We are thrilled to welcome Andrea Wang to Writing with the Stars. Andrea has written seven nonfiction books for libraries and schools, plus her own fiction book, The Nian Monster (Albert Whitman & Company), and a nonfiction biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (March 2019 from little bee books). In addition, she has a title slated for release in 2020 called Watercress. Andrea lives in Denver with her family.
You were an environmental consultant before starting your career as a picture book author. How did you make the switch from that job to picture books?
I left my consulting job shortly after my second child was born. I took my kids to the library all the time, and spent hours reading to them at home. That reawakened my love of writing and inspired me to try my hand at writing my own stories again.
What inspired The Nian Monster? It seems to have some environmental overtones—a greedy monster seeking to devour anything he can. Did any of your environmental work inspire the character?
That’s so interesting—I’ve never thought of the book that way before. The Nian Monster is a retelling of an ancient folktale that explained the use of loud sounds, fire, and the color red during Chinese New Year. The monster himself is a symbol of the old year, as the word “nian” means “year” in Chinese. I think you could view the monster as the bad events or natural disasters that may have destroyed crops or livestock during the year. Scaring the monster away meant that the people had survived another year—definitely a cause for celebration.
The artwork for The Nian Monster is just,“wow!” The monster looks cuddly and not scary at all. Did you request this approach or were you as blown away as I was when I saw it?
I was totally blown away! 🙂 My editor had asked what I thought about making the illustrations “whimsical,” but I didn’t really understand what she meant. It was my first picture book, so I just said, “Sure!” I’m so glad I did! Alina Chau’s art is amazing and added so much depth and authenticity to the book.
Your nonfiction biography should be on every college student’s reading list. What prompted you to write Magic Ramen?
Ha! I hope the book does find its way into college students’ hands! I was inspired to research the inventor of instant ramen by my younger son, who loves eating it. Once I discovered the reasons Momofuku Ando felt compelled to invent instant ramen, I knew I had to write about him.
Can you tell us a bit about Watercress? Do you have other projects in the works?
Watercress is a very different and much more personal story than my other two picture books. It’s based on an actual childhood experience of gathering watercress in the wild with my parents, who were immigrants from China. It sounds like a fun activity, but in reality, I was mortified. The story was my way of processing that event, as well as showing how important family histories are when it comes to understanding ourselves.
I have another picture book being published by Neal Porter Books after Watercress. Right now it’s called Luli and the Language of Tea, and it’s about the evolution of the word for tea from the original Chinese and how it brings immigrant children from around the world together. I’m also working on a middle grade novel and several other picture books, both fiction and nonfiction. All my WIPs are about immigrants or the children of immigrants, their experiences, and how that shapes their identities
How did you get into the educational writing market, and did it help you once you moved to your own work?
A good friend who is also my critique partner introduced me to an editorial company she was working for. They were looking for science writers and I had a science background, so it was a good fit. The experience definitely helped me once I started submitting work based on my own ideas. It gave me publishing credits, taught me to work on deadline, and showed me how to extract the most relevant and interesting information out of a mountain of research.
What has surprised you most about writing picture books?
I think it has to be the variety of structures and formats. You’re not limited to the typical plot arc or linear storytelling, and you can use the physical form of the book itself as part of the story, like how some authors have used the gutter. I just read Blue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and the way she uses cutouts and conveys the story through simple text (just two words per page, and one of them is “blue”) and gorgeous art work is masterful. I’ve also been learning about layers of text and circular structure—the possibilities with picture books feel endless, which is so exciting.
Thank you, Andrea, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.