Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Illustrator Interview and Giveaway: Colleen Kong-Savage

I'm beyond excited to post my interview with the amazing Colleen-Kong Savage, illustrator extraordinaire, today along with a giveaway of her debut THE TURTLE SHIP (a hardcover signed by both the author and illustrator!) which came out with Lee & Low this month to great reviews, including a starred review from School Library Journal!

Long ago in Korea, a young boy named Sun-sin spent his days playing with his pet turtle Gobugi and dreaming of sailing around the world. As a poor villager, though, his dream to travel seemed impossible. Then one day, the king's court announced a contest to find the best design for a new battleship to defend the land from invaders. The winner would sail the ocean with the royal navy.

Determined to win, Sun-sin attempts to build an indestructible battleship with a few found items. Each attempt fails miserably against the powerful sea, and with it Sun-sin s dream also sinks to the bottom. Turning to Gobugi for comfort, Sun-sin notices how his pet turtle is small but mighty, slow but steady, and impossible to sink. Suddenly, Sun-sin has a great idea.

Loosely based on the true story of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his Turtle Ship, this delightful tale by debut author Helena Ku Rhee and debut illustrator Colleen Kong-Savage introduce young readers to a fascinating episode in Korean history and naval engineering.

“Kong-Savage’s collage illustrations bring the story to life through almost 3-D imagery and are beautiful to look at…A great mix of myth and history for most picture book collections.” —School Library Journal starred review

“The splendor of Kong-Savage’s paper collages adds to the storytelling with rich overlapping compositions and patterns.  This debut packs a double punch modeling the experimental process while spotlighting an intriguing historical figure and his warcraft. —Kirkus Reviews

“…Kong-Savage’s striking, precise paper-collage scenes are equally effective in conveying the sweeping drama of ocean views and the personality and warmth in close-ups of Gobugi’s small, green face. An afterword about the story’s historical roots closes this engaging tale with a strong STEM focus from two debut creators.” –Publishers Weekly

Could you tell us about your previous illustration work?
In my other illustration life I make pictures and do graphic design for small businesses and nonprofits. I help create their visual brand to communicate their personality and what they’re about. I also have design a collection of cards called Konga Line. One day it will be a greeting card empire, but for now it’s distributed through Greeting Card Universe. 

What made you want to work with kids books?
Who wouldn’t want to work with kids books? You draw characters that make you grin as you go along. You play with a colorful palette. If you work in mediums that you can touch, people won’t consider you outdated. Nobody considers you old-fashioned for holding a pencil instead of a stylus.
What was your favorite illustrated book growing up?
The Monster at the End of this Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover! written by Sesame Street writer/producer Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollin. It’s brilliant, and Grover is indeed lovable. 

Who are some of your favorite illustrators? Who do you look to for inspiration?
Two of my favorite illustrators are Robin Rosenthal (https://www.robinrosenthal.com/) and Mikela Provost (http://www.mikelaprevost.com/). I follow them on social media. Robin’s characters are such characters—some take themselves very seriously and have no idea how hilarious they are. Mikela’s images are also often funny, and very sweet. Her paintings are beautiful and warm. I’m also a fan of Lane Smith—I love his humor, and there’s always so much texture in his illustrations, no matter how complex or simple. Emily Gravett—again, I am charmed by characters—and Shaun Tan, I love them both for their mastery in drawing. Jane Ray for her color. Paul Zelinsky for being a chameleon, always experimenting with styles. And of course, Ezra Jack Keats for his beautiful collage/painting style, for color, for his sweet characters, and because his pictures just make me feel good inside.
What initially drew you to THE TURTLE SHIP?
I was drawn because the editor said, “It’s a historical fiction, so it involves research,” which made the assignment sound like a lot of work (and it was), but now I had an excuse to learn about a whole new culture in 16th century Korea. What did they wear? Where did they live? What does the palace look like? What’s the story behind the turtle ship? Who is this Admiral Yi Sunsin? Why is he such a hero? I’d go to the art museum and call it work. I’d watch a blockbuster Korean movie and call it work. Surf the internet… Creating the world in which this story existed was like assembling a puzzle.
Could you talk a bit about the process you went through illustrating THE TURTLE SHIP?
Half the process was revision: drawing, rethinking, redrawing with feedback from the art director. I did four rounds of pencil sketches for almost every spread. Final illustrations were done in collage, which made a mess of my apartment (paper bits everywhere), and now color was in the mix. So after sending Lee & Low home scans of “final” illustrations, more edits were requested and made before I delivered final artwork to the office to be professionally scanned. Upon delivery, I spread all the collages across the conference table, and folks in the office stopped by to oo and ah—it was so gratifying… And after I received the professional scans of the original artwork, another round and a half of edits done in Photoshop. 

