Picture this! Interview with Mariko Jesse

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mariko Jesse is the successful illustrator behind The Adventures of Max and Mei – the bilingual books that captivate young children learning Mandarin, as they meet all the animals in the Chinese zodiac. The Max and Mei series was created by the acclaimed author Martha Keswick to provide parents with engaging and interesting bilingual stories to share with their children, while exposing them to Chinese culture and strengthening their Mandarin listening comprehension skills.

After designing the artwork at Pacific Place for the Chinese New Year in 2015, Mariko Jesse was back in Hong Kong to develop her Hong Kong-themed ceramic range. She found time to tell me all about her illustration work for Max and Mei, and all the other projects that are keeping her busy…

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When did you first show an interest in art and the creative world?

It was a very young thing for me – as soon as I could hold a crayon, I was drawing. My parents had to keep giving me paper, and if the paper ran out, then I would start on the walls! And then they would have to work hard to clean it off.

My dad was a graphic designer and my mum was a ceramicist, so it was natural for me to be creative – it was in the family. I think it is just in me. There was never any question about what I would end up doing.

How did Max and Mei come about?

Martha (Keswick), pictured below, who wrote the books, based the stories on her son and his friend. We had a mutual friend who introduced us and because she wanted to present the idea to publishers, she asked me to come up with some sketches of what the characters could look like. She showed it to publishers, who liked the concept and the drawings. They asked me to develop the characters and a few changes were made, like the fact that Mei was originally Eurasion and then became Chinese. The drawings developed slightly, and then it built from there.

The characters of the Chinese zodiac are a central feature of the stories. Luckily, I knew about the Chinese horoscope characters anyway, as I grew up in Hong Kong, but as soon as it had been decided that the animals would link the first box set series together, I learned about them all in much more detail, to help with the design work. This year is the year of the monkey – the smart, quick-witted, frank, optimistic, ambitious and adventurous sign.

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Why do you think these books are popular?

It is definitely important for children of this generation to learn Chinese. If you live here in Hong Kong, it is obviously really useful. But I live in the States now and lots of my friends’ kids are learning Mandarin. If you want to get into business it will be really useful. Parents can read these books with their kids and pick up a little bit of the language too. The CD is really cool. I gave the set to some friends’ kids in England and they were picking it up from the CD – it’s easy to copy the sounds before knowing any pinyin or knowing how to pronounce it.

Who inspires you?

It’s always inspirational to see what everyone else is doing – I am totally obsessed with Instagram at the moment. You follow all these crazy people and it’s nice to see their process. You get involved in your own process; I know how I do things, but it’s still interesting to see what works and what doesn’t for others.

I like to follow lots of illustrators and publishers to see which books are coming out. There’s a New York illustrator called Julia Rothman; I really like her work. She does lots of sketches.  I follow quite a lot of shops because I have done a lot of work for retail. My window displays have recently gone up in Kapok here in Hong Kong for the winter season. It’s nice to follow those kind of shops, so you can keep up with the trends and see what’s coming in and going out.

What’s on the horizon?

I really enjoyed doing the Max and Mei with dinosaur story that was the follow-on after the horoscope books. They go to the zoo, they find a dinosaur and are really excited and everyone tells them it’s not a dinosaur – I would love to do some more of those. I am doing some work with some other children’s books, but they are at proposal stage.

Any tips for arty kids?

I would recommend drawing a lot – all the time. I really notice that if I haven’t drawn for a week I really miss it and notice how it affects my skill. Just draw as much as possible – I can’t say it enough. Keep a sketch book, rather than drawing on scraps of paper like you do in school. Keep a book just for drawing, then you have it all together and you can see how your work is developing.

If you are thinking of going to art school, you have to build up a portfolio of different kinds of drawings, paintings and things to show. But that is totally the way to go. It’s very difficult to get into an art career without having some kind of education in it, and art school is great fun! So I recommend it – especially the foundation course. You do a foundation course in the UK where you get to try everything – fashion, pottery, all kinds of skills, and then you decide which university you want to go to depending on what you want to focus on. In America, you pick a school you want to go to and then you will develop what you are going to specialize in as you go along, so it’s a little bit different. I recommend that younger kids try everything – and just keep drawing!

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