Gracey Zhang can’t remember a time when she didn’t know how to draw. Her parents, who ran a food counter, cut up their used invoices and receipts and clipped the scraps together. These were Zhang’s first sketchbooks. “When you’re a kid, you want to collect things, and I could draw whatever I wanted: a necklace, a pony,” she says. No special equipment was needed; a ballpoint pen was enough. “I could draw all day long,” she adds.
Public school teachers saw that Zhang had a special gift, and they urged her parents to send her to after-school art programs. Her parents were new to Canada—her father is from mainland China and her mother is from Taiwan—and art programs for schoolchildren were not on their radar. But they could see that she loved to draw, and they followed her teachers’ advice. In high school, teachers told Zhang that she should think about art school; the Rhode Island School of Design was the name she heard most often, and that’s where she went.
The school focused on problem solving, no matter what the medium or the project was, Zhang recalls. When students worried that they weren’t learning enough applied knowledge to take with them into industry or commercial settings, their teachers replied, “We’re teaching you to create your own jobs.”
Zhang was convinced that she could make it as a freelancer her first year out of school, but a big obstacle stood in her way: she wasn’t a U.S. citizen. She had all the documents and supporting material lined up to apply for a visa that would allow her to stay, but she couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer to handle her case. She moved back to Vancouver, planning to save enough money to cover her legal fees, and found a job in an animation studio.
She wasn’t completely new to animation—she had made her own short films at RISD—but this was a different experience, being a small cog in a huge machine in the service of telling a visual story. She enjoyed the work and could imagine herself doing it for longer. But she was already devoted to illustration, and an idea for a book had begun to stir in her mind: Lala’s Words, a fantasy about a warmhearted girl who sees beauty in the vacant lots of her city neighborhood and whispers plants into life.
Zhang needed an agent. She cold-called Steve Malk at Writers House and got through to Hannah Mann, who worked for him. When Mann became an agent on her own, Zhang signed with her.
Zhang found out about a residency in France, a three-month stint in a town that hosted a festival dedicated to comics and animation. Her residency project was a short animated film, but when she had time, she worked on Lala’s Words. She sent rough color dummies to Mann. “I love it,” Mann said. “Can you send some finished artwork?”
The money Zhang had carefully put aside for legal fees went to pay for travel around Europe. Her mother worried. How could this lead to a real job?
Back in Vancouver, Zhang returned to the animation studio, working all day, then staying in the studio until 10 or 11 to polish the final artwork for Lala’s Words. Her boss was impressed that she was putting in so much overtime.
Mann didn’t have many changes to suggest, “maybe a word here and there,” Zhang said. They sent the book to multiple publishers; six made offers.
One was Kait Feldmann from Scholastic. “She was definitely the most enthusiastic,” Zhang says. “Scholastic also sent the most thoughtful and full-of-heart pitch deck—they even incorporated art from my spreads! My first awareness of publishing houses was Scholastic, going back to Scholastic bookfairs at my elementary school. It felt like a wonderful, full-circle moment.”
Now Zhang is working on a second book for Scholastic—the deal was for two titles—and she has two more books coming out next year, one from HarperCollins and one from Chronicle. A third, from Penguin Random House, is a collaboration with Canadian writer Kyo Maclear called The Big Bath Book, a picture book about sentō, public baths in Japan.
And what about the visa? When Zhang came back from France, she went back to working in animation, saved enough money to cover her legal expenses, got a visa, and moved to Brooklyn. Her mother is slowly coming to believe that illustration might actually be a real job.