Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month Edition – A Conversation with Sylvia Bi, Publishing Design Assistant, On the Joy of Diversity in Fanart

Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month, a conversation with Sylvia Bi. Assistant designer at random house children's books, on the joy of diversity of fanart. illustration depicts sprout the sparrow, their wings spread out wide like they are showing off something, with sylvia drawn as a deer, winking and with dangling earrings.

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Asian Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where Asian authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Asian, Asian books, and the experiences of being an Asian reader. (Note: Here is an explanation of why we are calling this guest series ‘Asian Heritage Month’.)

Hello friends! Welcome to our last round of posts for Asian Heritage Month here at the Pond. Today we’re changing tracks a little from our usual bookish tune, and talking about fanart from the margins! Art is undoubtedly one of the pillars of the reading community—I know I’m always overjoyed to find some good good art of my favorite bookish characters. And recently we’ve also been seeing bookish fanart pop up more and more around the industry too, in places like pre-order promo swag and book subscription box perks. As this happens, it’s also important to acknowledge the role of fanart in increasing visible representation and diversity in books as well!

Illustration of Sylvia as a deer, winking and wearing dangling earrings.Joining us in our conversation today is Sylvia Bi, who is a brilliant artist currently working in publishing (!!!), and a long-time friend of the Pond! Friends, seeing Sylvia’s art is like stepping through a window into a warmer, kinder world—where all the colors are vivid, and where the light shines golden. We’ve included some of her work in this post, and I personally cannot recommend looking up her portfolio enough to be awed and inspired with what art can do. I am so delighted to welcome her today as a little deer with dangly, twinkly earrings; look how pretty she is!

This conversation is also a little different from our usual interview posts, as we’re doing it more panel-style with CW, Sylvia and I all asking and answering questions! I really hope you enjoy our little dialogue today, friends, and that you glean a few insights about the importance and potential of fanart with us along the way too!

Skye: Hello, friends! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond during Asian Heritage Month, I’m so excited to be talking to y’all about fan art in the book community today! Before we begin, could you tell us a little about yourself, Sylvia?

Sylvia: I’m so hyped to be here! I’m a full-time assistant designer at Random House Children’s Books, and a part-time notorious earring collector, amateur rooftop climber, smoothie maker, and fanart creator. These days, when I’m not a full book gremlin, I’m making a lot of fanart to really remind myself why I started drawing in the first place, and why I love it so much!

Skye: Let’s start at the beginning: what was everyone’s early experiences of making fanart like? How did you guys get into bookish fanart?

Sylvia: Some of the earliest fanart I ever made was definitely for anime. Especially during the summers when my family went back to China, my aunt would usually have one or two anime series that I’d watch over and over and over, so that would be my inspiration. I drew an ungodly amount of Cardcaptor Sakura and Mermaid Melody fanart for a solid three or four years!!

When it comes to bookish fanart, boy was I LATE to this party. I’ve been crazy about books for ages, but for some reason I didn’t really think about doing bookish fanart until college. It might have been because I’d spent so long making fanart of animated shows and movies, that taking the step into making fanart of characters without any kind of visual reference was subconsciously daunting! But one summer, I read A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab about 45 times and realized that a girl with knives, a pirate aesthetic, and big bisexual energy was right up my drawing alley. That really opened the floodgates and I’m never gonna stop!

Skye: That’s really funny that you say you started out with anime, because I did as well, hahaha! My life online has always been really firmly rooted in fan communities, and I first started “designing” by making really bad, really silly anime edits. It was how I learned Photoshop, and it… truly was a novel way to get the hang of basic design principles like type and visual hierarchy. The anime editing was also such a cool thing to build an online community around, too — I still have friends from this era of my life who I’m still really good friends with (perhaps serendipitously, they also all got into design careers one way or the other too).

CW: Oh wow, I really had to deep-dive into my memory and had to think really hard on this. At first, I thought my first fanart involved Final Fantasy – I made a lot of Final Fantasy graphics using free Photoshop and would make me and my friends desktop wallpapers. I’m laughing-crying remembering that! But I think my first ever fanart was of, dare I mention it: Neopets. I played Neopets with all my friends in primary/elementary school and, as someone who loved animals and creating my own fantasy creatures as a young person, Neopets was a fanart dream come true. I don’t quite remember what all the Neopets are called now, but I’d draw them and design houses for them. A part of me is embarrassed by this, but the bigger and kinder part of me is thinking that… aw, I was so cute and soft! What the hell happened.

