Jan 14, 2021

Design Thinking for Writers: A Q&A with Vicky Fang

interview by Anne-Marie Strohman

Author and illustrator Vicky Fang had a very productive 2020–which in book publishing means she had a very productive few years of writing before that. Vicky launched her debut picture book Invent-a-Pet (illustrated by  Tidawan Thaipinnarong, the first two books in her Layla and the Bots early chapter books series (Built for Speed and Happy Paws), and a pair of STEM board books (I Can Code: If/Then and I Can Code: And/Or). In 2021, she has her first author-illustrated graphic novel coming out, as well as another Layla and the Bots book. We interrupted Vicky’s very full writing and illustrating schedule to ask her about writing in so many different categories, how her work in STEM impacts her writing, and how she draws characters so completely in so few words. We hope you find her words as inspiring as we have!

KidLit Craft: What do you love about writing for kids?

Vicky Fang: I love being able to turn an idea in my head into something that delights, informs, or inspires kids. It makes me happy to think I’ve made a difference for even just one kid.

KLC: You’ve written in a number of different formats–a picture book, a chapter book series, a board book series, and an early graphic novel series. How do you decide which form will fit which story idea? Is it a matter of trial and error, or do you have a strategy?

I actually find that format has become a part of my ideation process. When I’m interested in writing for a new format, I’ll research and read books in the category. Often, an idea that’s been floating around in my head or sitting shelved in my list of ideas will suddenly come to life! Sometimes a story is too complicated for a picture book, or too conceptual. There are some obvious differences between formats but some more subtle ones as well. It’s fun for me to get excited about what each format can unlock! That’s how every foray into a new format has started for me.

KLC: What was your process from text-only books to author-illustrator?

I often draw very rough sketches of my characters to help myself visualize them as I write. I started including those sketches in my proposals, and eventually found myself including entire dummies for some projects, with myself as illustrator optional. When Friendbots went out on submission, Andrew Arnold at HarperAlley took a chance on me and worked with me on some revisions before making an offer, presumably to see what I was like to work with as an illustrator and also what quality of art I would be able to produce. I’m so grateful for the time he took to work with me and the chance he’s given me to illustrate my first books!

KLC: How does your experience as an illustrator inform your text-only books?

Well, I definitely have a new appreciation for how easy it is for an author to write something like “And then one hundred buffalo stormed the giant parade” while the poor illustrator has to make it happen! I think that illustrating has also made me more comfortable with wordless spreads or panels. And while I agree with leaning back on illustration notes, I have a new appreciation for actually having solid ideas of what the illustrations could be even if I don’t spell them out. There’s a difference between leaving the illustrator creative freedom and leaving lazy holes for them to fill!

KLC: How does your experience working on text-only books and working with other illustrators inform your author-illustrator work?

First of all, I have literally peeked at their photoshop files to see how they set them up and how they composed a spread, ha! But otherwise, it’s mostly been illuminating to learn what happens on the other side. A lot of the art process and cover design feels like a black box when you’re an author, so it’s been great to see how that side works.

KLC: Layla and the Bots books all share the same structure, as do many chapter book series. How did you develop the structure? Did you find inspiration in mentor texts, or work through the structure on your own, or with an agent or editor?

I read a lot of the Scholastic Branches books before I started writing Layla and the Bots. I recognized that those books had a pretty clear structure so I followed the spirit of those mentor texts as I wrote. The plot itself also follows the structure of a classic product design process, so that was heavily based on my own experience as a product designer.

KLC: Developing characters in such a small number of words is a huge challenge. How do you tackle character development?

Each Layla and the Bots book is about 1400 words in length, but they are also fully illustrated. There’s a lot in my head and in my notes that never makes it to the page, but hopefully it comes through in other ways. Before the characters were developed visually, I actually wrote bios for each of them that I shared with my editors and the illustrator, so that we all had a common understanding of their personalities and interests. While Christine brought their personalities out in their visual appearance, I brought them out through their voices and actions.

KLC: In novel writing we talk a lot about external and internal story arcs–the concrete goal a character has, and an emotional need the character has. Do you find these elements in picture books, chapter books, board books, and early graphic novels? How do you handle both in such condensed texts?

Great question! I think they are always there, but sometimes not as overtly. At a basic level, there’s the goal (what are they trying to do?) but the emotional need is critical for a book to be successful (why do we care?). It’s important in each Layla book that she wants to help somebody because she cares about them and their problem, and because it matters to her to succeed. Sometimes, raising the stakes in the external arc also inherently raises the stakes in the internal arc.

KLC: You developed a design thinking project for Scholastic’s OOM blog in conjunction with Layla and the Bots. The INVENTION I’s are Investigate, Ideate, Implement, Improve. Do you go through a similar process with your writing? How does your design process work impact your writing process?

As a product designer, I am used to solving creative problems. I think that’s partially why I’m drawn to different formats, because I get inspiration from the problem. My design experience also helps me take critique feedback well as I’m very used to harsh critiques and revising based on understanding the problems that a critique uncovers.

I do actually follow the same process as the Invention I’s in my writing, and I talk about that with kids all the time in my visits! I spot a problem, I come up with ideas to solve it, I try it out and then see how it turned out. My process is often a lot messier than a clean iterative circle, as I have ideas simultaneously iterating at all different levels when I write, but at the core of it, yes, that is how I work.

KLC: You are clearly passionate about STEM topics and making those accessible to kids of all ages. Do you think you’ll ever write a non-STEM book?

Actually, about 20% of the manuscripts I write are not STEM based at all! But the ones that have gotten to the necessary point of polish and sold are all STEM books. I think my personal passion and background in STEM have helped make those books stand out. I will probably always continue to write STEM books as it’s so near and dear to me, but I definitely hope to publish some non-STEM books as well!

KLC: How has the kidlit community been a part of your writing and publishing journey?

Ah, the kitlit community is amazing! I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the amazing people I’ve met along the way. From mentors, to critique partners, to launch groups, to online communities, I’ve been so thankful to meet such amazing, generous, smart, and thoughtful people. They have helped me improve my craft, learn the ropes of the industry, and stay (mostly) sane! I’m proud to keep the company of kidlit creators and they inspire me every day.

KLC: What can Vicky Fang fans look forward to?

Gosh, I’m at a point right now where I’m not sure! I’m wrapping up my second Friendbots graphic novel and then I’ll have to start working on something new. I have some sneaky ideas floating around… maybe a middle grade novel or maybe a novelty format STEM book. Of course, I’ll also be working on the launches for my next four books, so keep an eye out for them—Cupcake Fix (Layla and the Bots Book 3 and Blink and Block Make a Wish (Friendbots Book 1) both launch in June 2021!

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author of nine new and upcoming STEAM books for kids, including Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code, Layla and the Bots, and her author-illustrator debut, Friendbots. Find out more about Vicky by following her on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com.

Interested in chapter books? Check out these posts!



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