Was THE TURTLE SHIP different from your usual illustration process?
Yes. Usually when I illustrate for clients, they say, “Great!” My clients usually aren’t art people—that’s why they hire me and trust my judgement. With a picture book art director and editor, it’s a different story. I had a lot of freedom, but each time I came back to them, they would point me in a slightly different direction to strengthen the story or consider the reader. 

What was it like working with your art director and Lee & Low?
Awesome! This was my first picture book assignment, so I learned a ton. I learned how much processing goes on before settling on a final image. I learned simple rules, like illustrate all motion going from left to right to match the flow of the pages, or let the reader see the character’s face as much as possible because that is how readers connect best. And with repeated prodding, I learned just how complex in detail I can make my art. I’d get pages of notes, and feedback was always clear. If I disagreed with a call, the art director and editor always heard me out and sometimes even agreed with me. The process was a dialog. 

What was the most challenging part of illustrating THE TURTLE SHIP for you?
The most challenging part was trying not to go blind as I cut out all the tiny details. My eyes got tired easily. I finally got a magnifying lamp. Before that, I would literally not be able to see what I was cutting. I was looking at a blur in my fingers as I snipped the paper, hoping it was coming out right.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ll take away from the process?
Biggest lesson: just when you think you’re pretty darn good at what you do, you’ll discover there’s a whole lot more to learn.
What would you say to others who aspire to illustrate books for children?
The process of breaking into the industry is a marathon, so be prepared. It can take years, even if you are a fantastic illustrator. There is so much noise, so much talent, and I think publishers are hesitant to take chances with new artists because they have no idea how easy or difficult you will be to work with. You need to put in the hours. Always be building up your chops because the competition is fierce, always be looking at what’s out there in picture books and through social media. Keep sending out your work. The amount of your success directly correlates with the amount of rejection you can tolerate (illustrator David Gordon taught me that). Join SCBWI, go to their conferences to gather information, feed your spirit, meet fellow artists/writers, and be a part of a community. This is a tough climb with some jagged rocks. Connections you make with fellow creatives will keep you going.

Any fun facts about you?
I fall asleep a lot when I sketch, particularly when I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m struggling with the composition. Brain goes on strike and shuts down. Somewhat inconvenient.

Colleen Kong-Savage is a full-time illustrator and graphic artist. When she first moved to New York City, Kong-Savage worked at an art supply store, where she spent half her paycheck on decorative papers. For this debut picture book, she spent countless hours researching the clothes, living conditions, and landscape of the Joseon Dynasty, and then finding the right paper for each item. The papers used in this book come from around the world, including Korea where traditional paper is handmade from mulberry bark. Kong-Savage lives in New York City.

You can pick up a copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBound, Lee & LowTarget and your local bookstore!

You can follow Colleen on InstagramTwitter and go to her website!

  • The giveaway is open to US entrants only.
  • When the winners are chosen, it will be announced here and the winners will be emailed.
  • Please enter your email address in the Rafflecopter form and not the comments.


  1. Thank you for taking us through your process, both the research and working with your team at Lee & Low - so much great information about how it all works! And I was nodding along with your list of illustrators that inspire you. Congrats on a gorgeous debut!

  2. The hours of research and revision that went into creating THE TURTLE SHIP inspire me as I write a NF PB. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Manju! I had so much fun researching THE TURTLE SHIP that I'm inspired to do nonfiction next!

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