Salina Yoon is the award-winning author of more than 200 books for children, including Penguin and Pinecone and Found. Yoon's latest picture book, Be a Friend, tells the story of Dennis, an ordinary boy who expresses himself in extraordinary ways—he's a mime! But being a mime can be lonely. It isn’t until Dennis meets a girl named Joy that he discovers the power of friendship.
Yoon shares a look behind Be a Friend, a simple yet emotional story with a muted palette.
I was sitting in bed on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee and a notebook, and I scribbled some notes for an idea about a character who only communicates through mime. This was an idea for a humorous illustrated chapter book, I thought. I’d never written anything laugh-out-loud funny, or a book with chapters. It was a stretch. But that morning, I felt like goofing off from house chores and escaped with writing. I’d already thought of the title before I came downstairs: The Silent Adventures of Mime Boy. I chuckled.
On Monday, the character stayed with me. I started to think of a funny storyline for him. But I realized that this child, Mime Boy, would be teased in a school setting. And this broke my heart. There was nothing funny about it, and this wasn’t a chapter book I wanted to write. But the story had to be written.
I could have scrapped the idea right then, but I didn’t. Mime Boy wouldn’t let go. The character had something to say . . . and he needed a voice through pictures and minimal words, because he wanted to mime his story. This story had to be told as a picture book.
I began to sketch poses for his imaginary scenes, and Dennis was born. I was so protective of Dennis. I didn’t want him bullied, or laughed at. I wanted him to simply be who he was, and explore the world through his eyes. And through his eyes, there was happiness and love and playfulness, even though others could not see it (or so he thought). But this did not prevent him from feeling alone and different.
The moment I knew that I had a book was when I had Dennis kick his imaginary ball when he was sad and lonely, and on the next page, someone catches it. Her name was Joy. My heart melted when I envisioned this scene. Someone reached out in a way that he understood. This is a pivotal scene in the book where he finally makes a connection with another child, and this is where he finds true joy . . . the joy from having a friend. The revised book title reflects this theme.
The tone of the story was set. I struggled with an appropriate art style for this book because it was unlike any story I had written before. I could not draw him with thick black outlines like I do with my Penguin series. It would have been too bright, too flat and too cheerful.
I chose to illustrate the book with pencil on paper, because I could not think of anything more intimate than that. I had a deep connection to Dennis. The pencil drawings were scanned, then colored digitally, with a background of tonal antique paper. I looked at old Marcel Marceau footage for inspiration in black and white, and wanted Dennis’ story to be in a timeless world that told a timeless tale.
While the palette was neutral overall, I used the color red to depict the lines of his imagination. This would be the bridge between Dennis and Joy, and eventually, with the rest of the world.
One of my favorite scenes in the book is where the children have their Show and Tell. Most of the kids share their objects and talk about it, but Dennis mimes the metamorphosis of a butterfly instead in various stages.
Dennis discovers that true friends accept each other as they are. Friends don’t expect you to change, and you don’t have to change for them. And friends can open your eyes to a different world, too.
Not everyone can relate with being a mime, but we can all relate to feeling different.
And, like Dennis, with the help of our friends, we too can shine.
Check out the book trailer for Be a Friend:
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Be a Friend.