From corporate executive to children’s book author, Libby Lam is a shining example of why it’s important to follow your dreams
Hong Kong native Libby Lam proves it’s never too late to follow your dreams. Raised in public housing, she climbed the corporate ladder at Walt Disney Company, and was inspired to “chart her own course”. She left her successful career to go back to the Savannah College of Art And Design and pursue her goals, all while raising two kids. She’s written and illustrated three picture books for children about building confidence and empowering themselves. We think her messages are fab for kids, and we are proud to have her as our this month’s That Mama.
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Tell us a little bit about yourself that not many people know?
When I proudly announced to my friends that I decided to take the plunge by quitting my corporate job to pursue my dream as a children’s books’ artist, I was surprised to hear many responded by saying, “How nice to live a tai-tai’s life” (“Tai-tai” is a Chinese colloquial term for an elected leader’s wife, the head wife of a polygynous family or a wealthy married woman who does not work. In Cantonese it’s the same title for a married woman). Only a few appreciated the kind of enduring challenge I have thrown myself into as a result of such a hard decision. It took me quite a long time to understand why most people associated mom-artist with the “tai-tai” idea – probably both means “unemployed” by their definition! As daunting as it might sound, I decided to turn it into positive energy. I worked extremely hard to create my books in order to prove to them that I would amount to something. With my new book “Crispy Children” being ranked as a best seller, I think that I have made some good progress with this.
You already have two degrees and an MBA. Why did you decide to enrol at SCAD (Savannah College Of Art And Design)?
The three degrees I’ve earned were for my corporate career. Keeping them under my belt enabled me to be a premier candidate in the job market, to be able to choose to work at my dream companies and to progress on a steady career path. Nonetheless, my life goals changed after I became a mother. Family has become my first priority and, I consider making art and writing children’s books as a great way to communicate with my girls. With this new priority in mind, I then looked for ways to turn myself into a children’s books artist who writes and draws her children in her books. SCAD came up as the best and timely solution because, not only does it provide top-notch art education, but also allows great flexibility for me to juggle my role as a mom and a part time student.
How does it feel to be a student again after all these years?
Absolutely fascinating! Initially I needed to make some conscious adjustments in my attitude – that I was no longer an executive but a student. I had to remind myself constantly that I was like everyone else in the class, I was subjected to the same set of parameters, such as attendance, ability and presenting quality coursework by a deadline. My seniority obviously wouldn’t count and, therefore, couldn’t expect any special treatment. Once I got used to being a student again I started to tune in and simply enjoy myself in the challenging but encouraging SCAD environment. It constantly pushed me to produce better art and made me more self-aware as an artist.
Which do you prefer: writing or illustrating?
I enjoy doing both. All three of my published children’s books are for readers aged 4 to 8, they’re picture-heavy with minimal text. I use writing to sketch out a “body” for the story, which I later give a soul to with my illustrations. I ask myself, “How can I give the readers a point to enter into my story?” “How can I create a world for the children to immerse visual; and exploring how they interact with each other in order to give the best storytelling effects.
How did your tenure at Walt Disney influence your style?
Back when I worked at Walt Disney, I was responsible for rolling out “Disney University” across Asia Pacific. Through delivering the corporate training on “Brand Stewardship”, I learned to appreciate how gigantic an impact could be made from just a simple idea – like “Mickey Mouse” for Walt. Hard work, persistence, resilience and optimism bring us our first success but creativity, passion and vision are the root for it all. Just imagine what our world would be like if Walt shied away from making the hard decision on redrawing every single black and white frame of his first animation “Snow White” with colour, when the new colour technology came up just as the black and white production almost finished. Back then, nobody believed in a 90-minute animation. But thankfully, it came as a huge success, opened many doors for the company and made the world believe that “everything is possible”.
I never expected my tenure there to be a career-altering experience. After working for such a wonderful company for three years, my interests in pursuing a creative career began to crystallize. I left the company not because I didn’t enjoy working there, but because I was deeply inspired by it and determined to chart my own course in the creative industry.
You say you’d like the “fill the white space” in children’s literature. What does that mean?
Beverly Cleary said: “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelves, write it.” And in my case, I write and draw it. After I became a mother, I delved into the fantastic world of children’s literature with my girls. While I’ve gone through hundreds of books with them, I couldn’t find certain books in the libraries that conveyed the ideas that I longed to share with them. For example, I wanted them to reflect on beauty from within. That was the moment I made up my mind to “fill the white space” in children’s literature, by creating my own books. Four years later, my debut “Checklisted Beauty”, with the theme of “inner beauty”, was published.
What message do you wish literature had for kids that you think you are communicating with your books?
My first two books “Checklisted Beauty” and “My Best Friend Sunny” are about [empowering girls]. I wanted my young readers to learn to appreciate their own talents and strengths, to invest time into developing them and to use them to help those in need. Although my target readers were girls, interestingly some moms told me their sons loved reading my books, too. It made me think, at the end of the day, “confidence”, “empowerment” and “altruism” are the best friends for everyone.
What advice do you have for mums who want to change their career paths?
Do not take yourself too seriously, put your “crown” behind, open yourself up to new experiences even if it mean embarrassments, downfalls and rejections. Do not get too content with your status quo – you can be better than that.
What advice do you give your children?
Follow your heart, your passion will take you where you are meant to be.
What advice do you wish your parents gave you?
You can be anything you want to, never underestimate yourself.
Tell us about Crispy Children and why it meant so much to you to have it published?
I was first inspired by Philip Zimbardo’s book, “The Lucifer Effect”, that studied why good and normal people turn bad and evil. As a master’s graduate in Social and Industrial Psychology, I kept this frightening yet realistic theme in mind for all these years as I saw the theories came into play in everyday world. Not that it was only showed on the newspapers, but also in the office. When I observed how children interacted, it was astonishing to see that the temptations to turn bad actually started at a very young age. Greed (for more sweets), power without oversight (I’m the eldest in here), and blind obedience (newbies need to fit in)’ sometimes blur our judgment, and it’s important for parents to have such discussions with the kids about the dilemma of turning into angel vs. evil very early on in their lives. Many parents told me they like “Crispy Children” very much since it’s talking to them too. I think both parents and kids love it for they peel off different layers of the story, and that’s wonderful to hear for me as the author and illustrator of the book.
What has been the biggest struggle being a mum who also has a career, and how do you cope with that challenge?
As someone who is launching a second career, as a children’s book artist, which is completely foreign from my first career, as a learning and development professional, the amount of effort and the level of commitment I need to put in to chart the course is more. Adding to the struggle is the nature of creative careers – artists work best when they are allowed to operate per their creative rhythm. For a mother-artist, the rhythm does not necessarily sync well with the “office hours” of a mum when her children are most active. By the time my children go to bed, the creative rhythm may stop playing and I may be too exhausted to drag myself to the drawing board. I used to resume my artist’s work at 10pm work till 1am, after seven hours working in the daytime when my children are in school.
Having said that, there’s the bright side of the juggling; I used to watch my girls play during day time and draw them in my book in the night time after they went to bed. Their everyday life was the key inspirations for my first two books “Checklisted Beauty” and “My Best Friend Sunny”. They were proud to tell their friends that mama created books for them.
Thanks to the talented Janelle of ByJanelle Newborn and Maternity Photography for all of the beautiful images above!