From PowerPoint to storyboard: Why corporate high-flier quit for her dream job of children’s author
Hong Kong mother-of-two Libby Lam turned her back on first love – art – due to parents’ expectations, but her daughters rekindled her passion for drawing
The idea of hunting down children – and then deep-frying them for dinner – seems an unlikely subject for a bedtime story by former corporate-executive-turned-children’s-author Libby Lam.
The idea for the Hong Kong mother of two’s third picture book, the bestselling Crispy Children, published by We Press in 2017, came to her when she was planning to enter a Singapore story competition.
Lam, 42, was so taken by the theme – inspired by Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect – examining why ordinary, even good people can turn evil – that the accomplished illustrator’s 40-page book took shape in no more than 15 minutes.
Set against the vibrant landscape of China’s southwestern province of Yunnan, her story sees a troubled farmer faced with a moral dilemma of having to hunt down the children for his master or losing his job.
Luckily, by the end the farmer realises he has misheard the instructions of his master – who wanted to eat “crispy chicken”, rather than crispy children – so no children get harmed.
Her first children’s book, Checklisted Beauty published in 2015, is about a girl changing herself – including going on as diet, her looks and her name – so she can fit in with her peers and be accepted as part of the crowd. Later she realises she is wrong to have changed herself to please others.
The follow-up, 2016’s My Best Friend Sunny, is a story of self-discovery and friendship, and focuses on a talented, bright girl, who grows up in a traditional Chinese family in which her parents long for a son; she finally gains her self-esteem by exploring her hobbies with the help of a friend.
Lam – who has worked as a senior manager at international companies, including the drinks company Pepsi and entertainment group Walt Disney – said she has tested her story ideas on her daughters, who are aged 11 and 7, and both study at the International Montessori School, before putting anything down on paper.
“Once they are taken with an idea I know it is something I can work on,” she said.
“They even came up with the title, Crispy Children.
Lam chose the province – known for its snow-capped mountains, jagged karst peaks, lakes, gorges, rice fields and temples – because of its range of Chinese features and vibrant colours and the huge variety of stunning visual possibilities.
“Many hotels in Yunnan didn’t allow me to take photos inside their kitchens so I had to hide and quickly sketch what I could snatch a glimpse of,” she said.
“As someone who spent 10 years in the corporate world, I’ve witnessed all the politics that comes into play, when people think one little misstep wouldn’t cause a lot of harm.
“In life, there are day-to-day temptations that children need to be aware of in order not to go down the wrong path.”
Lam added: “It is also a book about questioning authority.”
This idea of obedience and its repercussions resonated with Lam’s own traditional Chinese upbringing and circuitous route in education.
As a 17-year-old pupil at Our Lady’s College in Hong Kong, the talented artist secured a place on the priority list for Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s design school, which would have meant her place did not depend on her A-level grades in 1992. But Lam never accepted the offer because of parental expectations.
“We were a grass roots family and I was the eldest, which is why my parents wanted me to pursue a formal degree at university,” she said.
She subsequently took a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Hong Kong University. “I made my family happy,” she added.
Lam said that compared with her childhood, she had seen the power of parents diminishing today thanks to smaller family sizes and the greater focus placed on children.
“We were told to listen to what we were told when I was a child, but I admire my girls for challenging me,” she said.
Lam hopes that engaging her readers in a story which focuses on challenging a protagonist’s decisions will lead them to question whether they should be listening to the commands of adults.
“This is especially true in this part of the world where authority and parental power are relatively strong,” Lam said.
“Children should feel they have the licence to question things.”
Lam graduated in 1997 and went on to gain a master’s degree in psychology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, before joining a consultancy firm in Singapore, which put her on the path to become a corporate executive.
Later she gained an MBA at Hong Kong Science and Technology University before joining Pepsi and Disney.
The turning point in her life came after her first daughter was born.
“She was drawing these beautiful circles, which got me thinking ‘Why would she be able to draw so well if it wasn’t from me?’,” she said.
In 2010, after the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened its first Asian outlet in Sham Shui Po, Lam found herself able to give up work so she could take part-time courses in illustration and sequential art.
Her husband, a company executive, backed her idea to follow her dream.
“He has been very supportive from the beginning … he said you apply to SCAD and I’ll pay,” she said.
Lam found herself thriving within the rigid class environment.
“I’m not a self-taught person; I am very driven by deadlines. I knew the pressure would train me from having zero skill to be at least an amateur within a year, and then become professional in another year.”
She said she had also had to make adjustments when changing from working in an office with corporate high-fliers to working with children.
One of the main differences was the people she needed to please, she said.
“When I presented things to CEOs, I used PowerPoint tables and figures to help them grasp the situation,” she said. “But for children, who are 10 times as eager to understand the world as managers, I need to be extra careful.
“The way they absorb information is beyond your imagination. That’s why even a little gesture of the eyebrows can mean a lot to them.”
Lam said she had no regrets about her “lost” years.
“In the past, I was meeting the needs of my family and myself; now I’m meeting the needs of who I truly am, as an artist,” she said.
Libby Lam’s 7 steps to creating a children’s book
1. Start with the manuscript and paste texts onto different spreads
2. Send it to subeditors in the writers’ studio at SCAD
3. Make up the storyboard by deciding on the number of pages and composition of each page
4. Get advice from a professor or supervisor about how the composition should be adjusted
5. Refine the rough sketches in the storyboard
6. Print out a dummy book to test out typography
7. Finalise the copy