Sunday, December 31, 2006

ten pipe dreams

Alvina's post What I'd like to try/learn reminded me of the lists we made a while ago. On it we put done all the things we wished to accomplish--selfishness and hubris completely encouraged. I know they are pipe dreams, but dreaming is half the fun. Here are ten of them:

1. Be able to do a handstand effortlessly, with abs of steel.

2. Have at least one of my books become a classic, beloved by generations and never go out of print.

3. Be an illustrator for a Children's Book Week Poster

4. Be an author/illustrator of a Little Golden Book (like Dan Yaccarino's Mother Goose)

5. Decorate a cake (or cupcakes) at a professional level (I want to learn how to pipe frosting flowers!)

6. Be honored at an awards ceremony where I get to get wear a fancy Academy Awards-type dress (like this).

7. Have a nice big studio with skylights (or something like this).

8. Stand on the Great Wall of China and pat the heads of the lions on the Marco Polo Bridge.

9. Have one of the characters of my book made into a statue placed in a public space/park (like the Make Way for Ducklings statue or the Alice in Wonderland Statue)

10. Own a successful children's bookstore/bakery/gallery.

Hmm, looking over my list I'm starting to feel pangs of guilt over my narcissism. I want world peace and an end to global warming too! Though, truthfully, I would trade everything on this list for Robert to be healthy and for us to have a real chance to live the life we've always dreamed.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

how to

Back in August, I promised to show instructions on how I make my folders. I'm not very good at writing directions, but hopefully with the images you can figure it out:

1. Make your folder with corrugated cardboard: two large pieces the same size and a spine. Bind them together with artist tape. The tape should be flexible so the folder can bend.

2. Choose your paper. You will need two sheets of paper that are wider than the height of your folder and one very large sheet of paper appr. double the size of your folder.

3. Glue your smaller sheets of paper onto right and left hand pieces of your folder. They should cover 1/2- to 1/3 of the cardboard with a generous overhang. The over hand is very important, there should be at least an inch of paper overhanging the cardboard.

4. Flip your folder over. You should see the underside of that overhung paper. At each corner, cut a notch. The notch should line up with the edge of the cardboard.

5. Fold the corners of the notch into the triangular shape seen in the photo. Glue the triangles down. Repeat for all 4 corners.

6. Fold the flaps (with the glued down corners) over the pieces of cardboard. Glue flaps down.

6. Repeat on other side. So far, your folder should look like this.

7. Flip your folder over. Take your large sheet of paper and cut it to a size that covers all the exposed cardboard with at least an inch of overhang on each side. You want it to overlap the other paper.

8. Glue paper down. The paper should overlap the already glued paper and overhang off the boards.

9. Flip folder over. Fold over hanging paper over and glue. It should look like this.

10. Take the remaining paper and cut it so it is about 1/2 smaller on all sides than your folder. It should be large enough to cover all exposed cardboard and overlap the glued paper--but it should NOT overhang.

11. Glue the paper down, so it looks like this. While the glue is still moist, fold up the sides of the folder so that the spine does not get stiff in the wrong position.

12. Ta-Dah! You have a folder. Now make some art to go in it.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

little kitchen in the condo

In my youth, I would hide from my mother behind the sofa so that I could read Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Back then, the incongruity of a t-shirt wearing, Asian-American girl dreaming about being Laura Ingalls was lost on me. I longed for calico dresses and my mouth watered for such exotic foods like fried potatoes with salt pork, mashed turnips and hulled corn.

But, now, no more! I’ve been captivated by my recent purchase of The Little House Cookbook. It’s been in existence for over 20 years, but I’ve just discovered it. My inner child rejoices! Finally, I can actually taste the foods I’ve read about for so long.

And so far I have made Almanzo Wilder’s favorite dish: apples n’onions. It’s a pretty easy dish (fry apples and onions) but the gastronomical joy is great. Highly recommended.

