing stories about traveling and living abroad from her fellow animators, most of whom were older than her. Saving up some money, Pham decided to travel the world and illustrate children's books on the side. She journeyed to Europe, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia, her sketchbook in tow (her experience drawing animals in Africa proved especially useful later on). Her first year, Pham made just $12,000.

After three years of on-and-off traveling and illustration work, she decided to present her portfolio to 10 children's book editors, creating a handmade picture book for each. She wrapped each book in brown paper and included a note saying that she would be in New York in a month and would love to meet with them. Seven of the 10 editors called to offer her work.

These days, Pham cranks out about three children's picture books a year, in addition to drawings and many covers for other children's books. She's now besting her former DreamWorks salary.

"I can't even remember half the stuff I have out right now," she says. As a result, Pham's workweeks are packed. She begins her days by emailing sketches to her editors in New York around 7 a.m. and then revising them throughout the morning. In the afternoons, she paints final pages based on those sketches until 6 p.m., unless she's nearing a deadline, in which case she'll work until 2 a.m. or later.

Despite the never-ending deadlines and the long hours, Pham realizes how lucky she is to earn a comfortable living doing something that she loves, while having the flexibility to spend time during the day with her infant son. "The first three years of pure starvation are completely worth it now," says Pham. "This is the kind of life I've always wanted."

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