Mr Pang and Mr Shou (that is, Mr Fat and Mr Slim) live on opposite sides of a river, together with their families. For some unknown reason they don’t like each other and are always fighting. Their children are not allowed to talk to each other – they don’t even let their dogs Pointy Ear and Round Ear play together. But then one morning the families are cooking breakfast. The white smoke from one of the fires mingles with the black smoke from the other. And when the families see this, they start to change their minds …
The picture book Smoke, written by Cao Wenxuan and translated by Duncan Poupard, is illustrated by the British-Chinese artist Yu Rong. Cao and Yu have another picture book, Summer, coming out this year at the small publishing house Twinkling Press, this time in translation by Yan Ding. In addition, another picture book illustrated by Yu Rong – Free as a Cloud, written by Bai Bing – will be published in April by Starfish Bay Publishing.
Obviously, Yu Rong has got a lot going on at the moment. But she is not a beginner. A graduate of The Royal College of Art, she’s already illustrated and written a number of picture books and been awarded the Quentin Blake Award for Narrative Illustration (1999), The Folio Society Illustration Award (1999) and more. She’s presently nominated for the Nami Island International Picture Book Concours 2017.
Yu Rong works in many different techniques, and in Smoke and Free as a Bird she uses traditional Chinese paper-cutting art, combined with drawing. The dark silhouettes, like shadows on a light background, give the books a very “Chinese” feel and the pencil drawings take away some of the potential heaviness of the solid colour blocks. There’s an interesting mix of old and new, not only in the illustrating techniques, but also in the way traditional Chinese buildings are combined with modern people, riding cars and having coffee in a café in Free as a Cloud.
Unlike Smoke, which is more of a fable, difficult to place in any particular time, Free as a Cloud takes place in modern China. A myna bird leaves the forest to stay with a family in the city. They treat him well, but after a while he still starts to miss his old home. It takes some time for the family to understand what he wants, and then they have to make a difficult choice: to keep the bird, or to let him go.
In the video below, you can see Yu Rong working with the illustrations to Free as a Cloud. The audio is in Chinese, but you can see the way she cuts the paper by hand and how she works with it, trying out different positions on the pages. For Yu Rong, paper cuttings are not simple two-dimensional objects – you can move them and raise them up and create three-dimensional forms with the help of light and shadows.
- Smoke, by Cao Wenxuan and Yu Rong (translated by Duncan Poupard), Twinkling Books/Eunoia Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 9780994131621
- Summer, by Cao Wenxuan and Yu Rong (translated by Yan Ding), Twinkling Books/Eunoia Publishing, 2017.
- Free as a Cloud, by Bai Bing and Yu Rong (translator unknown), Starfish Bay Publishing, April 2017. ISBN: 9781760360351