Cozy Classics redefine children’s board books with 12 words
Holman Wang is a former teacher and lawyer. After practicing law for seven years, Holman quit the legal world to become a full-time children’s book maker. He and his twin brother, Jack, are the authors and illustrators of the popular board book series Cozy Classics, which abridges beloved novels like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick into word primers with just 12 words and 12 needle-felted illustrations. The series has been featured in the New York Times, People, The Wall Street Journal, and Parents. Their latest series is Star Wars Epic Yarns, which adapts each film in the original Star Wars trilogy into the Wang brothers’ innovative board book format. He has a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, and a B.Ed., M.A. and J.D. from the University of British Columbia. Holman created a Google Doodle in honour of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 148th birthday which appeared on February 7, 2015, and recently created street banners of Helen, The Swinging Girl for the Burnaby Heights Merchants Association. He speaks frequently about his work and career, including talks at Google, Lucasfilm, SXSW, Star Wars Celebration, Maker Faire, and San Diego Comic-Con.
James Phu: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Holman. Tell us something about yourself that not many people are aware of.
Holman Wang: My brother and I were born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada when we were only one-and-a-half. We have a crazy birth story. We were born by C-section, and Jack was “higher up” in the womb and was pulled out first. But the Taiwanese doctor declared me older, as I was “lower down” in the womb, and would have been born first had the birth been natural. So I’ve always been gege (“older brother” in Chinese), but Jack in fact came into the world first!
James Phu: What draws you to the magical world of children’s books and what does this type of art creation do for you on a personal level?
Holman Wang: Children’s books are just a very unique form of storytelling since the words and images are equally important. Most people have fond memories of reading picture books and being lost in amazing new worlds. It’s easy to be attracted to children’s books, because they are a realm of endless possibility. Working on children’s books allows me to be who I want to be in life: a creative person. Being a bookmaker gives me my very identity.
James Phu: The format you use in your Cozy Classics book series is very unique. What sparked off the idea to use the one word format for the book series?
Holman Wang: Back in 2010, Jack and I were talking about the word primers we were reading to our very young daughters, ones about colors, numbers, shapes, barnyard animals, and so on. All very important, but a little dull for parents after a while. Jack proposed the idea of abridging classic novels into 12-word board books, and I thought the idea was funny and clever. Kids could learn simple words through our books, but the basic narrative arc of a familiar classic created interest, irony and storytelling opportunities for parents. We wanted to shake up the board book genre, and hopefully we’ve done that.
Holman Wang: With our first two books, we went with what we thought were the most popular “girl friendly” and “boy friendly” titles of all time: Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick. Then we wanted to take on some really long tomes like Les Misérables and War and Peace. We’ve since done more somber tales like Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist, so our upcoming releases include The Nutcracker and The Wizard of Oz to balance the series with some lightness. It’s an organic process, and the criteria always seems to be shifting.
James Phu: Can you explain to us what needle felting is? And how did you first get into it?
Holman Wang: Needle felting is essentially sculpting with wool. The process involves taking a specialized barbed needle and stabbing loose wool repeatedly. The stabbing action entangles the wool fibers, making the wool denser and denser. As the wool gets firmer, it begins to hold shape, allowing you to create forms. I taught myself to needle felt expressly for the purpose of illustrating children’s books. Neither Jack nor I were trained illustrators, so when Jack came up with the idea for Cozy Classics, we had to think outside the box in order to illustrate our books. I had heard of the technique, so I looked up some how-to videos on YouTube, taught myself to needle felt, and the rest is history.
James Phu: Take us through the process of how you create the illustrations for the books and then match it with one word.
Holman Wang: Jack, as the creative writing professor, always takes the first crack at abridging a classic into 12 words, with ideas for the accompanying images. This is no easy task since we’re limited to simple, child-friendly words, and we need to be able to capture the essence of a classic in only a few words. We massage the word list together and when we’re satisfied with it, we begin felting the figures, which can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to complete each. When the figures are done, I do the set-making and photography in Vancouver, which takes several more months.
James Phu: What inspires you about Star Wars and how did this inspiration inspire you to write short Star Wars books for children?
Holman Wang: Star Wars was an important part of my life—and probably every kid’s life—growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Star Wars defined good and evil for us, and became myth and legend for a generation. It’s almost impossible these days to experience a new story universe like Harry Potter without seeing some reflection of Star Wars. So when we had the opportunity to be a part of the Star Wars family, we jumped at it. We love that we’ve given parents and grandparents an opportunity to share the actual story of Star Wars with very young children that probably didn’t exist before.
James Phu: It must be amazing to get to work so closely with your brother in the book creation process. Can you tell us about your relationship with one another and how both of your skillsets complement one another?
Holman Wang: Jack and I are twins, and though we don’t have ESP or any other supernatural powers, we are close and think similarly. Jack is really good at thinking about story and narrative, whereas I’ve developed a set of crafting, photography and digital editing skills that really drives the illustration side of the partnership. Jack also tends to be more fastidious than I am about details and conceptual rigor, so he acts as “quality control” for our books. He has spiked some of my ideas that, in the end, were probably the right decision.
James Phu: Your background story of how you left your job as a lawyer to become a children’s book author is an amazing one. Can you tell why you made this choice to change careers?
Holman Wang: For me, the choice wasn’t that hard on an emotional level: I could either continue through life being a frustrated, stunted and muted version of myself, or I could change paths and be the creative person I always wanted to be. Being a lawyer was a version of success that didn’t really resonate with me. Oddly, it didn’t seem ambitious enough. I actually wanted to have a far wider-reaching impact on people’s lives, which I hope I’m having as a children’s book maker.
James Phu: There are many people in the world today who dislike their jobs and would love to try something new but are too afraid to make the change. What advice could you provide someone who is in that position?
Holman Wang: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. However, my advice would be to focus on the idea of craftsmanship—developing rare and valuable skills—before leaving a job you dislike. I moonlighted for two years, working on needle-felting, set-making and photography on evenings and weekends while maintaining a full-time legal practice. And this work built on thousands of hours of informal art training I gave myself throughout my life by drawing, cutting, measuring, crafting, and making things. By the time I quit as a lawyer, I was an “expert” in my style of illustration. Many people think about “passions”, say, for music, art, performance, or athletics, but they don’t ask themselves whether they’ve developed enough skills to support a viable career change. It’s not enough to be passionate about a different career. You have to develop a unique skill set that will set up your alternative career for success. There are no shortcuts.
James Phu: If you could change just one thing in the world, what would it be and why?
Holman Wang: That’s a big question! I guess I would say I would change what seems like the movement towards anti-intellectualism and anti-scientism. I think people should have more humility about what they know and don’t know, and at least try to get to understanding and knowledge through some critical, thoughtful process of inquiry. Instead, in the age of the internet, there’s so much dogma and crackpot theorizing passing for truth out there that people will fiercely defend something they’ve read once on a website. The tenor of public discourse has really suffered and it would be nice to see it change.
About the interviewer
James Phu is a Vancouver-based motivational blogger and speaker who is on a personal mission to share the knowledge he has accumulated over the past few years on the subject of self-mastery. His goal is to help motivate and inspire others to improve their lives. His blog and YouTube channel focus on personal development topics such as building an amazing legacy, finding happiness, and creating and maintaining good daily habits. James Phu also works full-time as a people manager at one of the most prestigious software companies in the world.