Transcript from an interview with
How did I come to write books for children? I think that I always wanted to be a book creator. When I was in elementary school there was a book contest where you write and illustrate your own book, and if you win first place then they would publish your book. I entered a book into this contest. I didn't win first place but I did win fourth place, and I was so excited and I was so happy that I won fourth place that I decided I wanted to make books forever. And I stuck to that so that's really what happened.
To actually get published that's a much different story. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for children's illustration. Because as I said, in elementary school I knew I wanted to be a children's book creator. And so I graduated from high school I decided I wanted to become a children's book illustrator. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, I studied illustration and um, for a long.
After I graduated I sent out hundreds of thousands of postcards and samples of work, that's what all illustrators do and I didn't hear anything back. Except for one little card from I think he was a junior editor. He was an assistant editor at Orchard Books and he said I really like your stuff please send more. And I thought that was really nice but it still did not pay the bills.
I took a job at a giftware company where I made t-shirts that said "World's Best Dad" and like mugs that said "Did anyone tell you that today you're terrific?" And I was really, really miserable. And I was really unhappy, until a great thing happened. And I got laid off, and when I got laid off, I got a severance package. And with this severance package I said okay well I was always miserable in that job anyway. I really need to take this opportunity to really to try and make it as a children's book author, and illustrator my dream.
So I did. I went to New York and I hit the pavement, and I showed my portfolio to everyone. I sent out even thousands more mailers and I still got no response. And just when I was running out of money from my severance package, I got a call. And it was the assistant editor that sent me that postcard so many years ago. And he said "Oh I just got your new sample." He said "I'm not longer the assistant editor at this other company. I'm now the senior editor at Charlesbridge Publishing.
I always loved your artwork, but I've never been able to find a story that goes with it. And I saw this new sample, do you have a story that goes with this sample?" And I said "Yes I do!" Even though I didn't. He said "Great, I'm at Charlesbridge which is right close to where you live I see. So why don't we setup an appointment and you'll come in next week, and we'll talk? And bring your story.
And I said, "Okay! I will." So I quickly sat down and stared at my sample and started writing and writing and I got the story in. And that became my very first book actually, The Ugly Vegetables. So that's kind of a long story done shortly because there were many revisions and lots of working with the editor before that actually happened. But that's how I broke in.
Cultural mirrors and windows
My very first book, The Ugly Vegetables, is a story about a girl and her mother. Her mother grows Chinese vegetables in her garden while everybody else in the neighborhood grows flowers. And the little girl is very embarrassed because they're obviously Chinese-American or Asian-American in the story. This is very much based on my childhood. I think one of the things when I wrote my first story was to write what you know. Following those old mantras, write what you know.
After I wrote this book, it was actually a relative success. I was really, really proud of it. But what happened was I started getting letters, or parents who say "Oh I've been looking so hard for a book just like this. An Asian American character where there is somebody who looks just like my daughter. Or just like my son." Then I started thinking about myself, and I started thinking about how I grew up. I remembered how I used to feel very much alone because I grew up in upstate New York where there was not a lot of Asians, the fact we were the only Asian family in our neighborhood, I was definitely the only Asian girl in my classroom. Most of the time I just forgot about it, most of the time I just pretended I wasn't Asian. In fact I remember walking past a window and I would see my reflection in the window and I would go "Oh, there's a Chinese girl." I'd be like "Oh wait, that's me."
Because most of the time I would just forget that I was Asian. So, I think one of the reasons I did that was because I loved books when I was younger. And all the books that I read never had anybody that looked like me in them. And I realized that if that had been maybe I wouldn't have felt so alone. I wouldn't have wanted to forget I was Asian so much. And so that's something that is a mirror, these books are very much a mirror of my life when I was younger.
And as a window, I hope as a window, when I was younger, I tell this story quite often. As I said, I always tried to pretend that I wasn't Asian, I'd always try to forget that I was Asian. Most of the time that worked. Most of the time, I just forget that I was. I thought I was just like everybody in my classroom. And then my fifth grade class decided to put on the play "The Wizard of Oz". And everybody, all the girls in my class wanted to be Dorothy. And I really wanted to be Dorothy too. So, every day, out on the school-yard, we'd all sing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" over and over and over practicing for the audition.
Finally on the day of the audition. We are standing in that circle, one last time, practicing. And I turned to the girl next to me and I said "Hey today's the audition, do you think they might choose me to be Dorothy" And she looked at me and she said "But you can't be Dorothy. Dorothy's not Chinese." And I remembered I felt so stupid. And I remember feeling like oh my gosh she's right, I'm Asian, I'm Chinese. There's no way I could ever be Dorothy. And when it was time for the audition and they called me name, I didn't even try out. I just shook my head and said "No, no, no. Forget it. It would be so stupid for Dorothy to be Chinese."
