“Hello” is a new picture book by illustrator Aiko Ikegami that was published by Creston Books in October of 2019. The textless story focuses on the friendship that forms between a little girl and an alien. The story wordlessly touches upon themes such as loneliness, friendship, and how interconnected the universe is.

Aiko Ikegami was born in Tokyo, Japan, and enjoyed drawing, painting, and making up stories since childhood. Aiko came to America in 1993 to study psychology at Arizona State University. She continued her education at the University of Texas at Austin where she received a Ph.D. in Neuropharmacology. From there, she went on to work as a neuropharmacologist and did research on brain chemistry. Once retiring from this profession, Aiko decided to follow her heart and forge a second career making picture books.

Aiko currently lives in Ohio with her dog and cat. She recently granted an exclusive interview where she discussed her picture books, inspirations, and more.

Meagan Meehan (MM): You started your career as a neuropharmacologist so what exactly did that entail?

Aiko Ikegami (AI): My career as a neurophamacolosit was a result of what happened to my life. It is a long story but I will try to be brief.  Since I was little, I loved creating picture books.  Whenever my mother and father fought, I created a funny story with drawings and pinned it to my room door. I hoped my parents would look at it and laugh instead of fight. My father thought that I was good in art and let me study under a famous female oil painter in Japan. I was the only child student of her. At a junior college I majored child education. Becoming an author/illustrator of picture books felt like a natural path for me.

I came to America on 1993. I fell in love with a boy named Travis Miller. He was studying aviation at Arizona State University to become a commercial pilot. He became my boyfriend.  We started living together with our dog and a cat. We were young and full of dreams. I created my first picture book with him, entitled “Jiji’s Diary.” Jiji was our cat. We were having a wonderful time together.

Friday afternoon of November 18th, Travis went to help his friend fix her computer. On the way to his friend’s house, he was involved in a car accident and never returned. Travis was riding in the passenger seat where another car collided. Our friend who was driving the car was in critical condition at the hospital. Later she passed away too. My life became dark and colorless.  Every day when I went to bed, I hoped that the next day I could wake up from the bad dream. I forgot about things I loved doing including creating picture books and drawing. Every day I just did what I had to do.

When I was getting a PhD in neuropharmacology and writing my dissertation, I remembered how much I enjoyed writing. At that time, I met a girl who was working as a professional illustrator. We became close friends. She and I decided to create a picture book and send it to a picture book contest, me as an author and she as the illustrator. I created a story, “My Little Northern Town”, for the contest but my friend became too busy to illustrate. She asked me if I would like to illustrate the book by myself. That night, I ran to nearby drug store and purchased a set of colored pencils for kids and illustrated the book. I felt so much joy illustrating. It was like a hit by joyful thunder! I was electrified. That moment everything came back to me; how much I loved to draw and write. The book didn’t win the contest but my journey back to creating picture books had begun.

MM: Do you think that your career studying the human brain helped inspire you creatively?

AI: I don’t know.  But I do think all of my experience and what I have learned as a scientist helps me to think outside of the box.

MM: When did you decide to focus on making children’s books and how did you break into the Illustration industry?

AI: As I mentioned previously, I have decided to focus on making children’s books when I illustrated my picture book for the contest. I have broken into the illustration industry by submitting my first picture book dummy to my literary agent, Anna Olswanger, about five years ago. Since then she has been my agent. She helps me polish my story and art. We always go through many revisions together. She always finds a perfect publishing house for my book.

MM: How did you come up with the concept for “Hello” and was it hard to create a book with no words?

AI: The concept for “Hello” came to me as an image of a spaceship from a pill capsule that I was looking at. When I drew the spaceship to look like the pill capsule, the story followed. “Hello” started out as a regular picture book with words. In the process of revising it, it became a wordless book. So, it was not difficult to create but it was slow process with many revisions.

MM: How did you find Creston Books?

AI: It was my agent Anna who found Creston Books. I feel very lucky that “Hello” landed on Creston Books. The book went thought many more revisions to be polished by the help of the editor of Creston Books, Marissa Moss, and the art director, Simon Stahl.

MM: What have been some of the most memorable reactions people have had to your work?

AI: A child gazed at one my books and I felt like I was successful inviting her into my world.

MM: How do you hope your career in children’s books continues to evolve over the next five years?

AI: I have many more stories that I would love to make it into books. So, I hope my career as a children’s books author/illustrator continues. I am keep studying and practicing so I will be able to create wonderful books, books that touch people’s heart.

MM: What stories are you working on now? Can you tell us anything about their plots?

AI: Currently I am working on a picture book about peppers. It has a serious message but at the same it is funny and comical. I hope the book finds a perfect publishing house.

MM: Do you have any events or releases coming up or anything else that you would like to discuss?

AI: The releasing event of “Hello” is scheduled at my local bookstore, Cover to Cover books for young readers on November 2nd.  I play cello with my storytelling. I hope to provide enriched experience for the young audience. Cover to Cover books for young readers is a cozy bookstore. It is wonderful place for children to spend time. You can learn more about them here: https://www.covertocoverchildrensbooks.com I would be happy if “Hello” could warm hearts of many young and old.

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To learn more, visit Aiko’s official website.

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