Back when I was working on Hey Taipei, I remember wishing one day my book would sit on the shelves of little Taiwanese kids living outside of Taiwan, just as I did in Sydney, and that book would act as a small reminder of their culture, heritage and family.
Now there’s another book to add to that bookshelf — and it’s simply lovely. The newly launched I Dream of Popo was written by a Taiwanese-American writer and illustrated by a Taiwanese-American artist. The story told within its pages is familiar to so many of us whose families migrated:
“When a young girl and her family emigrate from Taiwan to America, she leaves behind her beloved grandmother. She misses her popo every day, but even if their visits are fleeting, their love is ever true. This 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.”
Late last year, Livia Blackburne, the author of I Dream of Popo, and Julia Kuo, the book’s illustrator, were kind enough to answer my questions about how the book came to life and what it’s like launching a book in the time of COVID.
What it was like behind the scenes making this book come to life?
Livia: So this was actually my first picture book. (I had written several novels before.) I have a feeling that the author’s process is much simpler than the illustrator’s. The story idea came to me pretty fully formed. I had been writing a picture book already with a friend, so I knew the basic idea of how to structure the story. My agent had never submitted a picture book before either, but he was game to try. Luckily, Connie Hsu from Roaring Brook Press was super enthusiastic about it. After she bought it, we worked together to write an author’s note, and then it was time to find an illustrator. Side note: in traditional publishing, authors have very little control over the illustrator choice. The publisher might consult the author, but they are usually not contractually obligated to. Connie already had Julia in mind when she bought the manuscript, and she sent me some of Julia’s sample artwork to get my opinion. I loved Julia‘s artwork, and I loved that she actually lived in Taiwan part of the year and would be able to draw really authentic images. Connie approached Julia about doing the book, and the rest is history.
Julia: I joined the picture book team after the manuscript was finalized, so my process started up once Livia finished her work. Upon acceptance of the project, I created 3 sample drawings of what I thought the little girl and her Popo would look like in some of the story’s environments. These initial drawings were made to make sure I was on the same page as the editorial team. Next is creating rough sketches of the entire story. These sketches map out how the story will be told, and give us a feeling for the flow from spread to spread. Once the sketches are approved, it’s on to the finish! Drawing the finishes is my favorite stage. If accuracy is important, this is the stage at which I need to be careful. For this book, I was sending screenshots to my parents asking them to double check the Mandarin and to make sure the dishes on the dinner table looked recognizable! Finally, we wrap up by making a few fun last things like the cover and endpapers. In this book’s case, almost one year will have passed between turning in final illustrations and the launch of the book.
What was the reaction from your US publisher to the book being set in Taiwan?
Livia: Connie Hsu from Roaring Brook Press was the first person from the publishing house who saw this. She’s actually Taiwanese-American too, and she really connected with it. There were a couple of non-Taiwanese editors from other houses that liked the story too, but I don’t think any of them matched Connie in terms of excitement. It’s still early to gauge audience reception, but generally everybody who’s heard of it has been really supportive so far. I think we are in a period of publishing when people are really appreciating culturally diverse books.
Julia: I don’t actually know what the publisher’s reaction was, because Livia is the one who pitched this book! I came on the scene after the manuscript had already been acquired. But I’d like to add that even though I Dream of Popo is set in Taiwan, it is centered on the immigrant experience — what it feels like to leave a home and still stay connected over a great distance. And that’s a story that should resonate among many people in the US.
How have your Taiwanese friends and relatives reacted?
Livia: They have all been incredibly excited about it. I think everyone realizes that there isn’t much in the US children’s book market about Taiwan. So it’s been really encouraging to see that enthusiasm.
Julia: Not too many of my relatives hear about my books until they come out. I do have a lot of cousins in the US with young kids, so I can’t wait to share it with them! I tried to explain to my Ah Ma a few years ago that I illustrate picture books, but I’m not really sure if she understood that this is what I do to make a living. I don’t blame her! I did show the book in its final stages to a couple close Taiwanese-American friends, and they told me how moved they felt. Tears were shed!
How much has COVID changed the marketing side and the book launch?
Livia: Well, everything now is all virtual. We have a zoom chat with some booksellers coming up soon, and our launch party was held over Zoom. One nice thing about moving everything online is that I can actually do a joint event with Julia and Connie. And we can invite people from all over the country. Geography is no longer an obstacle.
Julia: Even though I’ve illustrated several books, I haven’t experienced a very routine book launch process in the past, so I have no “normal” for COVID to disrupt. But one change that is easy to mention is the planning of a digital launch, rather than a in-person launch that would have taken place in a bookstore. I’ve had a couple book launches I didn’t attend because I would have had to fly over, so I’m actually quite excited about our digital party! I’m looking forward to being able to invite friends who live all over the country.
Has working on this project made you think about your Taiwanese identity in a different way?
Livia: It’s definitely made me more aware of my Taiwan identity, and proud of it. Especially seeing Julia’s pictures, the ones that have Taiwanese landmarks and distinctive architecture. It brings back a lot of memories.
Julia: Working on this book felt like a celebration of Taiwanese identity. I got to dig into what I felt made up a Taiwanese scene, from owning a Tatung rice cooker to using a cleaver to chop even green onions. I visit Taiwan for a month every year and happened to be there when I was finishing up this book in Jan/Feb of 2020, so there was no shortage of scenes and props that I wanted to get in…like a scooter! I couldn’t make a book about Taiwan without including a scooter somewhere. But to answer your question I would say no, I don’t think my identity has shifted because of this book project or even because of this pandemic. I feel very solidly Taiwanese-American and I’m not sure what would change that. It has certainly been a new take to hear Taiwan’s collectivist culture praised by Western media — and to see America’s individualistic identity at the root of its pandemic struggles. But I identify with both cultures and can see that both have their strengths and weaknesses. For better or worse, I will always have a strong American individualistic streak, just as I’ll always have Taiwanese values.
Are there plans to come to Taiwan, and translate to Traditional Chinese?
Livia: I would love to see that, but it just depends on whether a Taiwanese publisher picks up the Traditional Chinese rights. Fingers crossed!
Julia Kuo: This would probably be a question for our publisher, but I agree — I would love nothing more than to see I Dream of Popo being read by a child in Taiwan!
Thank you, Livia and Julia!
Images from US Macmillan website.