So my hope for my books is not only is it a mirror of my childhood so that kids who were like me could see themselves and not feel so alone. I also hope that it's a window for those who are not Asian who are not of a minority race. And they can see other, other races and realize oh they are just like, just like, even though they might look different. So that's kind of how I feel my books are both windows and mirrors.
Pictures can't always tell the story
Well I started doing pictures books and I loved the picture books. After I wrote The Ugly Vegetables, I had such a great response to it that I wanted to write a sequel. And I said, this is about my family, my mother and I. So I tried to write a sequel but every time I would start writing and writing, it would never fit into this format, into a picture book format. And I kept struggling with it over, I think over three or four years trying to get it to fit into a picture book format.
Until finally I said "oh maybe it doesn't want to be a picture book, maybe I should just keep writing and see what happens." So I kept writing and that became my very first novel, The Year of the Dog. And when The Year of the Dog came out, that was a really great thing that happened to me because for pictures books which you hear the reaction that you hear is usually from parents or little kids, very small kids, but the small kids aren't really that articulate. They just say "I like it" which is really nice.
But what I started to hear when I wrote The Year of the Dog was directly from the kids and very articulate about what they liked and what they loved about the book. It was so wonderful to me and I was so touched, I was like that is why I'm an author and an illustrator. This is why I create books. And to know it was such a direct connection with the reader it made me feel so happy and so satisfied with what I was doing.
The best thing that happened to me was at a book signing I was signing, I think, The Year of the Rat. And this girl came up to me, and her mother said "We love your books. We've grown up on them." And I said "Oh". And it didn't really quite click with me what she meant. That they've grown up on them. And then she pulled out a photo of her about six years with her as a little girl.
With her, not the mother, but the little girl, as a really little girl holding my picture book. And now she was buying my novels and I realized, wow, she really did grow up with my books. As a picture book reader she was with my books and now as a novel reader she is reading my books. And that's actually why I wanted to write the easy reader, I felt like I wanted something in between so they could really grow up with my books. So that the kids who read my picture books have something every step of the way.
Things she missed growing up
Well, a lot of my books talk about Chinese traditions or traditional literature and the reason why is because, as I said earlier, when I was growing up I spent a lot of time trying to pretend I wasn't Asian. And I was really very uninterested in my culture.
It was only as I grew older I realized I felt like there was something I had lost and I felt like very sad about this. I realized when I was in art school I realized I knew more Italian history, I knew more Italian art then I did about my own parents' culture. I didn't know any Chinese. I didn't know anything about their art or their culture.
So a lot of the books I do now are kind of like my way of trying to recapture a culture that I felt that I lost. I do a lot of research because it's what interests me. I feel like there is things that I missed that I want to find, that's why it's a very, very influential thing in my work is trying to find the Asian culture that I feel is a part of me that I don't know.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon probably the greatest example of what I was saying trying to recapture the culture that I wanted to find. This book is very much based on Chinese folk tales and mythology. When I was younger, as I said, I was very, very uninterested in Chinese culture. And my mom was very disappointed that she could not get any of her children interested in it. But she did know that I loved to read and she did know that I loved almost all books. And so, she, one day decided to put about 6-12 Chinese fairy tale books on the bookshelf.
She didn't say "Look at these books," because she knew if she tried to push them on us we would reject it. So she just left it there very slyly. And of course, I was completely unable to resist the lure of a new book. And I said "Oh what are those?" And I picked them up and I started to read them. And they were, they were Chinese fairy tales and at first I was kind of disappointed with them because they were translated from Chinese to English. So the translations were very rough. And the illustrations were very, very plain compared to the books I was reading I was reading these beautifully illustrated books by like, by Arthur Rackham all of those beautiful illustrated fairy tale books. And these kind of like line drawings seemed really plain to me. I didn't really think that these books made that much of an impression on me until many years later.
And when I started getting interested in my culture again and I had a great opportunity to travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. When I was there, all of sudden both stories I had read when I was younger came back to me. I was like this reminds of that story I read when I was child and I didn't remember all of the details. I didn't remember exactly even the exact storylines.
And so, it started to create a new narrative and the new details kind of came into play. That's what became Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. It's kind of like my own fairy tale mixed in with traditional fairy tales.
Am I Min Lee? Sometimes. In some of it. In some situations, I feel that I am because she was definitely on a search, Min Lee, in the book was definitely on a search to find happiness. During the time that I wrote this, I was definitely on a search to find happiness too.