Skye: Whenever people start talking about the importance of fan work to marginalised creators in particular, I always think back to this TOR article I read about women in fanfic—and how underrepresented fans are motivated to create simply because they want to see themselves in the fictional worlds that they’ve fallen in love with. Could you talk to us a little about your thoughts on this?

Sylvia: Wow! This article really put into words a feeling I’ve had for honestly the last four years, especially in college. I loved the experience I had at art school, but there was an overwhelming emphasis on the idea that fanart, or anything that isn’t an “original” idea, is a Not Good Big Bad, especially for professional purposes. And now, having graduated and fully realized that fanart can not only be cathartic and fun, but also incredibly professional, I can see that the anti-fanart mentality was another form of gatekeeping, especially against marginalized creators and their stories. So many of the fictional worlds where my friends and I found comfort were new and welcoming, especially for people who rarely see themselves represented properly in media. These are worlds where gender is fluid, or where characters of color not only exist, but flourish, or where literally every character is VERY gay and no one questions it! I find it very telling that when an artist creates fanart of queer, marginalized characters in a TV show, they are ridiculed as lesser or unimaginative, yet when an artist creates fanart of the Bible, they’re literally the Michelangelo of the century.

Skye: That’s so disingenuous too! It’s not like “original” ideas aren’t heavily inspired by a myriad of sources from the artist’s own life either.

Sylvia: A question I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts about, that I’ve been thinking about recently: I really feel that bookish fanart in itself is a love letter from the artist to the author! It’s time consuming and also honestly? A bit terrifying to put your heart into a drawing that then might be shared with the author/the internet, but we still do it! What about a book really drives you to make fanart? I.e. is it a personal connection, the need to draw a hot angsty character, or more?

CW: Oh, I love this question! I think about this often, because it oftentimes feels like a mystery to even myself. When I first started drawing fanart, a significant driver was appreciation of the work and also using my art skills to promote a book I really want to succeed. This stems from how I engage and connect with things in the world: I’m a very visual person and I find myself connecting with visual media effortlessly. Moreover, visual media evokes strong emotions for me, much more than any other media. So when I draw fanart, it’s my hope that people will feel how much I love the book’s story and its character, and that it may pique interest in where the fanart comes from!

Skye: I totally feel the part about engaging with visual media differently than text! I think for me personally it’s been a bit of a weirder road⁠—I kind of fell into art accidentally, and most of the time I still don’t quite know what I’m doing, hahaha! Where I have made art for books, I’ve done for blog tours where making fanart was a special feature I could attach to my review to make it stand out more, and hopefully express better than my words can just how much I adore a book. Sometimes it’s also just out of a need to capture certain words and turns-of-phrase in visual form, too: When I made my janky little comic for Crier’s War last year, it was born from a desire to try and translate Nina Varela’s beautiful prose into sequential art, a medium I’ve always been super interested in for its potential for unique storytelling. I also have a running list of quotes from books that I’d like to make art of someday. Someday!

Skye: Bookish fan artists are always translating a textual medium to a visual one, too, which comes with its own challenges and rewards! Continuing this, what is your favorite part of making bookish fanart, as opposed to making art of already heavily visual media like film or TV?

Sylvia: It might sound totally weird, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE the research part of fanart! Usually before I start a piece, I go into my book and highlight every physical description that I think will be important when drawing. It can get really specific too – if a character’s got a miscellaneous scar on their shoulder, or is described as having hair tumble out of their braid when they’re in a fight – that’s the stuff I love digging up. It’s always amazing to me, the small details authors slide into their books that I don’t catch the first time around. Plus I’m a serial rereader, so this basically gives me a reason to reread a book for the 29th time haha.

Skye: Elaborating on the previous question, I think bookish fanart is a little unique too, in the sense it often ends up becoming the first visual reference that people have of a character, right? And the dynamics here can be really delicate, especially when you’re headcanoning character as diverse. Can you talk to us a bit about how artists, especially queer and/or POC artists, can engage with their fanart and how this intersects with their identities?

Sylvia: It’s hard for me to visualize characters in my head when I read, so when I see a piece of fanart for a series, my brain immediately goes “Yes. This is now exactly what this character looks like.” And that’s both inspiring and daunting for artists! Artistic freedom is what makes fanart so fun, but artists should recognize the importance of diverse characters, especially to queer and POC creators and readers. For example, whenever I see a character that’s canonically darker-skinned being whitewashed, I’m frustrated because there’s a good chance that a reader might look at that drawing and make it their default for what the character looks like. Rin from The Poppy War is an example that immediately comes to my mind, and it’s something the author’s spoken on too. I always see Rin drawn with light skin, even though she’s repeatedly described as having darker skin, and colorism is such a huge part of the novel. Marginalized authors did not carve out their spaces in an industry already against them, to have their diverse characters inaccurately represented.

