Hallo, pumpkins! I hope everyone had a nice, relaxing weekend. Or maybe a fun, energetic one? Or, you know, however you like to spend your weekend. Anyway, Dave and I are back with another author interview!
I had the pleasure of interviewing Eugenia Chu, author of Brandon Makes Jiǎo Zi (餃子). Mommy surprises Brandon with his grandma from China, Pó Po (婆婆), when she picks him up from school. When they get home, the adventure begins! While Brandon and Pó Po (婆婆) are making Chinese dumplings, called jiǎo zi (餃子), Brandon makes a mess and he and Pó Po (婆婆) have a good laugh. They chat and bond over the experience.
This adorable story includes some conversational Mandarin Chinese (including pin yin—pronunciation) and is written the way a real Chinese grandmother and her Chinese-American grandson would speak with each other. It is a fun read for families with children who are learning, or are interested in, Mandarin or Chinese culture.
RJ: What was it like transitioning from your career as an attorney to writing children’s books? Is writing a fairly new venture or have you always had a passion for it?
CHU: I actually transitioned from practicing law to becoming a stay-at-home mom before writing children’s books. So, really, the biggest step was deciding to stop practicing law after my son was born. Once I did that, the story writing came pretty naturally as my son, Brandon, became older—even though I had not written anything besides legal briefs for the previous 15 years or so! I started writing a few years after Brandon was born but didn’t become serious about writing or sharing my work until fairly recently.
When Brandon was very little, I would read a bedtime story (or 2, or 3!) every night to him. At lights out, we would discuss his day and all the events that occurred. We would take turns adding information and make up little stories based on the happenings of the day before going to sleep. I love books and bought tons of children’s books, but I could never find any books in English which also had some Mandarin Chinese in the story. I am Chinese-American, so I wanted to find storybooks which included a little Chinese and touched upon Chinese culture. The only books I could find that had any Chinese in them were ABC/123 instructional-type books with no storyline and straight translations with Chinese on one side and English on the other. Of course, I bought these books, too (did I tell you that I love books—haha), but they were not what I was looking for. So, I just started writing my own stories for us to read together at bedtime based on Brandon’s adventures and things he liked. At the time, I never considered publishing. I was just writing for fun for my son. So, I guess you could say that writing stories is a fairly new venture for me.
RJ: You started writing children’s books because you were unable to find any that helped to reinforce both Chinese culture and vocabulary (Mandarin). Do you think the lack of multicultural children’s books speaks to the publishing market specifically and/or the U.S. social climate in general?
CHU: That’s a great question! I haven’t done any research in this area, but I think the lack of such books does speak to the publishing market, which I believe is influenced by the U.S. social climate. Perhaps publishers don’t publish as many multicultural books because they don’t think the interest is there and thereby assume that they would not sell as well. Or, maybe there aren’t many multicultural editors/publishers and, if that’s true, not as many multicultural books/authors are selected to be published (since people generally like to read about characters similar to themselves). This is all speculation, of course.
However, I do believe that as the multicultural population grows (and the world grows smaller with increased travel to, and business with, other countries) and greater contact and awareness of other cultures increase, the demand for multicultural books, especially multicultural children’s books, will grow. In fact, I have seen many more multicultural children’s books now than even just eight years ago when I first started looking for them! However, I still haven’t seen any like mine. I’m sure that will change as more and more parents want their children to learn Chinese, and more and more schools are offering Mandarin as part of their curriculum. The number of schools that teach Mandarin has increased exponentially since I was a kid, and I anticipate that number will to continue to grow.
RJ: Books are powerful tools for learning, from childhood all the way to the final year of college, and beyond. Do you think if more multicultural children’s books were introduced to the market it would help future generations to be more understanding and accepting of cultures that differ from their own?
CHU: Absolutely! Not only is it important for kids to be able to see themselves in books to help bolster self-esteem by gaining a sense of affirmation about themselves and their culture, but it is crucial that children are exposed to multicultural books at a young age to help diminish prejudicial thoughts about race and other differences.
Multicultural children’s books can be used to help open kids’ minds and to stimulate an understanding of diversity. It is important to expose kids to those who might be different, because people will often sympathize with those of whom they are familiar. Multicultural books teach children empathy toward those who look different and promote cross-cultural friendship while dispelling stereotypes. They show kids that even though some people may look different from them, people (especially children) are basically the same—everyone likes to play, laugh, love, and eat yummy food! And nobody likes to be hurt or feel left out. Moreover, children exposed to multicultural books learn that there are other perspectives and ways of doing things that are just as valuable as their own.
Multicultural children’s books let the reader see through the eyes of another. They increase cultural awareness and help children become more accepting of, and respectful toward, people with different backgrounds and perspectives. I believe that if more multicultural children’s books were introduced to the market and read at home and in schools, that the gap between people from diverse cultural backgrounds would be reduced and future generations would be more unified.
RJ: You published your first book last summer: Brandon Makes Jiǎo Zi(餃子). What finally pushed you to publish and what was the process like?
