LeUyen Pham and her family boarded the second to the last helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy during the fall of Saigon in 1975. She was two years old, and recalls brief stops in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Camp Pendleton Marine Base (near San Diego). The family finally settled in Temple City (in Los Angeles) with the assistance of a sponsor.
The soft-spoken Pham is now in demand by a host of publishing houses with at least five upcoming picture books, graphic novels, and chapter books already under contract. The winner of several awards for her work, she says, “Awards are not important to me. I get really nervous when people put an award on one of my books. It feels like the expectations are higher for the next project. And I am beyond nervous accepting them!” With that said, Pham treasures one accolade: the Mock Caldecott awarded by children for Big Sister. Little Sister. “It’s not something a librarian foisted on them. They genuinely liked it.”
As a child, Pham remembers weekly family visits to the library where she stayed three to four hours at a stretch. “I really loved to read,” she says. When she graduated to chapter books, she started with the As and made her way, book by book, through the Gs before her reading selections became more haphazard. Always an artist, Pham also entered the art contests sponsored by her school’s annual book fair hoping to win the $2 prize to purchase her very own books. “We were refugees and didn’t have much at home.”
Pham graduated from Art Center College in Pasadena and took a full time job with DreamWorks Studios, where she met her husband, French artist Alex Puvilland. “They hired a legion of young artists,” she says. “We would draw the buildings, the backgrounds, the trees, so we had to have a really good sense of design and perspective, and we had to be able to draw very, very quickly.”
During Pham’s first year at DreamWorks, she lived sparely to pay off college loan debt. The second year she treated herself to some furniture and clothing, but the third year she saved. “I knew I wanted to freelance,” she says, so in college she took a business class for art students where her professor advised setting aside two years of income to cushion her entrée into the freelance world. Pham received her first picture book contract during her second year at DreamWorks. When she finally struck out on her own, she left with several books under her belt. In spite of her confidence, Pham’s young colleagues at DreamWorks placed bets on how quickly she would return. She surprised them with her success!
At the beginning of Pham’s career as an illustrator, more experienced artists suggested she create one style and become known for it, a rule she felt honor-bound to break. In the illustrations for Eve Bunting’s Little Badger series of picture books, Pham used a detailed, time-consuming watercolor style from her student portfolio. When she received the offer to illustrate Anna Grossnickle Hines’ Whose Shoes? and Which Hat is That?, she started at square one proving to her editor she could handle a style switch. Pham changed her style yet again for Kathi Appelt’s Piggies in a Polka.
Not only can Pham handle a variety of styles, she excels at them. “There is a risk involved,” she admits. “[Changing styles] is draining. It’s like redefining yourself.” However, once she realized that the elements of design remained constant from book to book, she felt free to experiment with various media to achieve the look she wanted. “I have to evolve to stay alive and interested as an artist.”
The Freckleface Strawberry series is a testament to Pham’s prowess as an illustrator. Actress Julianne Moore authored the series and received multiple offers from the major publishing houses. Each publisher suggested to Moore a handful of illustrators for the project, but every publishing house suggested Pham.
To date, Pham has written only two of her published books (Big Sister, Little Sister and All the Things I Love About You), but plans to focus on her writing in the future. Big Sister, Little Sister began as an amusing 4” x 5” gift book of sisterly complaints for her older sister’s birthday. “We have a tempestuous relationship,” Pham says. It turns out their complaints were more universal that she originally thought—the published version is almost exactly like the gift Pham presented to her sister.
Pham’s day generally begins at 7:00 a.m. with her boys, ages five and two. When her nanny arrives, she works uninterrupted in her San Francisco studio spending the morning hours on drawing and design while she is fresh and sharp. She takes a break at mid-afternoon for some family time, but returns to her drawing table devoting the evening hours to painting, a task she finds more intuitive than cerebral.
For the coming academic year, Pham plans to reduce the number of projects in her queue. She and her husband will move to France for their oldest son to attend school and learn the language.
Pham taps her inner child as she creates books for children, yet she says, “I don’t want people to look at my work and think of me. I just want them to look at my work.”