Behind the Scenes: “Illustrating ‘A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth'” by Dow Phumiruk

If there ever was a dream team to share a Thai woman’s story with children, it’s Dow Phumiruk and Christina Soontornvat! Here we get to hear from Dow about the thought process of illustrating the story.

GIVEAWAY! For a chance to win a copy of A LIFFE OF SERVICE, just leave a comment below!

1Behind the Scenes: Illustrating A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth by Dow Phumiruk

On September 20, I’ll be celebrating the release of A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth, written by two-time Newbery Honor winner Christina Soontornvat. I couldn’t be more excited to share a book with her!

Christina reached out to me about this project around the time that Senator Duckworth was under consideration as a potential Vice-Presidential candidate alongside President Biden. Since Tammy, Christina, and I all share Thai heritage, ­it was an easy decision for me to jump on board. When I was young, I found few people around me who knew anything about Thailand. An opportunity to illustrate a book about a heroic Thai American woman felt like a dream. After I read more about Senator Duckworth, I couldn’t wait to help share her inspiring life story. Tammy had always wanted to serve her country in some way. She nearly lost her life as a helicopter pilot in the army. Her prolonged recovery alongside other veterans at Walter Reed Hospital eventually led her to become a politician fighting for the rights of veterans. Since then, she has been active in supporting the rights of people with disabilities, the rights of trans-gender people in the military, and women’s rights. Tammy is the first Thai American woman elected to Congress, the first woman with a disability to serve in Congress, and the first senator to give birth while holding office. 9781536222050

When illustrating a book about a public figure, online photos that can be used for reference are abundant. Senator Duckworth also wrote an autobiography called Every Day is a Gift, with descriptive vignettes of parts of her life and additional photos. You’d think this would make the job easy! However, because I have specific scenes in mind to illustrate and cannot directly copy any photographs in doing so, it is a complicated process. For example, when Tammy won a seat in the Illinois senate, I wanted a “behind the scenes” look with her in the foreground and audience in the background. Most photos showed her onstage from the audience’s vantage point. I studied multiple images and visualized the scene in three dimensions. I feel like a time-traveling photographer going back to get just the right picture.

An obvious challenge in illustrating a nonfiction project is the accuracy required so that readers will recognize the main characters throughout the book. Here, I am happy to say that the Thai parts of Senator Duckworth’s facial features are so familiar to me that it made the task less difficult. What did I find most difficult? Drawing the Black Hawk helicopters and the military uniforms that were not familiar to me. My father was in the Royal Thai Air Force before coming to America, but this background was not of assistance in drawing American military. Of note, after I had finished creating the helicopters from multiple reference photos, I discovered three-dimensional reference art such as Sketchfab. I now know I can utilize these when needed! I saw  multiple Black Hawk helicopter images that can be rotated in any direction. 

The illustration of dramatic scenes such as a helicopter crash (Tammy’s helicopter was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade) must be handled with care. I had to find the balance between a realistic display of trauma and appropriateness for children. I feel I captured the helicopter and hospital recovery scenes sensitively by showing only what needed to be shown to move the story along. I used my experience as a physician to help with the details of Tammy’s rehabilitation. Most importantly, I made sure to show her fierceness and determination in this recovery, characteristics that have served her well throughout her life. 

helicopter spread

Many artists shiver a bit when we are tasked with drawing crowd scenes. I am part of this artist group! This was another difficult part of the project. It was important to me to show how active and engaged Senator Duckworth is with her constituents. Drawing two or three people as a tight shot of a rally just isn’t enough to portray how impactful she has been to so many. If the perspective is zoomed far out, an artist can get away with an abstract portrayal, but I chose to keep the details of faces to highlight the diversity of the population as well as to help children connect with the characters. So, I drew each member of the crowd – one person at a time.I’ve been asked how I choose what to draw, especially in a biography spanning many years of a character’s life. This is usually not too difficult, because I take cues from the text and then expand from there. Since I am collaborating with an author, my art must coordinate well with her words. I often focus on one aspect of the text on a page instead of trying to draw everything discussed. What part of a passage evokes imagery in my mind as I read? That’s what I’ll draw! Sometimes the author will make suggestions via art notes. An example is this scene (sketch and final artwork) of Tammy celebrating the Songkran Thai New Year holiday.

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All the hard work is worthwhile. I am so proud to share a Thai American woman’s inspirational life story. We’ve come a long way since my childhood and Thailand’s past obscurity in America. How I love this! As we know, diverse stories help children see that their stories are important. Their lives are important. As children’s book creators, our obligation is to write for them.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below to be entered in the drawing for A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth! (US addresses, please. Winner announced 9/23/22)

And…when you enjoy a book, please take a moment to support authors and illustrators by leaving a review with online booksellers.




13 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Illustrating ‘A Life of Service: The Story of Senator Tammy Duckworth'” by Dow Phumiruk

  1. Thank for sharing a sneak peek of the book A Life of Service about Senator Tammy Duckworth. I am Asian American, and I’m happy to see a PB bio of a true American hero. Dow, I liked hearing about your process to create the illustrations for this book. Congrats to you and Christina!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I adore Dow’s work and this is a very important book. I am so glad they are sharing her story, courage, and continued dedication! And I like Patricia’s take too, that it will appeal & encourage differently abled kids. Great post Dow & Beth.

    Liked by 1 person

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