Review for Made in Korea by Sarah Suk

Summer is here for me, and the heat and humidity combo is the Worst, but thankfully I’m mostly indoors reading books. Today’s review is for a recent release, Made in Korea, that exceeded my expectations.

Synopsis:

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads—and maybe fall in love—while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity—one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover…

What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.

Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school—all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for.

But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.

Review:

Note: I received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Made in Korea is billed as a romcom, and it delivers with its funny and dynamic he-said/she-said dual narrative centering two Korean American teens. Valerie is an ambitious and resourceful girl with an acute business sense while Wes is much less assertive and socially awkward, but still astute in his own way, and sensitive in a way that makes you want to protect him.

The plot of Made in Korea is over-the-top in a K-drama worthy fashion, with twists and turns and increasingly high stakes driving the suspense as the story unfolds. The rivals/enemies-to-lovers trope is wielded with grace and humor as Valerie and Wes navigate that weird gray area where you’re supposed to want the other person to fail but can’t help but respect and even like them.

What really made the book for me is that the lighter romcom elements are grounded by a more serious and earnest theme of wanting to be Seen. While on the surface they may seem radically different, Valerie and Wes both desperately crave the approval and support of their parents. Valerie’s mom constantly compares her to her perfect-on-paper older sister and finds her wanting, dismissing her K-beauty business as child’s play. Wes’s dad requires him to seek out a stable and lucrative field above all else, including his dreams of becoming a musician. These conflicts provide depth to the protagonists’ motivations in their competing businesses and create common ground between them for their blossoming friendship and eventual romantic entanglement.

While their parents may not give them the support they need, Valerie and Wes each has their own support system: Valerie has her Halmeoni, who loves her unconditionally and serves as her rock, and Wes reaches out to his paternal uncle, who understands his experiences as someone who is himself a musician by trade and similarly subjected to the disdain and disappointment of Wes’s father. These relationships add a layer of nuance to their family dynamics and offer hope and solace to the two main characters.

Three other major supporting characters also won my heart: Charlie, who is Valerie’s cousin and business partner; Pauline, a biracial Korean American who ends up partnering with Wes for his business as a way to connect with her heritage; and Taemin, an irreverent Korean American teen who’s trying his best to turn over a new leaf. Pauline is geeky in a way that I understand all too well while Charlie is the charming and loyal sidekick who deserves better because Valerie is too caught up in her own issues to notice that she’s mistreating him. Charlie and Pauline once had a biology partner meet-cute, but a certain incident set them adrift and estranged from each other, so they spend the book trying to find their way back to each other. Taemin is adorable in his bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold way who becomes a surprising hero/villain of sorts when he is dragged into Valerie and Wes’s shenanigans. I would 100% be down to read sequels or companion books about how these characters develop beyond/after the events of Made in Korea.

Conclusion: While reading Made in Korea, I laughed out loud multiple times, and toward the end, I found myself crying as well because it’s so heartfelt. It was a wonderful rollercoaster ride of emotions, and I hope it can bring other readers the same experience.


Book Links:

Goodreads | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | Books-A-Million | IndieBound

About the Author:

Sarah Suk (pronounced like soup with a K) lives in Vancouver, Canada where she writes stories and admires mountains. When she’s not writing, you can find her hanging out by the water, taking film photos, or eating a bowl of bingsu.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Favorite Quotes from Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

If you haven’t seen my review of the book, please go read that for more information about the book.

Note: These quotes are spoiler-free.

Quote #1

What would mom think of a simple civil ceremony with twenty guests? The answer to that was staring me in the face. She wouldn’t have saved and scraped for such fancy jewelry if she hadn’t wanted a proper Punjabi wedding. That’s what she would have liked. Lots of family, food, flowers, music. Vinnie in a gorgeous lehenga. Her groom in a red turban on a white horse, like in one of those Bollywood movies.

Quote #2

“Your mom is not taking care of it?” she asked.

Was there a way to avoid telling her? I wondered, dreading the usual awkwardness that followed when I mentioned what had happened to Mom. If it’d been anyone but Preet, I’d have found a way to avoid answering directly.

“She…” I squared my shoulders. “She passed away. Years ago.”

Suddenly all the chatter around me hushed. Crap. What a dumb idea this was. Great way to identify myself as the clueless, motherless freak show. I wanted their help, not their pity.

Quote #3

“Didn’t want to break up the cozy chat you were having,” Shayla said. “God knows you don’t talk to many guys.”

“I talk to Peter, and David, and Isaac….”

“AP study group is not talking!”

“He found my keys,” I said. “That’s all. He wasn’t, like, chatting me up, or anything.”

“Sure he wasn’t,” Shayla said.

Quote #4

Vir left the console and came over to where I was standing.

He held out a hand. “Would you like to dance?”

“Sure,” I said. I was glad the lights were low because I’m pretty sure I looked horribly self-conscious—is it actually possible to have a whole-body blush? Then both his hands were around my waits, and both mine were on his shoulders. Breathe, Mini, I told myself.

Quote #5

In a bid to shake off the blues (no pun intended), I packed my watercolors, bottle of water, and brushes into my French easel and headed to Fellsway with the dog. Painting en plein air always helped me slay whatever was bothering me. Besides, I had to add to the portfolio that I’d been neglecting for weeks. Now that I wasn’t retaking the SAT and Vinnie’s wedding planning was off to a good start, it was time to focus on college app stuff. My portfolio was exactly where it had been when junior year wound down and I finished submitting everything for AP Studio Art. It would be good to paint something that wasn’t going to be graded and evaluated!

Quote #6

“It’s cooler here,” I said, and held up my hands to frame the scene I was trying to capture. “And the perfect vantage point.”

“Yes, it is,” he said, and pulled off his shirt to reveal an impressively firm and muscled torso—and caused my heart rate to go from highly escalated to practically flatline.

What was he doing?

Quote #7

Mum always said when you can’t buy something because it is very, very expensive, go treat yourself to something happy, and fun, and beautiful that is very, very cheap—a pretty pair of earrings, a bright scarf, or a small cup of Haagen-Dazs ice cream.

Quote #8

“How does it look?” she asked.

“Brilliant!” I said. It was very vintage—like something Madhuri Dixit would have worn—but Vinnie’s fresh young face updated it immediately. There was a lump in my throat. It wasn’t that she looked like Mom exactly, but there were flashes of Mom in the way she moved and smiled and sounded, even. And with that lehenga on, there was no mistaking it.

Quote #9

If I were the praying type, I would have been praying, but what was the use? Miracles had stopped working for the likes of us a long time ago.

All we could do was wait. We’d know by Friday, definitely. Until then, there was nothing to be done except wring our hands, write place cards, and go on as if nothing the size of Texas was barreling down on us at 120 miles an hour.

Quote #10

It was going to be legendary—or a disaster. Either way, no one would ever forget it. Game. On.

[Blog Tour] Review for Sister of the Bollywood Bride by Nandini Bajpai

Pleased to announce that I’m done with school for the spring!!! And I’m happy to be a part of the blog tour for Sister of the Bollywood Bride hosted by Lonely Pages Tours. This is the second book by Nandini Bajpai I’ve read, the first being Starcursed, a historical YA story that I reviewed back in 2017. (It was published in India years ago, so it might be hard to get, but I highly recommend it!)

Book Information

Title: Sister of the Bollywood Bride
Author: Nandini Bajpai
Pub date: May 25th, 2021
Publisher: Poppy (Hachette)
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult, Romance

Synopsis

For fans of Morgan Matson’s Save the Date comes a charming novel about one teen’s summer tackling disasters including, but not limited to, family, romance, and weather — as she plans her sister’s Bollywood-style Indian wedding.

Mini’s big sister, Vinnie, is getting married. Their mom passed away seven years ago and between Dad’s new start-up and Vinnie’s medical residency, there’s no one but Mini to plan the wedding. Dad raised her to know more about computers, calculus, and cars than desi weddings but from the moment Mini held the jewelry Mom left them, she wanted her sister to have the wedding Mom would’ve planned.

Now Mini has only two months to get it done and she’s not going to let anything distract her, not even the persistent, mysterious, and smoking-hot Vir Mirchandani. Flower garlands, decorations, music, even a white wedding horse — everything is in place.

That is, until a monster hurricane heads for Boston that could ruin everything. Will Mini come through as sister of the bride and save the day?

Review

(Note: I received an advance copy of the book as part of my participation in the tour. This did not affect my evaluation of the story.)

