Toronto-based illustrator Cornelia Li, a proud self-proclaimed science nerd, is passionate about the way nonfiction picture books can open a window to the natural world for young readers.
Li’s own love of nature shines in her illustrations for her Glow in the Dark series, as does her talent for capturing light and texture in her paintings and mixed media work.
We caught up with her via phone from her quiet home in the Toronto suburbs to chat about falling in love with illustration, the importance of visual learning for kids, some of her artistic influences for her books, and more.
On Childhood Inspiration
Some of the most impactful books during Li’s childhood were collections of traditional fairy tales and stories about Chinese mythology, which helped foster her sense of imagination, and kids’ encyclopedias, which helped foster her love of both science and history.
“I’ve always been a very visual person, and looking at books with pictures really helps me. It was especially important for me when I moved to Canada from China when I was around 11 years old. Back then, I was struggling a little bit with the English language, and reading picture books helped keep me interested in learning about the language, the culture, and everything else in my new environment,” she said
After that, she was hooked on picture books, and she knew that eventually she wanted to work in children’s publishing.
For parents of kids who share the same dream of becoming an illustrator, Li has some advice: help your kids stay curious and passionate.
“My parents have always bought me a lot of art books that I use to keep learning on my own,” she said.
Even now, well into her adulthood and freelance career in illustration, her parents continue to cheer her on and lend a helping hand.
“When I’m feeling low or when I have times of self doubt, they never critique me or criticize me, they just keep being supportive and let me take my time to succeed.”
Bringing the Glow in the Dark series to Life
When author Katy Flint saw one of Li’s space-themed editorial pieces in a Toronto paper, she knew Li would be the perfect illustrator for what would become their first picture book together, Voyage Through Space.
In the process of bringing author Flint’s tour of the solar system to vivid life, Li decided to add an element that readers could identify with: a young girl astronaut—and her adorable dog—who could act as a space tour guide.
Li’s illustrations depict the two intrepid astronauts as they explore the red surface of Mars, zoom past stormy Jupiter’s stripes and spots, and marvel at the glowing blue planet of Uranus.
For Li, it was important to keep her art style bright and engaging, yet realistic enough to help kids learn the facts about space and our solar system.
When it came to capturing the scientific element, Li looked to two veteran illustrators, Stephen Bietsy and Ernest Haeckel, for further inspiration.
“I really liked Biesty’s Cross-Sections series. I loved the detailed depictions, and how everytime I re-read the books, there’s something new to be discovered. The detail-oriented approach definitely influenced my style.”
The work of German zoologist and scientific illustrator Haeckel also helped Li find her own way to balance creative expression and scientific accuracy.
“He made beautiful plates of sea creatures, and I liked that combination of being scientifically accurate but also stylized. It’s beautiful on its own—even without the text or the scientific information,” Li said.
As parents and schools around the world try to adapt to the global pandemic, access to well-researched, illustrated children’s nonfiction is perhaps more vital than ever.
Although it may be harder to leave home, kids can transform themselves into little armchair travelers and explore new worlds in the pages of a book.
“I hope [this series] will spark readers’ interest in nature and that they realize that there’s so much beauty out there to be discovered. I know there’s so much information out there, especially online, so I’m just hoping that with these books and their visuals, they can see something more magical in what might be just the everyday,” Li said.
While working on her nonfiction projects, Li still gets to experience that magical feeling of discovery when she reads the manuscript.
“What I like about working on nonfiction projects is that I learn as I work. I’ll often stop and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that! I’m learning, too!’”
And for those little readers who find themselves wanting to follow in Li’s artistic footsteps? She wants her books to encourage their creative dreams as well.
“The reason I’m in illustration is because of my love for the craft. For those aspiring young artists, no matter what happens down the road, work hard and stay passionate about what you love.”
Want to see more of Li’s illustration work? Follow her on Instagram to keep up with her latest projects.