An interview with Eva Chen and Sophie Diao
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with New York Times bestselling author Eva Chen and illustrator Sophie Diao about their picture book I Am Golden, a moving ode to the immigrant experience, as well as a manifesto of self-love for Chinese American children.
Eva Chen is a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up in New York City. She blames her deviation from pre-med at Johns Hopkins University on a love of fashion and beauty instilled in her by her mother, whose perfect bob and lipstick made a permanent imprint on her impressionable young mind.
Previously the editor-in-chief of Lucky, Eva has also written for ELLE, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Vogue China, the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. She is currently the head of fashion partnerships at Instagram, where she is guilty of the occasional duck-face selfie. Eva lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She is the author of Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, A Is for Awesome, and Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure.
Sophie Diao is an artist in San Francisco. In research for the book Sarah and the Big Wave, she surfed a wave that she’s pretty sure was over one foot tall. She loves illustrating natural wonders and is the talent behind many a Google Doodle.
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Bianca Schulze: Eva Chen and Sophie Dahl, welcome to The Growing Readers Podcast. I am honored to host you both today to help spread the word about your stunning picture book, I Am Golden. I want to say that it glows not just visually but also in the essence of its message. And so, I think I’d love to begin by asking you, Eva Chen, can you share your motivation for writing this book?
Eva Chen: First of all, thank you, Bianca, for having Sophie and myself on this podcast. We’re so excited to share I Am Golden with the world, and you’re one of our first interviews, so this is a thrilling day.
Bianca Schulze: Yay!
Eva Chen: Hurray!
I wrote this book during COVID. It was one of my many COVID projects, including a newborn baby. But the genesis of this book really was around the alarming spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. I remember the first time I heard the term China virus and the dread— like the literal dread—I was filled with when I heard that term. Because immediately I thought, oh no, this is, this is not going to be good. This is not going to lead to good things. And sure enough, within a few weeks, there started to be crimes reported in local New York City news.
The most alarming thing was that they really seemed to target elders and seniors. And as someone who has elderly senior parents, although there would be mad hearing me describe them that way, I immediately picked up the phone. And you know, this was during a time when we hadn’t seen each other in person in a while, even though we live ten blocks away, we were just being cautious with COVID. And I said, you know, make sure to wear masks at all times. That’s obvious. But wear sunglasses, wrap your faces in scarves, wear a hat. Don’t let anyone see that your Chinese don’t speak Chinese loudly on the street. Be super vigilant on subways because really scary things are happening on subways.
My parents kind of brushed it off, but I said, like, seriously, like, this is happening. And it’s so sad that you know, I was telling my parents and I’m proud to be Chinese American, but I was telling them to hide who they were, essentially. And it got me thinking around, you know, being proud of being Asian and being proud of being Chinese.
I grew up with really strong roots. You know, I still speak primarily Mandarin to my parents. I call it Chinglish. It’s not the best Mandarin, but it’s Mandarin. It’s there. And then it immediately turned to my kids. I now have three kids—at the time, two kids—and thinking about how we talked about being Chinese, how we talk about being proud to be half Chinese, the traditions that we infuse into our day-to-day. And so that’s the very long story of the seed of that idea of I am golden.
Bianca Schulze: I love that you were able to channel all of this into a picture book that will be such an excellent book for Asian American children, but it’s a great book for everybody. And so, Sophie Diao, when you were first asked to illustrate I Am Golden, what would you say were your motivations for saying yes to creating the artwork?
Sophie Diao: Yeah, thank you for having me. It came around very quickly. I can’t really decouple being offered this manuscript with the like swiftness it needed to come around. So, I was very aware of how important the project was, how beautiful the manuscript was, and how quickly it needed to get out into the world. And so, I was motivated to say yes, obviously. I was like, yes, I want to do it.
I was also scared. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it on time. I think we had like a couple of months to wrap up the book from start to finish, which in terms of publishing timelines, is like very, very, very quick.
It felt like a bit of a serendipitous yet fated-like thing to be asked to do. Just because I had in March of 2021, I had done a little comic. It’s almost like the wrong word. It was just a few lines of writing, with a few illustrations after the shootings in Atlanta, just to get some of my anxiety and jitteriness out—externalize it a little bit and get out of myself. And that kind of directly led to me being asked to illustrate this book because Eva stumbled across it on Instagram, and it resonated with her.
And it was around the same time she was looking for an illustrator for I Am Golden. So, I was, like, very, very shocked and surprised to be offered this book, especially by a celebrity author. But it was also kind of like a culmination of things I had been thinking about and working on myself over the same period of time, which is very interesting. I would say it made me feel even better in a way about putting my voice out there and trying to make art that was very personal to me.
Bianca Schulze: The book’s essence is a very important topic. I get call-in questions that our listeners like to ask the authors and illustrators, and I usually save them for towards the end of our conversation. But I feel like this question fits right here and right now. So, I’m going to line it up, and I will play this question for you.