I feel like this was the perfect book to read after a very stressful school semester. It’s a mostly light-hearted contemporary where the stakes aren’t super earth-shattering/life-or-death but still important to the main character. I cannot imagine planning a wedding in real life, but following along Mini for the ride as she tries to coordinate a wedding on a somewhat low budget was highly entertaining.

Indian weddings are notorious for being for over-the-top, and the book delivers on that front with vivid descriptions of everything, especially the clothes. Mini has a talent for clothing design and creates amazing pieces. I feel like I would have appreciated it more if I had a background in fashion and textiles, but it was a feast for the mind’s eye regardless.

As the synopsis promised, there is a romance plotline to the story, but it’s not the main focus, so if you’re looking for a romance-centric book, this is probably not the book for that. Mini has a very classic meet-cute of the awkward variety with Vir, who is mysterious, charming, and almost ridiculously multitalented. There is a twist or two to their relationship, but nothing so dramatic as to completely derail the fun atmosphere of the book.

One of the more serious topics that this book does touch on is grief and losing one’s mother to cancer at a young age. Although I lost my own mother at an older age than Mini (who lost hers at age 10), I still related a lot to her experience, especially with the awkwardness of disclosing to people that your mother has passed away when they assume she’s still alive. Mini tries to downplay her complex regarding her mother’s death, but it’s clearly a thing that still affects her and how she relates to the various people in her family, especially her sister and her maternal aunt, who she felt abandoned by in the aftermath of her mother’s passing.

My primary critique of the story was that there were aspects to Mini’s relationships that felt underdeveloped. I saw hints here and there of deeper things to be explored between her and her sister, who is 8 years older and was just on the cusp of adulthood when their mother passed, but they were not given the space that I hoped for. There was also the thread of Mini excelling at art while being pushed toward STEM by her father that kind of just got glossed over and left hanging, even though various other people were affirming her artistic talent throughout the book and pushing her to consider majoring in art/design. Maybe the author felt like that shouldn’t be the focus since the book is about the wedding planning shenanigans, but personally I felt it would have been better if it had been touched on more.

Conclusion: If you want a fun-filled summer read, read Sister of the Bollywood Bride!

Book Links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

Nandini Bajpai is also running a preorder campaign for the book: http://www.nandinibajpai.com/preorder-campaign.html

About the Author

Nandini Bajpai grew up in New Delhi, India, one of four sisters and many cousins, in a family that liked to read.

She lived and worked in India, Australia, and the US, before settling in the Boston area with her husband, kids, and a fluctuating number and variety of pets. Although she dabbled in corporate finance, business analysis, and fostering shelter animals, her first love is writing.

Author Links:

Website – http://www.nandinibajpai.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/nandinibajpai
Book Site – https://www.thenovl.com/sisterofthebollywoodbride

Tour Schedule

Check out the other stops on the tour!

[Blog Tour] Favorite Quotes from Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

Part 2 of my tour stop for the the blog tour organized by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours! Refer to Part 1, my review, for all the book information. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book. These are spoiler-free, so don’t worry.

Note: These quotes are from the final published version of the book.

Quote #1

Abiding by all these rules day in and day out is exhausting, but my parents have sacrificed too much for me to throw it all away by being selfish. They left behind their lives in Bangladesh and moved here in the hopes of giving me a better life. They want me to grow up and be successful, to be financially stable, to be focused and diligent and hardworking.

I know they’re thinking about my future, but I don’t know how to be the daughter they can gloat about at our community parties, the daughter whose achievements they can praise to their coworkers, the daughter who never steps a toe out of line and does everything exactly as they wish. Still, a part of me wants that—to be enough for them, to have them be proud of me. The rest of me wishes I could crawl into a hole.

Page 40

Quote #2

I have no idea what’s happening, but I do know I want to sink into the ground.

Page 83

Quote #3

“Writing is what helped me gain confidence in myself. There’s something really special about being able to express yourself with words. I love stories and I love poems and I love learning more and more with each word. I think it’s amazing.”

Page 91

Quote #4

Ace’s smile widens into a blinding grin. I’m going to kill him. “I took her on a date to a local bakery. She ordered the cheesecake and said it wasn’t nearly as sweet as me.”

His foot is close enough that I step on it in retribution. He winces but quickly covers it up. It still brings me some satisfaction.

Page 125

Quote #5

“If you don’t explain what the hell is happening right now, I’m going to pour my orange juice down your shirt,” Cora threatens pleasantly.

Page 137

Quote #6

“Stop flirting,” Cora says, her eyes bright with amusement.

I gape at them. “I just told him to die.”

Nandini looks exasperated. “We’re Gen Z, Karina. That’s how we flirt.”

Page 152

Quote #7

As promised, Ace is waiting when I step out of AP Physics. “You’re like an annoying stray cat that won’t stop following me,” I say before wiggling my fingers at him. “Want a scratch on the head?”

Page 168

Quote #8

Why am I selfish if I want to do what I love? It’s my life and my future. Not my parents’. Mine. They gave me the tools to be here, but that shouldn’t mean that they get to make every choice for me.

I’m not a bad person for wanting a life different than what’s expected of me. I’m not a bad person for wanting to pursue something I love.

I’m not a bad person for wanting. But I feel like I am.

Page 200

Quote #9

But then, strangely enough, Ace holds out a hand to me. “Do you trust me?”

I stare at the hand, a mix of exhilarated and nervous. “This isn’t Aladdin.”

“It’s not,” he says. “But do you trust me?”

Page 232

Quote #10

“The older I am, the more I realize it’s not worth it to prioritize things that make you miserable,” Dadu says. “I don’t want that for you.”

Page 285

And that’s the end of the quotes. I hope this gives you a taste of what the story and characters are like and their appeal. 🙂

[Blog Tour] Review for Counting Down with You by Tashie Bhuiyan

I put a countdown clock to this review on my Instagram story because I thought it was apt, and now the wait is over. I’m excited to be a part of the blog tour for Tashie Bhuiyan’s Counting Down with You, hosted by Shealea @ Caffeine Book Tours.

Book Information

Title: Counting Down With You
Author: Tashie Bhuiyan
Cover: Samya Arif (artist), Gigi Lau (art direction)
Publisher: Inkyard Press
Publication date: 04 May 2021
Age group: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary

Synopsis:

A reserved Bangladeshi teenager has twenty-eight days to make the biggest decision of her life after agreeing to fake date her school’s resident bad boy.

How do you make one month last a lifetime?

Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules—even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.

Karina is my girlfriend.

Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right—he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.

T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal—but what if Karina no longer wants it to?

Review:

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book as a part of this tour, but it did not affect my opinion of the book. I ended up reading the finished copy that I bought rather than the ARC, so this review is based on the final version of the book.

Counting Down with You is a book that made me go “oof.” While the story is billed as a fake dating romance (which it is, to its credit), to me, it’s fundamentally a story of a teen girl finding the courage to be fully herself and to witness what is possible when she isn’t being suffocated by her parents’ expectations.

The first thing that really spoke to me in this book was the representation of anxiety. The constant feeling of being on edge, of fearing the worst, of wondering if you’ll ever be enough for anyone, hit really close to home. Karina’s panic attacks and breakdowns were very visceral in a way that resonated with my own experience, to the point where I also found myself struggling to breathe a bit when I was following her emotional journey.

Unlike Karina, I did not have abusive parents, but I still felt the weight of so many expectations that held me back from making choices because I wanted something rather than because I was afraid of any negative consequences that might follow. I also had a STEM to liberal arts pipeline experience. In college, I had a quarter-life crisis where I realized I did not want to do engineering as a career, even though I’d chosen it as a major myself when applying. Even though I was miserable, I kept putting off and dismissing the idea of changing majors until I was already 84% of the way done with my degree requirements. By then I felt like it was too late to change my major, so instead I considered adding a second one, Asian American studies. At the time, I was already a legal adult, so people might expect that you can just do whatever you want because what’s stopping you? But it’s different when you’re the child of Asian immigrants. I was worried what my parents would think about the decision to switch from engineering with its prestige and financial stability to an obscure liberal arts major that almost nobody knows about with career prospects that are super questionable. Plus, I needed to take an extra year to finish the second major/degree, which meant spending more of their hard-earned money because I was still financially dependent on them. So in that sense, Karina’s experience spoke deeply to mine, as a second generation Asian American trying to step off the path that I’d once assumed was the only one for me, terrified of disappointing the people I loved most by choosing happiness.

