An Artist Mom and Her Heartwork by Colleen Kong-Savage (Children’s Book Giveaway)

Thirteen years ago on Halloween, when I was as pregnant as could be, I wore a snug orange shirt over my round belly and taped three black triangles and a toothy grin over it. Essentially my unborn son and I were dressed up as a jack-o- lantern. That was our first joint creative endeavor.

Halloween costumes are meant to be handmade. That’s the beauty and the fun of them: figuring out the parts and how to make them. When Max was old enough to walk the store aisles with me, I’d steer him away from the factory- made superhero outfits and chide, “Store-bought costumes are for lazy people.” This line would come back to bite me in the future.

Back when I had time, I loved making things with Max. Every box that entered   our home was raw material for an airplane, a kitchen set, swords, wings. When  he caught me drafting a mural in his bedroom, I could no longer tell him not to draw on the wall, so we drew on his wall together (and I painted it when he was out with the babysitter). Max’s father made good money, affording us those hours of artistic exploration.

Then his dad and I got divorced.

The first heartbreak was tearing my seven-year-old’s heart in two when his father and I separated. The second heartbreak was when I started saying no Max. He would ask me to make a gingerbread lighthouse or a poster for his new bedroom, and I no longer had the time because I was looking for work. He did not complain because he understood that circumstances had changed. It killed me to see the disappointment on his face.

Because I failed to land a steady graphic design job, I resorted to my pursuing my dream: a career in illustration. More specifically, children’s book illustration. I went fishing for work on Craig’s List, the garage sale of jobs and talent, and snagged a few gem clients, who employed both my graphic design and   illustration skills. I networked. I found a literary agent, created manuscripts for her to show publishers. I attended conferences. My big ask from the universe was a chance to prove my worth as an artist to the children’s book industry.

Max shied away from drawing around age ten. I’m not sure why he suddenly thought he was “bad at drawing” because I often praised him, and I had never tried to push his style in one way or another. His mind—thus artwork—is very different from mine. He is marvelous at abstract designs and sculpture. His visual explorations are so unique. Perhaps he saw my figurative sketches and thought “That’s how I’m supposed to draw, not this way.”

“I’m lonely,” my son would say, sitting 15 feet away from me. I had to make a conscious effort to stop working when he was around, so that I could be present. Parenting and working at home don’t mix well. You can try perform both simultaneously, but the results are half-baked when only half your brain is  focused on a job because the other half wonders why there’s a lot of splashing in the bathroom.

Max rarely asks to do projects together anymore, but in the last year of his Doctor Who phase, he did put in a request for a Cyberman costume for Halloween,

“Ok, let’s buy one online,” I said.

“No, that’s not as good as making it ourselves.” (Argh! Who taught him those values?)

“Do you know how long making that’s going to take??” “I can help,” he said.

Halloween costumes epitomized our creative collaborations. I could not say no. It took us all month to cook up a suit of robotic armor fashioned from cardboard, silver paint, and fabric.

“This is a lot of work,” he said.  “This is a fantastic costume,” I said.

Despite his insecurities holding a pencil or paintbrush, Max is comfortable   offering feedback about my artwork… I am not sure how my publisher and clients would feel if they knew I refer to a middle schooler for advice, but when I am  stuck, I ask for his opinion and he lets me know what looks awkward and what he would do if in my shoes. Sometime I follow his suggestions, sometimes I don’t,  but I always consider what he has to say.

Two years ago, it finally came—my first picture book illustration job: The Turtle Ship written by another debut talent, Helena Ku Rhee, and published by Lee & Low Books. I cleared my schedule of all other assignments to focus on this one job.

As I plowed through the last months of illustrating The Turtle Ship, Max plowed through NYC’s grueling high school application process. His top choice was Art & Design High School for their film program. He loves to edit videos and runs his own YouTube channel. The school required applicants to submit a portfolio of drawings. Suddenly he was forced to render subjects in graphite, charcoal, and pen: still lifes, the neighborhood, whatever else moved him. He wanted to be in this school. So piece by piece he built that portfolio. I proudly posted his work on Facebook.

To my delight he now draws more often. We visited San Francisco last month and my favorite moment of the trip was the hour we spent drawing together in a Japanese tea garden. Art & Design High School did offer him a seat in their film division, but ultimately he chose to enroll in another top choice, High School of Math Science and Engineering. He loves math as much as he loves video editing. Like I said, his mind is very different from mine.

This is not to say he is abandoning film. As The Turtle Ship is readied for its June launch, my publisher has asked for a two-minute video about my illustration process. I have enlisted my 13 yo as my video producer, promising to double his allowance for the next two weeks. Yes, he is that good that I trust him with this project. What worries me is that his Science and English homework may put a cramp on the production schedule.

The Turtle Ship is a historical fiction about a boy in 16th century Korea, who vies to win the king’s contest for the best battleship design. He has slow, unassuming pet turtle, who sparks a brilliant idea. Ultimately this book is a story of the underdog, who is dismissed, even ridiculed—until he isn’t. It’s a common theme among creatives. We all have something to show, some nugget of brilliance we think worthy of audience. We are often overlooked by the gatekeepers, until hopefully we aren’t.

It’s a bonus when your child shares your love for something. For Max and me, it’s visual expression. His appreciation is different from mine, but it is there, and it bonds us though our family was broken apart. I ask him why he likes one painting over another, what he thinks of the architecture of glass buildings, does he like   my favorite filmmaker. Maybe because I knew him before his first words, the experience of listening to my child’s opinions is like discovering what your cat   was thinking. We have a mutual admiration for each other’s work, my son and I, which is thrilling. I like seeing him in the marks that he puts to paper or in the moving images that he splices together. I like hearing his voice. Art connects us, and I am grateful it resides in both studio and home.



Do you share a passion with your kid? Do you both love baseball? Dance? Books? Cooking? Win a copy of The Turtle Ship personally signed by the illustrator.  To enter, drop a note to  Put THE TURTLE SHIP in the Subject Line.  Please share why you would like a copy of the book and be sure to include your full mailing address and who you would like the book autographed to.


  1. 2 Responses to “An Artist Mom and Her Heartwork by Colleen Kong-Savage (Children’s Book Giveaway)”

  2. Such a lovely piece of writing.

    By Helena on Jun 1, 2018

  3. Thanks, Helena! I’m glad you liked it, especially since it got unexpectedly more and more personal the more I wrote!

    By Colleen Kong-Savage on Jun 16, 2018