Maya: Hi, I’m Maya, and I’m nine years old. As an Asian-American, I love your book and the message it gives to its readers. The main character is Mai, as in beautiful. And America is Měiguó for beautiful country. Do you think America is a beautiful country? How do you think we can make America more beautiful and provide for a better destiny?
Eva Chen: Oh my gosh, that is the cutest and most profound simultaneous question ever. I love it coming from such a young human. I mean, I love the question. I do think America is still a beautiful place. I believe in the next generation, and so much so to the brilliant young child who asked that question like the country is beautiful because of people like you.
I believe firmly in empowering the next generation, and I wrote this book for the child I was and the books I never had growing up. And I do feel like I’m filled with hope every time I walk into a children’s bookstore. I live a few blocks away from a bookstore called Books of Wonder—it’s a children’s bookstore and only sells children’s books. When I look at the kind of diversity on the shelves now, the different kinds of faces on the shelves now, and the messages of hope and empowerment, I don’t think that existed for me so many decades ago. I won’t say how many decades ago, but so many decades ago.
I do feel like it’s going to be an even more beautiful country because the future of the country is in hands like yours, the children’s hands. And I look at my own kids, and I feel hope in terms of the messages they’re taught in school, in terms of the conversations they’re having that I never had.
I think that’s how we ensure a more beautiful future and a more beautiful world is by teaching and equipping children with as many perspectives as possible. The world is a beautiful place. It’s a huge world that some will—most will only experience through books. Not everyone will be able to travel to see a home country, see native lands, or see where their ancestors came from. So, the more research and perspectives we can give them through reading, education, teachers, and diverse perspectives, the more beautiful the country will be.
Bianca Schulze: That’s beautiful! Sophie, is there anything that you wanted to add to that?
Sophie Diao: Eva’s answer was so inspiring and I’m like getting chills over here. I think, you know, she pretty much summed up everything that I know I couldn’t even grasp in my brain. She said it so beautifully.
I’ll just also add all countries are beautiful. America isn’t the only beautiful country. There’s something very special about it. Obviously, it’s my home. It’s where I was born, where I grew up, and where I will have my family in the future. It’s a place that so many people call home.
And I think the very fact that we even have these questions and conversations about is America still beautiful? Can we make America a better place? Can we improve the lives of Americans? And what is the American dream? I think these questions, the fact that people are still asking them and still trying to come up with answers and solutions to them, gives me a lot of hope and just kind of like cements.
The fact that, yes, of course, it’s still a beautiful country. It’s going to always be if the people who live here and care about it are going to try to make that happen.
Bianca Schulze: We need to move on to this incredibly joyful cover. I mean, this cover just popped the second I saw it pop up in my email, in my inbox; it drew me in. As a creative person, I know sometimes to talk about your work—I mean, maybe it’s totally fine for you, Sophie—but maybe it would be wonderful to hear Eva’s perspective on what she felt when she first saw the final cover. And maybe describe a little bit about what the cover looks like for our listeners since they’re not holding a copy in their hands right now.
Eva Chen: Oh, I have no problem with extolling the virtues of Sophie and embarrassing her as much as possible by praising her immense skills. She mentioned it earlier in the podcast. I was stalking her on Instagram a bit before I reached out to her, so I’m thrilled that she is a partner in this book and that we got to work together on this book.
The cover for those of you guys who cannot see it— because obviously, this is an audio platform—is meant to express joy and self-celebration. One of the words that we had mentioned when I was brainstorming around this cover was someone had mentioned, oh, it’s about self-acceptance, and I felt like the word acceptance was kind of not grim—well, you know, it just feels more flat as a word. And really, I was like, no, this book is about self-love. It’s about self-joy. It’s about self-celebration. It’s about reveling in who you are.
So, the cover depicts Mai, the protagonist in the story, and she has her arms flung up, joyfully embracing life, celebrating who she is. She’s surrounded by these beautiful worlds of gold and orange and kind of soft red hues. There’s a line in the book about carrying a flame inside you that carries who you are or your essence. And so, the cover kind of depicts that.
And Sophie and I like … I won’t say we agonized, but we kind of agonized about even the body language of Mai. I was looking through my texts this morning between Sophie and myself, and we were talking about the position of Mai’s arms. So, her arms are kind of flung open in celebration, and the title I Am Golden is in gold foil above her. But I remember we went back and forth a few times about like the position of her arms. One of them felt a little preachy, and another one felt kind of like not as energetic. And so, finding the right body language was a huge thing for us and even the outfit.
Sophie and I kind of shared some LOL texts because we both found pictures of ourselves in the same outfit, which was kind of like blunt bangs with denim overalls. We both had similar pairs of kind of nerdy denim overalls.
And then there’s a phoenix on the back cover, which is a strong figure in Chinese mythology. And then there’s the hint of a dragon tail, which you’ll see in the book. But Sophie brought so much amazing perspective and obviously the artistic touch to everything.
