You Are (Not) Small has won several awards, including the 2015 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, and was listed as one of the NPR Best Books of 2014. The wife and husband team have also received numerous other awards and mentions for their other work.
I spoke to Kang about the process of bringing a picture book to life, her eleventh grade literary awakening and working with her hubby.
Writing a children’s book seems deceptively easy. It’s not very many words and all you need is someone to draw good pictures. And yet it’s not. Tell us a bit more about the process. What, in your experience, makes a good picture book?
In my opinion, a good picture book engages the young reader through its story, characters, and illustrations, and ideally, has a subtext that kids can think about. If it also happens to have funny moments, then even better, since kids (and adults) love to laugh, and kids will read a book multiple times if it’s funny. Achieving all these things within 32 pages is difficult, but I enjoy the challenge of distilling and paring down until every word is necessary.
You speak about how one day at school you were asked to invent your own similes and metaphors and you wrote ‘Mondays are like stepping on a slug,’ which, to your surprise, your teacher loved. Tell us a bit about how that moment lit up the writer in you and the journey between that and the first book.
Miss Walsh was my eleventh-grade English teacher. She was fair but firm, and didn’t hand out praise gratuitously. I think she was the first adult to ever respond to anything I’d written in such a positive way. My town was predominantly white, and as a Korean American, I’d always felt like an outsider. To make my teacher and my classmates laugh out loud over six written words was truly eye-opening for me — writing had the power to connect us. Throughout the year, Miss Walsh continued to provide specific, constructive feedback on my essays with her red pen. Her comments meant so much to me, I saved them for years and years and still have them in storage somewhere.
I can connect the dots from that moment to my experience spending summers in Korea with my relatives and my year abroad in Japan as a college student. In Asia, I experienced living as a member of the racial majority for the first time, and I had another eye-opening moment – I was not an “outsider.” And in fact, all of these labels and standards depended on perspective and context. So twenty years later, when I sat down to write a picture book story, You Are (Not) Small came rolling out.
Your teacher, Miss Walsh, was an unwitting collaborator in your work. How important are these sort of people for writers to discover their passion? Want to name any other collaborators you have had along the way?
I think teachers and mentors are so essential, especially for anyone in a creative field. There is so much doubt and uncertainty in the arts and no defined path. These supporters and champions give us the courage and confidence to keep going. I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors besides Miss Walsh. First and foremost, my parents: my mother is a writer who wrote every day in a marble notebook, and now on the computer. By the time I was in high school, she had a bookcase of notebooks filled with her written words. My father was my greatest supporter in general. He always believed in me and stressed that I should work hard and do what made me happy. Other mentors were my professors at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts who told me I had a “voice” worth sharing, and my advisors at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting Lab, who encouraged me to take risks and have courage to tell the “truth.”
As a picture book writer, you rely strongly on collaboration with an illustrator. How do you translate the vision you have in your mind into something the illustrator can visualize?
My education at USC shaped me to be a visual storyteller, which I think is why I gravitated towards writing picture books. For three years at USC, I practiced “showing, not telling” in my screenplays and films, so I automatically “see” the story as I’m writing it.
You work with your husband, which must have its pros and cons?
No cons at all! Ha! 😉 Actually, it’s been a very positive experience. Chris and I find the same things funny and have similar taste in general. But more significantly we’ve been together for twenty-five years and have co-parented two children over the past fourteen years which has given us a short-hand when we are collaborating. I’d say the major con to working with an illustrator who’s my husband is that if we do disagree or get annoyed, we can’t just ignore each other!
For picture book writers who are starting out, how do they find illustrators to work with?
A great organization is the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They connect authors and illustrators through networking events and conferences, especially those who are just starting out.
You seem to attend a lot of book fairs and do a fair bit of readings of your books. How important is this sort of thing to the success of your books? Can you get away without doing this sort of thing as a writer?
I think it’s important to participate in book events for a few reasons. Writing is such a lonely vocation and festivals and signings allow you to meet your readers and talk with the teachers and parents who share your books. Kids get to see that writers are “normal” human beings like they are, and writers receive so much positivity and support in return, encouraging us to keep going. It’s a win-win.