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From Football Player to Graphic Novelist: EHS Alum Does It All

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Courtesy of Cynthia Cheng ’13
Cynthia Cheng ’13 (above) has become a successful independent illustrator and author. Their career began at EHS, and recently they have published their first book.

Edison High School’s very own alum, Cynthia Yuan Cheng ‘13, has recently published their Babysitters Club (BSC) graphic novel debut, “Mary Anne’s Bad Luck Mystery.” As the thirteenth installment of the Babysitters Club Graphic Novels adaptations, the story follows a mystery surrounding the protagonist Mary Anne, who navigates a series of bad incidents supposedly caused by a note in her mailbox. Although they accumulated over four stars across several book review sites, writing and illustrating a graphic novel has not been an easy task. Moreover, graphics and the fine arts are not their only interest. As a person of many talents, Cheng has explored a variety of fields from their time at EHS to their current work as a freelance illustrator.

Cheng along with multiple of their comics/drawings (Courtesy of Cynthia Cheng ’13)

Cheng began developing their love for art as a young child, exploring their interests through after-school art classes. They note their mom, an art teacher in Metuchen, and former English teacher Ms. Karen Hart, as a huge encouragement for their creative interests. By building experience and refining their art skills, Cheng was able to gain new opportunities, such as becoming a Doodle for Google national finalist and even working professionally on the Google Doodle Team.

“I attended and took part in art competitions, whether that’s through the school or opportunities that I found through the art classes that I take—or that I found on my own,” said Cheng. “I [was] a state winner for the first year, and then I was a national runner-up for the next year. I was a sophomore my first year and a junior during my second year. It was very cool!”

Despite success in art competitions and freelance work throughout their adolescent and young adult years, Cheng remains fond of their memories here at Edison High. As a former member of National Art Honor Society, Key Club, art classes outside of school, and varsity football, Cheng was involved in a diverse array of extracurricular activities. Although Cheng notes the toll of having to manage schoolwork, clubs, and sports; ultimately the clubs helped them grow as a person.

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“That really taught me how to keep on pushing and be really determined, even when things are hard. It really helped push me out of my shell,” said Cheng. “By doing the most difficult thing that I could think of in high school, and just taking that on, I really encouraged myself.”

Football in particular, along with art, was a defining experience for Cheng, who elaborated on the influence the sport had on them as a person.

“I was able to say ‘if I can play football in high school, I can do anything else throughout the rest of my life,’” said Cheng. “So that was a huge fact; I know it shapes me every day. Just really pushing myself as a student to try new things and be in uncomfortable situations was really special.”

Additionally, being a member of the varsity football team became an influence in Cheng’s artwork.

“I think for me they were both things that I was very passionate about, even though they were very different. Art was something I was passionate about since I was a kid, and football was something I became interested in as I was hitting my later years in middle school,” said Cheng. “In general, getting a feel for that type of energy of being a student athlete and experiencing that brings new influence into my artwork, which I think is a really special experience.”

After high school, Cheng went to the University of Pittsburgh to study environmental science. However, they soon transferred to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to develop their art career. There, they graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in Illustration and a concentration in Sequential Art, with which they became a freelance illustrator after college. Their clients include Scholastic, Google, and Cartoon Network.

“After not having art as a central part of my life, I realized that I really did miss it and that I did want to study it more seriously,” they said. “[Art and storytelling] is about what makes you excited and passionate, not just what’s trending. What stories do you resonate with and why? Figure out what storytelling voice you like, and let that inform what direction you get pulled into as you keep creating.”

Cheng also notes the vast difference in culture between the University of Pittsburgh and MICA and being surrounded by like-minded individuals.

“When you go to art college, everyone there is really passionate and we all have a similar goal in mind. We all want to become working artists and grow as artists. Having that type of space is really special in an art school environment.”

After graduating from MICA, Cheng joined Google as a member of the Doodle Team. There, they worked as a contract member for a year and a half and did dozens of Google Doodles that were displayed across Google’s home pages.

Cheng notes the similarities in the process of creating a Doodle For Google Entry, creating an official Google Doodle, and creating a graphic novel.

A couple of Cheng’s doodles from their time at EHS (Courtesy of Cynthia Cheng ’13)

“During [Doodle For Google], the process was not just me sitting down and being like ‘here’s my answer, let me draw something and submit it!’ I drew dozens & dozens of pieces every time I submitted to that contest,” said Cheng. “I kept on working until I found, 1. The perfect idea and 2. The perfect iteration of that idea. I truly had to think about it for weeks and weeks before handing in my final piece that I felt really good about.”

Similar to the process of creating an entry for Doodle for Google, Cheng’s process of working until they created their best work remained. “I continued to do dozens and dozens of iterations, just as I had done in high school, and then I would send in my best one,” said Cheng.

Cheng also notes the opportunities and challenges of working with clients such as Scholastic.

“We even had the Netflix adaptation, so all of that is just a really special feeling. I get to attend book events and see the younger kids who read it and they just eat up every book; that’s a really special feeling to contribute to such a legendary series,” said Cheng. “Again, one of the challenges was that it isn’t my own story, so there are guidelines that I had to work in, which is normal for any client project.”

From high school to their first graphic novel, Cheng’s passion for art has remained a defining characteristic of their personality and work. Through the manipulation of style, tone, and feeling; they have been able to work with a variety of clients to create many illustrations, zines, comics, and novels. Now, their newest project includes working on a YA graphic novel titled Win, which recounts their experiences playing American football on the high school boys team.

“That’s the best part about being an artist: just being creative and just letting whatever’s inside your heart come out onto the paper or whatever medium you’re doing,” said Cheng. “Those moments are really special to me.”

Check out Cheng’s drawings for Google, comics, doodles, and much more on their website!

This story was originally published on The Eagle”s Eye on April 25, 2023.