New York-based illustrator Junjun Chen asks readers to confront and reframe their fears in Tea for Three, a picture book-cum-graphic novel about a little girl in a dreamy world where a giant monster stalks the land.
Everyone has a fear. Perhaps it's the dark. Maybe it's the old classic of the unknown. For me, it's going to the dentist. But are we looking at our fears all wrong by cowering away from them in terror? That's what Junjun Chen explores in Tea for Three, her 56-page wordless book whose purpose is "to guide readers to look at fear from a different perspective."
Beautifully drawn with charcoal pencil on paper and digitally coloured with watercolour textures, Tea for Three is set in a dreamy world where horror and humour collide to create an original story about fear. Packing a surprising twist at the end, the book is a refreshingly healing look at what scares us and how we can all ultimately learn to live with these fears.
In its pages, we are introduced to a woman sleeping in the desert who is awoken from her slumber by a flash of lightning. After freeing a baby snake trapped beneath a burning tree, she is gifted a key that unlocks the unknown. Before long, the desert is engulfed by a sea of fire, and the woman is forced to hide in a dark forest.
Here, she encounters a white cat, and the pair go berry-picking together. However, watching from the shadows are a pair of red gleaming eyes belonging to a terrifying monster. Together, the woman and the cat try to run away from it, but the monster grows larger and larger as it pursues them.
By the time it catches up with them, the monster is a towering figure. But then it does something unimaginable. Rather than extending its colossal black claw to attack them, it reveals a small teapot and matching cups.
After calming down and shrinking to the size of a baby, the woman, the cat and the monster all share a delicious cup of steaming fruit tea and realise they had misunderstood each other all along.
"Through this story, I want to express that most of the time, fear comes from our imagination, which is not equal to reality, Junjun explains. "So the monster in the story would grow as my inner fear grows. But it is not a bad thing; fear can be transferred into motivation to push us forward.
"Along the journey, we gain courage, friendship, and growth. At some point, we could sit down and peacefully have a cup of tea with our fear."
For Junjun, the idea of finding a new way to look at fear comes from a lived experience. Having worked in China's financial industry for seven years, she found the repetitive work wearying and felt like she was losing her life essence. But what should she do? How should she confront the fear of mundanity? The answer lay in art.
"After struggling repeatedly, I decided to quit my job and started to learn painting in a private studio," she reveals. "I chose painting because I had dabbled in sketching during my childhood. The rustling sound of the pencil rubbing against the paper made me feel focused and peaceful, and the sense of accomplishment when I finished a piece of work motivated me to make art a part of my future life."
After studying in a private studio, Junjun worked as a visual designer for five years. "During this time, I gradually discovered my expertise and passion for illustration, which eventually led me to New York to pursue further studies in this field," she adds.
"Along the way, I encountered numerous unknowns, confusions, and moments of fear and hesitation. This work is a reflection of my mental journey and an attempt to transform the principles I have learned from life into a compelling story."