Author Spotlight: Nicole Chen
|© Sarah Deragon|
Dec. 23, 2022
We are excited to feature author Nicole Chen and her debut picture book, HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2022), and her debut middle grade book IT'S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI (Quill Tree Books), coming out on Feb. 23, 2023. Enter to win both books!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Hello, all! I’m excited to be interviewed by Kidlit411, whose resources have been amazing to me in my own journey into kidlit. I actually took my first steps into this world in the summer of 2018, when I decided I needed to take a break from my intense day job working in tech. I was also juggling a growing toddler, and I felt a strong urge to pause for a moment so I could find that inner creative spark again. I’d been collecting picture books for years, even before I had a child, and I discovered that an online class was about to start at Storyteller Academy. So I left my day job and signed up.
By early 2020, I was starting to query with my first round of picture book manuscripts and steeling myself for rejections while flaming the hope of receiving some agent interest. Then, COVID happened. It was a scary time for all, but the anti-Asian hate that arose shocked me. As a Taiwanese American myself, I was astonished by the stories of rising xenophobia against Asians and Asian Americans. All of a sudden, I really wanted to combat all that hate with joyful stories that showed Asians and Asian Americans in our loving, proud humanity. So I dug deep and completely rewrote one of my picture book manuscripts to anchor on my own experience, and the rest is history!
Congrats on your recent picture book, How We Say I Love You and your forthcoming middle grade novel, It's Boba Time for Pearl Li! Tell us about each book and what inspired them.
Thank you! My debut picture book, How We Say I Love You, features Hana, a young Taiwanese American girl, as she goes about her day and reflects on how even though her multigenerational family doesn't say those three words out loud, love lives in all the little everyday things they do for each other. This book was inspired by my own experience with family love through my immigrant parents, who to this day haven’t said those words (neither me to them!), but who show their love for me in many other ways, all of which are equally wonderful. And so I wrote this book to celebrate their way of expressing love, and I hope that many children see the love that flows throughout Hana’s family in theirs as well.
Then, coming February 2023, my middle grade novel, It's Boba Time for Pearl Li!, is a joyful, sweet story about a 12-year-old Taiwanese American girl who loves crocheting adorable amigurumi dolls. But she feels like a misfit in her tech-loving family, and the only adult who does get Pearl's creativity is Auntie Cha, the owner of Pearl's favorite boba tea shop, Boba Time. When Boba Time comes into financial trouble, Pearl decides to embark on a secret, entrepreneurial journey to sell her crocheted dolls to save the shop. Along the way, she learns how to advocate for herself and her passion and discovers that there's more that her family shares than she once thought.
This book is also very much inspired by my own life and experience growing up and working in tech in the Silicon Valley, my love of the arts (I have a bachelor’s degree in Design), and my knowledge of business (my MBA degree). I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of these three disciplines and the thread of creativity and risk-taking in every one of them. And of course, being Taiwanese American and having a sweet tooth, I just had to bring Taiwanese desserts and boba tea into the story (although I grew up calling it pearl milk tea!).
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
My road to publication has taken three and a half years from when I first put pen to paper to now my first picture book making it into the world in December. I do think COVID accelerated my creative path in that I found a real purpose that anchored me on why I wanted to write, which helps keep me focused when I think about the stories I could be crafting. Writing joyful Asian American characters and stories is an outlet where I can channel my fears and worries, and for me to feel like I’m helping combat the negative sentiment out there. That sense of urgency has definitely kept me—and keeps me!—going.
What new projects are you working on these days?
I have another novel that I’ve been revising and will hopefully be able to share more about in the new year. I have a few picture book concepts I keep picking away at as well.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Revise, revise, revise. Focus on quality and honing in on that unique story message and the rest will come. After I honed in on the kernel of what I really wanted to say about family and rewrote a story draft to reflect that, the pieces fell into place and now How We Say I Love You truly reflects me and my lived experience. But it took many rounds of revision to get there, and I was patient with myself. So be patient and take your time to build the best story you possibly can!
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
One somewhat fun surprise is that I speak Castilian Spanish fluently, as well as understand Catalan really well. I lived in Barcelona, Spain for three years, where I met my now-husband, and between the two of us and our young daughter, we speak a mix of English, Mandarin, Spanish, and Catalan at home.
I do have the upper hand though, because I understand my husband’s native language but he doesn’t understand Mandarin. So my daughter and I exchange secrets in Chinese 🙂
Where can people find you online?
Nicole Chen’s experience growing up Taiwanese American, and the blend of Catalan, Spanish, Taiwanese and American influences in her present home, fuels her desire to write and tell stories that reflect a diverse and multicultural American identity. Nicole lives in sunny California with her Andorran husband and young daughter. Her debut picture book, HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen and published by Knopf BFYR, released December 2022, and her debut middle grade novel, IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI!, from Quill Tree/Harper Collins, releases February 2023.
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