CHU: Well, I was purely writing for my son and for just the joy of writing. I wrote what I thought he might like to read and could relate to. Then I sent this story, along with a couple others, to my sisters who both have kids around Brandon’s age and they loved the story! My nephews and niece kept asking their moms to read the story to them over and over again. I was so surprised and thrilled. I can’t remember if it was one of my sisters or my husband who had first suggested I try to publish. At first, I just scoffed and thought, “Please, who would want to read my little story about Brandon.” But as time passed, and Brandon got older and I had more spare time, the thought stuck with me and lingered at the back of my mind. I figured, since I was always looking for a book like this, and my sisters were also looking, maybe other parents would be interested, and I could help fill a niche. So, I just went for it!
RJ: Brandon Makes Jiǎo Zi (餃子) is a story about a boy making Chinese dumplings with his grandmother when she comes for a surprise visit. Was there a particular reason you chose that task for your characters? Was this inspired by actual events?
CHU: This book was inspired by actual events! Whenever my parents come to visit, my mom and Brandon always make jiǎo zi, or Chinese dumplings. It’s their favorite thing to do together and has become a family tradition. Brandon always looks forward to it and it was one of the subjects we talked about before bed. A lot of the things that happen in the story are things that actually occurred and still occur in real life (like Brandon getting flour all over the place when he is wrapping dumplings—although he is much less messy now than before).
RJ: How difficult (or easy) was marketing Brandon Makes Jiǎo Zi (餃子) and how might your marketing strategy change in the future?
CHU: Marketing is definitely the most difficult part of this whole journey for me. When I first started, I had no clue about marketing. I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to try to publish—guess I wasn’t (haha)! The book published over the summer while I was overseas on vacation and I didn’t even see a hardcopy until the end of the summer. So, I didn’t start any marketing efforts (besides telling my family and a few friends) until months after my book was published! I really got a late start. When I finally started researching how to market a book, I was incredibly overwhelmed (still am) by how much there is to do to effectively promote a book. I am technologically challenged (that’s stating it nicely) and had to learn how to enter and use the world of social media—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. And I spent way more time than a normal person would in creating my simple website.
I also sent out a gazillion emails to magazines, newspapers, bloggers, Chinese associations, and anyone else I could think of requesting reviews and features. Most of time—crickets! But I kept at it and was lucky to find a few kind souls who agreed to review my book or feature me and my book in an article. I’ve also done some crazy out-of-the-box type things like teach a jiǎo zi cooking class in conjunction with a reading of my book. So far, I’ve had my best luck with author visits at elementary schools that teach Mandarin Chinese as part of their curriculum. I still struggle with marketing but am continuing to learn and am trying new things all the time. Can’t give up!
For my next book, I will definitely start marketing before it is even published! Live and learn, right?
RJ: You got to work with an illustrator on this book. What was that process like, from choosing an illustrator to the finished product, and how much control did you have over it?
CHU: I originally had a few artists submit their work to me and was in the midst of going back and forth with one I was planning to hire when my sister, Helena, offered to illustrate my book. I had no idea she would be interested, because it’s such a big undertaking, but I was so thrilled when she offered! I totally lucked out because, not only is she a great artist, but she already knew the story and the characters (our family), so she knew what I wanted for the book without me having to give her any instruction besides just letting her know where I thought there should be a picture. I basically just took what she drew and added them to the book without question or comment. For me, this was the easiest part of creating the book. I know this probably makes so many other children’s authors jealous—sorry!
RJ: What’s next for you? Do you already have another children’s book in the works or do you have plans to expand your writing to other age groups or genres?
CHU: For now, I plan to stick with writing children’s books. I am currently working on a book entitled Brandon Goes to Beijing (北京), based on our trip to Beijing last year. The main character, Brandon, will be in the book, as well as his grandma, Pó Po (婆婆). I will also be introducing Brandon’s cousins from California, so that should be fun! I also have a free read, Brandon Goes to Chinese School, available on my website. It’s about Saturday Chinese School, of which there are hundreds spread throughout the country. No illustrations, but it may still be interesting and relatable for the thousands of kids who go to Saturday Chinese School, or for those whose parents may be thinking of sending their kids to Saturday Chinese School. Spoiler alert—there’s some whining in the story but it has a happy ending!
RJ: What is your writing process like and how do you overcome such obstacles as time constraints and writer’s block?
CHU: I don’t really have a specific or consistent writing process. I just write when the inspiration hits—usually in the morning or late at night after my son is asleep. I know I need to write more, but I blame my procrastination on all the time I am spending on trying to figure out marketing (ha)! When I do write, I just write without editing and leave space for where I want to come back later to expand upon a thought. I write without censoring myself, and then I come back later to revise and edit. If I get stuck, I just take a break and watch some TV or have a glass of wine (or both) and come back later.
RJ: What advice do you have for new authors?
CHU: Start marketing as soon as possible—even before you publish, if you can. I wish I had done that! Get on social media—set up a Facebook Author page, Twitter account, and Instagram account. Also, set up author pages on Amazon and Goodreads. Join author groups on social media—I have found that most authors are wonderful people who help and support one another! This interview is a great example of one author promoting another! Finally, if you write children’s books, get in touch with schools and set up author visits. I sell more books at school readings than anywhere else! And keep writing! Always keep writing! Good luck to all my fellow authors!