The Power of the Story: An Interview with Author Natasha Yim

NYimMeet Natasha Yim, mom of three and author of several children’s books including the clever Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas. Read my review of the book here. As a child, Natasha’s father worked as an architect, which required moving the family several times to different countries in Asia. The cultural experiences she had in each location, plus her background as a social worker provided her with a strong foundation to follow her passion for writing. Today she shares her story with us and reveals some invaluable ingredients essential to writing a good children’s book.

How did you get started writing books for children? Does your background in social work have anything to do with it?

I’ve been interested in writing since I was 11, but my job as a social worker did inspire me as well. Earlier in my career, I worked in group homes and residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed kids. The staff did their best to create normal settings with structured activities. As part of the bedtime routine or in moments when kids were sad, I read them stories. Many of the kids had never been read to before, and they were captivated. It made them feel more connected, less lonely, and that was when I truly discovered the power of story.

“I don’t know if it makes me a more interesting person, but certainly a more interested one.”

On your website you write about how your family moved around a lot when you were a child. Do you think that helped you become a more interesting person and a better writer?

I think travel, especially international, gives a person a broader perspective on life. I don’t know if it makes me a more interesting person, but certainly a more interested one. I’m eager to find out how people from different lands live- from the local food and history to the architecture and culture. My experiences as a traveler does make me a better writer because they open up my senses.

Cixi cover Natasha Yim Sacajawea Cover

In the last few years, I’ve also been more interested in tapping into my cultural roots. I was given the opportunity to write for a small press, Goosebottom Books, that primarily publishes nonfiction about women in history. I chose to write, first about Cixi, the last empress of China, because I was interested in learning more about Chinese history and then  about Sacajawea because I have a little Native American ancestry in me and I’ve always loved Sacajawea’s story.

You wrote of a memory you had as a child of a burglar who came into your family’s apartment and took the time to eat a papaya from your fridge. Was that the inspiration for Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas?

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Actually, no. My family lived in Malaysia at that time and the papaya is a native fruit so the incident had a very Malaysian aspect to it, which someday might lend itself to a book. After Malaysia, we moved to Singapore and then Hong Kong before I came to the U.S. for college. It was my time in Hong Kong that originally inspired the story for Goldy Luck. Chinese New Year, naturally is a huge holiday there with lots of cultural traditions, rituals, food symbolism. It’s my favorite Chinese festival because we got two weeks off of school and kids received lucky red envelopes with money in it, delicious foods (my favorite fried turnip cakes, noodles and dumplings) and lion and dragon dances. It’s a colorful, expressive festival with firecrackers, gongs, and cymbals.

That sounds like a lot of fun. No wonder you wanted to write about it! Where is the setting for the book?

The first draft of Goldy Luck had her living in a sky rise apartment in Hong Kong. I set the story around Chinese New Year because I thought it would lend itself to some wonderful illustrations and I wanted to introduce kids to the rituals and traditions of this holiday I enjoyed as a child. In future drafts, the story was moved to an American city (San Francisco’s Chinatown) as one editor thought it would be more familiar to American kids. The final draft made this Chinatown nonspecific but in my mind, I still see Goldy Luck living in San Francisco.

800px-Chinatown_SanFrancisco10Photo of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the Public Domain

I love the fact that your book introduces readers to different places and cultures. What is your take on geography education – or lack thereof – in America?

Americans, as a group, are less well-traveled than Europeans, unfortunately, and so less knowledgeable geographically. It could be an issue of economics, accessibility or just culturally different mindsets. European nations are smaller and closer together so crossing the border from one country to the next is easier, and they have a very efficient and convenient rail system which makes travel more accessible. Americans also seem to be a little more insular in general, content to stay in their part of the world, plus there’s so much to explore just in this vast land, whereas Europeans and Australians seem to be raised with the travel bug. I don’t think our education system covers world geography in enough depth, especially Asia. When I was In college, more than a few American students thought Hong Kong was in Japan!

Being a geography education advocate myself, unfortunately I am not surprised by your encounters with geographically challenged Americans. We need more books like yours to educate our children!

One might think that using the Goldilocks theme might be rather conventional, but you manage to make it extremely original, educational and humorous. Were you at all concerned about using a classic story as a premise for your book?

I actually played around with this story idea after attending a writer’s conference and learning about the rising popularity of fractured fairy tales. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a story using the structure of a familiar tale but adding a unique twist. I thought Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs from the wolf’s perspective and how clever it was that a cold and an innocent sneeze gave him a bad reputation. I was drawn to the Goldilocks story because the ending had always bothered me: Goldilocks enters the three bears’ home without permission, breaks their stuff and wreaks havoc and then runs away never to be heard from again. What kind of message did that give kids? I wanted to re-write the story with a more compassionate Goldy and a more satisfying resolution.

