Author Interview: Margaret Chiu Greanias

Welcome to my fifth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction


A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.

Interview with Margaret Chiu Greanias

Q: Your book Amah Faraway features several delicious Taiwanese dishes that made me hungry while reading it. What is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You can pick more than one if narrowing it down is hard.)

A: Fragrant and flaky scallion pancakes are yummy. I had an intense aversion to onions as a kid, but my mom would go easy on the scallions for me.

I also love dumplings–any kind of dumplings! My mom would usually make dumplings on the same days she made scallion pancakes. Pan-fried pork and napa cabbage dumplings with golden, crispy lace on the bottoms–mmm! They are the perfect all in one meal.

As an adult, I’ve discovered the deliciousness of buttery, tangy pineapple cakes! Unfortunately, I was a picky eater as a kid, so I missed out on enjoying them for 30 years. :-/

Q: I noticed that there were parts of the book in Mandarin that weren’t translated (e.g. the song about the two tigers) while others were. How did you go about deciding what would be explained and translated and what would remain as is?

A: The Mandarin that wasn’t translated was added by Tracy Subisak, the illustrator for Amah Faraway. They are generally side conversations that complement the text and are wonderful Easter Eggs for those who can read Mandarin.

The Mandarin characters that are translated were part of the original story that I wrote. They fit in with the structure of the story–which is a kind of reverse poem. A reverse poem is one where the lines are read regularly from top to bottom but can also be read in reverse from bottom to top. The result is two poems with different meanings and often opposite tones.

In Amah Faraway, the reverse poem structure highlights the transformation the main character Kylie undergoes on her first trip to visit her Amah. The lines reverse at the mid-point of the story. Except for some changes to punctuation, the lines in the second half of the story are exactly the same as the lines in the first half–simply in reverse order. Changes in punctuation, words that have more than one meaning, context, and changes in perspective allow the first half and second half of the book to tell a complete story.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing Amah Faraway?

A: My favorite part of writing Amah Faraway was finding a way to impart different meanings using the same lines and words in the each half of the book and still tell a complete story. It took a lot of scribbling, experimentation, and reading my words aloud over and over again. But I love puzzles, and finding the right fit felt a lot like completing a puzzle. So satisfying!

Q: You mentioned elsewhere that you weren’t particularly good at English in school, but later you found your way to creative writing. What kinds of books and stories inspired you and/or made you feel that you could be an author? (Feel free to name specific titles, authors, and illustrators.)

A: The first book to inspire me was Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. This was the one that made me realize that I could play and have fun with language. As I continue to read and study the craft of writing picture books, I am continually discovering books that inspire me to evolve my writing:

  • Wordplay: Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Jorge and Megan Lacera
  • Lyrical language: Friends Are Friends, Forever by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael Lopez, Eyes That Kiss In The Corners by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho
  • Delightful characters: One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
  • Packs an emotional punch: I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by Julia Kuo

Q: The structure of Amah Faraway is that of a reversible poem. While writing a reversible poem is already difficult, I imagine fitting it into the picture book format was also a challenge due to the page limit and the way picture books are structured with the two-page spreads and page turns affecting the reading experience. How did you go about blending the two forms?

A: It’s critical to account for the constraints of the picture book format when writing any picture book story. Picture books are generally 32 pages. This includes the end, copyright, and title pages. So we really have between 12 to 14-1/2 spreads to tell the whole story.

As part of my writing process, I create a picture book “dummy” where I break up the story by spread ( Note that picture book authors generally leave illustration decisions including the page turns to the illustrator, editor, and art director. But this helps me determine some things:

  • Whether I’ve used too many words for a page. For reverse poems, because the lines need to be able to be interpreted with new meaning on the reverse read, it turns out that spare is better. So, this actually helped me.
  • Whether there are enough but not too many varied scenes to fill the book. Too many scenes would mean the story wouldn’t fit into the picture book format. Lack of variety in scenes would make the story less visually interesting. For writing the reverse poem, I chunked the story in a predetermined number of scenes to help make the writing process less intimidating. This also helped in fitting the story into the picture book format.

One thing that I never imagined was how the words and the line breaks that are critical to the reverse poem structure would be laid out on the page and how the illustrations would need to accommodate this. Not only did we have to maintain the line breaks, but the lines had to be placed so that the reader would read them in the right order.

I owe my editor at Bloomsbury, Sarah Shumway, a huge debt of gratitude for having the vision for how to fit my story into picture book format and helping to guide me through revisions to make it all possible. She even somehow made room for back matter.

Q: My understanding is that when the author isn’t also the illustrator for a picturebook, the author generally has little say in the final illustrations. Do you write your picturebooks with a rough idea of the pictures in mind? How do you feel about surrendering creative control when it comes to this aspect of the book?

A: I do write with an idea of the pictures. As I wrote in previously, this helps me figure out whether there are enough potential varied illustration possibilities to make up a picture book and to determine the pacing and page breaks of the story. And also, if I envision illustrations, I may be able to omit some text that the illustration would communicate. But my envisioning the illustrations doesn’t mean I tell the illustrator what to actually illustrate.

For Amah Faraway, I saw sketches at two points and was offered the opportunity to give feedback. But as an author, I try and tread lightly when it comes to illustrations. While it can be nerve-wracking to surrender creative control, I believe in the idea that an illustrator executing their own vision can add a lot of richness to the story. It’s like a song with harmony–it adds layers and deepens the song in a beautiful way.

As the illustrator for Amah Faraway, Tracy Subisak contributed so much richness to the book. She added beautiful end papers which can serve as a search and find for young readers as well as a tool for learning some Mandarin. She created a wonderful illustration under the dust jacket which sets up the story. She set the story in real locations around Taipei which hopefully will enable readers who have been to Taipei to connect to the story in a visual way. And as mentioned above, she added the conversations that were solely in Mandarin to complement the storyline and serve as an Easter Egg for Mandarin readers. I could go on and on. Tracy’s contributions helped make Amah Faraway a rich and layered piece with many potential points of connection for readers. Thank you, Tracy! 🙂

Add Amah Faraway on Goodreads.

Order a copy of Amah Faraway with a signed bookplate and free print from Books of Wonder (while supplies last).

Purchase Amah Faraway from other sellers:

About the Author

Margaret wrote her first terrifically terrible book in fourth grade. From grade school through college, she struggled through her English classes. Then, during her very last quarter of her very last year of college, she took a creative writing class and discovered she loved writing. She is the author of MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS (Running Press Kids, 2018), AMAH FARAWAY (Bloomsbury Kids, 2022), and HOOKED ON BOOKS (Peachtree Publishing, 2023). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three children, and a fluffle of dust bunnies.

Author Links:

Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

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