This tasty achievement, of course, leads me to fantasizing about a cookbook made from my own books. My mind explodes with possibilities. It could be a cookbook filled with Asian cuisine recipes, just like the dishes my mother cooked for me. Who knows, perhaps kids reading my books are suddenly developing a craving for bowls of white rice, sweet pork buns and stir-fried noodles. It could be a smash hit.

But reality sinks in. I realize that my book is called The Year of the Dog and that is just not an appetizing title for a cookbook.

Which is not the first time my titles have thwarted me. Just be glad that the cupcakes I’m making for our Cupcake Contest (that YOU can win) are not from a cookbook called, The Year of the Rat.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

cover story

Last May, my friend Justina Chen Headley told me the back story of her cover art for Nothing But the Truth and a few White Lies. The book is about a “hapa”, a half white and half Asian girl, and the publisher was having problems finding an image of a girl that looked hapa-enough for Justina’s taste. Finally, they offered to let her find her own model and help art direct the cover. She found the perfect girl at a coffee shop, set up a photo shoot and voila! One of the most lovely covers I’ve seen.

And I have to admit I was a little envious. The cover of my book was my idea, but suddenly choosing a model and having a photo shoot just seemed so much more glamorous. And fun! I could have a call for entries, maybe a contest…my mind raced with the possibilities.

“Gee,” I said to my editor (who is also Justina’s editor), “I wish I could’ve chosen a model and done a cover like Justina’s.”
“I don’t think that would’ve worked,” she said, “How many girls would want to be on a cover of a book called, “The Year of the Dog?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, “Maybe the next book.”
“But,” she said, “Your next book is called, The Year of the Rat!”

Ah, good point. Sigh.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

years go by

Today, as I was drawing I found myself staring at my hands. As I looked at them, slightly chapped, with slight scars and wrinkles, I suddenly realized--these are my mother's hands. Through some alchemy of time, my hands and I have become practical and aged.

And these changes fill me with bittersweet thoughts. I remember once, in my youth, thinking that I wanted to be just like my Mom. She could play the piano, wear lipstick, and buy candy any time she wanted to (though she never did). Adults could do that. I thought they were so lucky.

But surprisingly, adulthood has not been full of the simple pleasures I imagined. I’ve buckled under its pressures and it’s left wrinkles that can never be smoothed. And as I observe the invisible transformation of carefree to careworn, I can’t help but wonder-- when did this happen?

And I realize that this has happened when I wasn't looking, as most important things go. It's the moments I miss, the minutes and seconds I cancel or forget that all add up and become what changes me irreversibly.

Unless you believe those Oil of Olay ads.

Friday, September 15, 2006

go fish

Just wanted to let you know I am still being tormented by fish. Even though I am at a loss of what all these fish want from me, they continue to invade my presence. You'd think while I'm biking, I would be safe(because you know how much a fish needs a bicycle). But witness this recent photo of me, taken just a mere five days ago. See anything fishy?

Fish, fish, fish...there's a caldecott somewhere in there. Or a trip to the psychiatrist.

Monday, September 11, 2006

a multicultural author

My first published book was, The Ugly Vegetables, a story about my mother and I and the Chinese vegetables we grew when I was a child. One look at the cover and you can see it’s chock full of the multicultural label.

And that label, as anyone who has experienced it knows, is quite a double-ended sword. However, when it was published I was still a bit green about the genre. So it was with a little surprise when a fellow striving author/illustrator (not a blue rose girl, btw) said to me, “It’s a good that you’re using your culture, that’s what’s getting you published.”

Was it? Suddenly, the validation that I had broken through the publishing wall was marred by the idea that I had somehow squeezed through a back window. Was I only getting published because of my heritage and subject matter? Was I cheating? Was I selling out my culture for a career?

