Parents have a lot of jobs these days, and it’s not just because of the burgeoning gig economy. When it comes to raising a family, moms and dads can get press-ganged into a number of different roles, and often find themselves serving as chauffers, waiters, receptionists, and even doctors.
It’s a fact of life that Holman Wang—a Vancouver-based author, lawyer, husband, and father of two—knows well, and has good-naturedly worked into his two new children’s books, Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad!
“When your kids are in the throes of toddlerdom,” he says, “sometimes your identity as a parent is sort of the accumulation of all the small labours you do. I wanted to recognize that, and I thought this kind of ironic jobs primer would be a great way to show all these everyday moments.”
Although geared towards younger readers, the beauty and complexity of Wang’s illustrations will appeal to children (and grown-ups) of all ages. From treating a fever to building a blanket fort, Wang’s use of needle-felt tableaus offer a loving look at the many different hats that modern parents wear.
While the wool figures in Wang’s book may seem like some sort of ancient handicraft, needle felting is a relatively new art form, developed in the 1980s by Massachusetts artists Eleanor and David Stanwood. In a nutshell, it uses barbed sewing needles to join wool fibres and build up a mass which can then be sculpted.
“It’s just a matter of adding wool where you need it, and once you stab the fires in it becomes seamless,” explains Wang of the painstaking, laborious process.
“It takes a lot of patience, but apparently I have that in ample supply,” he says with a laugh.
Wang also has a lot of practice, having previously published 15 children’s books, along with his brother Jack, featuring needle-felt illustrations: the 12-book Cozy Classics series, with adaptations of timeless novels like Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Eyre, and the 3-book Epic Yarns series, with the licensed Star Wars stories A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi.
“My brother came up with the idea of doing these abridgements, of shrinking down these classic novels into board books with just twelve words and twelve images. But we felt we had to come up with something new design-wise because we knew we couldn’t compete with traditional two-dimensional illustrators.
“I knew of the technique of needle felting, but had never done it, so I went onto YouTube and watched some videos and taught myself to do it. It was really a case of necessity being the mother of invention, we were just trying to come up with an interesting and distinctive illustrative style.”
Although he continues to practice regulatory law, Wang sees writing and needle felting as a way to tap into his creativity.
“I became a lawyer for pragmatic reasons and had abandoned doing anything artistic,” he says. “So this was really an opportunity to return to being creative. As a child I always did a lot of art, and a lot of making things. It became part of my identity and how I saw myself, as a creative person.”
For Great Job, Mom! and Great Job, Dad!, Wang has included more narrative text, and has advanced well past the one-word-per-page text of his earlier efforts.
“As I was working on the new books, I came up with this rhyming scheme which riffed off The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll, it’s iambic tetrameters and iambic trimeters.”
While the idea of parents having many jobs is universal, Wang has also included a number of autobiographical elements into the books.
“As I started to execute the pieces it made sense to draw inspiration from the people around me. And then I decided I really should grab my children’s drawings and miniaturize them, and have little references to my family. My wife’s a runner so I gave that a little nod, and our dog is in there—although the cat is fictional.”
As one can surmise from looking at the books, the felt figures take a lot of work, in fact anywhere from 20-40 hours to make each one.
“It’s a constant process of trying to MacGyver things and trying to figure things out,” Wang reveals. “And it’s not just the needle felting, there’s also this elaborate set-making that goes on as well.
Indeed, the 1:6 scale dioramas the figures inhabit are works of art in and of themselves. While some are completely self-contained, many are photographed by Wang using forced perspective to incorporate actual house fixtures, or outdoor Vancouver scenery, like B.C. Place and the North Shore mountains.
When asked how the outdoor photo shoots were done, Wang laughs.
“It was totally guerilla style! The shot of dad at work we took at an office park, it’s not gated or anything, but a security guard came out and said ‘You gotta get out of here, you can’t take pictures here’. Luckily, I already had my shot.”
In the end, what really leads to the success of the scenes is the humanity of the characters. Despite their simplicity, Wang is able to elicit real action, and real emotion from the wool figures, and that resonates with readers young and old.
“Their mouths are just a piece of thread, so you really only get a smile, a neutral expression, or a frown. Sometimes I move the eyebrows a bit, but there’s a lot conveyed in the body language. I think a lot of people understand the emotions of the scene and bring a lot of their own emotional understanding to the stories, which is really neat.”