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 third author interview in my 2021 TAHW series is with Lily LaMotte on her debut middle grade graphic novel Measuring Up, illustrated by Ignatz-nominated cartoonist and illustrator Ann Xu.
Twelve-year-old Cici has just moved from Taiwan to Seattle, and the only thing she wants more than to fit in at her new school is to celebrate her grandmother, A-má’s, seventieth birthday together.
Since she can’t go to A-má, Cici cooks up a plan to bring A-má to her by winning the grand prize in a kids’ cooking contest to pay for A-má’s plane ticket! There’s just one problem: Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese food.
And after her pickled cucumber debacle at lunch, she’s determined to channel her inner Julia Child. Can Cici find a winning recipe to reunite with A-má, a way to fit in with her new friends, and somehow find herself too?
Q: This is a question I ask most of the Taiwanese authors who I feature, and it’s also relevant to the theme of Measuring Up: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food?
A: That’s a good question! I have to say my mom’s dumpling soup. When we visit my parents, my mom, my kids, and I sit around the kitchen table to wrap the dumplings. It’s one of those things that not only is delicious but creates memories. At home, although I don’t make dumpling soup, my husband, son, and I will do movie night where we make and eat potstickers while watching that night’s movie pick.
Q: At times the publishing industry fetishizes youthfulness in authors, putting spotlights on the so-called prodigies who get published at a young age. However, everyone’s path to publishing is different, and there is value in learning from people who transitioned into the industry at an older age. What has that process been like for you, and how has your life experience before becoming an author informed your writing?
A: I think that as we age and gain life experiences, we bring some of that into our writing. I started my writing journey twelve (!) years ago. I am pretty sure that I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say at that time. Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults changed how I thought about my writing. Prior to Hamline, I had taken writing classes, webinars, gone to SCBWI conferences to further my craft but it wasn’t until I went to Hamline where we were involved in intense discussions about diversity that I thought it would be possible to write a diverse character and story.
Q: I saw from your other interviews that you were drawn to writing for children because of your experiences reading with your kids when they were younger. Children’s literature contains a wide array of subcategories segmented by age. What drew you to writing middle grade in particular?
A: I write middle grade because those stories of families and friendships speak to me. Despite my advance age, I think about family and friendship relationships because they are universal no matter one’s age. I also write picture books and have my debut picture book CHLOE’S LUNAR NEW YEAR from HarperCollins coming out Winter 2023. I had such fun reading board books and picture books to my kids when they were that age. I want to capture some of that fun in my writing for both the picture book and the middle grade groups. There is also less cynicism and more happy endings. I really like happy endings!
Q: I think it’s super cool that you had Gene Luen Yang as a writing mentor since he was one of the first Taiwanese American children’s authors I ever read when I was younger (around 14-15). When I first met him at the book festival hosted at my high school, I asked him to draw me a llama, and I still have the drawing saved. What was your favorite part of working with him?
A: I love that you still have the llama he drew for you!! Gene is not only a wonderful mentor but just a wonderful person all-around. He is so smart and was able to steer me through my story. And he did it in a way that was so supportive.
Q: I read in another interview that you had to do extremely detailed panel descriptions for Measuring Up. As someone who’s interested in writing a graphic novel script someday, I’m curious about the process of working with an illustrator. I know that you and Ann Xu collaborated through your editor. What was that triangulation like? Did Ann surprise you in a good way with any of her interpretations? And what is your favorite page or panel from Measuring Up, illustration-wise?
A: Ann is an amazing illustrator and I am so happy she not only illustrated MEASURING UP but is now working on UNHAPPY CAMPER coming next summer. As part of working with Gene, he required extensive illustration notes. It was the first time I thought about story details in that depth and I think that it helped me tremendously in figuring out who my characters were so that I could write their story. When my script went to Ann, I pulled out some of the descriptions so that she could bring her own brilliance to the book. I love the full-page panel when Cici is at the restaurant and sees herself for the first time as belonging to a place like that. I described the page as having Cici surrounded by puzzle pieces of the restaurant and equipment. I specified certain things that I knew would be restaurant versus home equipment to be helpful to the illustration process. Ann blew me away with that fantastic page. I love it so much that I created fabric with that image to make tea towels for giveaways.
Q: I love the variety of dishes that show up in the cooking competition. Did you have any systematic/meaningful way of deciding what each challenge would be and which dishes each character would make, or was it more random?
A: I thought about what kind of person each character in the competition would be so that I could decide what dish the character would make. As far as the challenge in each round, I wanted to make some of them kid-friendly but also have meaningful challenges like the sweet potato which has such a strong link to Taiwan.
Q: I’m super excited for your second graphic novel, Unhappy Camper, and can’t wait for it to hit the shelves. The premise of going to a Taiwanese American summer camp is super appealing to me because it reminds me of my own experiences attending TAA summer conferences as a kid, except those were geared toward adults with a few children’s activities on the side rather than being for children/youth. Can you tell us a little more about Unhappy Camper?
A: I’m not sure what I can say yet except that it is a sister story where my protagonist’s sister loves everything Taiwan. But for my protagonist, not so much. It isn’t until my protagonist goes to a Taiwanese American summer camp that she reclaims her cultural heritage. There’s crafting, singing, language lessons (much to her disappointment) with a tiny bit of what makes the Pacific Northwest so special.
Thank you for thinking of me for Taiwanese American Heritage Week!
About the Author:
Lily LaMotte is the debut author of the middle grade graphic novel MEASURING UP from HarperCollins/HarperAlley. When she isn’t writing picture books and middle grade graphic novels, she’s cooking up new recipes. Sometimes, when she sees the gray clouds outside her window in the Pacific Northwest, she loads up the campervan for a writing retreat camping trip with her husband and two dogs.
She is a graduate of Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.