And this fear was something that haunted me. During that first year of publication, I constantly felt ill at ease, as if I was a chicken floating with swimming swans. I hadn’t intended on getting on a platform for diversity in children’s literature—I had just wanted to get a story I loved published. But, without meaning to, my book was seen (by those who read it, the numbers of that is another story) as representative of the underserved Asian-American experience. And who was I to represent that? I felt, in my desperation to get published, I had faked my way in.

So soon after (during the discussions for another project) when an editor asked me to consider changing my Asian girl character to a Caucasian boy, I should’ve felt a sense of satisfaction and relief. The reasons were good— changing the character would make it so that the book wouldn’t be considered multicultural, its sales wouldn’t be limited and I, as an author, wouldn’t be pigeon-holed. But, instead, I was uneasy.

Suddenly, I found myself not caring if I was getting published for the wrong reasons or I wasn’t selling enough books for the right ones. Somehow, given the opportunity to prove I was publishable without my heritage seemed a pale consolation prize when compared to creating a book that was true to my vision, the readers who loved my books and the child I was many years ago.

And it’s not that I’ll never do a book with a Caucasian boy (I would do a book on anything if I felt it was right) or that my books are meant to preach (horrors!). But, I realized that being able to publish my work was a gift not to be squandered on something soulless. And my soul is Asian-American.

So, strangely, it was the unsettling nature of this editor’s request that made me find my balance. It sifted away my fears, the practical reasoning and the backhanded compliments and left me proud of what I am, a multicultural author.

Wednesday, September 6, 2006

grace and the giant...

Recently, I've been rereading one of my favorite children's books James and the Giant Peach. Since then, I've had many a giant fruit sighting. Perhaps something is calling me to write...

Grace and the Giant Orange? Don't like that? How about...

Grace and the Giant Strawberry?

Too bad I wasn't able to get a photo of the giant pineapple.

Monday, September 4, 2006

tormented by the subconscious

Recently, I have been obsessed by goldfish. For some inexplicable reason, I am drawn to them. I feed them at the lake:

I spend too much money buying decorative paper with goldfish motifs:

And I eat goldfish crackers as if I'm starving:

Usually, this means there is a story idea brewing. The last time this happened was when origami animals seemed to envelop me. They kept appearing and reappearing (even though I couldn’t fold a paper crane to save my life) until I finally gave them their own book in “Lissy’s Friends.”

So now, obviously, there must be goldfish swimming in my subconscious that are demanding to be set free. Of course, I don’t know how to do this. Any ideas? Do you guys ever suffer the torment of an idea wanting to be formed?

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Recently, the Blue Rose Girls asked, "What outside influences do you use to keep you focused?"

One of the thing I’ve always done is make a folder for my work (I posted a photo of a couple of them to the left). I have a penchant for beautiful paper, making folder portfolios gives me an excuse to buy and use it (though I have a lot more paper than my folders need!). Usually I make the folder at the start of a project—as an incentive to fill it! The folder is a visual reminder for me to keep focused.

Here is my most recent folder made for the art of Lissy's Friends! I just had to post it because I love that bunny paper.

Monday, August 7, 2006

my new ride

I've been searching all summer for an activity that I could enjoy and get me out of the house, because nothing makes me grumpier than realizing that a beautiful day has happened and I've spent it indoors at my desk.

However, running has lost it's appeal (in 90 degrees, forget it!) and walking is to slow (all I do is think about how I have to get back and work). So, the new solution was biking...all I needed was to get a bike.

So I did. And I heart it. Not only is it green and pretty, nothing brings back the wonder of childhood as you whiz downhill, with the wind in your hair. Such a simple pleasure, but priceless.

I was a little disappointed with the boring color of my helmet, so Robert put some pink flames on it to jazz it up. He knew then I'd be more likely to wear it. Since I'm not the most accomplished rider, he's afraid I'll crack my skull. I don't have that fear...the only thing I'm scared of is someone will steal my shiny new bike.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

up for air

I've been smothered by origami paper and japanese fabric as I paint the pictures for my new book "Lissy's Friends." I'm quite pleased with this particular painting, but of course that is what I say that now. By the time the book comes out, my opinion has changed and nothing seems as enchanting as it once was.

