Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Chicken? Viet Thanh Nguyen and Thi Bui’s New Multigenerational Collaboration

Elizabeth Bird for School Library Journal delves into the making of Chicken of the Sea, why sometimes it’s best to encourage creativity in your children, and what’s next for these multigenerational collaborators.

I don’t know how many of you out there keep tabs on the world of adult literature. For those of you in the know, in recent years author Viet Thanh Nguyen has received such accolades as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Meanwhile, artist Thi Bui came to prominent national attention for her graphic memoir The Best We Could Do to say nothing of her Caldecott Honor win for A Different Pond.

Now imagine these two literary giants writing a book together.

Now imagine it’s about chickens.

Here, I’ll let the publisher explain:

“A band of intrepid chickens leave behind the boredom of farm life, joining the crew of the pirate ship Pitiless to seek fortune and glory on the high seas. Led by a grizzled captain into the territory of the Dog Knights, they soon learn what it means to be courageous, merciful, and not seasick quite so much of the time. A whimsical and unexpected adventure tale, Chicken of the Sea originated in the five-year-old mind of Ellison Nguyen, son of Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen; father and son committed the story to the page, then enlisted the artistic talents of Caldecott Honor winner Thi Bui and her thirteen-year-old son, Hien Bui-Stafford, to illustrate it. This unique collaboration between two generations of artists and storytellersinvites you aboard for adventure, even if you’re chicken. Maybe especially if you’re chicken.”

Today, we discuss a very different kind of collaboration. One that not only involves Viet and Thi, but also Viet’s son Ellison and Thi’s son Hien. Because when it comes to creating books, sometimes making something new is truly a family affair. I had the chance to interview all four of these creators recently, and here we have the results:

For Viet and Ellison: I’m a big fan of The Sympathizer as well as Thi’s The Best We Could Do. So I probably speak for many of your fans when I say that the collaboration I would have envisioned between the two of you probably wouldn’t have involved seasick chickens. And yet, here we are. Can you tell me a little bit about where this all came from? Ellison, how did you put pirates together with chickens? And Viet, lot of kids make books but few get illustrated by Caldecott Honor winners. How did you make the decision to turn Ellison’s words into a reality?

Ellison: My smart brain.

Viet: Ellison’s quirkiness was too brilliant for me to understand initially. I just put his comic book–with his pictures and story, but written down by me–onto Facebook to share it with my 5,000 Facebook friends. As it turns out, one of those friends was Krista Kearns,  the Executive and Editorial Director of McSweeney’s. We had never met, but Krista sent me a message asking if this book was for real and were we interested in publishing it. When I mentioned it to Ellison, he was all for it. So I took his story and wrote many more words for it. But the concept, title, and overall story are all his.

For Thi and Hien: I would love to know how Viet pitched this book to you. Also, who had the idea of getting Hien to help with the art? And what did your artistic collaboration look like? How do two people work on the same illustrations? Had you ever done it before?

Hien: Viet texted my mom and my mom told me. I read Ellison’s comic and then I just thought, “Rat. Chicken. Pig.” and started drawing. When we sent my first sketches and everyone liked them, it felt good!  I was excited to get to work on a book. It was a good opportunity for me.

My mom set up the pages on her iPad and I drew in the pages. I had to look at the text while I was drawing to make sure I didn’t miss anything. My mom was usually next to me working on something else and occasionally checking on me.

Thi: It was around June of 2018 that Viet asked me if I’d be interested in illustrating the book. With another book underway, I couldn’t commit to doing the whole project myself. But something about the silliness and freedom of Ellison’s imagination was very much like Hien’s. Hien has been drawing battles for as long as I can remember so I knew he would draw a far better battle scene than I could.  I had no idea he’d draw such awesome chickens until he sat down and busted out four sketches straight from his head. I remembered seeing an article about a dad who colored in his kids’ drawings during his business trips, and without being sure how exactly ours would turn out, proposed a parent-child collaboration where Hien would draw and I would color.

For Viet and Ellison: Ellison, have you always been a writer? Is that the kind of job you’d like to have someday?

Ellison: No and no.

Viet: Ellison has not always been a writer, but in fact he has drawn many comic books since he was three. My favorites include The Robberies of Batman and Imperial Sled. He still draws many comics inspired by Spiderman and the Avengers.

For Thi and Hien: The artist Shaun Tan was once asked by an interviewer, “When did you start drawing?” to which he replied, “When did you stop?” So many kids stop making art when they’re young. Is this something you’d like to do when you grow up?

Hien: Being an artist is cool. You can flex on people with your art skills. But honestly, it doesn’t make that much cash money unless you’re the number one bestselling graphic novelist. It’s a harder life to be an artist, but it’s a livable one, and a good one if you enjoy it. My dream is to be a robotic engineer. I’ll have to draw to design robots in my future, but I don’t plan on becoming an artist. I don’t draw as much as I used to, but I draw in school because people around me enjoy it. And I’m open to doing another project if the right project comes up.

Thi: See? Let your kid be an artist and they might still want to be an engineer. You can’t control anything, parents.

For Viet and Ellison: Was this collaboration with Thi and Hien a one-shot deal, or would you like to do other books with them in the future?

Ellison: Yeah.

Viet: Yes! Our agent would like to see a sequel, Dogs of the Air. Ellison, would  you like to do that with Hien and Thi?

Ellison: Yeah.

For Thi and Hien: What’s next for you guys?

Hien: Finishing high school and getting into college.

Thi: See? No danger in letting your kids do art. I’m gonna keep making art and writing books.


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