In our inaugural Artist Spotlight, we caught up with children’s book author and illustrator Cornelius Van Wright about his new book The Little Red Crane, creative inspiration, and the children’s publishing industry.
Star Bright Books (SBB): What was your inspiration for Dex the Spider Crane?
Cornelius Van Wright (CVW): The genesis of Dex started as a friendly conversation I had with Star Bright Books’s publisher [Deborah Shine] a few years ago. She had described to me how she could not stop watching a crane truck being assembled across from where she lived. I shared how I loved crane trucks ever since my father bought me a giant working toy crane when I was a child. We found out that we both had a fascination for trucks and cranes.
I drew her a picture of a crane. Later, she suggested I write a story about a crane. Excited, I bought tons of reference books on different cranes. In the very back on one of the books was a very small Crawler [Spider] Crane. That’s when the idea hit me. Instead of a story about the many mighty cranes I saw, why not tell a story from the perspective of the smallest crane?
SBB: Why did you pursue children’s book writing and illustration as a career?
CVW: I have always loved children’s books. I still have many of the books my parents read to me when I was little. I loved escaping into the stories—they piqued my imagination.
In my final year of college, a visiting art director from a famous magazine saw my work and invited me to show him my portfolio. At the end of the visit he asked me why I wanted to be an illustrator. That question stuck in my head for years.
Finally, I understood what he was asking to me. What did I want to say as an illustrator? What was my reason for pursuing illustration? I stopped and re-examined my motives. I found that I was still looking at PBS children’s programs, even in college. These things reflected where my heart was. That is why I still have my children’s books from when I was little.
SBB: What do you wish you knew before entering the publishing industry?
CVW: That a rich uncle or aunt were required. I had neither.
SBB: How has the industry changed since you started working as an illustrator? What are some challenges you still face?
CVW: I love the industry—not just working on children’s stories, but the people who work in the industry. Most of them have a beautiful passion for books that is inspiring.
The industry has changed dramatically over the years, however. It used to be an industry driven by love of books. Some books take years to catch on to the public. This was understood in the industry. However, many publishers have been taken over by large media conglomerates that are more interested in the fourth quarter. If a title doesn’t sell X amount of copies in X amount of months, “Off with it’s spine!” This is a sad new reality that seems to dictate what some publishers will take a chance on.
SBB: What is the favorite part of your job?
CVW: I love seeing a book come to life. Equally, I love visiting classes and libraries and seeing children’s faces light up with their own inspirations. Some of the students run up to me and show me their drawings and ideas. They feel empowered. There is nothing like it!
SBB: Tell us about working with your wife, Ying-Hwa Hu, on book projects.
CVW: I love working with my wife. It is not always easy in terms of someone having a different opinion on an idea. But opening up to another point of view (teamwork) can actually strengthen the final product. It takes humbling oneself and entertaining the notion that that great idea you had may not have been a great idea. I have learned to trust and listen to Ying-Hwa’s opinions. I love working with her!
SBB: What illustrators of color do you admire? Have any of them inspired your works?
CVW: There are many illustrators of color I admire. Too many to list them all. But a few that come immediately to mind are Jerry Pinkney, Allen Say, Leo and Diane Dillion, Kinuko Craft, Kadir Nelson, Faith Ringgold, and Shaun Tan. I am inspired by many artists. Inspiration can show up in many forms.
SBB: Is there an illustrated work you are most proud of? Why?
CVW: This eludes me.
SBB: What message do you hope to convey to young readers through your work?
CVW: Be free to imagine.
SBB: Who is your favorite children’s book character?
CVW: Too many . . .
SBB: Tell us one thing about you that readers would be interested to know.
CVW: I am a product of life’s detours. I’m still looking for the main road.
SBB: What advice would you offer to people of color interested in writing or illustrating?
CVW: Please do not feel limited. What do you truly want to say? Do your homework(!) to find the best way to say it and share it.
Learn more about Cornelius and The Little Red Crane at this link: