Deborah Kerbel & Yong Ling Kang talk about where an idea comes from and how it grows
Yong Ling: What was the catalyst that made you want to write This House is Home and explore the topic of nail houses?
Deborah: The catalyst for This House is Home was a very striking photograph I came across in a news item about nail houses in China. It was such a powerful image, loaded with unanswered questions, intrigue, drama, and despair. The photo stuck in my thoughts for days afterward –
which is usually the first indication that my brain was already trying to turn it into a book. I started wondering what kind of a story this could be. What did this trapped house represent? Was it a symbol of protest and resistance? A parable about not giving in to bullies? Or maybe something else?
I opened a new file in my computer and started gathering ideas. For a couple of years, I picked away at many unsuccessful drafts before pieces eventually fell into places, and I finally figured out the story I wanted to tell about this photo.
Deborah: What was your first impression when you read the manuscript? Did you imagine the visuals right away? Or did they take time to develop and evolve?
Yong Ling: I remember feeling excited by Lily’s adventurous spirit and moved by her thoughtfulness. She recognized the importance of the house to Grandma and also brought about change to overcome the unfavorable circumstances. I also like the idea that home can be anywhere you make it to be. I especially relate to that as I have had to live in different places throughout my life.
Most of the visuals evolved overtime after going through rounds of exploration, drawing, and helpful comments from the team. Finding the emotional focus of the visual was a challenge. For example, in the spread of Lily crossing the road, I sketched many versions of it, some focused on the traffic, some focused on Lily, and from different angles too. Doing all these different versions helped me see what was important to show and arrive at the final drawing. I’m still working towards leveling up my mind’s eye.
Yong Ling: I am curious to know about your unsuccessful drafts. What were they about and what didn’t work for you? What is it in the final story that made you feel like you have got it?
Deborah: My biggest struggle with this story was the ending – I think it probably took me longer to figure out than any book I’ve written before. Lily, her family, and the challenge of keeping their home were all relatively clear to me from the get-go. But how to get them out of the impossible situation they’d found themselves in? That was definitely my biggest creative hurdle. For the longest time, it felt like I’d painted myself into a corner -- just like the nail house in the photo.
For a while, I considered several options. Should I have the family come to terms with their chaotic situation? Should I leave their future open ended? Or was there a way they could keep their home and find also find happiness with their altered circumstances?
As it turned out, the answer was in front of me all along – right there in the text of the opening pages I’d already written. I don’t want to spoil anything, but when I finally realized it, it felt like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle clicking perfectly into place.
Deborah: The colour palette in this book is so interesting...I recall gasping out loud when I first saw the skies. What inspired you to make some of the more unusual colour choices for this book?
Yong Ling: Alisa Baldwin, the book designer gave me some really good pointers to think about when I was asking for feedbacks on a colour rough.
I wanted the colours of the skies to reflect Lily’s mood. They become muddier when she is sad or confused and turns bright when she is feeling free. There is also a slightly different color palette for each page. I was hoping for the colours to give the reader a sense of change with every page turned. Kind of like how seasons feel like.
Yong Ling: I like the hopeful ending of the book. And I also really like how you left it open-ended and chose not to show a happily ever after moment. Was that a conscious decision and why?
Deborah: It was definitely a conscious decision. Picture books are such multi-layered creations, aren’t they? The author lays the foundation with the text, then the illustrator adds their own visual layer on top of that. I feel like the third, and possibly most important layer belongs to the reader. How the book is interpreted is really unique to each and every person. I know many authors like to wrap their endings up in a nice, neat bow. But I’ve always enjoyed writing the sort of ending that leaves my readers with questions and the opportunity to imagine what might happen next. That way, the story lives on beyond the final page. As a reader, those are always the endings that resonate strongest with me.
Deborah: My favourite spread in the book is the one where Lily’s dreaming. I adore the colours, the softness, and the ethereal quality of that illustration. Do you have a favourite spread? If so, which one?
Yong Ling: My favourite spread is where with the help of a construction worker, Lily managed to dash across the road to save the last remaining flower. What you wrote, the line was short, but it meant so much.
I was encouraged by Lily’s act of throwing caution to the wind and diving in to do what she feels strongly for. It also warmed me to see help coming from the most unlikely place. I love discovering that the construction workers were not really antagonists, but were actually kind beings looking out for the family too.