- Ella Wu
An #importedAsians POV: Allison O’Brien
The Universal Asian got to know Allison O’Brien, author and illustrator of "Sewn from the Stars," which is available for purchase here.
Tell us about your background?
I’m a Korean adoptee, and I came to the U.S. as a baby with my twin sister. We were adopted together. I grew up in a suburban area on Long Island, NY. In college, I met some friends who inspired me to pursue meeting my birth family. So, I became interested in Korean culture once I entered college. During my junior year, I studied abroad for a semester at Yonsei University. There, I contacted my [biological] older sister and my mother. Because of that connection, I decided to live in Korea for two years upon graduation, and I taught English.
What drew you to design?
From a young age, I was always really creative. I was drawing all the time. It’s kind of funny, because many years later, when I first met my birth sister, I found out that she actually majored in graphic design like me. She said she thinks it came from our birth father—that creative drive—because my twin sister is also creative. As a kid, I really loved anime and manga, so that kind of got me into drawing my own characters and writing my own stories.
Out of everything you’ve done, what is your favorite type of design and why?
I’ve always really liked digital illustration because I enjoy watercolor and I like blendable colors, layering, and adding to my work. I prefer working digitally because it’s easy to erase your mistakes; whereas, on paper it’s kind of what it is. I also prefer illustration over typical graphic design work, like logo design or brochures. I just find I have a lot more creativity drawing. I’ve usually only done digital illustration. I mean, I can paint, but I don’t do it very often.
How would you describe your design style?
I would say “soft and airy,” because I like watercolor. So, anything that really blends together. I love fantasy, so anything with those kinds of elements. I also really like painting flowers, so I guess kind of feminine too.
What is "Sewn from the Stars" about?
"Sewn from the Stars" is a fairytale that takes place in ancient Korea. The main character is a girl named Ha Neul, which means “sky” in Korean. She works for her aunt sewing hanbok, which are traditional Korean dresses. And, when the King of Joseon asks for a hanbok for the queen, she embarks on a journey to make the most beautiful hanbok in the land. So, it’s about magic, and she meets a couple of interesting characters along the way.
What inspired you to write it?
As a child, I recall only seeing children’s books with beautiful blonde or white girls as their heroine. So growing up, I had a bit of a complex about being Asian. I grew up in a primarily white community, so I really felt like I wanted a connection with the characters in some of the stories I read. The only memorable story with an Asian female lead was "Mulan," so that was one of my favorite movies and still is. It was my goal to create something with a strong female heroine, someone who was Korean, and creative like me.
What made you choose children’s literature over any other?
I felt that there weren’t many Korean children’s books, specifically, written in English. So, I wanted to create something that other adoptees, Korean or Asian-American, and even parents of adoptees, could relate to. I also knew I wanted to illustrate it, and children’s books/picture books was really the way to go. Additionally, I’d like to get kids interested in other cultures from a young age. I felt like I didn’t open my eyes to the world, or get interested in traveling, until I entered college. It just wasn’t something that I was exposed to from a young age.
How did the illustrations come together?
I came up with the idea first by illustrating the cover. I knew I wanted it to have something to do with Korean culture. So I drew the cover, then I came up with the characters, and I wrote the story in Word. I did the sketches and illustrations last. Kind of like how I talked about before, I did everything digitally at the time.
Is there a lesson you want readers to take away from the book?
Without giving too much away about the story, there’s this one part in the book where Ha Neul meets a boy. And, although it’s clear after she talks to him that he comes from a more privileged background, she kind of realizes that they actually have a lot more in common than she thought. I like the idea of incorporating mature lessons into books that are meant for younger readers, where adults can still take something away from that kind of book. There’s this overarching idea of family, love, and following your dreams. I hope that I can inspire my readers to dream big, and to see past their own inherent prejudices.
What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
I think if I had my book published by a company, marketing my book would be so much easier because it’s hard to get exposure on your own. But, I decided to only publish an ebook for now because printing a fully illustrated picture book is quite expensive. I am looking into having hard copies printed further down the line, but right now this format is the most accessible and affordable. Ultimately, when I was thinking about it, my main goal was just to get my book out there for people to see and read. Finding someone to publish your book is a really long process. I did try sending out query letters a few years ago, but I finally decided that I just wanted it out there rather than collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. I wanted everyone to be able to read it.
Is writing a book something you’ve always wanted to do or was that a spontaneous thing?
I’ve always wanted to write a book because I’ve been drawing and writing since I was a kid. In elementary school, almost every day I would write short stories, because that was just something I enjoyed doing. I’m also a really big fan of fantasy novels and young adult novels, so it’s kind of always been a passion for me.
Do you have any plans to write another book in the future?
I’m considering writing and illustrating another children’s book, when I have the time. I just don’t have any ideas yet. I’m always drawing, so I’m sure I’ll come up with something. If not, I do sometimes dabble in writing young adult stuff. I haven’t published it yet, but I’m thinking about it. However, I’m definitely looking into publishing something else in the future.