by Kat Yeh
I have just finished my second year of PiBoIdMo and I can’t stop thinking about how much I love what I do. I love the blank page that is suddenly no longer blank. I love that for a living, I get to be a picture book author. Because when you write picture books, you get to Make Things Up. You get to take something that never existed in real life and make it real. And if you’re lucky, one day it becomes a book you can hold in your hands.
In 2003, I took a class at Columbia’s Teachers College. Let me clarify. I took an amazing class entirely devoted to the Art of the Picture Book. Taught by Professor Barbara Kiefer, former chair of the Caldecott Committee. The previous years between 1999 and 2003 had been a blur. In a short span of time, my first child was getting ready to go to school, I had a second child, and my father passed away. I had always wanted to write children’s books and had a pretty big stack of manuscripts and scribbled ideas piled up in my office. In the midst of everything that was going on, I somehow decided that it was time to take a chance.
The class was wonderful. We held a Mock Caldecott Award and pitched our personal nominees. We experimented with making hand-bound books. We were given lists of museums and galleries to visit for inspiration. And one day, the list included an exhibition of Chinese Calligraphy.
I went early one morning. I remember how still the rooms were. I remember standing alone before a wall of parchment paper and stunning brushwork and being overwhelmed with memories of my father. How he loved spending time with my daughter. How he shouted with joy when he heard I was pregnant with my son. How along with his many artistic pursuits, he loved working with his brush and ink. That day, I began to write the story of how my father introduced my children to the art of Chinese Calligraphy.
Flash forward 5 years. The kids were a little older. There was a little more breathing room. I now had a somewhat daunting stack of manuscripts and scribbled ideas and I decided it was time to take another chance and actually try to get published.
My first picture book, YOU’RE LOVABLE TO ME (Random House, December, 2009) came out shortly after that. Through the SCBWI, I was introduced to the amazing New Jersey chapter, run by Kathy Temean. One of my first events was a Mentor Workshop with the opportunity to have a manuscript critique. I brushed off my Chinese calligraphy story. Looked at it with fresh eyes and made changes. Then took a deep breath and brought it to my meeting with editor Stacy Cantor from Walker Books.
It was a good meeting.
Stacy teamed me up with illustrator Huy Voun Lee and two years later, THE MAGIC BRUSH: A story of love, family, and Chinese characters (Walker Books, January, 2011) was on the shelves.
I will never forget the first time I sat with my children to read it. How my daughter looked at the pages showing the first Chinese characters my father ever taught her. How my son reached out to touch the opening spread—a beautiful illustration of him and his sister, laughing with my father in a garden. How they listened to the story of that special time they were lucky enough to share with my father.
Time that only ever existed in that book.
Because only few weeks after I had told my father that I was expecting another child, he had a stroke. He lay in a coma when my son was born and never opened his eyes again. He never got the chance to meet my son or teach my daughter calligraphy or laugh with the three of them together in the garden.
But when you write picture books, you get to Make Thing Up. You get to take something that never existed in real life and make it real. If you’re lucky, one day it becomes a book you can hold in your hands. And that is real enough for me.
Kat Yeh lives on Long Island, NY where she can see water everyday and explore all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She is the author of YOU’RE LOVABLE TO ME, Random House Books for Young Readers (2009) and THE MAGIC BRUSH: A STORY OF LOVE, FAMILY, AND CHINESE CHARACTERS, Walker Books for Young Readers (2011). One of these days, her website katyeh.com will be up.