Harvard graduated Cynthia Chin-Lee has a passion for writing children’s books, a space rarely inhabited by Asian or Asian American authors. Last year, her picture book Operation Marriage, based on a true story, was made into an internet short film available for the world to use and watch as a teaching tool about LGBT marriage from a child’s point-of-view.
A: How did you come to write children’s books? Would you say you’re the most prolific Asian American children’s books writer?
I became interested in writing for kids after having my daughter, Vanessa, now 26 and living in Kunming, China. I read to her daily so I quickly fell in love with the genre. I also found there was a dearth of books about Asian Americans and all minorities in general. I really wanted Vanessa and later Joshua to be able to read books that reflect the larger diversity in the world.
I am certainly not the most prolific writer, but I’m happy that many of my projects have actually made it. I’m delighted that filmmaker Quentin Lee has even made Operation Marriage, my last book into a short film.
Subtitled in Chinese:
A: Is there a theme that links all the books you write or the stories you want to tell? Why are you compelled to write a story for children, for example Operation Marriage?
I consider all of my books to be multicultural. Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea is about the friendship of two girls, one European American and the other Chinese American. Erica expresses her nervousness about visiting Nancy’s Chinese American home because she doesn’t know what it will be like. That happened to me when I was young. One of my friends’ mother wanted to inspect our home before she would let her daughter play with me.
A Is for Asia and A Is for the Americas both explore geographic and cultural diversity in an alphabet format. Because A Is for the Americas emphasizes Latin and native American themes, I asked Terri de la Pena, a fifth generation Chicana (who is also well-known for her lesbian novels) to co-author it with me.
Amelia to Zora and Akira to Zoltan also have a significant number of racial, cultural, or religious minorities because I felt it was important to have diverse role models. In that book I also tried to show how these notable people overcame adversity in their lives because that’s what inspires me.
Lastly, I wrote Operation Marriage based on the true story of my friends and neighbors because I felt that the stories of gay families have not been told enough. It’s the power of these stories,which ultimately helped to change people’s hearts and minds on the issue of same-sex marriage.
A: You’ve written six picture books. Why have you been attracted to the form of picture books? How are picture book important?
Ha! I’m attracted to picture books because they’re short! I have a limited attention span because I’m working full time in Silicon Valley and have two kids. Actually, things are easier now that one is grown and my son Joshua is 13.
Picture books reach the younger children so they’re important in that fact alone. I also love being part of a team with an illustrator and book designer who add so much to the words I write.
If I have to choose one, I’d probably choose Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea because it’s semi-autobiographical. My grandma really did make the best almond cookies in Washington, DC, and we really played in the park with my grandpa and fed the pigeons. Ironically, I was criticized for setting the book in a Chinese laundry which was my family’s business.
My best-selling book, by the way, is “Amelia to Zora,” which just got translated into French. That book also has a special place for me because it’s about women, whose status in the world is so precarious.
A: Who are the other children’s books authors who have inspired you or you respect?
Some of the children’s book authors that I enjoy are Malinda Lo, Laurence Yep, Milly Lee, Patricia McLachlan, Amy Tan, Christy Hale, Gene Luen Yang, Nancy Farmer, and Peggy Rathmann.
A: What are you writing next? Can you give us a peek?
I’m writing a chapter book about a boy whose father is transgender. The dad transitions from male to female. It’s loosely based on my co-worker at a high tech company who made the change. Here’s an excerpt:
Mom looks at Dad and then says to us, “Dad wants to tell you something.”
Dad looks all serious like the time he told us about what happened to our pet rabbit, who got eaten by some wild animal. He says, “I love you kids so much. Both Mom and I will always be there for you even if we’re not together. One reason we’re splitting is because I am becoming a woman.”
He stops, then adds, “And I need a fresh start.”
I feel sick to my stomach and then run to my room and slam the door. A few seconds later, Dad taps on it. “Jake, take your time. Just remember I love you and so does Mom.”