Author-Illustrator Interview: Tracy Subisak

Welcome to my sixth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Books

  • Title: Jenny Mei Is Sad
  • Author & Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: June 15th, 2021
  • Genre/Format: Picturebook, Juvenile Fiction


With this educational and entertaining picture book, learn how to approach difficult emotions with compassion and understanding—and be the best friend you can be.

My friend Jenny Mei is sad. But you might not be able to tell.

Jenny Mei still smiles a lot. She makes everyone laugh. And she still likes blue Popsicles the best. But, her friend knows that Jenny Mei is sad, and does her best to be there to support her.

This beautifully illustrated book is perfect for introducing kids to the complexity of sadness, and to show them that the best way to be a good friend, especially to someone sad, is by being there for the fun, the not-fun, and everything in between.

  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction


A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.

Interview with Tracy Subisak

Q: I saw that you studied industrial design in school, which I imagine is a pretty different world from children’s literature. Are there any skills or experiences from that time that you’ve found helpful now that you’re working as a children’s book author/illustrator?

A: Industrial design is such a different world! Luckily, there was a lot of drawing and storyboarding in all of my industrial design jobs, so I drew all the time and not only did I learn how to draw any product I could imagine, but I also drew a lot of people using those products in different scenarios. That skillset ended up translating really well into children’s book illustrations, since they’re made up of an entire world, set of characters, and scenarios.

A sample storyboard illustration by Tracy Subisak.
Another sample storyboard by Tracy Subisak.

Q: I love your illustration style and the use of line, shape and color in a way that feels a bit understated yet so textured and intimate and expressive. Can you share some specific artists or artistic styles or movements that have inspired your work and what about them appeals to you?

A: Oh my, I love Jillian Tamaki and Ping Zhu’s works! Their work shows a technical understanding and connection to the brush/tool that I’ve always looked up to – it gives them the freedom to express beyond their technical understanding. I also read a lot of comics growing up, so I naturally lean on using line a lot… I’ve been challenging myself to use more shapes and textures, and only use line where necessary in the story. Selective use of line is something that I learned from looking at a lot of storyboards for film, where storyboard artists use line (or the lack of) to articulate where the eye should travel in the story! I think I would always love to be a spectacular artist like Tamaki or Zhu – above all, I’d love to always keep the focus on the story.

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad was your first picture book as both author and illustrator. How did taking on the role of author-illustrator differ from the work of illustration in general?

A: Since I’m responsible for both the written and visual story, I’m more invested in making sure the words tell the story that the illustrations aren’t, and vice versa. I can easily change a word or sentence as needed to fit the story better to my illustrations. When I am illustrating someone else’s manuscript, I just focus on how well I can tell a visual story, adding details that might enhance and deepen the story to complement the original manuscript. 

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad tackles the subject of sadness and depression for a young audience that may not have the words to articulate their feelings. What kinds of artistic strategies did you employ to make the emotions and messages of the story accessible to a younger audience?

A: I reckon the main strategy was to show the many ways that sadness can form within us – it can be so confusing, even for adults, to know what one is going through when really sad things are happening. Sadness can sometimes manifest into anger. Sadness can be hard to admit or say out-loud. Sadness can be hard to notice. Those are just some of the ways sadness is felt, and there are people that understand and will still be there for you no matter what.

A page from Jenny Mei Is Sad.

Q: In Amah Faraway, there are lots of Taiwanese places and foods depicted. Did you use reference photos or make a research trip, or was it all drawn from memory/imagination?

A: The places and foods depicted are a culmination of all of my experiences in Taiwan! I was lucky to have lived in Taiwan (and at one point I lived in a night market!), and to have visited my Waipo (that’s Chinese for grandma on my mom’s side), and to have traveled around Taiwan with my mom and my friends and family! From visiting Wulai hot springs for the first time to eating at various banquets to climbing up Elephant Mountain to view Taipei 101, there were a lot of visual memories in my head.

Photo of a bridge in Wulai, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of plates of food at a banquet held beneath a tent in Taiwan, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Photo of Tracy Subisak at Elephant Mountain with a view of Taipei 101 in the background.

I definitely used some photo reference though.

Just a couple of scenes :

I was able to take my dad and brother’s family around Taipei back in 2019. Since we had a few little kiddos with us, we went to Daan Forest Park almost every day. It was such a nice reprieve in the bustling city, and the island of birds was so fun to watch!

Two-page spread from Amah Faraway, illustrated by Tracy Subisak.

One of my first memories of Taipei was, of course, going to the Shilin night market with my mom and dad. My dad was so overwhelmed by the smell of stinky tofu, so mom and I walked around and got as many snacks as we could. I remember being enamored with all the cute plushies and clothes and bags. It was important for me to include some of my favorite snacks like roasted yams and candied hawthorn in the book too.

Photo of yams for sale in front of a clothing rack display at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of a lemonade stand at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of candied hawthorn from Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Q: The picturebook as a medium is often described as a melding of and collaboration between word and image, but in the publishing industry, authors and illustrators typically have an editor as a liaison rather than working directly together. How much interaction did you have with Margaret Chiu Greanias for Amah Faraway, and how much creative freedom were you given to add details not explicitly referenced in the text of the story?

A: I had zero interaction with Margaret until after I finished all the final artwork for the book! It’s been super nice to do a bunch of events with her though, and she’s told me that it feels like I was on the journey with her when she looks at the illustrations for Amah Faraway.

I could say the same about how she wrote the book. It was insanely relatable for me, and our editor Sarah Shumway gave me a lot of creative license to bring my own experience into the illustrations, mainly giving input on any areas that affected the flow of the story.

Add Jenny Mei Is Sad on Goodreads.

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About the Author

Tracy Subisak studied industrial design in school, subsequently working in the field internationally for seven years, designing computers for the future, before turning her focus to freelance illustration and design.

Tracy’s debut author/illustrated picture book Jenny Mei Is Sad (Little, Brown) was published in June 2021. She is the illustrator of several picture books including Amah Faraway, Grizzly Boy, Cy Makes a Friend, and Shawn Loves Sharks, which received a starred review from Kirkus, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and received a 2018 Washington State Book Award. She also illustrated the nonfiction picture book titled Wood, Wire, Wings by Kirsten Larsonm which is a bio of Emma Lilian Todd, the first woman to successfully design and engineer a working airplane. 

Tracy is the proud daughter of a Taiwanese mother who was a Chinese language instructor and art teacher, and an American father, son of Polish and Slovakian immigrant parents, who is an engineer. She was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, has lived in Taiwan, South Korea, NY, and San Francisco, and now makes her home in the PNW in Portland, OR. She is always eager to go adventuring and is a true believer that experience begets the best stories.

Tracy is also a certified yoga teacher, YTT 200 hours and HIIT yoga certificate, focused on providing a light-hearted space for healing and creating resilience in the body and mind. She currently teaches at Flex & Flow PDX.

Author Links:

Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

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