Author-Illustrator Interview: Julia S. Kuo

I meant to post my Taiwanese author interviews last week during Taiwanese American Heritage Week, but life got in the way. But better late than never, so here’s the first author interview out of eight.

About the Book

  • Title: Let’s Do Everything and Nothing
  • Author & Illustrator: Julia Kuo
  • Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (an Imprint of Macmillan)
  • Release Date: March 22nd, 2022
  • Genre/format: Picturebook, Fiction


Let’s Do Everything and Nothing is a lush and lyrical picture book from Julia Kuo celebrating special moments—big and small—shared with a child.

Will you climb a hill with me?
Dive into a lake with me?
Reach the starry sky with me,
and watch the clouds parade?

Love can feel as vast as a sky full of breathtaking clouds or as gentle as a sparkling, starlit night. It can scale the tallest mountains and reach the deepest depths of the sea.

Standing side by side with someone you love, the unimaginable can seem achievable.
But not every magical moment is extraordinary. Simply being together is the best journey of all.

Interview with Julia Kuo

Q: Last year I read and attended the book launch for I Dream of Popo, a picturebook about a Taiwanese American girl and her grandmother, written by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by you. I still remember the mouthwatering dishes in the book and wanted to ask what your favorite Taiwanese food is for Taiwanese American Heritage Week! (Feel free to list more than one.)

A: Ooh, what a fun question. I grew up eating the famous oya-jen (蚵仔煎) from Ning Xia Lu night market, so I’m a little spoiled. I would have to say I get the most excited to see ba-wan (肉圓), the steamed meat-filled potato starch snack! It’s sweet and savory and reminds me of rainy days in a simple cafe on Yang Ming Shan.

Q: Congratulations on your author-illustrator debut! Would you say your creative process in making Let’s Do Everything and Nothing was different from your previous projects working as illustrator only, and if so, how?

A: It’s pretty different! The most obvious answer is that the art and text can work more harmoniously together when I’m creating both of them in tandem, but there were many other differences I didn’t foresee.

As an illustrator, I am hired into the editorial pipeline with the expectation that I will find a successful artistic vision for the book. But as an author-illustrator, I need to sell both the art and the text from the very beginning. The artistic vision needs to be there as early as the dummy that I put together to show to my agent, who will then pitch it to editors. In this way there’s more upfront work and uncertainty, and that seems to be the payoff for having more creative control over the entire story.

I also discovered that it’s much lonelier to be an author-illustrator! I have truly loved being paired with the authors of my books. They write stories that I would never come up with in a million years. In this way, my creative freedom as an author-illustrator can sometimes feel surprisingly limited.

Q: I really love the color palette you chose for Let’s Do Everything and Nothing, with the oranges and yellows and the purples and blues. How did you decide on this color palette/ what about it appealed to you?

A: I wanted this book to tell a story through color as the mood shifts and scenes change. The story starts with sedated purplish blues which shift into a purer blue before we are introduced to vibrant new colors. We transition into a world of reds and pinks before settling into the warmth of yellows.

I would normally use bright, warm colors to convey excitement, and colder, darker hues for peacefulness. But I decided to flip things around a bit here. The blues are paired with the adventures; I love the blues of dawn, of alpine lakes and clear skies. And the comfort of home and rest to me is the glow of warm lighting, whether it’s the flickering of a fireplace or the golden windows of houses lit at night.

Q: As an illustrator your portfolio is pretty broad, encompassing different kinds of publications and audiences. What would you say is unique about children’s book illustration?

A: I love that a children’s book basically creates a gallery’s worth of illustrations. You’ll end up with anywhere from 16-32 illustrations, depending on if you’re using pages or spreads, that all make up one cohesive body of work. There’s something so satisfying about building out a visual language and adjusting elements from spread to spread to show nuance in emotion, tone, layout and style, all in order to tell a story.

Q: I’m currently studying children’s literature at Simmons University, and one of our core courses is dedicated exclusively to examining the picturebook as a medium due to its unique history and literary/artistic conventions (I’m not taking it until next semester though). What are your thoughts on the picturebook as a medium? What aspects do you think make for a great storytelling and reading experience? What elements challenge you as an author-illustrator?

A: Picture books are one of the first ways for a child to access a universe outside of their own immediate world. The variety of stories that can be found in picture books (not to mention storytelling styles) are portals not only to experiencing what is different, but also to better understanding oneself. I hope your class reads Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal essay in which she talks about mirrors, windows and doors!

Since I’m only newly an author-illustrator, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the limitless potential of children’s books. I spend a lot of time thinking about what messages and stories are most important to me. I often imagine that each next book is my last, and if that’s all I get, what single story will I choose to tell?

Q: Let’s Do Everything and Nothing focuses on the bond between a little girl and her mother. How did you go about expressing the intimacy of this bond on the page?

A: Someone recently specifically requested a print of this page, and said it was for them the “memory that mothers have of holding their child, the warmth, the rise and fall of their breath, the touch of that small tender shoulder…” I wasn’t thinking about these individual elements so explicitly when I was drawing this spread, but I was looking to create a feeling of everyday closeness, calmness, and intimacy!

Q: What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about writing and/or illustrating picturebooks?

A: My advice is to be prolific and make the books that you wish to be hired to make! Repetition will help with both illustration and writing. It took me many years to gain control over getting the illustration in my head out on paper. Now that I just started writing, I’m back to square one and I know that it’ll be years before I have a better handle on the process. If you keep at it, the practice will pay off. Also, no one knows what you’re capable of before you create it and put it out into the world for others to see! So really it’s a win-win to just start writing and illustrating your dream books right now.

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About the Author-Illustrator

Julia Kuo is the author and illustrator of Let’s Do Everything and Nothing and the illustrator of several picture and specialty books including the New York Times bestselling book RISE. She has created editorial illustrations for publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and Vox Media. Julia has taught illustration courses at Columbia College Chicago and at her alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis. She has been an artist-in-residence twice at the Banff Centre for the Arts and was a 2019-2021 fellow with the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.

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