A search for happiness
I was always interested in writing fantasy. It was not something that was pressing. I was always interested in the genre. I only started to write it when my late husband asked me to. He unfortunately died in 2007, from cancer. But before he passed, he was doing many different treatments. And while he was doing chemotherapy, we had a routine where I would write stories and read it to him.
He said "Why don't you write a fantasy this time? Because that way when you write it and you read it to me I can imagine I'm someplace else not getting chemotherapy." And I said okay, and so I did. But unfortunately about one third way of the book he lost his battle with cancer. And I was very upset, obviously, I was devastated when he passed. I thought well that's the end of the book. I'm not going to write it now. Now that he's gone.
And I thought that was the end until one day, a good friend of mine Janet Wong, also an author and illustrator, she came by. And she said "Whatever happened to that book you were writing?" And I said "Oh I couldn't finish before Robert passed. It's just not meant to be." And she said to me, "No. Maybe it's better you didn't finish it before he died because now you can change the ending. And if you had finished before he died you would feel like you couldn't but now you can change the ending and the book can be anything you want."
And when she said it was a big moment for me. It was a big revelation and I realized not only could I finish the book and make it any way I wanted, it was also the same thing from my life. Just because he passed and I was devastated for that, my life still hadn't ended and I could still write for the rest of my life. And so that's pretty much the soul of this book. And this book is kind of my homage to him and his life.
In this book, in this book Min Lee is on the search for happiness. Basically she's looking for the secret for happiness. And that's when I wrote it, that's what I was. I was looking for the secret of happiness too. I was looking to, to, after Robert had died I was so upset. That writing this book made me realize that I had the secret of happiness all the time too. Just like Min Lee did.
So, if you ever read any of my books The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat. You'll, those are very, very much based on my childhood. In those books there is one, the main character, Pacey, is the only Asian girl in her school until another Asian girl moves into town and we become very best friends. And that's what really happened to me. I was the only Asian girl in my class until another Asian girl moved into town and we became very best friends.
In the book her name is Melody. But in real life her name is Elvina Ling and we both grew up, and we still remain best friends. After years and years and years. I grew up and became a children's book author and illustrator, and she grew up and became a children's book editor and she's actually the editor for my books The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat.
I'm very proud of those books and I think one of the reasons why I think they are as good as they are is because of her influence in the same thing especially because of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This book is so unusual and is so close to my heart. It's so unusual because there are full color illustrations in it. There's about 10 full color illustrations in it. As well as the color chapter, the color chapter headers.
As I said it's very unusual to have color illustrations in the book. But Elvina knew how much this book meant to me and she, I asked her "Do you think there's anyway we could get color illustrations for the book?" And she's like "I'll try." And she tried really, really. And she succeeded and it was the best thing. And I think this book, really the color illustration, really help make it the special book that I think it is.
Advice for aspiring writers
The best thing that I always say to kids is "If you want to be a writer you have to be a reader." And that's very, very important. The thing that always kind of drives me crazy is when an adult comes to me and says "Oh I want to write a children's book." And I'll be like "Oh what are your favorite children's books?" And they'll be like "Oh I don't read them." Well how can you write a children's book without reading them? And I think that's very, very important. I think you need to read books and you need to love books.
I think, to me, I feel like if the author doesn't love what they wrote, if the author doesn't love their own book, then the reader is never going to either. So I think the best advice other than to read a lot is to love what you're writing. Of course you're going to have, there's love hate when you write it. But to, but in the end, to love what you're writing because you have to love it before anyone else does.
Reading from Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
So, this book is my new Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. A lot of people are calling it a Chinese Wizard of Oz. Which I think is really interesting. And it's a really great way to explain to people, but I do want people to know that, that I actually very, very loosely took the idea of this book from a book. A Chinese book called Olive Lake. I've changed it quite a bit so you could call The Wizard of Oz, an American version of a Chinese tale of Olive Lake.
So but regardless this book is called Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. And it's about this girl Min Lee who goes on this great journey and she's on her way to meet the old man of the moon. And as she goes on this journey she meets all of these different people and all of these different creatures. And each one of them tells her a different story. And each story she hears affects her journey. Even though she doesn't know it affects her journey until the very end, it affects, in a very deep and profound way.
And hopefully the reader too. So the story, this is one of the story she hears. This is the story of the old man in the moon. This is where her father tells her and I'll read it now.
This is the story of the old man in the moon. "Once there was a magistrate who was quite powerful and proud. He was so proud he demanded constant respect from his people. Whenever he made a trip out of the city no matter time of day or night, people were to leave their homes get on their knees and make deep bows as he passed or else face the brutal punishment of his soldiers.
