By Beth S. Pollak
If you’ve read the book Wobegon and Mildred in #CampCaribu’s ‘Best Friends’ week summer reading list, you might have noticed its colorful, out-of-the-box illustrations by Kent Yoshimura. Each page is a digital collage: the two main characters are designed with multi-textured, animal-like features that convey their personalities; the immediate background includes geometric patterns of cars, plants, shapes, and cityscapes; and the far background is a watercolor haze. The effect gives readers a snapshot of the wacky, multi-dimensional town where the story is set, and where two unusual parking ticket monitors stand out among the crowd for their eccentricities.
Yoshimura worked collaboratively with author Susan Chodakiewitz to develop the story and design the images.
“I drew all the characters in my notebook and worked with Susie on it,” he said. “All the textures and the layers that were used are attributes that we would talk through to build the characters and the environment. We both agreed that Wobegon would have a crazy monster look based on a super grumpy guy we knew. From there we discussed what were the character attributes that could be associated with this monster and this environment.”
Chodakiewitz says the characters of Wobegon and Mildred emerged from her experience receiving three parking tickets in one day.
“I was so upset that when I saw the meter maid man, I felt hatred,” she said. It felt like— he was a monster! And I thought to myself: this could be a children’s book.”
Yoshimura and Chodakiewitz researched images and textures to inspire the illustrations. “If you look at the textures in the book, you will see that Wogebon has lion’s hair,” said Yoshimura. “To create that, I would pull textures from actual photos of lion’s hair and use it for the overlay.”
The illustration of Mildred’s character, with a beak-ish nose, is based on the concept of an irritating early bird.
“Susie was upset about getting a parking ticket from a parking ticket officer, and she was acting out this character that became Mildred,” Yoshimura said. “I thought of a small obnoxious bird that doesn’t shut up every morning. That bird represents that thing that annoys you at 5 AM and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Chodakiewitz added that Mildred was designed to be the opposite of Wobegon. “He’s so big and hairy and she’s so woody like a puppet,” she said.
Wobegon and Mildred’s eventual friendship despite their differences underscores the book’s theme. “The theme is that there’s someone for everybody,” she said. “Everyone asks themselves: Will I ever have a friend? Will I ever meet a man? Will I ever meet a woman? If Wobegon and Mildred can, everybody can!”
For the background illustrations, Yoshimura envisioned a theatrical set for the story.
“Susie loves doing musical plays, and we thought that it would be cool to turn everything into a backdrop of sorts,” he said. “I have a film background and we used film angles to make it more cinematic. I scanned in different paper textures to create a paper-cut effect for the buildings and the cars, using mostly watercolor paper or construction paper.”
Chodakiewitz explained that backdrops in picture books can reveal important components of the narrative.
“When I write picture books I see each page as a scene,” she said. “I visualize page turns as scene changes, which helps me to move the story along. As in theater, you don’t want to say everything…The backstory will come out in a lot of visuals. That is part of my process; thinking about the backstory and where the illustrations will fill in, which give depth to the story and humor.”
A Foundation Of Creativity And Friendship
Yoshimura, a self-titled “multi-media creative, filmmaker, and entrepreneur” is based in Los Angeles. Although he did not train academically as an artist, his paintings, sculptures, installations, and films have made an impact across the globe.
“I always drew growing up,” he said. “My parents worked, so I spent a lot of time in the martial arts studio. It was like my daycare. While I was there, I was drawing all the time. Bruce Lee used to draw all his martial arts moves, and I was madly into everything Bruce Lee. So I illustrated a little book with all of these fight moves. That was my earliest art education.”
Prior to working on Wobegon and Mildred, Yoshimura had considered a career in martial arts; he was an Olympic-level judoka, and also trained to be a professional Muay Thai fighter. However, after graduating UC San Diego with a degree in neuroscience, he began to create an illustrated series of books about animals, using the pseudonym Joseph Rebus.
“When I illustrated books, I would draw everything on paper and then scan the base drawing into my computer,” he said. “I would use Photoshop to build layers and textures into the illustrations.”
The creation of Wobegon and Mildred was a result of Yoshimura’s friendship with the Chodakiewitz family.
“Kent was a student when I met him, a roommate of my son’s,” Chodakietwiz said. “I had seen them do art together. When I wrote the story, Kent was at our house. I told him about it, and he wanted to illustrate it. He has a great sense of humor and he added a lot of that in the illustrations.”
In the years since the books were published, Yoshimura has worked with a variety of art forms, from colorful mixed-media paintings and sculptures, to giant murals, immersive design experiences, and creative films.
“I wanted to get back into art but not back into illustration, so I started painting murals,” he said. “I worked with anyone who had a free wall. I had a wall in my house that I would just paint over and over. I met Andre Miripolsky, an LA artist, and was basically his assistant on mural gigs. I met other artists and showed them my work. This ultimately led me to get my own gigs through assisting.”
With this portfolio, Yoshimura became a Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs muralist. He has created vibrant murals on previously blank walls, warehouses, utility boxes, and billboard spaces throughout the city. He also has created ‘guerilla’ sculptures in different locations around town that playfully celebrate the neighborhoods where they are located. One example was an alligator sculpture that he placed in the Echo Park lake; another is an ice cream scoop top placed on a conic sculpture on a street corner.
“If you’re in a city, I try to get people to think about: What are the things that don’t belong? How do you get people to think differently in their daily commute?”
From time to time, Yoshimura launches gallery shows with his original artwork. “I started going back to my roots, and considered how I could start experimenting with materials. I used what I had the most access to: random cardboard, planters, the types of things I could get from Home Depot.”
Following His Own Path
Beyond his artwork, Yoshimura is the co-founder and CEO of Neuro, a company that sells gums and mints that include dietary supplements. “Our goal is to make supplements more approachable and shareable so health is something people can put in their pocket and take anytime,” he said.
He is also working on a number of writing and music projects, and enjoys hiking and mountaineering. Through all of his creative endeavors, Yoshimura says it’s important to listen to your own heart.
“There was one point in my life when I was in a dark place, and I realized that I was unhappy and feeling miserable, trying to define myself in terms of other people’s standards of who I was supposed to be. I started aiming to make my own art instead of looking to others for inspiration. And when I started pursuing my own happiness instead of other people’s concept of what it means to be successful—I started making better art.”
Wobegon and Mildred is featured this week in #CampCaribu’s summer reading. Download the Caribu app to read this book and access hundreds of others! For the aspiring artists in your family, try Caribu’s coloring pages in the ‘Activities’ section of the app. Pick from a variety of fun images to color together in a video-call, featuring your favorite animals, toys, and cartoon characters. Or draw original pictures on your next virtual playdate using Caribu’s Blank Drawing Page.
Beth S. Pollak is a writer and educator based in California. In addition to working with Caribu, she consults with educational organizations and EdTech companies. Beth has worked as a teacher and journalist in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco. She holds degrees in journalism, bilingual education, and educational leadership. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, biking, picnics, and dance.