I’m with you on that one. Many fairly tale characters really don’t do the right thing. It sounds like it required a long process to get your clever story just right.

My original version was written from Papa Bears’ perspective, but then it struck me that that wasn’t very original and didn’t provide me with the satisfying ending I wanted — that Goldilocks would make some amends for her actions. Then, a title popped into my head, “Goldilocks and the Three Chans” (Chans being a common Chinese last name) which I thought was inherently funny. Goldilocks became Go Dil Lok, a Chinese name that was phonetically close to the Western version which was then changed (at an editor’s suggestion) to the more easily pronounced Goldy Luck. In most of the fractured fairy tales at the time I started writing this, there were few from a multicultural perspective, so this idea appealed to me. Then the story evolved to centering around Chinese New Year, because I wanted to introduce more of the Chinese rituals and traditions to kids. I knew this very colorful festival would lend itself to some wonderful illustrations.

Indeed it did. I love the adorable illustrations in the book by Grace Zong. You must have been thrilled when you saw how she depicted your story.

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Charlesbridge Publishing is unique in my experience because they involved me, the author, in the illustration process. Most of the time, once writers are done with the editorial revisions, the manuscript is in the hands of the editor and the illustrator and you do not see the illustrations until they’re completed. But my editor gave me the two illustrators they were considering for the book and asked my opinion. I liked them both, but felt Grace’s vibrant colors and her adorable depiction of the little girl in her first illustrated book, Orange Peel’s Pocket by Rose A. Lewis was better suited for Goldy Luck.

Yes, most people do not realize that in traditional publishing, the author rarely is allowed input into the illustrations for his or her story. Charlesbridge Publishing is outstanding for this and many other reasons!

Throughout the illustration process, I got to see the rough black and white sketches, got to provide input on the cultural details, saw the colors added in, and I’ve loved every minute of the process of seeing Grace do such a wonderful job bringing Goldy and the three pandas to life.

I was fascinated to read about the Chinese New Year rituals you so wonderfully discuss in the back of your book. Do you know the origins of the good luck rituals revolving around this holiday?

Chinese New Year is about four thousand years old, so I’m not exactly sure when and where the good luck rituals originated, but good luck and good fortune (wealth) has always been important in the Chinese culture. Since the Chinese lunar calendar is closely linked to agricultural production, my guess is that the “good luck” was first tied into the hope for a good harvest. I had also read that people in ancient China made sacrifices to their ancestors during this time and part of the preparation for making ancestral sacrifices is the meticulous cleaning of one’s house.

It was terrific that you included a recipe for Turnip Cake in your book. There’s nothing better than traditional foods from a country other than your own to learn about different cultures. Do you have any favorite foods from the unique places where you lived during your childhood?

Food and dining is a very important part of Chinese culture and traditions. Everything is celebrated with dinners or banquets — festivals, Natasha1407540603_nbirthdays, weddings — so I grew up in a very food-focused family. In terms of favorites, I love Chinese dim sum which offers an array of delectable dishes. My favorite here are: egg custard tarts, shrimp dumplings, steamed rice noodles with barbecue pork, turnip cakes, pork buns, glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves. I also love the Malaysian roti canai (pronounced “che-nai”) which is a puffy fried bread (it looks more like a pancake) that’s eaten with curry, and Char Kwei Teow, Singaporean fried noodles. Fried rice and Ho Fun (broad rice noodles) with beef and black bean sauce are also some of my favorites.

“My parents always had shelves of books around the house. This is a photo of me when I was about two and a half. Even before I could read, I loved being surrounded by books. The one I was holding here was upside down.” © Photo courtesy of Natasha Yim.

What is your next project?

I’m currently working on another picture book and a middle grade novel.

What do you most like to do when you are not writing?

Reading and spending time with my family.

Do you have any advice for anyone out there who would like to write a children’s book that teaches culture and geography?

Focus on the story and not on the teaching. Whatever you hope to teach must be woven subtly into the story otherwise your story will sound too didactic and preachy. Strong verbs and imagery will serve to put your readers in that place and time. If I can’t travel to the land I’m writing about, I look for photographs of the place and people in magazines, books and the internet to give me a better sense of the location which helps me tremendously in bringing that culture and country to life.

Natasha, that is such priceless, constructive advice about writing for children. Thank you so much for all your wisdom and for sharing your journey as an author with our readers. I am looking forward to reading your next book.

Readers, for more information about author Natasha Yim, visit her website. You can purchase her books here: Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, Sacajawea of the Shoshone, Cixi “The Dragon Empress”  Otto’s Rainy Day.

The Chinese New Year is on January 31, 2014, so why not read Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas with your children and together discover all you can about this fascinating holiday?



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