It was a drawing I did of my grandmother’s teacup,” says author-illustrator Liza Ferneyhough, recalling the image that set her on the creative path of transforming a mental catalog of warm family memories into her debut picture book, Nana, Nenek & Nina (Dial).
In the story, a girl named Nina visits her paternal grandmother, Nana, in England, and her maternal grandmother, Nenek, in Malaysia. A series of side-by-side vignettes, rendered in watercolor on tea-stained paper, brim with the details of the very different kinds of weather, food, and games Nina enjoys in each place, as well as the many similar experiences she has.
It’s a childhood Ferneyhough knows well. She was born in Kuala Lumpur to her Malaysian mother and British father, who met as electrical engineering students at Liverpool University. By age three, Ferneyhough was living in Cupertino, Calif., where her parents had moved to take advantage of the booming opportunities in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s.
“My parents were engineers, but they both loved making things,” Ferneyhough says, describing the “artsy” environment she and her three siblings were raised in. “We were always doing photography or woodworking or sewing or drawing—things like that.”
Though she was an early and avid reader, Ferneyhough didn’t discover an affinity for picture books until high school. She fell especially hard for the work of Trina Schart Hyman. “She had written an autobiography, and I checked it out of the library probably 20 times,” Ferneyhough says.
Art classes in high school helped her earn a scholarship to Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and through a student exchange program she spent a semester at Rhode Island School of Design.
Ferneyhough notes that her route from art school graduation in 2000 to the children’s book scene was a circuitous one. She moved with her boyfriend (now husband) and best friends to a “rambly, hippie house” in Austin, Tex., and worked on establishing her art style, eventually securing her first freelance illustration work with New Moon Girls magazine and, soon after, Cricket magazine. “I was thrilled,” she says, “because Trina Schart Hyman was the first art director of Cricket, and I was like, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
After illustrating a cooking memoir, Ferneyhough and her husband moved to San Francisco, where she was ready to try her own project. But that plan changed when she began having difficulty with her eyesight and required surgery. “As an artist, that’s a really terrifying thing,” she says.
Her eye condition gradually stabilized, and she began to pursue her illustration dream in earnest. She joined a critique group and attended an SCBWI conference, where she heard Root Literary agent Kurestin Armada speak. “I went up to her afterwards and handed her my dummy—which I learned later was a big don’t,” she says. But just a few hours after that presumed faux pas, Armada offered to represent the alphabet book Ferneyhough had been drafting.
That ABC project didn’t sell, but it prompted a push toward “the grandmothers story” Ferneyhough had begun, initially conceived as a concept board book on opposites. What became the Nina dummy went out on submission during the Covid lockdowns in April 2020, and editor Dana Chidiac at Dial acquired the book that June.
“One of the things Dana said about my dummy was that it didn’t have enough pages,” Ferneyhough recalls. “She actually added more pages to the book and then asked to have more time in Nina’s apartment at the beginning, which I thought was fantastic. Because for a lot of the time, it’s kind of like there are two Ninas—one on either side of the page. People often describe biracial people as being half and half, and that’s kind of true, but at the same time, you’re one whole person. I’m really glad she made that suggestion. I couldn’t tell you if I feel more British or more Malaysian or more American. It’s just an interesting mix, being biracial and tricultural.”
Ferneyhough offered warm praise for art director Lily Malcolm and designer Cerise Steel, with whom she worked day-to-day on page layout, sketch revisions, and proof edits. She also expressed gratitude for Rosie Ahmed, who took the reins as Nina’s editor after Chidiac left the company last year.
Now that her picture book is finally out in the world, “I feel like a giant weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” Ferneyhough says. “This is something I had been working towards for all my adult life.”
She has been particularly touched by the photos people from all over the world have sent her of their kids reading the book. “But what’s super special,” she says, “is seeing pictures of my nephew—he’s my Nana and Nenek’s great-grandson—and other kids in my family looking at the book in England, in Malaysia, in America. I didn’t get to see biracial characters in picture books when I was little.”
Next up for Ferneyhough is a second picture book, which is in its earliest stages and not yet under contract. In the meantime, she may brew up some more inspiration—in one of her grandmother’s teacups.