Friday, July 14, 2006

adventures in ordering

It's Alvina's birthday! To celebrate the birthday of my oldest friend (oldest meaning longest friendship, not oldest as in age), I sent her what I've long suspected are the key to a children's book lover's happiness. CUPCAKES!

But, the process of getting sugary sunshine to Alvina was quite harried. What seemed so straightforward: simply call the bakery and place my order became relatively complex--due to a bad phone connection and a foreign baker. Here is an excerpt of my conversation:

"Could you put letters on the cupcakes," I ask, "I'd like it to spell out 'Happy Birthday, Alvina."
"Yes," the man said, "Happy Birthday, Albina."
"No," I say, "Alvina--like Alvin with an 'A'"
"Albina," the man repeats.
"With a 'V'" I say.
"Yes, yes," he says, "With a 'B'"
"No, 'V'" I say, "V like vote."
"Yes," he says, "B, like boat."
"No," I say, "V like very."
"Yes," he says, "B like berry."
"V like venom?" I offer.
"D?" he says, "Denim?"
"vacuum?" I suggest.
"Oh, ok," he says, "I have it 'V' like backroom."

At this point, I decide to take his word for it and trust that a successful transaction has occurred. However, later, I must admit defeat. For instead of being sent to 'Alvina Ling' the cupcakes are sent to 'Albino Lane.' Happy Birthday, Albino!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

travel story

During my recent visit to San Diego, I was fortunate to have captured affection the of the cutest 5 year old girl. Zoe, enchanted with my drawing abilities, climbed into my lap during the booksigning (which lasted over an hour)and offered to draw me a picture. I agreed.

"What do you want a picture of?" she asked.
"What do you like to draw?" I asked.
"I like to draw dinosaurs," she told me.
"Okay," I said,"draw me a dinosaur."
"What kind?" she asked.

Now, I have to admit my dinosaurology is a bit hazy. Luckily, I did watch Jurassic Park many years ago so I was able to say the basic T-Rex and Brontosaurus. Being 5 years old, I didn't expect much from Zoe except a very large scribble. However, she quickly proved me wrong--not only drawing a very appealing Brontosaurus but explaining to me that there was no such thing as a Brontosaurus (which I am ashamed to say I didn't believe until I looked it up on the internet later). This continued with drawings of a raptor and a Triceratops. At that point, I had exhausted my Jurassic Park knowledge.

"I don't know any other dinosaurs," I told her.
"Okay," she said, " I'll draw you an allosaurus and then an ankylosaurus. Then I'll draw you a suchomimus."
"Wow," I said, "Do you think you might want to be an archeologist someday?"
"You mean paleontologist," she said, laughing, "not archeologist!"


Monday, January 30, 2006

going and going

And I'm off. This time to Portland where the Chinese Garden is having an exhibition of my art and 5 days of activities centered around me and Chinese New Year. Should be great...if I get off the ground. It's suppose to storm tommorrow!

I'm really looking forward to the event, not only as a promotional but as a solitary working environment. I have my new novel all mapped out in my head and the lonely nights in the hotel should be happily filled with pegging at a typewriter. Or with blank stares at the wall. That is a pretty common event when I am trying to write.

But if that happens, I've decided to try go zen and do some yoga. Hence, the bringing of the Babar's Yoga for Elephants. I've realized that my reading level is juvenile that even "how to" books have to be children oriented. If only there was a Babar's Taxes for Elephants. I'd be so well rounded.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

seeds of self doubt

The limited feedback I have been getting from "Year of the Dog" has made me all a-bloom. The garden of my ego has blossomed to new splendor-- my work might actually be loved, appreciated and respected. Heck, I might even be a successful, well-known author/illustrator.

