Guojing’s debut, a wordless picture book, follows a small child through a mythical land where she befriends magical creatures. The book, The Only Child (Random/Schwartz & Wade, Dec.), came from a personal place for the artist, but the appeal resonates beyond the borders of Guojing’s native China. “Everyone feels lonely at times, and I wanted to make a book to fill my own emptiness,” she says. “I created a book about my feelings of loneliness and isolation, and I wanted to explore how love and imagination can make those feelings less hard. I had a very lonely childhood because of China’s one-child policy, and I grew up having fantasies like this.”
The universality of the book’s theme takes center stage in Guojing’s book. “I like having illustrations tell the story,” she says. “In my opinion, without words there is more room for the readers to use their imagination. It is definitely easier for me to share my emotions in pictures.” Sending the story to her agent of three years, Isabel Atherton of Creative Authors, opened the door to her book deal with Schwartz & Wade cofounder Lee Wade. Guojing says of Wade and art director Rachael Cole, “It’s remarkable how smoothly we were able to communicate given the language barrier, but somehow we shared an understanding of the story, so ideas flowed easily back and forth.”
Guojing has been interested in making art since she was 10 years old, taking classes in her native province of Shanxi (she now divides her time between Shanxi and Beijing). Her preferred methods have changed over time, and she even studied sculpture in college, but she describes her overall style as “simple, soft, and emotional. I try to be true to myself and put my own feelings into every picture I make. I see drawing as my free land. It’s a place where I can bring my feelings into the open.”
An early book that influenced Guojing as an artist was a picture book about a mermaid. “I read [it] when I was very small,” she says, and though she’s forgotten the exact title, the story has stayed with her. “In the end of the book, the mermaid gave up her happiness for another and sacrificed herself for love. That picture book gave me the idea that love is the most powerful force in this world, and I wanted to explore that in my artwork.” This concept of love was symbolized in the figure of the stag that is present throughout The Only Child. “I liked the idea of creating a character that would always protect the girl and in the end guide her home.”
Guojing’s work in bringing her vision to life has yielded plenty of positive attention for the book. “In China, where I live, I have had newspapers and other online media interview me,” she says. “It doesn’t surprise me that The Only Child has meaning for Chinese people who shared a similar upbringing to my own. It is thrilling for me, however, that the book resonates for people who did not grow up in China.”
Stateside, the book netted three starred reviews, as well as some bookseller love in the form of its selection as an Indie Next book; it was also named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book of the Year. Guojing has heard that some people cry when they read it. “I think they see themselves in it, and that is very gratifying to me. It makes me feel connected to the readers,” she says.
Following publication, Guojing has been able to focus full-time on her own work. Previously, she was a concept artist for games and animated shows. To generate new work, she likes “to sketch life in a coffee shop or on the street. I carry a small notebook with me at all times. When I get a new idea, I immediately write it down or draw it—I don’t want to forget it. I find that some good ideas come from my dreams.”
Guojing says she currently has “many stories and ideas that are partially written or roughly drawn, but I haven’t completed any of those yet. I’m thinking hard about what story I’d like to finish next.”