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Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by Random House Children’s Books.
In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Sarah Hunter talks to Reimena Yee, author of My Aunt Is a Monster.
You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Reimena Yee is an illustrator, writer, and designer. Hailing from a dusty metropolis of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she is now based in Melbourne, Australia. She once was a STEM student, but left to pursue her passion for the world and all its histories and cultures, which she weaves into her art and stories. She is the co-founder of Unnamed, a comics collective that builds community and resources for visual literary creators in Southeast Asia. She is the author, illustrator of the gothic comic, The World in Deeper Inspection and the Eisner and McDuffie-nominated The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya. Seance Tea Party was her debut middle grade graphic novel, and you can find her online @reimenayee on Twitter. Her upcoming graphic novel, My Aunt Is a Monster, comes out in October from Random House Graphic.
Sarah Hunter: Tell us a little bit about My Aunt is a Monster.
Reimena Yee: My Aunt Is a Monster is about this bookish little girl, Safia, who dreams of going on adventures, just like the protagonist of her favorite books. But a tragic accident leads her to an unexpected meeting with a reclusive, distant aunt she never knew existed, who used to be the world’s greatest adventurer, and her name is Lady Walteranne Hakim Whimsy.
But Auntie Whimsy has a secret. It’s in the title, obviously. She’s literally a monster. So nobody in existence except Whimsy’s assistant/nanny knows about this secret. And Whimsy has been hiding from the world for almost a decade, presumed to be dead. So one day, Auntie Whimsy finds out from the news that her archnemesis, a certain pineapple-loving professor, has discovered a lost kingdom.
And it’s the kingdom that Whimsy was last reported to be looking for. So Auntie Whimsy has no choice, but to go out of her way to prevent her archnemesis from digging deeper into the kingdom and secrets, and Safia gets that come along. So they have a lovely trip halfway around the world and it’s all nice. And it’s all great for Safia, but of course, adventure is not all fun and games. There are always going to be bad guys involved. And it turns out that it’s not just Auntie Whimsy who’s after the professor. Agents from the Bureau of Suspicious Intent are also hot on their trail. And Safia unknowingly befriends one of those agents, Hebe, a moody teenager. And so begins this wacky, whimsical, strange, and wondrous adventure full of little details and little charming bits that I hope kids will like.
One thing I notice in your work a lot is your use of color. Your palettes are always so striking. How do you choose which colors to use in a book?
Well, this is always a hard question for me to answer because the thing is, I color intuitively. So unlike other parts of my process, I don’t plan my colors beforehand, beyond a vibe I’m going for and a vague blob in my head. I tend to use color as compositional and emotional tools. So, does the color bring up the important subject matter? Does it convey the mood the story is going for at this point in time? That sort of thing.
What inspires your art style?
Lots of things actually. So for My Aunt Is a Monster in particular, I was looking at vintage retro illustration, as in the Golden Books and the vintage Kellogg’s cereal character designs. And I also like elaborate, self-indulgent, intricate art. So it’s the kind of style that animated movies and comics from France and Japan tend to have. Bright Story is the manga. And then for the animated films, that’s the Wolf Walkers, studio Ghibli films, and the revised Cats.
I noticed that sort of mid-century illustration style in this book a lot. And it’s really validating to me as a reader to hear that is actually something you were thinking about when you were making the art for that. That’s great. So you allude to a lot of different stories in the books, since Safia so adores reading. What were some of the books you had in mind when writing the book?
The Far-Flung series by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell were the primary influences, particularly Hugo Pepper. The Mysterious Benedict Society was another one. But My Aunt is a Monster was originally a book for much older readers, for adults. So it was also informed by cozy comedy books with really long names, like The Professor Igelfeld series, by Alexander McCall Smith, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climb out of the Window and Disappeared, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in Ikea Wardrobe. And I mean, these names are super long and this is my favorite genre.
You can see that in the titles of the articles in Auntie Whimsy’s magazine, the names of the adventures are really elaborate! What are some under the radar comics that you wish more people knew about?
More French comics, especially the ones that are translated into English. So that’s Beauty by Kerascoët and Hubert, and that’s Golden Age, the author’s name escapes me, but it was published by First Second if I’m not wrong.
And there’s also this really nice young adult graphic novel called Forte by Manon Heugel, which is about this girl from Brazil who goes to music school in France, I think. And it’s about her life there, which I really like; it’s very sweet. And then there’s also Flora and the Shooting Stars by Chantal Van den Heuvel, which skews is a bit older. It stars this middle-aged, single mom and her attempts to find love again.
What are you typically drawn to in the books that you read for yourself?
I tend to get drawn toward really whimsical, it is either a really whimsical, really humorous books or something that is a bit more magical realist, more metaphorical or politic. So the common feature between those is that they indulge in the magic of the mundane.
I really like books like that too. The magic of the mundane is a nice sort of sub genre of fantasy that I too am really drawn to. I love it when books remind you to find wonder in just everyday occurrences.
Yeah. There’s not really any magic in My Aunt is a Monster beyond the curse that turned Auntie Whimsy into this creature. It’s more about just teasing out the strange wonders that are already present in the world around us. A lot of the things that are featured in the book are also things that are actually things in real life. So that’s the sea salt lake and underwater jungles, in the middle of the ocean—all those things, they are real things. And I guess, one of the things that I wanted to inspire in readers is to have this passion and curiosity for the world around them.
That’s a good note to end on, inspiring curiosity and wonder in the world around you. That’s a good thing for books to do.
This podcast was sponsored by Random House Children’s Books, publisher of My Aunt Is a Monster, written and illustrated by Reimena Yee, available in October. Hope you have something awesome to read next.
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