But enough about me. Back to the characters.

Not gonna lie, I did not particularly like Ace’s character at the beginning (and I didn’t really find the “bad boy” label that fitting because he was just a rich white boy acting out a little but not actually doing that much “bad” stuff), but he grew on me over time. While teen me definitely would have written him off based on appearances, adult me acknowledges he was perfect for Karina in helping her personal growth and bringing out her inner spark. I appreciate that the two talked about boundaries and that Ace respected Karina’s boundaries even when he disagreed with how she reacted regarding her parents’ treatment of her.

I loved pretty much all of the supporting characters and Karina’s relationship with them. Her besties, Cora and Nandini, were the best friendship squad a person could ask for, providing a mixture of good-humored teasing/roasting and unconditional love and support. Karina’s brother, Samir, surprised me in good ways with his maturation over the course of the story, and I guess I’m a sucker for sibling bonds in fiction. Her Dadu (paternal grandmother) was one of my all-time favorite characters because she was brimming with love and wisdom and acted as one of Karina’s staunchest allies against her parents’ harmful treatment. Dadu is my personal hero.

To sum up the book in one sentence: Counting Down with You will break your heart and then heal it.

Trigger/Content Warnings: Abuse (emotional/psychological), anxiety and panic attacks

Books Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Tashie Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi American writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations, and hopes to change the world, one book at a time. She loves writing stories about girls with wild hearts, boys who wear rings, and gaining agency through growth. When she’s not doing that, she can be found in a Chipotle or bookstore, insisting 2010 is the best year in cinematic history. (Read: Tangled and Inception.)

Author links:

Author website — https://www.tashiebhuiyan.com/
Goodreads — https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/19589512.Tashie_Bhuiyan
Instagram — http://instagram.com/tashiebhuiyan
Twitter — http://twitter.com/tashiebhuiyan 

Taiwanese American Heritage Week 2021 Wrap-Up Post

This is my fourth year doing this series on my blog and also the year I’ve had the most posts to fill the week. It’s been a busy, hectic week but also a rewarding one. To wrap things up, I thought I’d share some books that I read recently, am currently reading, or want to read that are by Taiwanese authors and that I haven’t prominently featured on my blog. I’m also sharing some upcoming books by Taiwanese authors that you should keep an eye out for.

Recently Read:

  • Reading with Patrick by Michelle Kuo – This is a memoir by a Taiwanese American lawyer who works in immigrant and prisoner justice advocacy. When Michelle Kuo was younger, she did a two-year stint with Teach for America at an underfunded, majority Black public school in the Deep South, naively thinking she would be like the teacher in Freedom Writers. Not-So-Spoiler: It didn’t pan out like that. The memoir discusses her teaching experience and delves into the pitfalls of her initial approach and mentality. It also probes her regrets in leaving her teaching position for law school after finding out that one of her favorite former students, Patrick Browning, is in jail and going to be tried for murder. It chronicles the ways she tries to help him improve his literacy and sustain hope while he is imprisoned. The book is extremely candid in a way that I cannot imagine is easy to be public about, and I think it makes a good read for class-privileged East Asians who want to be better about allyship and solidarity. One of my dissatisfactions is that I wish Patrick had been given an equal voice in the book.
  • Hot Pot Night! by Vincent Chen – This is a quick but fun read. It’s a colorful, joyful picture book about food and community and a hot pot dinner bringing together some neighbors.

Currently Reading:

  • The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé  Weijun Wang – This essay collection explores the author’s experience with mental illness, specifically schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. It approaches mental illness from a number of angles, such as the history of the DSM and the changes it underwent, the hierarchies of mental illness created by the psychiatric field, the way mentally ill people may try to distance ourselves from those who are visibly “crazier” than we are, the personal experience of trying to mask one’s mental illness or pass as “normal” (with mixed results), and so on. I’m only about halfway through, but I find it very compelling.
  • Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, Translated by Bonnie Huie – This is a translated novel set in the years following the lifting of martial law in Taiwan (after 1987). The main character is a lesbian in college who befriends a bunch of misfits, and the story full of queer yearning and infatuation, as well as a deep ambivalence and even antipathy toward society’s suffocating norms. I’m not sure I get everything that’s happening in the book, but it’s still fascinating to read as a window into my own queer Taiwanese genealogy.
  • Bestiary by K-Ming Chang – This book follows the stories of three generations of Taiwanese American women, the youngest of whom is queer. There is a lot of viscerally gross imagery that’s super unsettling, but I’m making my way slowly through it to sift through the layers. The central motif of the tiger comes from a well-known Taiwanese folktale called 虎姑婆 (Auntie Tiger) that I grew up with that is similar in a lot of ways to stories about wolves in Western folktales (e.g. The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood).
  • Love, Love by Victoria Chang – This is a middle grade novel-in-verse that’s inspired by the author’s experiences of being a second generation Asian American. The story takes places several decades ago, but a lot of the experiences are still relevant because unfortunately, people are still racist. The main character’s older sister has trichotillomania, which is rare mental illness rep for Asian kidlit.

Want to Read:

  • Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee – This is a memoir that documents the author’s journey to reconnect with her heritage while exploring the natural landscapes in Taiwan. It contains reflections on geography and colonial mapmaking practices.
  • This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio – Jocelyn Wu’s family runs a Chinese restaurant. Will Domenici, who’s biracial Black and Italian, signs up to work at the restaurant. They fall for each other, but their family’s prejudices and their respective mental illnesses make it a rough ride.
  • Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – This just won the National Book Award. It’s about a guy delving into family secrets and the history of his Chinatown.
  • Ghost Month by Ed Lin – Murder mystery and Taiwanese night markets. Enough said.
  • The Stolen Bicycle by Wu Ming-yi – I read another book by this author, The Man with the Compound Eyes, in one of my undergrad classes, and I liked it, so I’m trying out this one, too. It is also about searching for family secrets and touches on the history of Japanese occupation of Taiwan.
  • A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers by Hsiao Li-Hung (original Chinese title: 千江有水千江月) – This book is set in the 80s and is considered a classic of Taiwanese literature. My dad said the main character shares a lot in common with him, and I’ve been meaning to read it for several years.
  • Chrysanthemum: Voices of the Taiwanese Diaspora edited by Andrea Chu, Kevin Ko-wen Chen, and Albertine Wang – I am angry that I missed the deadline for submitting to this and that I also missed the Kickstarter for this, buuut, I managed to find a copy through Eastwind Books (if you’re interested in this one, go see if they still have any in stock). My copy is on the way to me as I speak/type.

Upcoming Releases:

2021

  • Bone House by K-Ming Chang (June 29th, 2021) – A queer Taiwanese micro-retelling of Wuthering Heights!
  • City of Illusion by Victoria Ying (July 27th, 2021) – This is the sequel to City of Secrets, which I interviewed Victoria about last year.
  • I am an American: The Wong Kim Art Story, written by Martha Brockenbrough and Grace Lin and illustrated by Julia Kuo (November 2nd, 2021) – This picture book covers an important chapter of Asian American history from the late 19th century where an American-born Chinese man with parents who were non-citizens fought for his right to U.S. citizenship. It was something we learned about in my Asian American studies courses, and I’m glad that history is being made accessible to young people.
  • Feather and Flame by Livia Blackburne (November 9th, 2021) – Mulan retelling, second in a series of Disney retelling/spinoffs called The Queen’s Council that connects different Disney stories. I am here for all of the #OwnVoices Mulan retellings tbh.
  • Jade Legacy by Fonda Lee (November 30th, 2021) – The long-awaited conclusion to the Greenbone Saga. If you know, you know. And if you haven’t already, READ JADE CITY!!!
  • Win! by Cynthia Yuan Cheng – This is supposed to come out this year but since we don’t have a cover or an official synopsis yet, there’s a possibility it’s gotten pushed back, which is okay because we’re in a panini and graphic novels are incredibly labor intensive, but also I NEED IT!!! It’s a graphic novel memoir about Cynthia’s experience joining her school’s football team as the only girl.

