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Charlene Chua: Caregiving Gets Comical in 'HUG?'


Charlene Chua’s newest book, Hug?, out September 1, 2020, from Kids Can Press, makes some interesting connections about ‘caring for others’ versus ‘self-care’ -- in a subtle yet fun way. In this weary time of ongoing pandemic, when hugs may not be hygienically appropriate, yet showing our care and compassion is more important than ever, let’s just say this theme caught our eye. We (virtually) sat down with Charlene to talk about the book --- her debut as both author/illustrator.


ALSO PLEASE NOTE: Be sure to enter the book giveaway on Twitter! Charlene's been generous enough to offer a copy to a lucky entrant. Details at the end of the story!


And now, with no further ado...


SJP: Welcome to A Novel Mind, Charlene! When I first spied your new picture book, what drew me in -- besides the lively, fun animal illustrations -- was the great premise. Can you give us a quick story summary?


CC: Hi Sally! So, HUG? is about a girl who gets inundated with requests for hugs after hugging her cat. She tries to cope, but the requests get bigger and more and more ludicrous, till she finally decides that she can't cope anymore.


SJP: How did the idea for the story come about - what inspired you?


CC: I think the story came about one day as I was just joking around with my husband at home. I can’t recall exactly what we were talking about but at some point I said wouldn’t it be funny if all these animals just kept on coming up asking for hugs and at some point the girl is like ‘ARGH!’ (I suppose it doesn’t sound very funny when I tell it that way, but uh, we have an odd sense of humor.)


Anyway, it happened to also reflect how I feel sometimes. I do try to accommodate other people in both my work and in my life, but sometimes I forget that I can say ‘no’ to things, and I end up overextending myself and getting overwhelmed in the end.



SJP: One thing I love about this story is how it relates to all ages. We parents, educators, and caregivers, these days, are all feeling quite overwhelmed. Caring for others during a pandemic definitely leads to caring-fatigue…. But maybe we forget that this affects kids as well. Have you seen this in kids? Do you see the story as a ‘way in’ to talk with kids about this?


CC: I honestly don’t know, as I don’t have kids of my own and I don’t really get the chance to hang out with kids often. But I do think that kids are very perceptive, and understand things with an emotional clarity that adults have lost.


What I mean is that I think kids don’t make excuses for emotions. Adults can try to act according to roles and hide/downplay how we really feel about things. Or sometimes the opposite, where we let our feelings rule our lives, but then hide that truth behind ‘adult’ logic and rationale.


As far as the book goes, I didn’t intend it to be a teaching device. But I think that for kids who read it and think ‘hey, I feel like that’ or ‘hey, I know someone who feels like that’, then the story takes on a deeper meaning and can facilitate a bigger conversation about emotions, mental health, empathy… quite a few things.


SJP: How did you develop your approach to the illustrations?


CC: I wanted the illustrations for this one to be loose and fun. I also do love drawing funny animals, though I don’t usually get the chance to when illustrating books by other authors. So Hug? was a chance to stuff in some of my favorites (I’m partial to the ducks and the tiger).


I also knew this story was going to be very sparse; there are no backgrounds really, the characters exist in some kind of non-defined space. But I didn’t want all the pages to have a white background. So in the end I went with different colors for the background of the pages. It helps keep things interesting while also tying the sequence of events together. I also used color to help emphasize the character’s emotional state.


SJP: You have illustrated many stories, but this is your first time as writer-illustrator. How did that process feel different to you? Did you write the text first, or did your art ideas inspire the story? How did your experience and expertise as an illustrator affect how you approached the text?


CC: Hug? is the first book to come out that I’ve written and illustrated, though it’s not the first book I’ve written (the others are still unsold). I normally start by writing a draft, then drawing a draft, then going back and forth editing a few times until I have what looks like a rough picture book. Hug? was a bit different, as I pretty much drew out a rough for the book in one or two passes.


I am a more visual storyteller, and I think I approach my stories from a visuals-first angle. Words are always harder for me. The text in Hug? is very sparse, and is really there to embellish the images. In a way it’s like a very early comic book, since all the text is in speech bubbles.




SJP: I thought it was interesting how your story can be viewed through an autistic/sensory lens. So many of us autistic people have trouble with physical contact, yet do not want to offend those we love (or even new friends or strangers) by refusing those standard hugs of greeting and physical demonstrations of affection...How can this story help adults help kids, emotionally? What are the takeaways you hope readers feel?


CC: So, some personal disclosure - I’ve never been tested for autism, so I can’t honestly say if I am on the spectrum, nor speak with any authority as an autistic person. When I was a child, there was less awareness of autism, and kids like myself were just assumed to be quirky or difficult, and expected to adjust their behaviour to fit in with the rest of society. I do seem to share traits with what was ascribed to high functioning autism, but I don’t have a medical diagnosis for it.


The way the girl in Hug? feels is a true representation of how I feel in certain situations though. For me personally, it’s more of the feeling of being quietly but increasingly overwhelmed by trying to please other people (and also perhaps being a bit baffled as to why others don’t seem to notice till it’s too late). On hugs specifically, I actually don’t quite like giving or getting them. I think it’s partly personal (I just don’t quite like people touching me in most situations), and partly cultural (I grew up in Singapore).


The book was not designed specifically to be a tool to discuss any one issue. But at the same time, I think stories connect things. Perhaps a reader may connect with the way the girl feels or reacts, which in turn may lead to discussing things more deeply with the adults in their lives. I would be interested in hearing from readers if they found the book helpful, and how so.


SJP: That is such a great answer. And yeah, I wholly agree -- stories do connect things. Thank you for saying that! :-) As for the future, what else are you working on?


CC: I am finishing up a couple of new books, and waiting to hear back on a couple more. I’m also working on a comic with my partner, that hopefully will see the light of day at some point!


SJP: Charlene, it has been an absolute pleasure talking with you about your wonderful and thoughtful work. Thank you so much for joining us this week and sharing your talent with us.

We wish you all the very best with Hug? -- and we’ll keep an eye out for your future work to come!


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Charlene Chua is the illustrator of several picture books, including Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, Going Up! and The Pencil. She is also the author-illustrator of Hug? Charlene was born and grew up in Singapore, and moved to Canada in 2007. When she is not making art, she enjoys cooking, reading, and playing with her cats. She now lives with her husband (and cats!) in Hamilton, Ontario.


You can find her on social media at:

Twitter - @charlenedraws

Instagram - @charlenedraws

Facebook - @charlenedraws

Pinterest - @charlenedraws