The magistrate was fierce in his anger as well as his pride. It is said he even expected the monkeys to come down from the trees to bow to him. The magistrate was his harsh to his subordinates, ruthless to his enemies, and pitiless to his people. All feared his wrath. And when he roared orders, people trembled. Behind his back, they called him Magistrate Tiger.
Tiger's most coveted wish was to be of royal blood. As soon as his son was born he began to make trips and inquiries to gain influence in hopes he could marry his son to a member of the imperial family. One night as the magistrate traveled through to the mountains again on a trip to gain favor for his son's future marriage he saw an old man sitting alone in the moonlight.
The old man ignored the passing horses and the carriages. The silk brocade and the government seal, and simply continued reading a large book in his lap. The old man, infuriated Magistrate Tiger and he ordered the carriage to stop.
However even the halting noises did not make the old man look up. Finally Magistrate Tiger exited his carriage and went to the old man who was still engrossed in his book. "Do you not bow to your magistrate?" he roared. The old man continued to read. "What are you reading that is so important?" the magistrate demanded and looked at the pages of the book. It was full scribbles and scrawls not of any language the magistrate knew of.
"Why it's just nonsense written in there!", "Nonsense?", the old man said. Finally, looking up. "You fool, this is the book of fortune. It holds all the knowledge of the world that past, the present, and the future." The magistrate looked again at the marks of the page. "I cannot read it", he said. "Of course not", the man said. "But I the old man in the moon guardian of the book of fortune can read it. And with it I can answer any question in the world."
"You can answer any question in the world?", the magistrate scoffed. "Very well. Who am I son marry when he is of age?" The old man in the moon flipped the pages of the book, "Hmm" he said to himself. "Yes here it is. Your son's future wife is now two year old daughter of a grocer in the next village." "The daughter of a grocer?" the magistrate spat.
"Yes", the old man in the moon continued. "Right now she is wrapped in a blue blanket embroidered with white rabbits. Sitting on the lap of her blind grandmother in front of her house." "No! I won't allow it.", the magistrate said. "It's true", the old man said.
"They are destined to be husband and wife. I myself tied the red cord that binds them." "What red cord?", magistrate Tiger demanded. "Do you know nothing? I tied together everyone who needs with these red threads.", the old man sighed holding up his bag of red strings. "When you were born I tied your ankles to your wife's ankles with a red thread. And as you both grew older the line became shorter and shorter. Until you eventually met."
"All the people you've met in your life have been brought to you by the red cords I tied. I must have forgotten to cut the end of one of those lines which is why you are meeting me now. I won't do that again."
"I don't believe you", the magistrate said. "Believe or don't believe", the old man said standing up putting the big book on his back. "We've reached the end of our thread and I will now leave." The magistrate stared in dumbfounded silence as the old man in the moon walked up the mountain. "Crazy old man.", the magistrate said finally.
"What a waste of my time." The magistrate returned to his carriage and continued on. As they drove to the next village he saw an old blind woman holding a baby girl in front of a house. The girl is wrapped in blue blanket embroidered with white rabbits just as the old man in the moon had said. Magistrate Tiger burned with anger, "I will not let my son marry a grocer's daughter", he vowed. So after he arrived at his guest house, the magistrate secretly ordered one of his servant's to return to the grocer's home and stab the girl with a knife.
"That will take care of her.", he thought to himself. Many years later Magistrate Tiger had his dreamed fulfilled. He was finally able to obtain a match for his son with one of the emperor's many granddaughters. And his son would inherit the rule of a remote city. On the wedding day, Magistrate Tiger bragged to his son about how he arranged the marriage and outwitted the old man in the moon.
The son, who was not like his father, said nothing. But after the wedding ceremonies sent a trusted servant to find the grocer's family to make amends. In the meantime he became acquainted with his bride and was happy to find both were pleased with each other. He found his new wife beautiful. The only oddity about her being that she always wore a delicate flower on her forehead.
"Dear wife", he said, "Why do you always wear that flower? Even to sleep you never remove it." "It is to hide my scar" she said touching her forehead in embarrassment. "When I was a child no older than two, a strange man stabbed me with a knife. I survived, but I still have this scar." And at that moment the trusted servant came rushing in, "Master! I made the inquiries you asked for and found that many years ago the grocer's family perished, except for the daughter.
The king of the city, the emperor's ninth son, had adopted a daughter and raised her as his own. And that daughter is your wife!"
And that's the end of that part of that story.
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