2022

  • Let’s Do Everything and Nothing by Julia Kuo (March 1st, 2022) – Julia illustrated I Dream of Popo and a bunch of other books, but this is her second (I think) picture book where she is both author and illustrator.
  • A Magic Steeped in Poison by Judy I. Lin (March 22nd, 2022) – Judy was among the first people I interviewed for Taiwanese American Heritage Week back in 2017. This isn’t the book we talked about in her interview, but it’s her debut. The cover is absolutely stunning. Please support it!!!
  • Untitled (#AATTMBook) by Emily X.R. Pan (April 2022) – I read an early draft of this in 2019 and I am waiting until I am allowed to yell about how great it is in more detail. I’m also looking forward to reading the new and improved version.
  • Unhappy Camper by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu (Summer 2022) – Just announced recently. It’s a middle grade graphic novel in which a girl and her sister rebuild their sibling bond and learn more about their heritage at a Taiwanese American summer camp.
  • Boys I Know by Anna Gracia (Summer 2022) – Also just announced and no Goodreads page for it yet. “18-year-old June, a Taiwanese American girl, navigates sex, love, and Planned Parenthood in her small Midwestern town.”
  • When You Wish Upon a Lantern by Gloria Chao (Fall 2022) – Just announced earlier last week. A teen girl whose family owns a wishing lantern shop in Chicago’s Chinatown tries to revitalize it by helping make the customers’ wishes come true behind the scenes. She teams up with the boy whose family runs the mooncake bakery next door and romantic shenanigans ensue.

2023

  • Hungry Ghost by Victoria Ying – A contemporary YA graphic novel about a Chinese American girl who struggles with an eating disorder.

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts for this past week! Hope to see y’all again next time.

Author Interview: JC Kang

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

The final author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with self-published fantasy author JC Kang on his recently republished series starter Songs of Insurrection.

Synopsis:

Only the lost magic of Dragon Songs can save the world. Only an awkward girl with the perfect voice can rediscover it.

The Dragon Singers of old summoned typhoons and routed armies, liberating mankind from the orcs before fading into legend. Now, with the world again facing a new cataclysm, the power of music stirs in Kaiya, a naïve misfit with the perfect voice.

Without a master to guide her, she must rely on Hardeep, a disgraced foreign paladin, to help awaken her latent magic. His motives might not be entirely noble. When he leads her to the fabled Dragon Scale Lute, which only a Dragon Singer can wield, it is up to Black Lotus Clan to intervene. Because the instrument’s fell power can save the world…Or destroy it.

Interview:

Q: Obligatory food question! You told me you worked in Taiwan for some years when you were younger. What are some of your favorite Taiwanese foods, and what are your favorite memories of living in Taiwan?

A: One of the best part of living in Taiwan was the food! Because so many chefs from all over China fled to Taiwan, there were so many wonderful regional cuisines. Since I hung out mostly around 師大, I had several favorite haunts in the day/night market: a northern potsticker/dumpling/tricolor noodle dive; a man who flew in from Hong Kong on the weekends had a stand where he made amazing beef chow fun; and a restaurant that had delectable 滷肉飯.

Also, a peppered fried-chicken stand a block away from my apartment. It might be sacrilege, but my favorite beef needle soup was not on 永康街, but from the chain restaurant, 三商巧福.  Is it embarrassing to say, I actually loved McDonalds in Taiwan, too? I miss their fried pork sandwiches and teriyaki burgers!

Besides just the fun of being in my 20s and hanging out with friends, probably my favorite memory was the 1996 Presidential election. We were playing Mahjong at a friend’s apartment on Ren Ai Rd, and as the ballot returns were coming in, a huge commotion erupted on the streets. Honking horns, people marching and chanting, firecrackers… As someone used to seeing less than 50% turnout for American elections, it was so exciting to see the people being involved in the democratic process.

That said, I also met my wife in Taiwan, so I should probably include that as a favorite memory?

Q: I read Songs of Insurrection several years ago, so I was surprised to see that you recently republished it with not only a gorgeous new cover but also some content revisions. What motivated the update, and what was it like giving your book a makeover?

A: Even though it was the first book in the Dragon Songs Saga, Songs of Insurrection was actually the last one of the series that I wrote. I was misguided and arrogant in thinking that I had the skill to write a book that would appeal to everyone, and my goal was to create an insta-love situation which would eventually turned on its head and subvert that trope.

Many of the critical reviews mentioned a dislike for the insta-love, and Kaiya’s lack of agency because of it. Therefore, I revised the story to make her love interest, Hardeep, suspicious. It’s probably still too subtle for some readers.

The series ended up selling very well—60k copies and 35 million Kindle Unlimited page reads—so I wrote a prequel series following the most popular character, Jie. I also learned my audience was mostly women 30+ who liked romantic arcs, so I had the covers redesigned to target that demographic more.

When it came time to do the audiobooks, I decided to tweak The Dragon Songs Saga. I included some references to the prequel series, and added a few chapters with one of its popular characters. I simplified stuff like units of measurement and translated some Mandarin terminology into English so that it would be easier to follow on audio.

How do I feel about it? I probably spent way too much time in money for very little return, so there is a level of regret. However, it’s helped me find some new readers, and sell hundreds of hardbacks to existing fans. So, not a total loss.

Q: Indie authors, for lack of access to the same resources as traditional authors, tend to become a jack of all trades in order to advance their career. What kinds of useful skills have you developed since you started writing and self-publishing?

A: I would argue that the Big 5 put most of their marketing budgets into a handful of authors, and therefore, indie authors actually have an advantage over the average trad debut author (at least, in eBooks). However, they’re services we have to pay for out of pocket, and, as you point out, it requires developing a wide array of skills.

For me, that’s meant basic Photoshop. Data analysis to learn about audiences. Networking and alliance building. Learning how advertising platforms work. Using emerging big data technologies like pixels.

Q: Unlike in traditional publishing, where you have an agent who matches you up with an editor at a publishing house, self-published authors have to find their own freelance editors (to my knowledge, anyway). How do you decide who to go to for editing?

A: For me, it was word of mouth. I’ve used the same editor (Alexis at The Quick Fox, formerly known as Word Vagabond) for line edits and proofreading for years. For the Dragon Songs re-releases, I hired a second proofreader (Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues), who is very well-known in indie fantasy circles.

Q: I saw from looking at your past interviews that you watch a lot of East Asian media, which you cite as being among the influences for your work. Do you have any particular East Asian movies, dramas, etc. that have inspired your work and/or that you want to recommend to your fellow fantasy fans?

A: I am probably going to show my age with this one, but I’m a huge fan of 1990s Hong Kong movies and early 2000s Japanese Samurai dramas. Some of my favorites:

  • Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2
  • Fist of Legend
  • Fong Sai-Yuk 1 & 2
  • The Taiji Master Zhang Sanfeng
  • Swordsman 2
  • A Chinese Ghost Story
  • Dragon Inn
  • Fearless
  • Hero
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • The Myth
  • Drunken Master 1 & 2
  • Toshiie to Matsu
  • Shinsengumi
  • When the Last Sword is Drawn
  • Twilight Samurai

Q: I noticed the illustrations of your character Zheng Tian look suspiciously like the actor Hu Ge. Is he the inspiration for the character’s appearance by any chance? On a related note, who would you cast to play Kaiya, Jie, and Tian in a live-action adaptation of your work?

A: LOL, I’m probably showing my age, but Takeshi Kaneshiro was my visual muse for Tian. I pictured Vickie Zhao for Kaiya, and Maggie Q for Jie. I am not up to date on current Asian media, except tangentially through the K-Pop and K-Dramas that my kids follow, so I’d have to go with those three actors from 15 years ago!

Q: Please shout out some Asian indie authors whose work you’ve enjoyed with a short pitch for their books!

A:

  • M.L. Wang, Sword of Kaigen. Winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog-Off. It’s a mix of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Poppy War. Emotional Roller Coaster with deep, deep themes.
  • Jeannie Lin (hybrid), Gunpowder Alchemy. Opium Wars re-imagined as Steampunk.
  • Tao Wong, A Thousand Li. Wonderful character interactions and lush worldbuilding. Probably the second-most popular Xianxia series after Will Wight’s Cradle.
  • Sarah Lin, The Brightest Shadow. Epic Fantasy x Xianxia, with compelling characters and fabulous worldbuilding.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound

About the Author:

Born and raised in the capital of the Confederacy’s urban blight, JC Kang grew up a total Twinkie. Though he savored the irony that his GI Joe: Greatest American Hero toys were made in Taiwan, he didn’t know where that was, or that his parents had once lived there. Interestingly enough, his father had been staunchly anti-KMT, and fled to Taiwan in 1947 to escape authorities in Xiamen, never expecting the Nationalist government to flee there; and his mother’s family had deep ties to the  KMT, her uncle eventually serving as the personal attaché to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in New York. Apparently, love—or at least, young lust—conquered political differences.

