Young-Ji Cho ’18 is an art and English double major. For her thesis, she is creating a series of children’s picture books based on the lives of Asian-American figures. Her advisor is Betsey Garand, a senior resident artist in the department of art and the history of art.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: Basically I’m creating a series of children’s picture books on Asian-American historical figures. The two that I decided to focus on are Yayoi Kusama and Tammy Duckworth. They’re both Asian-American women, and I’m basically telling and making a biography of them. I’m telling their life story in order to raise more visibility of Asian-American characters in the children’s literature space and give people who look like me figures that they can look up to and read about and learn about.
Q: Can you talk more about the two characters you’re writing about?
A: Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese-American artist and she’s become really popular recently because of her installations. She has a bunch of rooms, she calls them infinity rooms, and you step in and you can see a whole bunch of lights everywhere and it’s really pretty, and she’s done a lot more work based on polka dots, and she has a lot of sculptures and paintings and stuff. And that was just — it made sense to me because I’m also an artist so I wanted to focus on a female artist. And Tammy Duckworth — she’s a politician, so I thought it would be really nice to see someone in that sphere, holding that sort of position, because I feel like that’s not very common for us to be able to see. She’s also the first Asian-American woman to be elected to Congress in Illinois, and I’m from Illinois, so I thought it would be a nice nod at my home state. She’s also the first congresswoman to be born in Thailand, she’s the first [female] disabled veteran serving in Congress, and recently, she just announced that she’s pregnant, so she’s going to be the first [sitting] senator to give birth. There’s a lot of firsts that she’s checked off, and I just feel like more people need to know about her. That’s how I came to those two.
Q: What was the inspiration behind your thesis?
A: My sophomore year, spring, I took a class here called A Primer to Children’s Literature. I really enjoyed the course, and I really like reading children’s picture books because it’s sort of like a good meeting point of my two interests since I’m an art and English double major. It sort of makes sense to have those two form in this product. I took that class, I really liked it, but I noticed in their curriculum that they didn’t really have any literature on Asian Americans and there weren’t that many on people of color in general. In the broader world of publishing, there’s a lot of need for more diverse books. I recognized that problem, and I thought this was my way to contribute to that and bring more diversity into the publishing/children’s literature sphere.
Q: So are your books strictly a biography, or are you going to fictionalize a little bit?
A: It’s based on their lives, and so I’ve been doing research on where they were born, their family and how they got to where they are. It will be a biography, but of course, it will be a much more simplified version in order for children to be able to read it and understand it. I’m trying to keep it pretty accurate [to their life].
Q: What has been your research process been like?
A: It’s interesting because this is an art thesis, but I’m also, since I’m writing it as well, it’s been a lot of back and forth because I’m writing but I’m also illustrating. So I’ve been looking at other artists who inspire me. I’ve been researching about Kusama’s life and reading her autobiography, and reading books that other people wrote about her. I’m actually working on her first, so I actually haven’t gotten to Tammy Duckworth as much. And then I have weekly meetings with my advisor and she brings in books for me to see or gives me new ways to think about my work, which I then revise and produce more of. Everywhere I go I’m on the lookout for things that may inspire me and I’ve been reading a lot of children’s picture books, like going to the Jones Library and going to the children’s book section, stuff like that.
Q: What is one interesting or cool thing that you discovered during your research?
A: I’ve just realized how hard of a process this is, so I have a lot more respect for children’s book authors and illustrators because it may seem like, “It’s a children’s book, it’s really simple, it’s not as complex as a novel,” but there is so much that goes into it. And because it’s so much more simple, every page has to be significant, and there’s so many times you have to redo stuff just to fit within like 32 pages. I guess that would be the biggest thing that I’m taking away, is just a newfound respect for people who do this normally.
Q: What’s been the most rewarding moment so far?
A: I guess the most rewarding moment is for me to be able to see my own progress, even from the beginning of the semester. Looking at the work that I’ve created at the beginning and then looking at something I created a week ago, I can see how much more confident I’ve become in creating something. And I guess that makes sense because you do something every week, you practice and practice; you get better. But it’s really cool to be able to see it visually in front of me. Just recently I had a meeting with my advisor, and I was able to show her a rough draft, physical copy of the book that I wanted to make, and it was really rewarding for me to be able to see her actually flip through the pages and look at each picture. I don’t know if there’s a set thing again, but it’s just the process, and looking back at the process has been really rewarding.
Q: Do you have any advice for future thesis writers?
A: This is something that I personally still have to work on, but I think because it is a very self-motivated thing — yeah, your advisors are there to help you — but in the end it’s about how much you put into it. And everyone tells you this, and I guess I’ll reiterate it, but it really is important that — the product is a reflection of how much time you’ve put into it, so it’s really vital that you carve out a space and a time, just like you would a class, and make sure you work on it. And I find that hard to do because there’s so many more immediate deadlines, you know, like “oh I have a paper due next week, whereas the thesis seems so far away,” but it’s really important to have that time dedicated just to do your thesis.