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Recently a film by Pixar called “Bao” received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards. The short featured a Canadian-Chinese mother whose son grew up and moved away, so she was feeling lonely. Enter a perfect, plump bao to give her a second chance at motherhood.

Since then, I’ve been a tad obsessed with the yummy bao. I enjoy one every time I shop at the Asian grocery. So I was excited to learn of a new picture book coming out on October 1: AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO.

What a cover! Not only is there a perfect bao, but Amy and her kitty are pretty darn adorable, too.

I asked the author, Kat Zhang, and the illustrator, Charlene Chua, a few questions. I also had them interview one another. They discussed the story and the delicious ideas behind it.

Kat, what inspired you to write Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao?

Making bao and mantou (another kind of Chinese steamed bread bun) with my parents is such a treasured childhood memory for me. As I grew older, and the whole family got busier, we made them less. It wasn’t until I was in late high school or early college that the bao-making bug struck me again, and I became obsessed with making bao that were as good as the ones I had in restaurants. Many, many rounds of lumpy, leaky, over-and-underfilled bao later, I not only had a darn good bao recipe, but an idea for a new book!

What was your reaction to Charlene’s illustrations?

AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO is my debut picture book, and seeing Charlene’s illustrations has honestly been one of the most thrilling parts of the whole process! I had a general idea of how I pictured the characters and illustrations, but I was eager to see how an illustrator interpreted the text and the characters as well. Charlene did such an amazing job giving Amy’s family dimension and character through the illustrations, and I especially loved the addition of the little kitty, who wasn’t mentioned at all in the original text. Now I can’t imagine the book without it!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

The opportunity to see people like yourself in media is such a big deal, and honestly, something I don’t think I fully grasped until I was older. As a kid, I don’t remember specifically thinking that I wished there were more Asian-American characters in media. But not seeing myself reflected in the books and movies I consumed definitely contributed to my internalizing a lot of things as a kid about what sort of things I “fit” into. I was perpetually on the outside looking in. I hope that AMY WU is just one more opportunity for a kid to recognize themselves in Amy’s family. And of course, on the other side of things, I hope it lets non-Asian American kids explore a culture different from their own.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

I absolutely loved all the details Charlene snuck into Amy’s house! My mother has a total green thumb, so when I was growing up, we definitely had the bamboo plants, and the big leafy plants all over the house. Our steamer was metal, but I totally wish we had a cool woven one like Amy’s family!

What is your favorite bao?

I have a sweet tooth, and I love red bean paste bao and lotus paste bao!

Charlene asks Kat: Did the story change a lot from 1st draft till the version I got to illustrate? If so, what were the big changes?

Amazingly (at least for me, since my stories often undergo big changes from my first idea to the final draft!), AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO didn’t change much from the very first draft I wrote. The biggest tweak was probably having Amy herself come up with the solution of cutting the bao dough into smaller pieces so that they fit her hands better. In the first draft, it was Grandma who came up with the idea!

Kat, which is your favorite page/s in the book?

This is so hard to choose! I love, love the page with the phoenix and dragon surrounding Amy’s vision of a perfect bao, but I also laughed out loud when I first saw the page of her and Kitty with the three “messed up” bao. The “Perfect Bao Plan” page is also amazing. Really, I just love them all!

Did Amy and her family turn out looking like what you originally imagined them to be?

They did! I hadn’t originally imagined Grandma with pink hair, but I think it adds something great to her character. Amy is every bit the spunky, vivacious kid I wanted her to be!

Charlene, what was your inspiration for Amy Wu’s look—her hair, her clothes, her body language, etc.?

When I first read Kat’s manuscript, I thought that Amy was a very cheerful, enthusiastic girl, with a good amount of confidence in whatever she set her mind to doing. It was great to have a story with a young Chinese girl who isn’t afraid of expressing what she wants or how she feels. Amy is also character that sort of needs to be All-Amy, all the time, and I tried to match her design to those qualities. Amy’s actions are depicted with bigger gestures, because she’s not shy at showing how she feels. Her clothes allow her freedom of movement, and feature bold and eclectic colors.

What inspired you to create Amy Wu’s cat friend?

I had attended a kidlit conference shortly before starting work on the book. At one of the talks, the speaker mentioned that animals were a way to add more visual interest to a story, without altering the narrative. The thought stuck with me, and I’ve been trying to incorporate it ever since. With Amy’s story, I also really like Amy’s personality, it’s very strong – but to really show that, sometimes you need to contrast it with a softer character, such as a younger sibling that can look up to or copy the ‘stronger’ character’s actions. Since Amy doesn’t have any younger siblings, I thought that maybe her having an animal companion would be able to achieve the same effect. I also just like cats, and will take any opportunity to stick one into a story!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

I hope that readers who identify with Amy and her family will be excited to see a family like their own in this book. But I also hope that readers from all backgrounds will enjoy it too. You don’t have to be from an Asian family or know about Chinese food to enjoy the book—it’s very accessible so I hope that people will check it out just because it’s a neat story.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

The kitchen stove in the story is more or less based on my actual stove. It’s a gas stove, because I’ve cooked with gas all my life. My mum cooked with gas, and my grandmothers did too (one grandmother liked using charcoal as well, but that’s another story). The rice cooker also looks similar to the cooker I grew up with, although the one I use now looks different.

What is your favorite bao?

Char siu bao! (Chinese barbeque pork.)

Kat asks Charlene: I loved getting multiple versions of the illustration for each page during the initial stages of book coming together. How do you brainstorm various ideas for an illustration? What factors do you take into consideration?

I like trying out different layouts to see what works best – usually the first idea I come up with isn’t the one I end up going with. Most of the art for Amy Wu was done digitally, but the thumbnails were done with pencil on paper. I like to sit in a comfy chair and doodle out thumbnails—it works better for me that way as it’s just me and the paper, no fancy screens or Undo buttons to concern me. When working on thumbnails, I consider the text for a particular page or spread, and how best to bring that to life. I also think about what I could possibly add to make it more fun or impactful. When all the thumbnails are done, I try to look at them as a whole to see which ones connect the best. Sometimes there’s a thumbnail for a page that looks great on its own, but when it’s strung together with the rest, it doesn’t work as well.

Artists often have a very unique signature style. What would you say are the elements of yours? Do you feel like it’s still evolving a lot, or something that’s remained stable? 

It’s kind of hard for me to pin down my own style (I think many artists have that problem!). I guess my art tends to be quite energetic, usually with pretty strong colors. I think it’s evolved over the years, especially now that I’m working with more non-digital art for some other projects. But at the same time, I think if you looked at the older and newer work, it’s still possible to see the same artist behind it.

Thank you, Kat and Charlene, for sharing the stories behind the story!

Blog readers, you can win a copy of AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO when it is released.

Just add one comment below and a random winner will be selected soon! (Tara has many winners of recent contests to select!)

Good luck!

You can visit Kat Zhang at KatZhangwriter.com and Charlene Chua at CharleneChua.com

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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