By Kelly Davis
Faith Pray grew up in a family of artists and writers — her father illustrates children's books, and both of her brothers have written or illustrated books. She liked to draw but considered herself more of a writer. She wrote a few books, found an agent and was working on getting published when, in 2013, at the age of 39, she had a stroke. Doctors found a hole in her heart, which led to heart surgery and months of recovery.
Headaches and dizziness made it difficult for her to focus, and Pray felt like her ability to tell stories had vanished. She's still not sure whether it was from the stroke or the trauma of facing a life-threatening health condition.
"I could speak, and I could write," she says, "but I didn't feel like I could organize my thinking anymore."
Pray's mom had heard about Joy Chu's classes in the children's book illustration program at UC San Diego Extension. As a gift, her parents enrolled her in the class, hoping it would aid in her recovery. The course was called "Children’s Book Illustration I: Thinking in Pictures."
"You're a word person," her mom told her. "You like to spend a lot of time putting thoughts together and stories together with your words. What if you just kind of explore your artistic side?"
Pray, who lives with her husband and four children in a small coastal town outside of Seattle, was able to take the class online.
A big part of the curriculum involved reading "mass heaps of picture books every week," as Pray puts it. Chu asked her students to pay particular attention to how wordless picture books told a story.
"And I think that's what sort of like flipped the switch for me," Pray recalls, "because I realized, Wait, I don't have to have it all figured out with my words anymore. The more I spent time with picture books, the more I realized — maybe this is something that would be a way of me telling stories."
She made it a practice to sketch every day and soon had the beginnings of a book.
Pray describes Chu, who's been the art director or designer for hundreds of books, as "a brilliant teacher." She ended up taking the class twice. Pray said she loved the assignments and appreciated the chance to get feedback from fellow students, which helped her hone her work and, she says, "put more of a storytelling eye into my drawing."
Pray remembers Chu explaining to the class how pre-readers — children who haven't yet learned to read — process what they see on a page much differently than adults. Adults rely on the words to explain what's happening in a picture. "But pre-readers see so much more within a picture," Pray recalls Chu telling the class. "And that is fascinating to me. I love to think that children almost have, like, this secret language that we have lost a little bit as we get older and quicker at everything."
The class helped Pray get back in touch with that secret language.
"I was struggling with words and how to put things together, and it helped me realize that the part that kids see is what I can work on," she says. "The words, maybe they'll come and maybe they won't. The point is more to carry the story through the imagery and then find a nice balance with words when it's time to do that."
Chu said Pray has developed a unique personal style that distinguishes her books from others.
"Just look at the way her drawing line flows," Chu said. "Utterly organic and full of heart. It just feels as though she adores whoever she is drawing and feels what they feel."
Pray's first book, The Starkeeper, was published by Random House Books for Young Readers in June 2020. The book tells the story of a little girl and her gray tabby cat who live in a cold, dark world. One day the girl finds a warm, bright star and goes in search of a place where she can share the star with others.
The girl in The Starkeeper is multiracial. She could be Asian or part Asian; she could be Latina or indigenous. Pray's own children are mixed race — Pray is white and her husband is Korean — and she felt it was important to draw for children who haven't seen themselves represented in books.
"I guess I make art to reflect my own kids," she says, "but also their friends and the kids that I used to work with" — Pray worked at an elementary school — "just because I want as many kids as possible to feel like they're part of that reading experience. And sometimes there's something empowering about seeing yourself or someone that looks like you or your friends or your family in books."
Her second book, Perfectly Imperfect Mira, is scheduled to be published in April 2022. The story was inspired by her daughter's experience of switching from soccer to gymnastics at age 11, despite having no gymnastics training. Pray worried that her daughter might be discouraged by kids who'd already been taking classes for years. But that didn't faze her.
"She just went and did it," Pray says. "And you could see it almost felt like she had grown taller by going there and learning that she could do something that was totally hers."
Pray shared her daughter's story on social media, and her agent encouraged her to turn it into a book with the message that you don't have to be perfect at something to love doing it. Pray realized it was her own story, too.
"In a way, I had to find out, like, Hey, do I love doing this? Is this something that brings me joy? And it doesn't have to look the way I thought it needed to look — it can just be my personal style of being an artist," she says. "So it grew into a story about my daughter, but also kind of about myself and maybe about all of us a little bit."