But, small things, like frost in the night, creep in. A patronizing message on a message board. A tepid review calling my book "comfortable." The disinterest of relatives because it's "kid's things." An innocent e-mail asking where to get my book as it is not stocked anywhere. These small things water the seeds of self-doubt, encouraging them to grow into dominating weeds.

The balance between pride and humbleness is hard to accomplish. As satisfaction fills me and the feeling of self-importance does not seem so unreasonable, the whispers begin. "Who do you think you are?" it scoffs, "You think you're all that? Please don't make me laugh."

For low self-esteem and insecurity has plagued me and pushed me. You'll never get published. You can't make a living on children's books. No one is going to like your books. You're never going to make it. Fear of failure made me want to prove that I could do what was doubted. Yet, the same impetus that pushed me to work harder is the same force that won't allow me to feel peace or pride with my endeavors.

Robert, of course, has been the great equalizer. Whenever the secret demons push me to dejection, he shines a light on them. "When are you going to be as proud of yourself as I am of you?" he says to me and the tears burn in my eyes. And, I realize that the demons are just rabbits sneaking into the garden. I'll probably never get rid of them, but I can't stop trying to grow flowers because they steal a bit of lettuce.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Happy Year of the Dog!

It's the Year of the Dog! Chinese New Year has arrived. Traditionally, a Chinese tray is filled with candy that is eaten on New Year's Eve--the idea being that if the tray is filled with sweet things, the year will also be filled with sweet things.

While I don't have the traditional tray, my New Year's Eve has been quite satisfying. In honor of my starred Booklist review, my editor at Little, Brown sent me some gourmet Chinese New Year-inspired chocolates. These delectable goodies were quite appreciated. (Thanks, Alvina!)

The other sweetie I received is an e-mail from a reader. While it is perhaps not as tasty, it is just as fulfilling:

Our family wishes to send its heartfelt thanks to you
for writing "Year of the Dog." We all loved your
latest book, especially our almost 10-year-old
daughter, Wendy. Wendy and her younger sister,
Sara, 8 yrs., were both born in China and adopted
when they were young. Wendy has already shared the
book with her best friend. I can't truly capture my
daughters' delight in the story -- it has been the
perfect story at a perfect moment in their life.
(Briefly, your book caught us while we were preparing
for the Chinese New Year, completing Science Fair
projects, and discussing life long questions related
to friendship, identity, and transracial adoption

We all remember reading and listening to your Ugly
Vegetable book many times. I hope you can imagine the
delight when my daughters' realized that the book that
Grace wrote in Year of the Dog was this family
favorite. There was much excitement in our family.
"We know that book!!"

Thanks so much. We are looking forward to your future
books and truly love the books that you have written
and illustrated. Sara still loves to look at the
book you illustrated about shapes, especially the last
page with the hong baos on a tree.

Wendy has renewed her enthusiasm to write and draw.
She's a wonderful, creative girl who told me last week
me that "I started as a seed and now I am a seed with
roots waiting to blossom." Your book provided
something special to her. Thanks again, my best
wishes, Mary

I think it's going to be a sweet year!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

and on i go

I have returned. For a week. And then I’m off to Portland, Oregon to continue my attempt at a “Year of the Dog” tour.

And how has it been? Well, as a “Year of the Dog” promotional tour, I’d have to say it leaning towards the failure end. And oddly, not for lack of interest or fans. The schools I visited had ordered their books months ago and since “Year of the Dog” was not scheduled for release until Feb., didn’t order any. And the bookseller at the Chinese New Year event had never had an author come before, so conservatively brought only 25 copies of the book to sell. They were gone in a flash. I was a tiny bit annoyed as I had traveled a LONG way for the event and the attendance was 700+ people. A lot more books could’ve been sold. But the book people knew that and were very nice, so I gave myself a mental slap for being a snot (on the inside). It would've been horrible if none or only some of the books had sold, so even if I wasn’t quite satisfied, best to be grateful.

