Spoiler alert! In picture book Let Me Finish! by Minh Lê, illustrated by Isabel Roxas, the spry, red spectacled narrator is chased through vivid environments, only to be interrupted by well-intentioned animals. In one of the best executions of the “meta-book,” Let Me Finish! lets kids and adults in on the joke together, as the narrator starts climbing over pages in order to read in peace. In addition, Let Me Finish! beautifully demonstrates the blessings and curses of having a supportive community. IE corresponded with writer Minh Lê and illustrator Isabel Roxas about their take on modern classics for children, their parents’ reactions to their creative work, and advice for those who want to pursue creative endeavors.
International Examiner: Which children’s book character embodies how you were as a child?
Minh Lê: Probably Harold from Harold and the Purple Crayon. I was similarly shy and cautiously curious, and like Harold I liked to see a world of possibility in a blank page. However, unlike the bald Harold, I woke up every morning with a full head of thick gravity-defying black hair.
Isabel Roxas: As a child I loved to eat and make up stories (that is still true today), so two characters come to mind—the caterpillar of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and the rabbit in This is Not a Box. I was a picky eater, but once I liked something, I would eat massive amounts of it. I have so many photos of myself as a toddler with my face smushed into a mango. I also loved imaginary play, just like the rabbit in This is Not a Box My cousins and I would spend hours wreaking havoc in my father’s engineering offices acting out dangerous quests and fierce battles … with T-squares and pencils for weapons. Those poor engineers, we really mussed up their workspaces over the weekend.
IE: There are many animals and creatures that come out of different environments to disturb the narrator in your book Let Me Finish! Did you have siblings or pets or imaginary friends growing up? Which interrupted you most and under what guise?
Lê: Actually, Let Me Finish! is not so much inspired by my childhood, but by social media. The way we consume entertainment these days is so social … a big part of the experience is how we share and discuss it with others. So when you’re really excited about something new, even if you’re not being chased by a purple rhino, it often feels like a race to get through it before someone reveals the ending to you.
Roxas: I had siblings, cousins and the neighborhood kids who interrupted me all the time with the temptation to play outside, climb some hill of spare parts or play shopkeeper. But I had a special place where I could read uninterrupted—it was the [young reader’s area of my grade school library]. We had to remove our shoes to get into that section and keep very quiet. There was something very sacred about that space with its own rituals and rules.
IE: Asian parents don’t often envision their children having creative jobs when they grow up. What experience made it clear that this was what you wanted to do? How do your parents feel about your chosen profession?
Lê: I’m incredibly lucky because my parents have always been very supportive and gave me the time and space to find my own (often meandering) path. They are still my biggest supporters. In fact, my mom, who is an accountant, keeps a copy of the book in her office during tax season so her clients can read it while she finishes their paperwork.
Roxas: The opening of a children’s specialty bookstore called Young Minds solidified it for me. One day, when I was in the store browsing, I saw people painting a giant flying dragon on the wall—it turns out that they were a just-formed organization of children’s book illustrators! I was just a young teen then, but they let me sit-in on their meetings and I was on my way! I think my mother is still concerned that I don’t make enough money, but she gets very excited when she sees my work featured in newspapers and magazines.
IE: What kind of advice do you have for people who want to write/illustrate books for kids?
Lê: Write a story, not a lesson. Don’t get me wrong, a great story can also teach a lesson, but if you treat the story as just a vehicle for a lesson in morality, kids will see right through that.
Roxas: Be persistent. Be resilient. Be playful. Be true. Be thoughtful. Be curious. Draw (or write, or both) as often as possible.
IE: What do you consider as modern classic children’s books that should be the new go-to baby gifts?
Lê: I could go on forever, but some of my favorites are: Max and the Tag-along Moon by Floyd Cooper, The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat (who I am working with for my second book), First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger.
Roxas: Beegu by Alexis Deacon; Mad at Mommy by Komako Sakai, and It’s Useful to have a Duck by ISOL.