Background, Experiences, and Cultural Perspective
Aree Chung is a Chinese-American author and illustrator who grew up in northern California. He describes his journey towards illustration as a “long and winding one”, stating that while he “drew a lot as a kid” due to pressure from his immigrant family he “never took it seriously” and instead pursued economics and a job in the business world (Beecher 2014). After finding this unfulfilling, he quit his job to attend the Art Center, and while there he “fell in love with picture books” as a medium in particular, going on to say “it’s where I belong” (Beecher 2014).
When describing his journey towards writing and illustrating children’s books, Chung ascribes much of his work ethic to having the experience of doing work he didn’t love due to familial expectations. He describes his family thusly, “My parents immigrated to the United States in the 70’s, speaking little to no English. Although they were professionals in Thailand…they both worked blue collar jobs here to support the family. We didn’t have much money and they stressed the importance of education. They wanted better for my brother and I. Becoming an artist was not in the family plans for me” (Chung 2014). Unfortunately, the life his family wanted left him feeling unhappy; “I wanted to do something that I cared about and loved. I wanted to make something” (Chung 2014). After landing a job at Pixar, where he still worked in a administrative position, he finally felt the pull to art strongly enough to enroll in the Art Center (Chung 2014). After a few years and few jobs in art and graphic design, he finally made the final jump and began work on what would become his first book Ninja! (Chung 2014).
Beyond the work ethic created by his struggle to find his path, Chung also attributes some of the content and design he chooses to portray to his upbringing. Regarding the characters in Ninja! he states they are of mixed race, but it wasn’t something he wanted to put too much focus on; “There’s been a lot of recent discussion about the need for diverse books in kid-lit and I am in complete agreement. I didn’t want to make it a big deal though. It’s just a matter of fact. So if you look closely, you can see that Mom and Dad have different racial backgrounds” (Beecher 2014). What Chung finds the most important is an amount universal relatability, stating, “When designing the characters, I didn’t want them to look like specific kids; I wanted them to look cartoony so that every kid could relate to them. I still wanted to make specific enough; finding the right balance can be a little tricky” (Beecher 2014).
However, he also wants to depict his own upbringing, in a way that he hopes will be funny and relatable for both Asian-American children as well as others, describing an upcoming book like this: “I am also working on a very personal middle grade novel titled MING LEE. It’s about my experiences growing up as a Chinese-American. I didn’t feel completely American nor Chinese. There are a lot of funny stories to share and I think a lot of kids will be able to relate to it” (Teut 2016).
Analysis of Technique
Aree Chung’s illustrations are cartoonish and often comic book like in their construction. He has described his process when designing characters like this, “I didn’t want them to look like specific kids; I wanted them to look cartoony so that every kid could relate to them” (Beecher 2014). This stylistic choice can also be traced back to his childhood love of animation and comic books; as he states in a 2014 interview with Joanna Marple, “I grew up fascinated with animation. Disney movies, comics and books touched me deeply.” His characters typically feature large, round heads and other cartoony characteristics that make them feel fun, fresh, and appealing to children raised on cartoons and animation.
Beyond his cartoonish designs, Chung uses darkness interspersed with color particularly effectively in his Ninja! series. School Library has this to say about the first Ninja! title: “Acrylic paints and mixed media enhance the comic-strip portrayal of a modern ninja on his quest. Heavy, dark tones are enhanced with bursts of color, such as brightly hued, fiery dragon images in keeping with the theme. Oversize heads and exaggerated expressions round out the laugh-out-loud fun.” The juxtaposition of the darkness required of the ninja way with the imaginative blazes of color give the impression of a child’s imagination that simply cannot be contained.
Regarding his other work, Chung’s reliance on the comic book strip style works very well with his books’ themes. For example, Library School Journal has this to say about this design choice in The Fix-It Man: “Some of the content is displayed in comic book layout, along with some catchy onomatopoeia to grab readers’ attention. Joshua’s contraptions are each illustrated in a sequential order of lettered parts that could help children follow along with the mechanics of inventive construction.” The comic book format lends itself well to movement and following one action to the next, which is excellent for a title like the Fix-It Man or How to Pee.
List of Works
- The Fix-It Man
- How to Pee: Potty Training for Boys
- How to Pee: Potty Training for Girls
- Ninja Attack of the Clan
- Ninja Claus