JC’s life changed the summer between his first and second years at UVA, when he was accepted to the University of Paris for a summer program. Instead, his father sent him to the Mandarin Training Center in Taipei. It was such a life-altering experience that JC returned after graduation (and a year in Japan) to Taipei, where he worked as a translator and technical writer, apprenticed under an acupuncturist, and trained in Wing Chun Kung Fu under Grandmaster Ip Man’s nephew, Sifu Lo Man Kam.  Many of these influences found their way into his writing.

Author Links:

Website – jckang.dragonstonepress.us
Twitter – @JCKang804
Instagram – @jc.kang
Facebook – Legends of Tivara

Author Interview: Jennifer Yen

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

The fifth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Jennifer Yen on her debut YA novel A Taste for Love.

Synopsis:

To her friends, high school senior Liza Yang is nearly perfect. Smart, kind, and pretty, she dreams big and never shies away from a challenge. But to her mom, Liza is anything but. Compared to her older sister Jeannie, Liza is stubborn, rebellious, and worst of all, determined to push back against all of Mrs. Yang’s traditional values, especially when it comes to dating.

The one thing mother and daughter do agree on is their love of baking. Mrs. Yang is the owner of Houston’s popular Yin & Yang Bakery. With college just around the corner, Liza agrees to help out at the bakery’s annual junior competition to prove to her mom that she’s more than her rebellious tendencies once and for all. But when Liza arrives on the first day of the bake-off, she realizes there’s a catch: all of the contestants are young Asian American men her mother has handpicked for Liza to date.

The bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants; the stoic, impenetrable, annoyingly hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried and true recipe for love.

Interview:

Q: Food is such an essential part of Taiwanese culture. What is your favorite Taiwanese food (or one of your favorites since I know how hard it is to choose), and what memories or feelings do you associate with it, if any?

A: A lot of my favorite Taiwanese foods are street snacks (or derived from them). Some of my most vivid childhood memories come from eating and sharing them with my family. Stinky tofu is still one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but it’s definitely an acquired taste—or rather, smell—for most non-Taiwanese.

There was also this fried chicken stall in the day market my mom would take us to for groceries. It was run by an elderly man, and it was his family business. There was something about his batter and spices that made his chicken out of this world. Sadly, his children opted not to carry the recipe on after he retired.

My favorite sweet street snack were these soft animal-shaped waffles. They were made from a batter very similar to Hong Kong egg waffles, and the vendors would cart around their iron molds and make them on the spot for you. What I wouldn’t give to have them again!

Q: It seems to be a common thing for second generation Taiwanese writers to first try med school or some other STEM field before becoming writers (this was a thing for Gloria Chao, Livia Blackburne, and also me). What advice do you have for Taiwanese and other Asian youth who are thinking about venturing off the beaten (and often expected) path of the doctor/lawyer/engineer trifecta to write or do other creative work?

A: This is such a tough question, because I went down the same path you did (and am still in STEM to this day)! To me, the key is compromise. Many immigrant parents drive their children towards STEM because of the perceived financial stability in those fields. Mine were definitely that way, and it stung to have them dismiss anything they didn’t consider worth my time. Now as an adult, I understand their point of view, but there’s also a middle ground. Pursue your passions, but do your research and know how to deal with the financial ups and downs of creative work. That could be a “fallback” career, or a job that at least helps you to pay the bills. It’s also important to remember that it’s never too late to be creative. There is no age limit to your imagination!

Q: If you were to pick a combination of a baked good and a bubble tea mix (base+flavor+topping) to represent Liza, Grace, James, and Ben, respectively, what would you choose for each of them, and why?

A: Hmmmm this is another great but challenging question! I would say the following:

Liza is probably charsiu bao and jasmine green milk tea with boba, because she’s sweet and salty (haha) and your go-to person for any occasion!

Grace would be egg tart and cheese foam peach oolong tea! She’s well-loved, looks impeccable, and always on trend.

James is definitely boluo bao and Japanese matcha. He’s crusty on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. While he isn’t for everyone and takes getting used to, there’s lots of perks if you give him a chance.

Ben would be milk custard bun and brown sugar black tea with boba, because he’s sweet outside and in, but has layers you might miss if you only fall for his looks.

Q: Your story mentions Taiwanese and Korean dramas. Did you draw inspiration from any of these while you were writing? What other sources served as inspiration for the story (aside from Pride & Prejudice and GBBO)?

A: I would say that I draw inspiration from the themes and tropes we see in all dramas. However, there’s obviously cultural complexities that I weave into A Taste for Love that fall more in line with what you see in the Asian ones. One of my favorite things is the multi-layered twists Taiwanese and Korean dramas throw at their audience, and I tried incorporating a small version of that into the story (if you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about). 

Q: A lot of Asian immigrant parents don’t necessarily show love through “I love you”s or physical affection. If you were to analyze Liza and her mom using the 5 Love Languages model (https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/the-5-love-languages-explained), how would you rank the two characters for each “language” on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being the least important, 5 being the most important?

A: Funny you mention that, because I feel a lot of immigrant families struggle with communication because the generations have different love languages.

For Mrs. Yang, she’s definitely acts of service (5), quality time (4), gifts (3), words of affirmation (2), and physical touch (1), though the last three are fairly equal (and minimal).

For Liza, I would say her primary love languages are words of affirmation (5) and gifts (4), followed by quality time (3), acts of service (2), and physical touch (1), though again, the last three are fairly equal.

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll see Mrs. Yang and Liza switch between their love languages depending on who they are with. It’s not uncommon to see that, because all relationships involve common ground and compromise!

Q: I love how this book pays tribute to Houston and its Chinatown. Did you base any of the locations in the story on real places?

A: The majority of the places in ATFL are based on real places. Mama Lee’s is loosely based on 85C Bakery, while Mrs. Yang’s bakery is an amalgamation of the smaller, local bakeries in Houston’s Chinatown. Yin and Yang came from a joint restaurant-and-bakery my family used to frequent up in Plano (I am not sure if it still exists), and all the boba and shaved ice shops are also a combination of the many wonderful places you can find here!

Q: Since the pandemic started, a lot of East and Southeast Asian restaurants across the US have seen decreases in traffic due to racism and xenophobia. What E/SE Asian restaurants and bubble tea shops are your favorites to visit in the Houston area? (Note: Hyperlinks redirect to Google Maps!)

A: Oh my goodness! Honestly, there’s so many I could write a whole essay on them. I tend to go to restaurants for specific dishes or specialties, so it really depends on my mood! Some of the ones I’ve been eating at lately are:

  • San Dong Noodle House – Taiwanese cuisine, also the inspiration for Dumpling Dynasty…and yes, their leek dumplings are to die for (note from Shenwei: I also love this place, they have amazing dumplings!)
  • Mein – I’m obsessed with their wonton noodle soup, Sansai egg tofu, and shaking chicken/beef (along with so many other things)
  • Tofu Village (yup, it’s Tofu City in the book) – Korean BBQ
  • Pepper Lunch – Japanese DIY teppanyaki steak and seafood
  • Banana Leaf – amazing Thai food (note from Shenwei: it’s a Malaysian restaurant with different Asian regional dishes from East, Southeast, and South Asia)

As for boba shops or dessert shops, the ones I go to the most are The Teahouse Tapioca & Tea (they singlehandedly fueled ATFL while I was drafting), Sharetea, Tiger Sugar, Modern Tea, and Gong Cha. I also love the red bean soups at Meet Fresh, as well as the shaved ice there (try their brown sugar boba one—it’s heaven) and at Bing Su and Snowy Village!

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

Jennifer Yen began her writing career in the fourth grade, when her teacher took the detective story she wrote and turned it into a printed book as a gift to her. The encouragement of her teacher, as well as her love for reading and telling stories, kept her writing about the worlds that exist in her imagination.

While Jennifer’s penned everything from poetry to fanfiction, her passion lies in young adult and adult fiction. Drawing from her own experiences growing up as an Asian American, she especially loves writing about family, food, and of course…love!

Jennifer now lives in Texas with her adorable rescue dog. She spends her days healing the hearts of others, and her nights writing about love, family, and the power of acceptance. She believes in the magic of one’s imagination, and hopes her stories will bring joy and inspiration to readers.

If you find Jennifer wandering around aimlessly, please return her to the nearest milk tea shop.

