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Q&A with June Children’s Book of the Month Author – Li Chen

Our June Children’s Book of the Month author, Li Chen, was born in Beijing, China, and moved to New Zealand when she was five (with her parents, not as a solo child explorer, I don’t think that’s allowed). She’s always loved drawing and has been working as a full-time comic artist since 2012. Detective Beans and the Case of the Missing Hat is her first graphic novel. When she’s not drawing, Li likes to hang out with her cats or go on really long walks. Oh, and she drinks a LOT of tea.

Keep reading to find a special Q&A with Li Chen provided by Penguin Books Australia for our QBD Blog readers!

“Detective Beans and the Case of the Missing Hat”

Our gorgeous Children’s Book of the Month, “Detective Beans and the Case of the Missing Hat” by Li Chen is a hilarious and colourful adventure you don’t want to miss out on.
Cat Town’s best kitten detective is on the case to find his missing hat! Detective Beans’ investigation leads him all over Cat Town, past dodgy street magicians, soup chefs, and even a mysterious trash portal. But will Beans find success before his mum is expecting him home for dinner?

What makes Detective Beans such a loveable character?

Well firstly, he’s a small, kitten detective so that automatically makes him cute and loveable! He’s also very plucky, curious and – above all – professional. There’s no case in town that Beans can’t solve and no one he can’t help (or tries to, at least). He’s definitely the one you want to call when you’re (mildly) in trouble!

What is the process like for writing/illustrating? Do you write first, illustrate second? Vice versa? Do both simultaneously?

Ohhh I love getting into the nitty-gritty details of making comics. I could talk about it all day!

Usually when I’m working on shorter comics, I’ll have a rough idea for the story in mind so I’ll jump straight into thumbnailing. This is when I draw a grid of very rough sketches and dialogue that will eventually become the panels of the comic. Once I’m happy with the thumbnails, I figure out the layout of the panels and do a final sketch of each panel before drawing the final artwork. The writing may change along the way but it’s usually pretty set by the time I start on the final art.

 

Since this graphic novel is much longer than my previous work, I actually started by writing down an outline for the story first and thumbnailed the story in sections afterwards. Unlike my shorter comics, I drew several rounds of thumbnails for each part of the story before I was happy with the final version. The story changed and grew a lot during this stage. For instance, I might think of a good joke that stretches out a part of the story that I previously thought would be much shorter. But ultimately the final story is still very similar to the initial outline.

 

Some cartoonists are extremely diligent in the planning stages of their projects. They create wonderfully detailed character sheets or documents about the world their story is set in. Some even write down all the dialogue in their comics before drawing anything. I find that level of planning really daunting and prefer to just start with the story and see where it takes me. It’s totally not because I’m lazy, nuh uh! Cough.

Are you a reader of graphic novels yourself? Why do you think it’s an important genre for kids to explore?

This is terrible to admit but I don’t actually read a lot of graphic novels. I know, I know! I need to read more. It’s on my to-do list, I swear!

I love comics though, in long or short form. Once, I was at a convention and this man came over to my booth and recognised my work and we started chatting. Turns out, he was a primary school teacher and he had some of my comic books in his class to help encourage kids that didn’t like reading to get into books. I felt so honoured.

Books are such an amazing way to explore different worlds, especially for kids. I worry that fewer children are reading these days. It must be very difficult growing up with so much technology competing for their attention so I think graphic novels are such a great way for kids to get back into reading.

We’re all such visual creatures and comics are such a perfect blend of words and art. And they’re totally not just for kids. There’s a graphic novel out there for everyone.

What can Detective Beans teach about facing challenges, from the process of finding his missing hat?

I think Detective Beans reminds us to persevere in difficult times and not to lose sight of our goals. His story also shows the importance of being kind to others and in turn, accepting kindness from others. I know it’s a trite thing to say but if everyone was a lot nicer to each other, the world would be such a better place.

Oh, and obviously, Detective Beans shows us that it’s good to be on friendly terms with your local icecream shop keeper. You might get free icecream! Yus.

Where does your creativity come from? How can aspiring artists/authors cultivate creativity?

I get this question a lot and I fear my answer is always a bit disappointing because the truth is, it can come from anywhere! Ideas can come from a silly thought I had while doing the dishes, or a funny-looking dog I see on a walk. You also have to remember that creativity has an ebb and flow to it. Sometimes you’ll be brimming with ideas and it feels like there’s just not enough hours in the day to get them all down. Other times, your brain will feel like an old, shrivelled raisin that got kicked under a dusty kitchen shelf. I think at the end of the day you just have to be very curious and open to the world around you and give things a go.

There’s a fantastic TED talk by the author Elizabeth Gilbert that I highly recommend for anyone who wants to explore this topic further. It’s a great watch for anyone, creative or otherwise. (Though I think everyone is creative, just in different ways)

How did you become a full-time artist?

I have always loved drawing, ever since I could hold a pencil in my chubby, little baby hands. I studied Architecture at university but then I graduated during a recession and couldn’t find an architectural job so I worked in an office in an admin role.

During this time, I started my first comic Extra Ordinary and started posting my comics online. I gradually started getting a bit of a following and in 2012, I launched a Kickstarter to self-publish my first two hundred comics. I reached my goal in four days, had a small panic attack, then quit my office job to concentrate on making the books.

At the time, I thought this would be a temporary break just to finish the Kickstarter and then I’d go back to a proper job but then I sort of just never went back. I’ve been a full-time artist ever since. It’s been twelve years and I think my parents have only just started to realise I’m serious about this whole drawing thing!

How has your social media presence contributed to the popularity of ‘Detective Beans’?

I wouldn’t have had any of my success without social media.

Detective Beans is the main character of an on-going comic series I make called Cat Town. These comics are generously funded by my readers, who support me by donating monthly to my Patreon page (patreon.com/exocomics) in exchange for exclusive content. I started Cat Town in 2021, and I’ve been slowly creating the world of Detective Beans ever since. There’s no way I would’ve had the funds to tell these stories without my patrons and social media. I am forever grateful for their help and support.

Not only that, but it’s because of my social media presence that an editor at Penguin Random House Australia even reached out to me to ask if I wanted to submit a proposal for a book! (Thanks Radhi!) I would’ve never dreamed of taking that leap if I hadn’t been given the opportunity. I don’t think Detective Beans or this book would have ever existed without social media.

What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about Detective Beans so far?

I’ve had so many lovely and kind reviews about Detective Beans, it’s hard to pick my favourite! I’m just happy that so many people love him as much as I do and are as invested in his adventures as much as I am. There’s something so cool about making a thing, putting it out in the world and then finding people that resonate with your work. I feel very lucky.

How did you make the book feel so warm and cozy?

Ohhh that is such a great compliment, thank you! I am obsessed with coziness. Give me a movie night on the couch with my cat and some snacks on a cold, rainy evening and I’m in heaven.

In practical terms, I think this comes across in my art with the colour palette. I use a lot of yellows, oranges and reds. I try to infuse coziness into everything I make. I’ll never stop doing it. It’s unstoppable.

We hope you loved this gorgeous Q&A as much as we did! We can’t wait to see what mystery Detective Beans solves next.

You can also find an adorable colouring-in activity to download and print here!

To keep up-to-date with Li’s creative journey, you can follow her on Instagram here: @exocomics

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