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.
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.
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.
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.