However, as an exercise in ego gratification, the tour is already phenomenal success. Nothing is more touching or rewarding then seeing hundreds of the cutest Asian girls looking at you with stars in their eyes. And having their parents say, “She LOVES your books. She sleeps with “The Ugly Vegetables” at night and we’ve read “Dim Sum For Everyone!” so many times that the binding is worn out.” And to hear it not once, but a number of times. It’s a heady experience, one that is uplifting and humbling at the same time.

I have grumbled and griped about my lack of success, judging it on coveted awards, promotional budgets and envy of peers. But, in the presence of my youngest devotees, those complaints are disgraceful. Yes, of course this is a business, of course I need to make money. But that’s not the reason I became a children’s book creator. The ability to connect with children is.

So, with those thoughts soothing my irritated soul, the tour will continue…and perhaps (if I am lucky) I’ll get to sell some book on the way!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

surprise success

On the morning of my exhibit opening, both Robert and I had a difficult time getting out of bed. Robert, because of his treatment and me, because of my dread of a tumbleweed opening. But, up we got, though a bit later than planned, and on we went (and arrived late-sorry!).

But what had been giving me cold chills turned out to be one of my most heartwarming experiences. People came. A lot of them. The word had gotten out through the school, libraries and newspaper and had alerted some of my core fans, who came out in packs. The museum (obviously surprised) ran out of books immediately. Good friends, Luke & Ranida, drove from Arlington and brought "Year of the Dog" cookies to take the place of the ones I din't have time to make.

And Robert was disgusted with me. "If you ever put down one of your events ahead of time like you did this one," he said, "I'm going to shake you. You disrespect your venue, your fans, and your work when you do that."

It's true, of course. Confidence in your failure is an insult to those who believe in you. Yet, self-assurance is hard to achieve simply out of good manners.

Friday, January 13, 2006

the motion of promotion

Today, I finally received my author copies of Year of the Dog. Hooray! Now what to do with them...

While I am planning to just give my books away to friends, family,and charitable causes, my new marketing book says, "Resist the temptation to send books to your friends and family. Send to book reviewers, some producers and key bookstore buyers, instead." Hmm, I'm drawing a blank here. I don't know any reviewers, producers or key bookstore buyers. Well, I know some, but I'm uncomfortable thrusting my book upon them in a such an obvious "make people buy my book" way.

And I guess that is my issue with promotion and marketing. The naive part of me wants to believe that if my book is good enough, it'll find its audience and sell well on its own. But the reality is that no one will buy your book if they don't hear about it and it's not the best books that do well, it's the ones that "yell" the loudest. And I care too much about my books to let them slip into the out-of-print graveyard without a good war-cry.

So while I have not exactly embraced marketing, I have decided that we must at least hold hands. With the help (and prodding)of my sister, I've contacted groups and set up events in Seattle, Portland, and possibly San Diego and Arizona to try to push "Year of the Dog." I've sent out some postcards to friends and colleagues (and key bookstore buyers as suggested). I've written an article on why I wrote the book and offered it to publications. To me, this is marketing at full force--going full throttle into battle.

But, a brief perusal through marketing resources show me that my attack is not even a mere fistfight. It seems like if you really want to wrestle, you have to promote with every breath, view every conversation as an opportunity to sell. One resource sites an example of a woman who sold her book to every passenger on her airplane flight. The author wrote this in tones of admiration, but I was horrified. How obnoxious is it to have goods forced upon you when you can't even leave?

I want my books to do well, I want to promote them so they get the attention I feel they deserve. But I don't want to transform the labor of my work to boorish behavior. It's literature, not rock music.

But perhaps that's what my problem is and why I am not as successful as I could be. And really, I have no right to be condescending. Because, even though there is line between being a rat in the rat race and a mouse trying to find your way through the maze, you're still a rodent through and through.