70. Vikki Zhang, illustrator with a love of textiles and fashion

I first came across the stunning artwork of Vikki Zhang 张文绮 when she created the covers of four bilingual books by Cao Wenxuan. I was struck by the quality of her work, and of her use of textile design in the art work and have been following her work on Instagram @0717vikki and on her website vikkizhang.com while she has been studying in New York. There’s also a short video about her on Youtube! She’s recently done the cover art for a series of nine titles by some of China’s most famous children’s authors. and kindly agreed to an interview with us!

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Nine new books, with cover art by Vikki Zhang

Hi Vikki, Please tell us about yourself… Who are you? Where are you? What would you like people to know about you?

HI, My name is Vikki Zhang (张文绮). I’m from Huai’an in Jiangsu, and moved to New York three years ago to follow the Illustration as Visual Essay masters program at the SVA [School of Visual Arts]. After graduating, I became a full-time artist. Being an artist has been my dream since I was three , when I started reading picture books. My early art education was in traditional Chinese painting – I did after-school classes for seven years. Influenced by my family and my art teacher, I was so fascinated with all traditional forms of art. These years I have been especially fascinated by Qing dynasty fashion and crafts, paintings from the Song dynasty, gothic novels, surrealism, and English illustrators’ work during the 19th century.

And you also studied Digital Game Design! How has this influenced the way you work in illustration, and in children’s books?

People are often surprised by my BFA background – I studied Digital game design – sometimes I’m surprised too! Because that fast and violent industry looks like another world compared to what I am doing now. However, I really appreciated that experience, which helped me to develop an ability to learn new techniques quickly and keep open-minded.

It seems that textiles and fashion are very important to you, and in your work as well. Can you tell us more about this?

I appreciate all kinds of textiles and decoration on clothes, from chrysanthemums on kimonos, rococo roses on velvet dresses, rivets on punk jackets, to a kingfisher on the collar of a cheongsam. Beautiful clothes bring joy to our life – my mum always said that. When I was young and reading books with illustrations  I used to complain that the characters wore terrible clothes – they didn’t match the historical background or the character’s identity, indicating a carelessness on the part of the illustrator. So I decided to do something about it, I won’t let those little readers find any mistakes.

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Vikki Zhang’s illustration from Book of Life (2015)

Also, I really love line drawings by Wu Daozi 吳道子, of the Tang Dynasty. And I just have so much fun getting lost in drawing beautiful clothes, as well as watching them on each season’s runway shows. I learnt a lot from fashion designers, like John Galliano, about creation process – how to transfer a vague feeling into a rich and attractive artwork. The solutions for making book illustrations might be found in fashion design.

Please tell us about a book that you used to love reading as a child, and what was special about it for you.

Cao Wenxuan’s work is special to me. My dad brought Cao’s books for me – I remember the first one I read was The Grass House. Like Border City by Shen Congwen, the story takes place in a countryside setting, which is similar to where my grandparents used to live – in Jiangsu – but more dreamy and simpler. Different from most young adult novels which repeatedly described familiar life in a modern school at that time, Cao’s world was distant from us, it felt very fresh and mysterious to me, but that didn’t interrupt my connection with the characters. And all the characters’ names are unique, rare to see in books, and unforgettable. The only illustration that appeared in that book was the cover. I didn’t pay attention to that until grown up, and then, trying to remember Cao’s story, it was the cover image that jumped up first, and refreshed all my memories.

Another book was Andersen’s Fairytales, I read it a lot because it contained a large amount of illustrations. Looking back, my childhood reading experience helped me to learn, from the reader’s view, how image functions as a very important bridge connecting kids and the unknown world. Kids rely on illustrations – and they trust illustrators – so I will keep learning how to provide a better visual experience for them.

Finally, what are you working on now?

Recently I just finished a children’s book about a terracotta warrior. It’s by Dong Hongyou 董宏猷 and will be published later this year by 21st Century Publishing House (21世纪出版社) . The story happens in Xi’an, and is told partly in a children’s song. A  boy wakes up the soldier sculpture and brings it to life in our contemporary world.

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Illustration by Vikki Zhang in 《兵马俑,快跑!》 (Run fast, Terracotta Warrior!) by DONG Hongyou (21st Century, 2018) – reproduced with permission

Another book I am working on is about Chinese mythology, which is my favorite subject, as I can play with so many exquisite Asian decorative elements. I got great inspiration from murals in the Yongle Palace, as well as elaborate-style painting from modern Chinese artists like Xie Zhen’ou 谢振殴.

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Illustration by Vikki Zhang in 《天女》 (Goddesses) by ZHOU Jing 周静 (forthcoming) – reproduced with permission

I am also very lucky in that I got a chance to design clothes for kids, working with an amazing production team in China. The image below is from the Chinese New Year season. We are focusing on traditional Chinese clothes, and my job is designing and drawing textiles. We hope to keep the classic crafts alive and develop them while adding more creative story-telling elements to the patterns. And this way, kids can have fun reading the clothes they are wearing.

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Thank you, Vikki, for sharing your work and so many images!

See more of Vikki Zhang’s work on

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Professor Qiuying Lydia Wang is an accomplished scholar in literacy studies. Born and raised in northern China, she now teaches at the Oklahoma State University. We collaborated for more than a year organizing the “Border Crossing in Children’s Literature” Symposium and brought dozens of researchers to the Cotsen Children’s Library, Princeton University last month to exchange their latest scholarship on international, multicultural, and translated children’s literature. We were able to steal a little time after the intense work to relax in a café with Helen. As we were chatting, Lydia told us about her childhood reading and related the story that had touched her the most. We were spellbound by both her retelling and her personal story, and asked if she would write it up for us. We are delighted to share it here. Continue reading

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Since Cao Wenxuan is the most famous writer of children’s literature in China and also the one most well-known abroad, it was no surprise that there would eventually be a prize in his name. In fact, there are already two: The Bronze and Sunflower Award 青铜葵花奖 and the Cao Wenxuan Children’s Literature Award 曹文轩儿童文学奖. The Cao Wenxuan Children’s Literature Award was inaugurated in April 2017, with the aim to promote children’s literature in China, to encourage young writers, to promote Chinese literature abroad and to make Jiangsu province a major centre for the development of children’s literature in China. Continue reading

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66. Children’s Books in China 2018 (and 2017)

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65. “The Tortoise Family Goes to the Sea” and “Blind Little Red Riding Hood”

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Cover of The Tortoise Family Goes to the Sea (Chinese edition)

One of the many Chinese awards for picture books is the Feng Zikai Children’s Picture Book Award 丰子恺儿童图画书奖. The latest, and 5th, awards were announced last summer and I’ve recently read two of the books on that list – one that won an award, and one that had to make do with getting included in the shortlist (no small feat).  Continue reading

62. The NCTA Freeman Book Awards

The 2017 NCTA Freeman Book Awards have just been announced. I’m delighted that Bronze and Sunflower has won the young adult/middle school literature award, and that An’s Seed received an honourable mention. I didn’t really know what the Freeman awards were about. Who better to ask than David Jacobson, whose book Are You an Echo? received an honourable mention last year to tell us about the prize, and what winning meant to him.  Continue reading