Author Links:

Website – www.jenyenwrites.com
Twitter – @jenyenwrites
Instagram – @jenyenwrites
Pinterest – jenyenwrites

Author Interview: Livia Blackburne

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

The fourth author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with NYT Bestselling author Livia Blackburne on her first picture book, I Dream of Popo, illustrated by Julia Kuo.

Synopsis:

From New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne and illustrator Julia Kuo, here is I Dream of Popo. This delicate, emotionally rich picture book celebrates a special connection that crosses time zones and oceans as Popo and her granddaughter hold each other in their hearts forever.

I dream with Popo as she rocks me in her arms.
I wave at Popo before I board my flight.
I talk to Popo from across the sea.
I tell Popo about my adventures.

When a young girl and her family emigrate from Taiwan to America, she leaves behind her beloved popo, her grandmother. She misses her popo every day, but even if their visits are fleeting, their love is ever true and strong.

Interview:

Q: Writing a picture book feels like a pretty big departure from your previous work, which were all YA fantasy. While it’s often assumed that writing picture books is “easier,” it’s not. It’s simply a different medium for storytelling. How is your process different for writing picture books versus for writing YA prose novels?

A: In comparing novels and picture books, I like to make the analogy of building a full-size ship versus a ship in a bottle. With novels, you’re working on a large scale. You’re taking giant pieces of prose and plot and moving them around. It takes a lot of hours, and you end up with something pretty massive. And while you do end up putting a little detailing here and there, but it’s impossible to give the same amount of loving detail to every single word.

With picture books however, you’re in there with your magnifying glass and your tweezers, putting everything in its exact place. And instead of worrying about getting enough material for the entire ship, now your problem is that you have too much. You have to figure out what to put in and what to leave out. It’s more delicate work. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but it takes less time and you have chance of running out of steam on it.

Q: I know for I Dream of Popo, you got to work with both a Taiwanese American illustrator (Julia Kuo) and a Taiwanese American editor (Connie Hsu). What was that experience like?

A: It was a dream come true! It was just such a wonderful feeling, to be in a team where everybody saw themselves uniquely in the story. Everybody knew the need for the story, and everybody was completely invested in telling it and as authentic away as possible. Since we had this common cultural background, there was a lot less explaining to do. We all knew what New Year’s celebrations were supposed to be like. We all spoke mandarin , and also bonded at how bad our written Chinese was. In terms of artistic collaborations, this one was very special.

Q: For picture books where the author isn’t also the illustrator, there’s a level of trust and surrender of creative control required to craft the story into its best and final form. Did you find that aspect difficult? How much did you communicate with Julia about the illustrations? How much of what appears in the book was your idea versus hers?

A: This is my favorite aspect of writing a picture book, the chance to write the story, and then pass it for someone else to create something more out of it. Julia and I hardly communicated at all throughout the process. I think the first time I saw the pictures, they were already in an almost finished state. So in traditional publishing, a writer’s role really is just as a writer. The art director and editor take care of the book creation process. While it might be difficult for some writers to let go, I am so bad at art that I am pretty much impressed by anything, and it was fun just to sit back and see what they could come up with. As far as my contribution versus Julia’s, basically the words you see on the page are mine. All the interpretation of the words into pictures are hers. In picture book manuscript, you do have illustrator notes, which are kind of like stage directions for the artist, but I don’t think I included that many, if any.         

Q: I know during the time when you were writing the book, you had your own young daughter to take care of. Did her presence in your life affect your approach to writing the book, and if so, how?

A: Well, she’s the one I have to blame for getting me into picture books in the first place! When you’re going to the library every week and reading hundreds of picture books a year, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. I do think having my daughter also had me thinking more about family legacy, and passing on my Chinese heritage to her.

Q: Just for fun, do you have any favorite foods or places to visit in Taiwan to share?

A: I love street vendor food! Stinky tofu, especially the steamed kind that is super stinky but oh so flavorful. Rice balls and vermicelli soup are other favorites. I’m also a huge fan of Taiwanese breakfast places. My breakfast of choice is a bowl of hot sweet soy milk and a shaobing with egg and pork sung. Soooo good.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop | IndieBound | Indigo

About the Author:

New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne is a Chinese/Taiwanese American author who wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into people’s heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner.

She is the author of the MIDNIGHT THIEF (An Indies Introduce New Voices selection) and ROSEMARKED (A YALSA Teens Top Ten nominee), as well as the picture book I DREAM OF POPO , which received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus.

Author Links:

Website – liviablackburne.com
Twitter – @lkblackburne
Instagram – @lkblackburne
Facebook – Livia Blackburne’s Author Page
Pinterest – lkblackburne

Reflections on 15 Years of Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Literature

Welcome to my Taiwanese American Heritage Week feature series! Taiwanese American Heritage Week is celebrated every year in May starting on Mother’s Day and ending the following Sunday. Each year during TAHW I spotlight Taiwanese authors and books in some form or fashion on my blog. You can find all of the past features in my Post Index.

In this article and personal essay, I trace the 15-year history of #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature, with a primary focus on middle grade and young adult novels (including graphic novels). I also reflect on what Taiwanese representation means to me, discuss some of the difficulties of finding Taiwanese representation, and draw attention to some of the gaps in Taiwanese representation that I want to see filled in the future.

The First Taiwanese Diaspora Children’s Novels

2006 was a watershed year for Taiwanese representation in English language children’s literature. In February of 2006, The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin was published. In April of 2006, Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen (referred to here on out as Nothing But the Truth) came out. Later that year, the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang1 was released. These three books were my first exposure to Taiwanese representation in English language media and, if I’m not mistaken, the first of their kind, at least in traditional publishing.

In 2006, I was 13. That spring, my parents attended the North American Taiwanese Women’s Association Annual Conference, where Grace Lin and Justina Chen—as well as Alvina Ling, the editor for their respective books released that year—were the guest speakers. My parents returned from the conference with a set of signed books from the two authors, personalized for me and my younger sister2. Avid reader that I was, I devoured both The Year of the Dog and Nothing But the Truth in no time.

Although I had consumed plenty of media with Taiwanese people up to that point, courtesy of my mother’s love for Taiwanese romance dramas, this was the first time I’d really encountered any stories featuring Taiwanese people like me in diaspora. Reading The Year of the Dog and Nothing but the Truth, I felt seen in a way that I had never experienced before.

As for American Born Chinese, I didn’t read it until several years later as an older teen. However, Gene Luen Yang was the first among all the Taiwanese children’s authors that I got to meet in person. In 2010, he appeared as one of the author guest speakers at the Montgomery County Teen Book Festival, which was hosted at my high school that year. Because of my limited book-buying budget, I did not get a copy of American Born Chinese signed when I met him. Instead, I asked him to draw a llama (one of my obsessions at the time) for me since he was taking doodle requests from readers. I remember him looking at me with surprise and telling me that it was the first time he could remember getting such a request. Needless to say, I felt special. I kept the signed llama drawing safely tucked away in a folder, and it remains among my treasured mementos of my high school years.

The following year, I met Justina Chen at the same book festival. As a member of my school’s Literary Club, I had the special privilege of volunteering as an author escort for the festival every year, making sure that the author in my care knew where to go for each session and that they had access to pencil, paper, water, and tissues as needed. Justina was one of the authors I served that year. I was so stoked. Her debut had left a deep impression on me when I read it several years prior, to the point where I emulated aspects of the book’s epistolary format and writing style in my own personal journal narrating my life in 8th grade. It was a book that helped me realize that I could write stories about people with my own background and get published. The personalized inscription she’d written in my copy of the Nothing But the Truth, “Taiwanese girl-writers3 are STRONG & SMART,” stayed with me for years.

The Search for Representation

Fast forward several years to my undergrad life. In 2014, I declared Asian American studies as a second major after having a quarter-life crisis about my future career and feeling that aerospace engineering had lost all of the appeal it once had when I was applying to college. As a result of taking multiple classes relating to race and media, I understood the importance of representation in shaping perceptions of marginalized groups. With a newfound hunger for books representing Asian Americans, I began a quest to read as much Asian American literature as possible. For various reasons, I had practically stopped reading for leisure altogether starting in my freshman year of college, so I had a nearly four-year gap to catch up on. While I did seek out a number of adult titles, I also returned to children’s literature, which had fostered my love for reading to begin with.

