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By Olivia Boler
LeUyen Pham is the first to admit she is a lucky lady. From very early in life, the illustrator of such bestselling children's books as Can You Do This, Old Badger? and Big Sister, Little Sister has been touched by some sort of serendipity.
When she wasn't quite 2 years old, Pham and her family escaped on the second-to-last transport out of Saigon in the waning days of the Vietnam War. It was 1975.
"My father was a translator for the CIA," Pham says. "After the Americans left, if we had stayed, he probably would have been jailed immediately when Saigon fell."
His special clearance with the U.S. government got the entire family out, including Pham, her mother, two older brothers, and older sister. The family landed in the Philippines and moved from one U.S. Army base to another, finally settling in Temple City, Calif., near Pasadena, where there was a large Vietnamese population.
Fast-forward to Pham's college years. She had always drawn pictures--doodling in the margins of her notebooks--but her parents had other plans for her, career-wise. "The thing with immigrant families is that everyone is supposed to go into a profession," Pham explains. "I was supposed to be a lawyer. It was my mother's dream."
In high school, Pham had been ostensibly on board with her mother's dream, even while she worked at a bookstore and used her employee discount to buy all her favorite picture books. Still, she majored in political science at UCLA. Her artistic talent, however, caught the eye of the head of the art department, who saw immediately that Pham was not going to be a lawyer. "He told me, 'You belong in art school, not here.'" He then called his contacts at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where Pham got an interview, won a scholarship to pay the tuition, and spent the next three years in an accelerated program. "I felt on the right track," Pham says. "I was glad I had my two years at UCLA, but the Art Center was amazing."
Another stroke of luck came Pham's way when she went to a talk at her school given by the then fledgling animation studio DreamWorks (producer of animated hits like Shrek and Shark Tale) in the mid-1990s. "I totally lied to get an interview," Pham says with a laugh. One of the speakers, Lorenzo Martinez, was the head of the layout department. After the talk, he and his colleagues were flooded with students, including Pham, who overheard Martinez giving his contact information to another eager student.
"I called DreamWorks' general number, asked to speak to him, and told him that we had spoken at the talk and that he had agreed to look at my portfolio and give me some career advice," she says, grinning. "I think he appreciated that I wasn't asking him for a job."
Martinez loved a 40-page wordless picture book Pham had created. He advised her to apply for a summer internship with SGI, which did the animation for Jurassic Park. Pham's luck held--she won the internship.
The semester before she graduated in 1997, DreamWorks offered her a job in its layout department. "I was the only girl and the youngest in layout," Pham says. "It was great to be with the best artists in the world--I learned so much there."
But the world of animation began to change. Pham was working in a new department called 2-D/3-D, where she used her drawing skills as well as what she had learned at SGI to lay out animated movies. "In layout, you do the drawings, and you have to be an all-around wonderful draftsman," Pham explains. "But those draftsmen were being replaced with 3-D modelers, who have a strong compositional eye but don't have to draw well. I had gone into animation to draw, but I was hardly ever drawing."
On the side, Pham had started to illustrate children's books. "It's a tough [industry] to get into," Pham says. "I was very"--that word again--"lucky."
Her first project came from Harcourt Brace. In art school, she had won third place in a contest sponsored by the publishing house, and they liked her stuff. They offered her a children's book cover and pencil illustrations for The Sugarcane House, written by Adrienne Bond. The editor praised Pham's work. "She told me it's really difficult to find illustrators who can give animals human qualities."
They asked her to submit some drawings for a picture book by Eve Bunting called Can You Do This, Old Badger? The book was a big hit and was named a Book-of-the-Month Club selection for 2000. With two more contracts under her belt, and after three years at DreamWorks, Pham quit her day job.
Pham took her savings and traveled around the world. A DreamWorks friend, a Frenchman named Alex Puvilland, heard she needed a place to stay in Paris and found her a cheap apartment. When he learned that Pham had broken up with her boyfriend, he showed up on her Parisian doorstep. The two were married in the fall of 2005 and now live in a flat near the Eureka Valley Library.
For the last seven years, Pham has paid her bills by illustrating children's books, her lifelong dream. By her best guesstimate, she has illustrated about 30 books. She does three or four each year and has authored one herself, Big Sister, Little Sister. Written as a gift to Pham's older sister, LeChi, the book was an instant success when it was published in 2005. Pham held her launch party at Cover to Cover Booksellers (she used to live up the street on the corner of Castro and 26th, above the Noe Valley Aikido studio). Pham has also designed the bookstore's bookmark and book bag designs.
One of the things that distinguishes Pham is that she has so many drawing styles and can change with the times. Just compare Big Sister to her latest book, A Father Like That, published last month. Written by Charlotte Zolotow, A Father Like That is a bittersweet story about a fatherless boy who imagines what life would be like with a dad. Pham's illustrations are warm, bright, and colorful, filling the page with realistic, painterly renderings of urban family life. Big Sister, Little Sister, in contrast, is done with bold, black brushstrokes and a simple color scheme of browns and pinks.
Pham works with a variety of tools, including brush pens, watercolor, gouache, pencil, and the computer. "My goal is to always keep people guessing as to how the illustrations are done," Pham says.
Being one of the best in the business means Pham gets to rub shoulders with some famous authors, not all of them traditional children's book writers. Currently, she's at work on a book for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and she recently finished up a book for actress Julianne Moore called Freckleface Strawberry, due in stores this October.
Moore wanted Pham to appear with her on Late Night with Conan O'Brien to talk about the book, but Pham declined. "That's not my thing," she says with a shrug and smile. She is content to stay down to earth in her home studio, collaborating on a comic book with movie tie-ins--a hush-hush project until it's done-- with her husband. How lucky is that?
For a peek at the animated characters designed by LeUyen Pham (her first name is pronounced "Win"--"People call me Win, like Winnie the Pooh"), go to her fun web site: www.leuyenpham.com. Or you can find her children's books at Cover to Cover on Castro and Phoenix Books on 24th Street.