Welcome to the second interview in the 2023 run of my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series dedicated to featuring Taiwanese authors and their work. Taiwanese American Heritage Week occurs every year during the week that begins with Mother’s Day in May, which is also Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. You can find the past interviews and posts in this series via the Taiwanese American Heritage Week tag or through my Post Index.
About the Books
- Title: How We Say I Love You
- Author: Nicole Chen
- Illustrator: Lenny Wen
- Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (an Imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
- Release Date: December 2022
- Genre/Format: Picturebook
In this heartwarming picture book, a Taiwanese American girl shares how her family expresses their love for one another through actions rather than words.
How do you tell your family that you love them? For Hana, love is all around her: Mom stirs love into a steaming pot of xifan. Dad cheers with love at her soccer game. Hana says good night with love by rubbing her grandma’s feet and pouring her grandpa his sleepy tea. And as the light fades, Hana’s parents tuck her into bed and give her a good night kiss.
So many families express their love in all they do for one another, every day. Here is a book that wraps you in a hug and invites your family to share their own special ways of showing love.
- Title: It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li!
- Author: Nicole Chen
- Cover Artist: Kat Tsai
- Publisher: Quill Tree Books (an Imprint of HarperCollins)
- Release Date: February 28th, 2023
- Genre/Format: Middle Grade Contemporary
This middle grade contemporary follows a big-hearted Taiwanese American girl as she aims to gain her family’s acceptance and save her favorite boba tea shop by selling her handcrafted amigurumi dolls.
Pearl Li is ready to spend the summer before seventh grade hanging out with her two best friends, crocheting the cutest amigurumi dolls, and visiting her favorite tea shop, Boba Time. Its quirky owner, Auntie Cha, is the only adult Pearl can confide in about her art—if only her tech-obsessed family would understand her love of crafts!
After Pearl learns of Boba Time’s financial troubles, she decides to sell her amigurumi to raise money for the shop. But as she navigates the ups and downs of running a business, Pearl realizes that monetizing her passion is more complicated than she could’ve ever imagined. Can Pearl save Boba Time before it’s too late?
Interview with Nicole Chen
Q: What is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You can choose more than one.)
A: Boba, of course! It’s so easily accessible, fun to eat, an indulgence I can partake in without too much guilt, and holds so many memories for me, as someone who got to see it come to the US many years ago and then flourish as it does now.
My second favorite, however, is fan tuan, the delicious Taiwanese sticky rice rolls filled with crispy youtiao, sour mustard greens, and salty rousung, or pork floss. They are such a comforting mix of chew, crunch, and warmness…just thinking about them makes my mouth water!
Q: Because the audience for picturebooks is young children, there is a tendency for people outside the world of children’s literature to underestimate it as a medium and the craft of creating it. What kinds of activities did you do to study the craft of creating a picturebook, and what resources do you recommend for writers who are interested in picturebooks?
A: To dive into the world of picture books, I did two things that really helped me – I took a lot of classes (in particular with the Storyteller Academy) and I read A LOT of picture books and studied each one meticulously. With the books that I loved, I typed up each one into a Google doc so I could see the text independently from the illustrations. That helped me feel what my goal as an author was, which was words on a page that would invite visual images, but also communicate what the pictures wouldn’t. I have hundreds of write-ups now, and I continue doing this as I write more.
Q: What was your favorite part of writing How We Say I Love You? What was the most challenging part?
A: Coming up with the various scenes of the day was a lot of fun, as each one is so filled with love and tenderness. The hardest part was the last spread of the book, where I wanted to succinctly capture the overall message of the book while also leaving the reader with a satisfying, ahh feeling. Those lines took me many iterations with my agent and my editor.
Q: It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li! Is your second book but your first novel to be published. You mention in your acknowledgements that when you first started writing for children, you were focused on picture books and never imagined that you would write novels. What challenges did you face when tackling the prose novel medium?
A: I actually found writing a novel quite freeing, as now you have 50,000 words you can use to express a lot of ideas, which is a lot compared to a picture book, where you really have to hone in and focus on one clear idea that can only take 500 words.
