This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Macmillan Children’s.
A bustling city is inhabited by primary-colored residents whose hearts are changed when they discover the beauty of a more complex world in author-illustrator Arree Chung’s timely picture book, Mixed: A Colorful Story. When the Reds decide that they think they are the best color, they start shouting in the street. The color harmony is shattered, and the city is segregated into red, blue and yellow. But when a Yellow and a Blue fall in love and create a never-before-seen color, hearts and minds are opened.
Although Chung began work on this picture book years ago, it seems that Mixed—with its message of love that’s sure to inspire readers of all ages—is being published at the perfect time in America.
Hilli: The first thing I noticed—aside from the gorgeous endpapers—was that Mixed is a pretty different story compared to your silly Ninja! series. What inspired you to begin working on this book, which is more of a message-driven story?
Arree: Well you know, I have ideas that come to me all the time. I remember when this idea came to me I thought, wow that is a really neat idea that has probably been done already. But I feel like ideas are like having kids. They just come to you. But the concept was pretty clear to me early on. I feel like as a creative person, it’s never the problem of having ideas, it’s the problem of choosing which one and narrowing it down and working on it for a long time. I was just really passionate about this idea because I thought it was important. I started working on this five or six years ago before everything that’s happening right now. I had no idea it would be coming out at this time which is, I feel like, the perfect time. There are so many other stories I want to tell. Some are silly and some are not, but I feel like I’m growing as a storyteller. It took me two and a half years to find the essence of Mixed.
Using color theory to personify the beauty of diversity is such a lovely concept. Was this inspired by your time in art school a little later in life?
Yes, definitely! I love drawing, storytelling and symbolism, and the more I worked on this idea I just found so many analogies that worked so well in terms of color theory: the way that colors look different with each other and feel different with each other and had so many different personalities. I think the most poignant point was thinking about the message—as the world mixes in culture, we create new colors. They’re their own color. It opens a lot of interesting conversations with kids.
Did any particular artists or illustrators influence your work? I think the art here has a really cool classic feel—I love the contrast of the black and white city with the colorful inhabitants.
I always think that stories drive every single visual decision. Everything you do in making a book that’s visual should serve the story. Mr. Men [a series by Roger Hargreaves] was obviously an influence, but it was also a challenge because I didn’t want it to look like Mr. Men at all, but I love how it’s so simple and kind of quirky. It’s something that kids can draw really easily. And then there’s an artist named Brian Biggs and he does Tinyville Town. I really like his lines and how thick and broken they are. My linework is a little different, but I really love the way he draws buildings and the graphicness of it. I think the last person I really looked at a lot was Christian Robinson because he just does great naive art. It feels so honest to a kids experience. So I kind of meshed them all together and made my own thing.
I think you did such a nice job breaking down a heavy story about discrimination for such a young reader. You wrap up this huge concept in such a small number of pages. It feels almost effortless!
If I make it look easy than I did my job! The story is always the hard part. Stories can go a million different ways and you’re thinking so deeply about what it means and trying to get the tone right, so it was not easy. I teach classes about storytelling, and one thing I teach is that you want to try to simplify your story to that simple truth or simple feeling, the experience that every kid has or a simple truth in life.
The simple truth that I simplified it down to is: Kids bring people together. There are two different sides of family who oftentimes may have discrimination or feelings, oftentimes kids will bring them together. Kids don’t see race, they don’t have those extra implications at a young age. It was hard. I was lost for a lot of time but just simplifying it down to that moment where green is born and she’s new and no one’s ever seen her before. That unlocked the story and that’s what brings everyone together.
I was lost at so many other themes about preserving culture. There are lots of other things I’m pretty confused about that are for another book, I’m trying to come up with a sequel.
I would love a sequel!
It’s called Mixed Up, and it picks up right after we left off in the last book where the city wasn’t perfect, but it was home, which is where we are as a society. I think it’s along the lines of figuring out our feelings about culture. There are folks that are older and are afraid of losing Chinese culture or African culture or America, whatever that means. So they’re a little mixed up. They want to be forward thinking but they also want to find that line.
How did you approach this story as a first-generation Chinese American?
I think I actually wrote it more for my nieces. They’re mixed and I thought about them a lot. I’m pretty close to their family. I thought more about my nieces and my friends who have mixed kids than my own personal experiences. Definitely what’s going on in the world influenced the illustrations a lot more in terms of segregation and the protests that we see so much now with each side thinking that they’re right. I have [that experience] going into a middle grade novel I’m sort of working on. It’s called Ming Lee and it’s about growing up as a Chinese American and not feeling completely Chinese and not feeling completely American. There are lots of funny embarrassing stories about not fitting in quite right. You just pull from your life—it’s not that hard!
Sounds like you have so many projects coming up! I can’t wait.
I have too much stuff, it’s a blessing and a curse!
What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
There are two main things. I’d say the first one is that every color is special, unique and different and the world is more colorful with the diversity of colors. I’d say that’s the main one. The world being full of diverse colors is a richer place, and I think the story shows that visually. And then I guess the second one is that being accepting of all sorts of people and there is no such thing as being better or best. I had the honor of showing this at a school visit recently and they get it. They ask some really powerful questions.
I hope that these are the discussions that will happen in schools across America and in some way bring this country a little bit closer together. That’s my hope for it.
Illustrations © Arree Chung