Sketching Animals from Life
By Huang Yi-Wen ∥ Translated by Sarah-Jayne Carver
Dec 27, 2022

When I go to the zoo to sketch, my eyes and hands are focused on watching and drawing the animals, but my ears often pick up on the conversations of the tourists around me. Something I find interesting is that parents who are there with their children often ask, “how many animals are there?” and the child looks around and counts at the same time. Is that an animal hiding in a cave or climbing up a tree? Is that a tail swaying in the shadows or just some undergrowth that’s caught in the wind?

Once, I was sat in front of the flamingo area for a long time and heard several families play the “count the animals” game, but in the end no two families came up with the same number. Why? In reality, there might have been some animals hidden among the others, but in the world of storytelling I thought maybe it could be magic, so I imagined an animal who secretly darted in and out, sneaking up on the crowd and watching their every move. Wouldn’t that be a lot of fun? The tourists at the zoo are all so focused on the animals in the enclosures even though there’s actually an animal much closer to them on their side of the fence.

Although it would be faster and more convenient to take photos, I prefer to go to the zoo with my paintbrush to capture the scenes in front of me. Painting might not be as realistic as a photograph, but I feel it’s better at conveying the subjective way we perceive things. It’s that moment when we see an object and it stirs something within us that makes us want to paint. The pure happiness of that feeling reminds me of the joy I experienced as a child when I saw animals for the first time. For children, the rich diversity of the animal kingdom can spark all kinds of questions and curiosity. It can also stop children in their tracks and make them observe things with care, so in the story I had the child embark on a fantastical journey to discover the animal behind him.

There is a quote from The Little Prince which says: “It is only in the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This line reminds me of how I selfishly hope that people never get tired of visiting the zoo and that it’s a place where they can keep discovering new things.

Creating picture books can be like running a marathon but I never felt lonely because even though the road was long, I had help from lots of people along the way. I’m grateful to my creative illustration teacher and mentor Liu Hsu-Kung for his guidance in the early days that helped my fragment of an idea gradually become a finished book. In 2020, my story was fortunate enough to receive a Picture Book Sprouting Award from the Kaohsiung Public Library, and with the help and support from the team I was able to work freely on it. At the same time, I would also like to thank my guidance professor on the Sprouting program, Shih Ching-ting, whose words I would often think of whenever I was struggling with a draft: “Don’t worry if your painting isn’t very good, just get it down on paper, and we can talk about it afterwards.” Those words gave me the confidence to keep trying. Finally, a special thank you to the editorial team at Yuan-Liou Publishing Co. Ltd. who ensured that the publication process went smoothly. I am grateful for their perseverance and professional input on the words and illustrations, as well as for their patience in our many conversations which helped ensure that readers would get to enjoy the best possible version of Secrets at the Zoo.