I was a wide-eyed twenty-something when I visited San Francisco for the first time. My great uncle, who had spent most of his adulthood in town, showed me around the city’s famous Chinatown. In his seventies–but walking way faster than me up those notorious hills–he’d stop to chat with a friend while waiting for me to catch up. Seeing the way he and his friends bowed to each other and joke around, I knew I was in good company. He told stories of his legendary family as we hiked through the streets. Though I had known a little about them, it felt different when he told the tales–so full of pride and joy. Chinese family stories tend to have a Rashomon effect, it all depends on who’s telling it. I came to love his versions best.
I felt like a trusting child when I was trailing Great Uncle up and down Chinatown. We ended up at a dim sum tea house. He ordered from the push cart while the waiter brought us a pot of tea. In the next hour, we talked. Well, he talked mostly, and I listened. He told me how he had held mayorship in a large Chinese city, lived through two World Wars, moved across the ocean, and raised his family in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He was a walking (and talking) history book.
I had wanted to write about that trip since. Many years passed and the story still lingers. Yet, it’s not about the details of the family stories, some have long faded from memory. It was the bright sunny walk we took on that summer day. The sights and sound along the way. The neighbors greeting each other with a bow. And mostly how Great Uncle not only knew everyone in the entire Chinatown, but every dish in the restaurant! Yum!
The first doodle I drew of this story was an old man holding hands with a five year old girl. (My drawing and writing sometimes overlap because images help to bring out the story for me.) That’s how I remembered myself on that cheery walk. But who should accompany an energetic five year old to the Big Wok dim sum restaurant while there are so many distractions on the way? I thought of my youngest uncle, my mother’s baby brother. Being only two years older than me he was my closest sibling while growing up. He often waited for me when my brothers went ahead. I loved the fact that he would also share his goodies, the best brother-uncle ever. I now had my two main characters.
But how should I tell a story about a five year old to my audience? Shouldn’t my readers also be five? My husband, also an author and illustrator, suggested turning my story into a counting book to capture the attention of the younger readers. I gladly took the advice.
I took the story to Lee & Low Books and Cheryl Klein contacted me. She invited me to lunch at a Korean restaurant. When she dunked a quarter bottle of the hot sauce on her bibimbap I knew I met my editor match! I could not have asked for a more intuitive, knowledgeable, persistent and passionate-for-words editor. She guided me through every step and pulled me out of pot-holes (for they were many!) She was patient. She pointed that my script was too young, as if it were written for pre-K and under. So I rewrote it. More rewriting followed. Now I understood why authors talked about rewriting twenty-plus times before settling on the final draft. It happens. Cheryl suggested the great idea of a Chinese English bilingual format. I translated the story. Now came the Chinese copy editors, confident and precise, lending their expertise to the finishing touch.
For the author’s note expounding the cultural elements featured in the story, I went to the reference library and put on the white gloves. With my phone, I took hundreds of pictures from out of print and antique books. The reverence demanded for those books gave me new respect for what I was doing. I continued my research reading contemporary material: news, blogs, social media, and college theses, to understand the cultural reference in modern context. After sorting and scrutinizing all the collected information I had to part ways with over 90% of the material. Then came the most difficult work– to condensed chapters of information into two or three sentences for each element. This is when my editor shined again.
The illustration ideas were there all along with thumbnails and sketches but the final execution didn’t start until the text was settled. During the months that followed, photos of Chinatown filled our apartment walls (my husband, aka house photographer, and I had taken multiple trips prior to capture the bustling neighborhood with our cameras.) As I ate and slept with Chinatown on my mind the painting commenced. It is a privilege to do what I love. And the painting process of the work is especially rewarding. When I submitted the final piece of illustration, it felt like I had erected a building from the ground up.
My first-time authorship, however, took longer than expected. Originally the book was scheduled for release in January 2021. Then the pandemic hit and all 2020 books were pushed back like dominos. After another tempestuous year, the pub date finally arrived. The feeling was unreal. It has been a wild ride. But when I saw the pictures sent from parents of their children smiling while reading the book, it was all worth it.
Trained to be a classroom teacher, Ying-Hwa Hu entered into picture books by answering a publisher’s search for interior illustrations of a book series. From there she continued to illustrate, often collaborating with her husband, Cornelius Van Wright, more than fifty children’s books. They also launched Pencilmoon Studio to showcase their voice in art-making. Hu’s solo author-illustrator debut, Ten Blocks to the Big Wok is a colorful celebration of Chinese culture. Hu, who was born in Taiwan, lives in New York City. You can follow her on YouTube, Vimeo, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @yinghwahu.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Ten Blocks to the Big Wok + a 20-minute virtual author visit with Ying-Hwa Hu. Many thanks to Lee & Low Publishers for donating a copy of the book and to Ying-Hwa Hu for donating her time to one of our readers/commenters.
- For a chance to win this copy of Ten Blocks to the Big Wok, please leave a comment about this post by Sunday, May 8th at 6:00 a.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Thursday, May 12th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
- If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – HU. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Congratulations to Yvonne Moss whose commenter number was drawn for this post’s giveaways.