Carmen Mok is an award-winning illustrator dedicated to children’s book illustration. She studied studio art at the University of Waterloo and craft design at Sheridan College. Her illustrations have been published in numerous magazines across Canada and the U.S., as well as greeting cards, stationary, and children’s home accessories. She is the illustrator of Grandmother’s Visit, written by Betty Quan, and Waiting for Sophie, written by Sarah Ellis. Carmen lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.

When I Listen to Silence

Written by Jean E. Pendziwol
Illustrated by Carmen Mok
Published by House of Anansi

Carmen Mok

I hope to inspire readers and show them that the imaginary world is filled with excitement and possibilities

When I Listen to Silence is a captivating children’s story that looks at silence and stillness as an opportunity for imagination and creativity to flourish. As the illustrator, when you first read the manuscript how did you decide how to approach the project? 

When I first read the manuscript, I fell in love with this charming and clever story immediately. Jean’s poetic style offers a lot of possibilities for me to develop my visual story from her written story. The first idea that crossed my mind was that the art approach would be continuous illustrations. I also decided to add extra elements such as toys, musical instruments, stars, marbles, etc. to connect one spread to the next. I hope readers will enjoy reading the additional layer of the story.

There is a beautiful sense of movement and flow in the illustrations. Each illustration leads us to the next in a soft and whimsical way. Why was this important to you and how did you work to achieve this? 

In order to express the flow of the imaginary journey, I planned my illustrations to be like animation. It was hard to start, but it was harder to revise when one single change may affect the previous and following spreads. Another challenge of creating continuous illustrations was to make sure that all the images aligned for print production. I had to carefully plan for the compositions as a whole rather than individually. I did not realize it was over seven meters long when all my illustrations were stitched up together! It means I’ve put a lot of work and thought into this.

It was my first time taking such an approach for a book project. There were some moments I questioned how I could accomplish this challenging approach. The next moment I was happy to push myself to the next level of creation. A part of me doubted that I overestimated my ability, but the other part of me was sure I could make it through. Being a children’s book illustrator is not “just” making art, it is a battle between vision and execution, as well as a deep understanding of my inner voices.

How did you select the colour palette for this book?

I hope to inspire readers and show them that the imaginary world is filled with excitement and possibilities. Colour is one of many art forms, and it could be dark or vivid or a combination of two extremes. Therefore, I decided to use dark blue and black against neon yellow and pink. I also added two more new mediums on my illustrations for the first time: wet ink and dry pastels. Wet medium is more random and versatile while dry medium can be better controlled. It feels like working with people who have two very different personalities, but it made my process fun and diverse.

Inspired by some vintage illustrations, I prepared every single piece of watercolour paper with diluted India ink and a lot of random splashes. It took a couple of hours to dry before I started creating the details with gouache paints and coloured pencils, and then dry pastels came last. For the neon colours, I scraped the coloured pencils with a cutting knife to powder form, then sprinkled on my illustrations.

How much collaboration do you have with the author when you’re illustrating a picture book? 

For anyone who is not a picture book creator, it may be hard to imagine, but the author and illustrator do not talk to each other during the book production process. In fact, the collaboration comes at a later stage. Once the manuscript is bought by a publisher, it is their decision to pair up the author’s manuscript with an illustrator. Then, the editor takes up the important role of communicating with both sides. It is a normal practice for traditional book publishing as publishers know the market better than anyone. But the interesting part is the manuscript does talk to the illustrations and vice versa. It is a different form of co-creation between the author and illustrator. Once the book is ready for print production, the publicity team will connect both of us to plan for our book promotion.

For When I Listen to Silence, since Jean and I don’t live close enough to host any in-person event together, we did some separately and shared all updates of our book. I am looking forward to meeting her in person in the future!

Which page is your favourite and why?

Oh, this is the most difficult question to answer. I love them all! I am too greedy, ha ha! If I really had to choose one, I would pick the whales taking a nap on the seabed. I love the serenity and magic of the sea world. I would also like to highlight a couple of small things which I think are pretty cool.

1. The swordfish with smoky eyes swimming along with the pirate ship. (It was like the smoky eye makeup I would be afraid of putting on my face, but I put it on the fish! How fun!)

2. A house was built on a rock, flowing on the seabed quietly. (Could there be another story about to start?)

3. The change of mom’s coffee mug on the first and last page. (You have to check it out!)            

I hope readers will be able to pay attention to some of the small details I put in this book while enjoying the main characters on each spread.

Thank you so much to Eden Mills Writers’ Festival for the opportunity to feature When I Listen To Silence!

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