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Sweet & Sour Siblings

Karen Krossing and Anna Kwan

talk about feeling and drawing emotions...

Karen: Hi, Anna! What fun to chat with you! I’m a big fan. So, I’m curious about when you first read the manuscript for Sour Cakes. Did you personally connect to it? Did images start to appear in your mind?

Anna: Hi, Karen! As an illustrator, I naturally think in pictures, so images definitely came to mind immediately upon reading the manuscript. I grew up as a big cousin to a lot of younger cousins, and I projected my young self onto the older sibling. That was the basis of creating these two characters.

What is the meaning behind the term Sour Cakes and how did you come up with the words to create the visual prompts (i.e., monster feet, scribble with crayons)?

Karen: I love hearing about how you relate to Sour Cakes! Now, I’m picturing you as a big cousin taking care of the littles. How sweet.

My original goal for this story was to write about an older sibling who supports a younger one during a low mood. What actions might Big take to cheer Little up? How might Little react? In my first draft, Big offered to bake a sweet treat, but Little claimed to prefer sour ones. That’s when “sour cakes” became a symbol of Little’s not-so-sweet mood.

As for monster feet and scribbling with crayons, I tapped into how I felt when my own emotions overwhelmed me as a kid. I may have stomped around on big monster feet when angry and scribbled with frustration. My big sister could tell you stories!

I imagine that Sour Cakes was a challenging book to illustrate because emotions are abstract rather than concrete. Yet your illustrations beautifully map the complex emotions the two siblings feel during the story. How do you do that magic—convey such emotion in your art?

Anna: Thank you for the kind words, Karen! I have to admit that children’s programming, specifically cartoons, has been a heavy influence in my illustrations and drawings, especially the way emotions are exaggerated in cartoons.

I remember being very receptive to big gestures and over-the-top hijinks, so I’m compelled to express my characters that way as well. My more mature sensibilities have steered me to contrast that with subtler gestures and quieter moments that emphasize the big moments. My favourite example from Sour Cakes is Big’s enthusiasm for colouring and scribbling contrasted with Little’s quiet moment of declining and dropping their crayon.

I believe the “magic” is balancing the two. Big and Little are the perfect embodiment of this! The story had a great flow, and the ending was so sweet!

Did you hit any bumps when writing this story?

Karen: How interesting! That contrast applies to writing too.

Every manuscript has its bumps. For this one, the ending came in the first draft, the language and rhythm felt lovely, and the empathy that Big develops for Little shone brightly. But the beginning gave me trouble, and I didn’t have a good sense of the two voices—why Big demands they play and why Little feels sour. I also wasn’t sure which sibling was the protagonist, until I realized they could both be protagonists, with the other sibling as the antagonist. Twenty-two drafts later, it’s a published book!

I have a question about character creation. I wrote my manuscript in dialogue only, with no notes about what the characters might look like. Big and Little could have been humans, animals or something else! How did you decide who and what these characters would become?

Anna: Wow, twenty-two drafts! Bravo!

The artwork for Sour Cakes was done during the pandemic, so I was really missing my family, especially my nephews. The characters' designs were heavily inspired by two of them; one older who is tall and slim, and the younger being squatty. (They've now grown and the younger is about the same height as his older brother.) In fact, I jokingly had names for the characters that were similar to my nephews' names, but I'm glad we opted to refer to them as Big and Little. Additionally, I wanted to create characters that reflected what my family and myself looked like, as we are East Asian. I hope that came across in the book.

Karen: Yes, it does, and I’m glad you reflected your family and heritage in these characters.

My family inspired Sour Cakes too. It's based on interactions between my two daughters and my two nieces as well as childhood memories with my sister.

Anna, I love that this is a book inspired by both our families. I feel excited to share it with other families, and I hope it’ll spark conversations about their own sweet and sour emotions.

Anna Kwan:

Karen Krossing:


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