Samantha Balaban writes about an interview Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ellison Nguyen, and illustrators, Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford had with Lulu Garcia-Navarro about the creation of Chicken of The Sea for NPR’s Weekend Edition Sundays.
When Ellison Nguyen was 4 years old he got the chance to meet Thi Bui, the illustrator of one of his favorite books. He was so inspired by her work that he promptly wrote and drew his own picture book — “It came to me,” Ellison, now 6, explains simply.
Chicken of the Sea tells the story of three farm chickens: Every day they wake up, they lay eggs, they go to sleep … and then they start the process all over again. They’re bored and ready for an adventure, until, one day a rat pirate arrives at the farm ready to enlist the chickens to sail the high seas (“but they’re too dumb to be pirates,” Ellison says).
The project became a multi-generational collaboration. Ellison’s dad, Viet Nguyen (who is also very good at writing books), helped him with the story, and got in touch with Thi Bui to see if she might like to illustrate it. Bui enlisted her son, Hien Bui-Stafford, 13, for the job.
“My mom … helped me with pointers like the background or like a posture of the character,” Hien says. “We usually would work like after school or during the weekends when we had our time together. Really the whole thing looked really bad without my mom.”
Bui thinks her son is just being modest.
“I really was intimidated by the idea of illustrating this story because it’s way more creative and imaginative than what I normally do, which is non-fiction,” Bui says. “So I needed Hien brain, which was like closer to Ellison’s brain to give me the raw material to work with and so he did all the line drawings on his own.”
Bui says if she had been illustrating this book, she would have probably “overthought” it – doing lots of research about chickens. Her son was able to be more intuitive.
“Hien just thought: chicken,” she says. “And then he drew this thing straight out of his imagination and it was spot-on.”
Viet Nguyen says he loved working with his son Ellison on the book.
“It affirmed for me something that I think a lot of artists and writers know, which is that it’s really crucial for us to try to tap into the playfulness that’s inside of us — and the child’s capacity to think beyond the conventions that we’ve absorbed as adults,” he says, adding: “So I hope to continue exploiting Ellison in the future.”
As for 6-year-old Ellison’s review of working with his dad?
“It was great,” he says.
When asked what moral he hopes his readers will take away from Chicken of the Sea, Ellison asks for clarification about what a “moral” is. Told that it’s an idea people take away after reading a book, he replies: “Nothing.”
So why end the book with a party? Simple: “I like happy endings,” Ellison says.
Listen to the interview at NPR or read the full transcript below.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
“Chicken Of The Sea” is a debut children’s book about three farm chickens. They wake up. They lay eggs and go to sleep. They’re bored and ready for an adventure. One day…
ELLISON NGUYEN: A rat pirate comes to the farm. And he makes them his pirated. And they sail the sea. But they’re too dumb to be pirates. And then they arrive on the castle of the dog knight. And they fight. And then they have a big party at the end.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Ellison Nguyen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He’s the author.
ELLISON: I created “Chicken Of The Sea.” And I’m 6 years old.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back when he was just 4, Ellison got the chance to meet illustrator Thi Bui. He was so inspired by her work that he promptly wrote his own picture book, the first draft of “Chicken Of The Sea.”
VIET NGUYEN: Well, Ellison, where did you come up with it?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Ellison’s dad, Viet Nguyen, who helped him a little bit.
ELLISON: It came to me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We’ve been asking authors and illustrators how they work together or apart to perfectly translate words – or slightly insane stories about pirate chickens – into pictures. In this case, it was a multi-generational collaboration for both the authors and the illustrators.
HIEN BUI-STAFFORD: How it all happened was – Viet actually just texted my mom.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: While Ellison and his dad worked on the words, Thi Bui enlisted her son, 13-year-old Hien Bui-Stafford, to illustrate the book.
HIEN: And then my mom was too busy to illustrate it at the time. And so she asked me if I wanted to try. And I thought it’d be really cool. And so I accepted. And then my mom also helped me with pointers on, like, the background or on, like, a posture of a character. We usually would work, like, after school or during the weekends, when we had our time together. Really, the whole thing looked really bad without my mom.
THI BUI: That’s actually not true.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That’s Thi Bui.
BUI: I really was intimidated by the idea of illustrating this story because it’s way more creative and imaginative than what I normally do with just nonfiction. So I needed Hien’s brain, which was, like, closer to Ellison’s brain, to give me the raw material to work with. And so he did all the line drawings on his own.
HIEN: When we were, like, making all the chickens – like, when I first thought of, like, the idea of three chickens, I thought of them all having, like, separate personalities and just being unique. So we decided to do that first with, like, shirt color. But then we changed the idea to their actual, like, feathers being different colors and all of them just, like, having completely different personalities and being their own, in a way.
BUI: If I had been the one to illustrate the story from scratch, I would have done a lot of research about different chickens. And I would probably overthought the whole process. But Hien just thought, chicken. And then he drew this thing straight out of his imagination. And it was spot on. He always wanted to make things better. And he still looks at his drawings now and goes, oh, I could have done this better or that better. But the essential, like, gold that was there is still there, which is like the rawness and the imagination.
NGUYEN: Ellison, do you want to answer the question about, what was it like to work with Daddy?
NGUYEN: Can you elaborate? Can you say a sentence?
ELLISON: It was great.
NGUYEN: Well, for me – I had a really good time working with Ellison because it affirmed for me something that I think a lot of artists and writers know, which is that it’s really crucial for us to try to tap into the playfulness that’s inside of us and the child’s capacity to think beyond the conventions that we’ve absorbed as adults. So I hope to continue exploiting Ellison in the future.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: “Chicken of the Sea” was written by Ellison Nguyen and illustrated by Hien Bui-Stafford with help from their parents Thi Bui and Viet Nguyen.
NGUYEN: What’s the moral of the story in “Chicken Of The Sea?”
ELLISON: What’s that?
NGUYEN: What do you want a reader to take away from your book?
NGUYEN: Nothing? So why end with the party?
ELLISON: Because I like happy endings.
NGUYEN: You like parties, too?
ELLISON: Mmm hmm.