Skye: Ooooof this is so real. And it really is telling that people are still getting it wrong when The Poppy War makes an explicit point about Rin being darker too, so it’s even more prevalent when books just casually describe their characters as non-white (or as having non-hegemonic features). To be super honest, I’m so grateful that I only started drawing humans after I got hired as the artist-in-residence for marginsbox, because it gave me such a good platform to learn how to make art of characters with a diverse range of skin tones. (Though I of course still have MILES to learn!) I think… As someone who has personally struggled a lot with body image issues, it’s so vitally important to me that fan artists don’t immediately default to conventional beauty standards when we attempt to portray our heroes.

CW: I totally agree with Sylvia! I think fanart is a fun way to pay homage to a story and characters that you grow to love, but I also think that there’s a ‘responsibility’ that comes to fanart. With books or media that don’t have that sort of visual representation, I think there’s a lot of more liberty for people to whitewash characters without much repercussion because there’s nothing really to compare to (unless the book releases official art — but even then.) So I do genuinely love it when QPoC artists draw fanart of stories or characters that closely align with their identity. An example that springs to mind is how Black artists have talked about how light reflects from dark skin differently to white skin, and that the way light is rendered can reveal those very personal and minute details that are appreciated by people who the fanart could represent. Here’s a great example by illustrator Eric Wilkerson when drawing the Tristan Strong book cover!

Skye: What do you think about the current trend of the… almost commercialisation of fanart now in the bookish scene? I’m a little new to the bookish community myself, but I’ve definitely seen an uptick in artist commissions of a book’s characters for pre-order incentives and book box swag, for example.

Sylvia: I’m 100% behind this!! I love that people are catching on to just how important fanart is, and how lucrative it is as a market (also, the tiny spite goblin in me is laughing at all the people who once said fanart can’t make money). It’s a great way for artists to put their name out there and get that coin! I will say, I really do wish there was more diversity in the book boxes when it comes to newer books (holy guacamole I swear, every other day I see a box with Sarah J Maas book merch), but it’s a growing market and I hope it expands to cover a wider variety of stories!

Skye: Before we end, are there any bookish artists or projects that you’d like to highlight?

Sylvia: Yessss! I really love Laya’s art (@layahimalaya); her recent fanart for This is How You Lose the Time War shook me so hard I dropped my phone when I first saw it! I also want to get Jaria’s art (@velanadesigns) tattooed on my eyeballs. Her traditional pencil art just flows so well. And also Alex Castellamos (@alexisc_art), who already does a whole bunch of book box and pre-order fanart and kills it every time, especially with the way she depicts POC characters. And of course, SKYE AND CW!!! Everytime I see your beautiful art on my TL it makes me smile!!

About the Artistsylvia_artist.jpg

Sylvia Bi is an illustrator, designer, and full time book gremlin. She graduated RISD in 2019 and currently works at Random House Children’s Books as an Assistant Designer on middle grade covers and graphic novels. In her spare time, she overbuys earrings, eats way too much banana pudding, and doesn’t stop drawing fan art!

Find Sylvia on her website and Twitter!

Sprout the sparrow holding onto and looking down at a book.Thank you so much for joining us today, friend, and I hope that you’re as blown away as I am by Sylvia and CW’s keen and valuable insights on the magic of bookish fanart! We’re truly honored to have had Sylvia onboard. If you’d like to get the latest news on what new and lovely art Sylvia is making next, please consider following her on Twitter too! And if you’d like to catch up on any of the 27 posts we’ve featured here during Asian Heritage Month, they’re all being compiled in our introduction post right here, too!

4 thoughts on “Our Friend is Here! Asian Heritage Month Edition – A Conversation with Sylvia Bi, Publishing Design Assistant, On the Joy of Diversity in Fanart

  1. I love the formatting (I don’t know how else to word it) of this interview! Your’s, Sylvia’s, and CW’s art are all so amazing 💞


  2. It’s so nice to see fanart becoming more accepted as a legitimate artistic category! Most of the fanart I’ve seen has a special sense of life to it that I think comes from working from a source that truly fires up your imagination. 💖


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