Since their respective 2006 releases, Grace Lin, Justina Chen, and Gene Luen Yang had all published more books. Of the three, only Grace Lin had written any with explicitly Taiwanese main characters, found in two additional books about her fictional alter-ego Pacy: The Year of the Rat and Dumpling Days. Dumpling Days was especially important to me because it emphasized Pacy’s specifically Taiwanese American identity. The Year of the Dog had mentioned Taiwan as the place where Pacy’s parents had immigrated from, but the language of the story used Chinese as a descriptor. Since writing The Year of the Dog, Grace had undergone her own journey of understanding the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese; Dumpling Days reflected that evolved understanding. I distinctly remember reading the following passage from the book and posting a photo of it to Facebook:

“You’re Taiwanese-American,” Mom said. “And, no matter what, that’s what you’ll always be.”

Forever, I thought. I’d always be Taiwanese-American, no matter if I spoke Chinese, made my eyes bigger, or was called a Twinkie. Even if I didn’t like it. Being Taiwanese-American was like making a brush stroke. The mark couldn’t be erased, and the ink and the paper could never be separated. They were joined forever.

“Mom!” I said, grabbing her arm before she walked away. “For my name chop, can I have my name carved in Chinese and English? Can they do that?”

“Yes.” Mom nodded, a little surprised. “I’m sure they can. I’ll order them today.”

“Good,” I said, and I felt as if I had just taken off a winter coat after discovering it was summer. I was glad I had found my identity.

page 221

Sometime in 2015, after catching up on all of Grace Lin’s middle grade novels, I wrote her a fan letter, a physical one sent by snail mail4. I wrote about how important her work was to me, among other things. As promised on her author website, she wrote back. Since I hadn’t met her in person yet at the time, this letter was the next best thing on the reader fan bucket list.

I did eventually meet Grace Lin in person a few years after, at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans. Despite the weight it added to my luggage, I brought along all of the middle grade books by her that I owned and didn’t already have signed. At that same conference, I also met Alvina Ling, whom I mentioned earlier, the editor behind a good number of the Taiwanese American children’s books that exist today. Like 2006, 2018 was the year of the dog. It had been twelve full years, a whole zodiac cycle, since I’d first read The Year of the Dog, and I was meeting the author and editor of that book in person. It felt like my childhood had come full circle.

Dumpling Days was published in 2012. Between 2006 and 2012, the only other children’s novel with an #OwnVoices Taiwanese American protagonist that came out, besides the ones I’ve already mentioned, was Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas by Pauline A. Chen5. Published by Bloomsbury in October 2007, this short middle grade novel did not have nearly the same amount of exposure as the Taiwanese American-authored books of 2006, which received various awards and accolades between them (notably, the Asian Pacific American Book Award/Honor and the Printz Award). I had to order it from a third-party seller on Amazon because it was out of print.

Upon reading Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, I discovered, much to my ire, that the synopsis on the dust jacket referred to Peiling as Chinese even though the content of the book mentioned her Taiwanese heritage, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) on the copyright page also labeled it as being about Taiwanese Americans. Amazon’s synopsis for the book said Taiwanese rather than Chinese, but that error in the book bugged me all the same because it mirrored the constant microaggressions about my identity I’d faced throughout my life and still have to contend with even today.

A Golden Age of Taiwanese Diaspora Representation

After 2012, there was a dry spell of almost five years where, to my knowledge, no middle grade or young adult novels with #OwnVoices Taiwanese representation were published. While Grace Lin had managed to build a successful career writing Asian main characters, the publishing industry was still largely hostile or apathetic to diversifying its output at the time. Then in 2014, We Need Diverse Books was founded, representing a critical turning point for diversity in children’s literature. The seeds of change planted that year bore fruit for Taiwanese representation in summer 2017 with the publication of Want, a sci-fi dystopian YA novel by Cindy Pon set in a near-future version of Taipei. I was already a fan of Cindy through her Chinese-inspired YA fantasy duologies, but Want was extra special because it was Taiwanese through and through.

Around the same time that Want was published, several other Taiwanese diaspora authors had started breaking into the kidlit industry with agents and book deals. That year, I decided to put together the inaugural Taiwanese American Heritage Week author interview series on my blog to shine a spotlight on them. Out of the five featured authors from 2017, four write for young readers: Cindy Pon, Gloria Chao, Emily X.R. Pan, and Judy I. Lin6.

Since that 2017 interview series, Gloria Chao has published three books featuring Taiwanese American main characters (American Panda, Our Wayward Fate, and Rent a Boyfriend), and Emily X.R. Pan has published one (The Astonishing Color of After) with a second book on the way in 2022. Their debuts both came out in early 2018, but I had a chance to read them in late 2017 thanks to some friends and acquaintances who sent me advance reader copies. Although neither really claimed any “firsts” in Taiwanese diaspora children’s literature (with maybe the exception of mental illness representation in The Astonishing Color of After), they still felt groundbreaking in their own way. The only other contemporary YA with a Taiwanese American main character in existence at the time was Nothing But the Truth, which had resonated with my younger self but felt rather dated in 2018. These new debuts heralded what I like to think of as a mini Golden Age of Taiwanese diaspora representation in children’s literature. A few #OwnVoices Taiwanese diaspora books a year isn’t much when the total of children’s publishing amounts to several thousand books published annually (most of which are very white), but it’s a welcome step up from the near invisibility of the past.

As far as middle grade is concerned, I’ve been heartened to see fantasy series inspired by Taiwanese geography, history, and culture appear in recent years. Henry Lien’s Peasprout Chen trilogy was the first to come along, with book 1 in the series published in 2018 (the year that I interviewed him). In 2019 and 2020, Cindy Lin (no relation to Grace Lin) published a fantasy duology drawing on her Taiwanese heritage, mixing Japanese and Chinese influences that reflect Taiwan’s layered colonial history. Neither one is prominently as marketed as Taiwanese-inspired, and it would be easy for a cultural outsider to miss those influences and think they’re simply Chinese or more broadly East Asian, but to me, there were obvious aspects to both stories that pinged the “look, a Taiwanese thing” alerts in my head. Fantasy set in alternate universes obviously carries different implications for representation than fiction set in the real world, but seeing those little bits of Taiwan in fantasy books was still affirming in its own way.

The Struggles of the Search

One thing I think is important to note about Taiwanese representation in children’s literature is how hard it can be to find it even where it exists. This difficulty is in part a function of the fluid, dynamic, and contested nature of Taiwanese identity, as well as the publishing industry’s biases in labeling and classifying books by authors of color.

Just recently, Pew Research Center released a report in which they analyzed U.S. Census data, and they made the decision to count anyone who wrote in Taiwanese for their ethnicity under the Chinese category in a blatant act of erasure and data manipulation. The problem is not that no Taiwanese people are or identify as Chinese, but rather the assumption that all Taiwanese people are Chinese and identify as such. For those who aren’t aware, people who trace their roots to Taiwan typically identify as exclusively Chinese, exclusively Taiwanese, or both/either Chinese and/or Taiwanese, with the first being the least common and on the verge of fading out completely. I won’t explain the history behind this trend in too much detail, but suffice to say that due to this Venn diagram of identification patterns, it’s very easy for Taiwanese representation to fall through the cracks if the book uses the term Chinese in the synopsis and/or promotional materials.

While gains have been made in representation for people of color in literature, the labeling of race/ethnicity by publishers and catalogers is often either done tokenistically or discouraged, especially when it comes to talking about the content of children’s books. When a book is about [or is perceived as being primarily about] racial/ethnic identity, it is usually labeled with that specific race/ethnicity in the synopsis and in the LCSH, if those are provided on the copyright page. However, for books that are not primarily about identity or racism, the likelihood of the character’s race/ethnicity being mentioned in the synopsis or LCSH goes down. This may sometimes be done with the intention of reducing the Othering of people of color as a “marked category” in opposition to whiteness, but the reality is that gatekeepers often treat race and ethnicity as unimportant and irrelevant in stories that aren’t about identity struggles or racism. In these cases, the “colorblind” approach to labeling stories dominates, which ultimately erases how people of color move through the world differently from white people beyond experiencing racism. The tendency to only label race and ethnicity for “issue books” also stigmatizes racial/ethnic difference by tying it exclusively to trauma and suffering.

Given the above problems, I sometimes have to do a lot of digging to find Taiwanese representation. Many Taiwanese diaspora books appear on my radar through book deal announcements and official synopses that explicitly state that they are Taiwanese. However, those summaries don’t always mention a character’s ethnicity. Some of the gaps are filled by my book community network since I follow tons of people who talk about racial/ethnic diversity and representation and make a point of mentioning it for all the books that include it. However, it’s impossible for me to see every single tweet, and my network doesn’t always catch everything.

