Where it All Began with LeUyen Pham
LeUyen Pham is the illustrator of many books for children, including the New York Times-bestselling The Princess in Black series by Shannon and Dean Hale, Real Friends by Shannon Hale and Aunt Mary’s Rose by Douglas Wood. LeUyen Pham lives in California
What do you do?
I make books for kids, from infants to teens. Mostly I create images for the books, but occasionally I also write them.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was 3, I wanted to be a singer like Marie Osmond. When I was 7, I wanted to be a writer like Beverly Cleary. When I was 9, I wanted to be a Jedi or an archaeologist with a whip. At 11, I wanted to be an artist after I met writer and artist Bill Peet and he encouraged me.
Share the story of a business you started as a kid. How old were you and how did it do? What did you learn?
We were pretty poor growing up, and I always tried to make a little money any time I could. As a really young kid, I used to draw pictures and sell them for 5 or 10 cents to my friends at school. Once I did a drawing of a girl in my class, and she paid me 50 cents for it. But the real money started coming when I was about 9. The movie “Return of the Jedi” came out, and our school was struck with Star Wars fever. I started drawing pictures of Chewbacca, Yoda, and especially the Ewoks, and would sell them for a quarter to a dollar each. I made quite a bundle that way, until I hit fifth grade and “The Goonies” came out. I loved “The Goonies,” but nobody would buy pictures of Sloth.
What advice would you give to your elementary school self?
It’s hard to find just the right friends when you’re a kid, but the real friends—the ones you want to keep—are the ones who make you feel good about yourself and who would want to hang out with you no matter what you look like, what toys you have, or what kinds of food you eat. If you can’t find a person like that, be that person yourself. You’ll be surprised how many kids will want to be your friend afterwards.
Who was your role model and/or mentor when you were a kid and how did that person influence you?
I was a pretty voracious reader, and a lot of the people I looked up to were characters in books. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder, and later I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and fell in love with the heroine, Kit. When I got into seventh grade, one of my great role models was my English teacher, Mrs. McGuinness. She had a way of getting you to want to do better without making you feel bad about it. She was the first person to tell me that I should make picture books when I got older.
Share a time that you failed and what you learned from it.
When I was in ninth grade, I was in a debate class. I was a pretty horrendous public speaker at the time, and for my first debate I picked the smartest kid in my class, Robert, to be my partner. I figured he would do most of the talking, and I could just relax. We researched our project together, but I thought I didn’t really have to worry because Robert knew what he was doing.
When debate time came, Robert arrived at class with his pile of notecards. But I didn’t have much of anything. And in a debate, everyone does an equal amount of talking. When it was my turn at the podium, I went up there with just a couple cards and a very vague idea of what I was going to say. I looked out at all my classmates, and my mind went blank. My stomach started doing circles. I felt really dizzy. It felt like I stood there speechless for at least 5 minutes, but it was probably closer to 15 seconds. Finally, my teacher had me sit down and put my head between my knees. I never wanted to stand in public again. When I got my grade, I felt awful.
But the funny thing was, after that happened, I became really determined to never feel that horrible again. So, for my next speech, I practiced for weeks, standing in front of the mirror, memorizing my lines, doing the best I could to be prepared. And when I had to go up to the podium again, that horrible feeling came back—but then the words came into my head, and my speech came out just as I had planned it. Now, many public speeches later, I can’t say that that horrible feeling doesn’t come up now and then. But as long as I’m prepared, I can beat it back down and walk away feeling pretty good.
Give one tip to a 10-year-old girl who is opening her first lemonade stand this weekend.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! And put on some sunscreen.