So for me, it was fun to now have all this new playing ground! But then, what was challenging was the hard work of sitting down and having to write for hours at a time for days at a time. It was physically exhausting, as I’m in front of a computer for my day job, and then would put in another 2-3 hours in the evening for the book. But once I got through the first draft, the rest was much easier to manage.
Q: It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li! addresses some of the problems and pitfalls that happen when creatives try to monetize their work. This is relevant for you as a writer who writes for publication. How do you balance your personal artistic vision and goals with the demands of publishing as a business and industry?
A: I’m fortunate that I have a fulfilling day job that “pays the bills,” so I have the privilege to truly write the books I want to write, without the urgency or pressure to monetize them. But while I do have that luxury, I also really want my stories to reach a broad audience, because I want young readers, regardless of their cultural background, to be able to relate to my Taiwanese American characters and to experience the wonderful parts of Taiwanese culture. So I pay attention to the topics and themes that are being discussed in mainstream culture and in the publishing industry to inform my stories and make sure they are relevant and relatable to kids, parents, educators, and book sellers.
Q: It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li! has several different subplots and conflicts interwoven into the story as Pearl explores or rethinks her relationships with her art, her family (especially her mom), her best friends Priya and Cindy, Auntie Cha & Boba Time, and her classmate Kendall. How did you make sure they all received the attention they needed while maintaining the overall developmental arc of the story?
A: Before I put pen to paper and start drafting, I spend quite a bit of time fleshing out each character, writing down who they are, their personalities, their physical quirks, their challenges, and their role in helping the main character grow and transform. I think this due diligence helps imprint them into my brain so that when I start to write, it’s like they’re sitting on my shoulder, peeking at the words and reminding me to give them attention on the page. It’s almost like they feel so real that I owe it to them to truly shine in the story.
Q: What kinds of things inspire your creativity, and how do you refill the creative well when you feel stuck?
A: I read a lot, especially in the genres I want to write in! I also reflect a lot on my own life and events that have happened to me as a child and still sit with me today. For me, my stories almost serve as a wistful “do-over,” where I imagine myself as the main character but with the foresight and experience of an adult. What do I wish I could have done or said or experienced if I could go back to my twelve-year-old self and make myself a better person, or make the world a better place? Then I put those ideas into the characters and stories I create.
Q: A debut novel is a big deal, but it’s just the first step in a career. Now that you have this experience under your belt, where do you see yourself and your writing career going moving forward? What kinds of new creative challenges do you want to tackle?
A: I’ve truly fallen in love with writing for middle grade, so I hope to write and publish more in this format. I love how in MG, you can explore themes in a complex, nuanced manner, yet the tone (and ending) is ultimately optimistic and heartwarming because of the genre. But as I grow in confidence as a writer, I can feel myself wanting to tackle bigger, bolder themes, like social activism and micro/macro-aggressions against Asians, even the complexity of Taiwanese history and where we stand in global politics. So I think my future creative challenge will revolve around how to tackle those themes, while maintaining the optimism and joy I hope my stories spark in readers.
Purchase How We Say I Love You:
Purchase It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li!:
About the Author
Nicole has been sketching, designing, and writing stories all her life. In her day job as a product researcher, she collects consumer stories, then shares them with the companies she works for so they can design and develop delightful and useful experiences.
Nicole lives in sunny California with her Andorran husband and young daughter. Her experience growing up Taiwanese American in the Bay Area, plus the blend of Catalan, Spanish, Taiwanese and American influences in her home, energize her to tell stories that reflect a diverse and multicultural American identity.
Nicole’s debut picture book, HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen and published by Knopf BFYR, released December 13, 2022, and her debut middle grade novel, IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI!, from Quill Tree/Harper Collins, released February 28, 2023. She was chosen as a 2022 mentee for Diverse Voices’ DVdebut program, and was honored with SCBWI’s Out from the Margins Award in October 2022.
Photo Credit: Sarah Deragon
Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts and would like to show your appreciation by tossing a coin to your blogger, please consider donating that coin to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese friend who needs help with rent payments during this Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Thanks!