Stories to Go with My Paintings

Ah Chew with goats

 Three weeks after we moved to the Philippines I started taking Chinese brush painting classes from Professor Chen Bing Sun. Four years later, I could pretty well handle the basics. I’d learned to paint bamboo and plum blossoms, chrysanthemums and orchids. I’d moved on to animals, people, and landscapes. I ‘d done sketches of my kids and painted other non-traditional subjects.

Maybe, I thought, I could use what I’d learned to try something different. Maybe I could write and illustrate a children’s book. How hard could that be?

But, just in case writing children’s literature turned out to be more difficult than I imagined, I signed up for a correspondence course from The Institute of Children’s Literature in Connecticut.

My timing was great. Rents in Makati where we lived had skyrocketed, and we’d moved to BF Homes, a new development far from every place we needed to go. We arranged semi-adequate transportation to the International School for our two older daughters. But we couldn’t find anything for our youngest who was about to start half-day kindergarten. It looked like I’d have to drive her there and back.

Having two-and-a-half hours to kill when she was in school, I came up with the perfect solution. I could go to the Metro Club, swim a few laps, and then sit at one of the poolside tables and work on my course from the Institute of Children’s Literature. It was lovely. Palm trees, a calamansi soda, a book, and a pen and paper … five days a week.

It was a fun course. I earned my certificate. And R moved on to first grade.

In a nutshell, here’s what I learned:

  1. Writing good children’s literature isn’t as easy as I thought.
  2. I enjoy the challenge of writing fiction.
  3. You still have to get your book published, though. And …
  4. Publishers prefer to choose their own illustrators.

It was those last two items that discouraged me. I experimented with a story or two. Then I forgot about writing and moved on to a range of other activities.

Eleven years later finally I returned to writing. The time was right. Our two older daughters were in college and the third would be leaving soon. I signed up for a low-residency MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

It was a challenging, fun course. And … since we’d moved to the South Pacific by then, I was able to draft my stories in a variety of beautiful spots.

As a result:

  1. I graduated.
  2. I developed a passion for writing fiction.
  3. But I still find publishing a lot of effort.
  4. And I no longer aspire to illustrate my own stories.

Although I’ve never published a book for children, that course from the Institute of Children’s Literature was how I got my start.

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
Chinese brush painting, expatriate life, Philippines, Vanuatu, writing , , , , ,


  1. As someone who can barely draw a stick person, I find your sketches and paintings incredible, Nicki…absolutely beautiful! Thanks for sharing your journey to fiction writing.

    • My mother liked to draw, so she encouraged my sister and me. Her favorite subjects when she was a young woman were people and clothing. When I was a kid I liked to draw paper dolls and their clothes. Since I started writing, I haven’t done much drawing or painting. I’m sure I’ve lost much of my skill.

  2. I enjoyed learning about your painting background.

    • Thank you, Paddy. Painting classes from Prof. Chen were fun and also very serious. Chinese brush painting in the old style is a discipline with centuries of history. I know a couple of his former students who are still painting.

  3. Your paintings are amazing. Very life-like and from the sounds of it, you honed your craft, illustration and writing, at your own pace. It is interesting to read that publishers want to use their own illustrators. I’m guessing that they have their own illustrators and connections that they can use and these connections get them across copyright laws. Or maybe more so the image and style the illustrators project sits well with their branding and image.

    • I studied with the Children’s Institute of Literature many years ago when publishing was under the control of a limited number of publishers. Now, especially with self-publishing, I think there would be more options for illustrators. Looking back on it, though, I think another style of painting would suit a children’s book better than what I was doing then–something brighter and more compact.

  4. Nicki, you are a fantastic artist. I’m sorry you were discouraged from pursuing illustration.

    Weirdly enough, I also was discouraged from illustrating. I had studied art in high school and college. I also took the correspondence course from The Institute of Children’s Literature. 😀 We have a lot in common.

    • That’s really funny, Linda. In many ways, you and I have followed the same path. I’d like to do more art work, but I think it’s beyond me to do both art and writing well, at least at this point in my life. A few months ago I bought Wynken, Blyken, and Nod for my grand nephew. I bought it mainly for the illustrations by Johanna Westerman. She’s such a talented illustrator.

  5. I love your painting. I took a similar course and it’s not as easy as it looks. You need steady hands and any indecision comes through in the strokes. I think it would be so cool to both write and illustrate your own book.

  6. Your pictures are beautiful! I am in awe of people who can draw or paint.

  7. Lamarr Coler

    Your art work is lovely and you have learned this art from the best…Keep pursuing your dreams, you have talent. Lamarr

  8. Absolutely lovely paintings, Nicki!

  9. Well, everybody already said it, but… your pictures are amazing!!

    I’ve never taken a correspondence course as everything can be online now. How did it work? I guess you received all the materials by mail (how long did it take from the US to the Philippines or Vanuatu?) but were there exams and if so, how did you do them?

    • The course from the Institute of Children’s Literature was done on an individual basis, so there wasn’t any deadline for finishing each lesson. If I remember right, I received all the material at once and then mailed in each lesson one at a time.

      The low-residency MFA course I took from Vermont College of Fine Arts was much less casual. Twice a year I flew to Vermont for ten days of classes. Each semester I had a different advisor. Each month I had to send in a piece of fiction and also commentary on the required reading. Sometimes the mail from Vanuatu was slow, and that was nerve wracking. Instead of an exam, we had to put together a portfolio, either a novel or short stories. And we had to teach a class to the other students. It was a perfect kind of course for writers.

  10. Your paintings are fabulous, Nicki! You still have time to weave a story around them. 😀

  11. Such an encouraging story of perseverance, and things fitting in the right moments. 🙂 🙂 We’re never too old to learn, but some things seem to get harder. Your paintings are beautiful, Nicki, and I’m sure will have given you great satisfaction.

  12. Nicki, I adore these illustrations, a wonderful light touch, full of tender emotion – you have a gift! It’s a pity you didn’t get to use your skill after that first course, but so glad you got to writing later on. Perhaps you’ll have an idea for a children’s book one day and then you must illustrate it!😃

    • Thank you, Annika. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a children’s book. I loved books with beautiful illustrations when I was a kid. The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one I remember. And I liked reading to my children. But now that my youngest grandchild is already nine years old, I guess my thoughts are elsewhere.

  13. Your paintings are beautiful!

    As an aside, I remember talking to a picture book writer. She said it was super tough to get her work looked at–plus, she had to have an assigned in-house illustrator when she did. The two never met in person while working on her book!

    • It must be expensive to publish a full-color book. The publishers probably want to use an illustrator they know and trust.

      I think it’s “super tough” to get any writing looked at. I wish it was easier.

  14. Your artwork is splendid, Nicki! And all your points about writing picture books are true too. I almost signed with an agent a month ago after she saw seven of mine. She loved the voice and writing but had a hard time to see how she could sell them 🙂
    So it was hard to hear but a reality check too. It’s a tough business to be published and maybe even more for children’s literature.
    I love to witness your journey and admire your writing and projects. You certainly could illustrate your own stories.

  15. I love Chinese brush painting (no, I don’t paint, but I do admire it) and your paintings are fabulous! I would love to see more.


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