To compensate, I spend a lot of time at bookstores just methodically combing through the books on the shelves, hunting for any POC representation that slipped through the cracks. Author last names and cover illustrations are my first indicators that there might be POC representation in a book. Then, I check the synopsis.

For many ethnicities, the name of a character alone is a fairly reliable indicator of their ethnicity, but for Taiwanese people, most of whom have Chinese family names, last name alone isn’t sufficient. While Taiwan uses a different romanization system for personal names than China, there is overlap in the romanization of certain sounds and therefore names, and the correlation between romanization and country of origin isn’t quite one-to-one. If the synopsis doesn’t have any conclusive information, I check the copyright page for LCSH tags. Unfortunately, not all publishers include LCSH assignments in the book. Another option is to Google the author’s name and “Taiwanese” to see if anything comes up.

If all else fails, I start skimming the book or read it to see if it references a particular label or country. This is how I figured out that the main character in The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh is Taiwanese American prior to its publication. The ARC I received did not have the LCSH tag “Taiwanese Americans—Fiction” that appeared in the final version, so it took a bit of reading to find what I needed. I followed a similar process to ferret out the existence of the Taiwanese representation in This Is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio.

The Future of Taiwanese Representation in Children’s Literature

Despite all the gains made in the past few years, there is still so much more I want to see in terms of Taiwanese representation. One experience I’m desperately craving more of is that of people who identify as Taiwanese and only Taiwanese. There are only a few I can think of in the Taiwanese diaspora children’s books that exist right now (one of these being Lily LaMotte’s middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up). There’s an entire array of microaggressions and political tensions that come with that experience that hasn’t been fully explored yet in children’s literature, only hinted at in a few places.

I also want to see more queer Taiwanese representation. I can only think of one queer Taiwanese main character in children’s literature by a Taiwanese author (Poppy from Dear Twin by Addie Tsai). Even though Taiwan is touted as the most queer-friendly Asian country, I don’t really see that reflected in diaspora narratives.

Another type of representation I want more of is books with disabled Taiwanese characters. In particular, I crave stories about mentally ill Taiwanese characters and the complexity of navigating multiple cultures that don’t make much space for those tough conversations about trauma. On a related note, I also want to see the history of the White Terror explored in children’s literature. It’s a heavy topic, but a necessary one to reckon with Taiwan’s history and the intergenerational trauma that lingers in the diaspora.

Additionally, I think the intra-Taiwanese diversity of origin and migration histories needs to be reflected in children’s literature. Taiwan is home to many different groups: the dozens of Indigenous tribes, the Hoklo and Hakka people who have been in Taiwan for hundred of years, and the Southeast and South Asian people who migrated to Taiwan more recently—and beyond. The diaspora is spread out across different parts of the U.S. as well as outside of the United States and so far there haven’t been any books with multiracial Taiwanese main characters that are by multiracial Taiwanese authors.

Translated Children’s Literature from Taiwan

Another area of Taiwanese literary growth I long for is more English language translations of children’s literature from Taiwan. The Western Anglophone literary sphere is rather averse to translated literature with the exception of adult literary fiction, leaving behind everything else that doesn’t conform to elitist standards of artistic value. Taiwan has a much smaller publishing industry than the U.S., but it still has much to offer—in general and as far as children’s literature is concerned. The Taiwanese government’s Ministry of Culture has a sub-agency called the Taiwan Creative Content Agency that maintains a site, Books from Taiwan, showcasing some of the literature from Taiwan with the intent to convince foreign publishers to acquire the rights to these titles. There are so many titles on the list that have caught my eye and made me wish I were an industry professional who could acquire them and/or translate them. Some are books I will eventually buy in Taiwan to read in their original Traditional Chinese form, but I want others who can’t read Chinese to be able to enjoy them, too.

Among the books I hope to see translated are several comics, sometimes referred to in English as “manhua,” the Mandarin equivalent of the Japanese word “manga,” to distinguish their origins. Unlike their Japanese (and to a lesser extent, Korean “manhwa”) counterparts, Taiwanese comics do not have the same global distribution and cultural influence. During the summers I spent in Taiwan in my youth, I read multiple manhua series by Selena Lin (林青慧), nicknamed Taiwan’s 漫畫小天后, the “little heavenly empress of comics,” and I wish there were more people I could talk to about her work.

Bilingual/Multilingual Children’s Books

Last but not least, I wish there were bilingual/multilingual books for children by Taiwanese authors, in English plus any languages commonly spoken in Taiwan. Unfortunately, the Anglophone supremacist tendencies of publishing means that the use of non-English (and more broadly, non-Western European) languages is discouraged to cater to an assumed monolingual English-speaking audience. As far as children’s books are concerned, Spanish is probably the only language with bilingual books available in a significant number. I own one bilingual children’s book in English and Mandarin that’s not explicitly meant for language-learning purposes. It’s called Alice in Dreams艾莉絲夢遊記 and was a limited print run picture book written by Hsuan-fu Chen and Scott Alexander and illustrated by Martin Hsu. There are more out there, but they are mostly independently published, some through crowdfunding, making them more difficult to find and obtain.

Writing the Stories I Want to See

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I write children’s literature in addition to maintaining this blog. I hope to fill some of the gaps in representation I’ve identified through the stories that I myself write. I’m not query ready yet at this time, but I’m getting there, slowly but surely. Hopefully, in a few years, you’ll see my books on the shelves, too.


Footnotes:

  1. The protagonist of American Born Chinese is identified as Chinese American, but one of the major supporting characters is from Taiwan, so I counted it here, with consideration for the long-lasting influence ABC has had in children’s publishing.
  2. I also have an older sister, but at the time she had mostly stopped reading English language novels, and she was a bit older than the target age for the books, so I’m guessing that’s why my parents didn’t have it personalized to her as well.
  3. This was prior to realizing I was trans, when I still identified as a girl.
  4. Grace Lin doesn’t accept emails from young readers for privacy and safety reasons, so instead you can write physical letters to her. If you include a self-addressed and stamped envelope with your letter, she’ll send you the response with bookplates and bookmarks!
  5. Not to be confused with Pauline F. Chen, a Taiwanese American doctor and the author of an adult memoir called Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflection on Mortality.
  6. Judy is actually Canadian, not American, but I included her because I believe that everyone in Taiwanese diaspora is welcome to be featured and celebrated in the heritage week series.

Bibliography of Books Referenced by First Publication Date

 Here’s a list of all the middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation (or that are inspired by Taiwan, in the case of secondary world fantasy) organized chronologically by first publication date. I incorporated as many as I could into the body of the article, but there were at least two I didn’t touch on here but are featured in this week’s author interviews. If I’ve missed any #OwnVoices middle grade and young adult books with Taiwanese representation that are already published, please let me know. I’ll be talking about upcoming releases with Taiwanese representation in another post featuring upcoming books by Taiwanese authors more broadly, regardless of content.

  1. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Dog. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  2. Chen, Justina. Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies). Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2006.
  3. Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. First Second, 2006.
  4. Chen, Pauline A. Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas. Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2007.
  5. Lin, Grace. The Year of the Rat. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2008.
  6. Lin, Grace. Dumpling Days. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012.
  7. Pon, Cindy. Want. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  8. Yeh, Kat. The Way to Bea. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2017.
  9. Chao, Gloria. American Panda. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  10. Pan, Emily X.R. The Astonishing Color of After. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  11. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2018.
  12. Lien, Henry. Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions. Henry Holt & Company Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  13. Lin, Cindy. The Twelve. HarperCollins, 2019.
  14. Tsai, Addie. Dear Twin. Metonymy Press, 2019.
  15. Chao, Gloria. Our Wayward Fate. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019.
  16. Chang, Victoria. Love, Love. Sterling Children’s Books, 2020.
  17. Gregorio, I.W. This is My Brain in Love. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  18. Lin, Cindy. Treasures of the Twelve. HarperCollins, 2020.
  19. LaMotte, Lily and Ann Xu. Measuring Up. HarperAlley, 2020.
  20. Lin, Ed. David Tung Can’t Have a Girlfriend Until He Gets Into an Ivy League College. Kaya Press, 2020.
  21. Chao, Gloria. Rent a Boyfriend. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020.
  22. Yen, Jennifer. A Taste for Love. Razorbill, 2021.

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