So, Sophie, do you remember all our texts going back and forth about the body language, colors, fonts, and everything?
Sophie Diao: Yeah, I mean, it was so cool to work so closely with you on this because usually, in publishing as the illustrator, you never talk to the author until after the book. It’s pretty much done—like all your conversations go through the art director who kind of like, decides everything you know with the publisher. And then after everything’s done, you’re like, hey, author, like, nice to meet you. I just illustrated your entire manuscript, and then they’re like, oh, how fun. But in this case, it was so different.
Like from day one, the publisher was like, why don’t you have a meeting with Eva to like, get to know each other, and start working on the book together? And I was like, oh, wow, this is definitely going to be a very different process. And it was very cool just to have this direct connection to the person who wrote the words and who could advise me on what their vision was for everything. But yeah, like the cover was so fun to work on. I mean, covers are always really, really fun to work on.
And I think, in this case, it was just like even though we went back and forth a few times, I don’t think we ever strayed very far from the central theme or message of the cover that’s currently out there. We just wanted to see Mai in a pose of celebration and joy. It was just a matter of dialing in how much celebration. What else would be on the cover? And in the end, we kind of stripped it down to just Mai.
Before, we had kicked around ideas about a dragon being wrapped around the entire cover on the edges and kind of tied in with the dragon on the back. The more we looked at it, the more we just wanted to keep it very simple and have her radiating all the emotion. Yeah, we always wanted to keep it red and gold. Those are classic Chinese colors of luck and fortune and happiness, so there’s no question there about any of the color palette.
Eva Chen: I didn’t realize when I embarked on my children’s publishing journey that the way I worked was unusual. We had this amazing publisher, Jean Feiwel. After my first book, Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, she was like, you do know that ninety-nine percent of authors, ninety-nine-point-nine percent of authors don’t talk to the illustrator until it’s done right. And I remember thinking, that’s so bizarre because, you know, you write a book—which is like a baby—and then you hand it off to someone and then never talk to them. I didn’t realize that was standard.
And for me, I come from a magazine publishing background where I would obsess over the placement of a caption or the font or so many little details. I’ve been trained to kind of think about things that way, so I feel grateful that I have a publisher that lets me work directly with artists and illustrators. And I think the book hopefully feels stronger for it because it’s so infused with both Sophie’s personal experience and my personal experience. And to be able to talk about it firsthand with her was really such a joy.
Bianca Schulze: From an outsider’s perspective looking at your book, I think that whole collaborative process has done … I mean, it’s amazing. The book has turned out fantastic.
Ahead of the hour chat today, I asked you both to share a highlight from the book, and I don’t know if you both know this, but you both picked the food spread.
Eva Chen: I feel like food is like the Nexus in Chinese culture—and maybe I’m only speaking for my family. Food is the center of the universe. Food is everything. Some families, like my husband’s, I’m thinking of when they’re celebrating, it’s like, oh, let’s break open a bottle of champagne or let’s meet at the pub. He’s English. Whereas in our culture, it’s like, yeah, let’s get dinner. Let’s eat, like, let’s order extra food. And so, this food spread was very important to me personally.
I was so excited that Sophie… it’s so funny, Bianca, that you said that it’s her favorite, too. So, it’s really important to me personally. And I mean, after we were talking about the type of food that should be on the table, I personally got super hungry and had to ask my mom to make dinner so that we could have a similar meal. But there are so many personal flourishes and touches on that spread. You know, just all the foods, you know, are personal.
When I was writing about the sesame balls or the sizzle and pop of a wok—food being fried—I can close my eyes and smell the smells and hear the sound of the food being made. Sophie brought it to life so perfectly.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I’m Australian; I guess I’m Australian American now. And so, when you mentioned that—and I’m going to say toh-mah-toe, but maybe you say toe-may-toe—the tomato and egg, which is a classic dish. So, this is why I love reading books that have sort of this cultural experience in it because I love learning about all of the different traditions and foods. And so, what is the tomato and egg dish?
Eva Chen: That is like ultimate comfort food! Sophie, do you want to go? You go, you go.
Sophie Diao: Yes, I’m very, very passionate about tomato and egg, and thank you so much for calling that out, Bianca!
Like, it’s just the best. It’s like this delicious stir fry. How you make it, it’s so simple. You just scramble an egg and then lay it aside. Usually, add green onions and sesame oil, and then you lay it to one side, stir fry cut tomatoes in a pot with oil, and then add the eggs back in. And then it just kind of becomes this delicious savory protein, you know, slightly acidic with the tomato. It’s just so perfect. Oh, and then you add some sugar because like, that’s like the secret ingredient in all Chinese food is, you add, just like a little bit of sugar, it’s so delicious. I highly recommend everybody look up a recipe.
A few years ago, I stopped eating eggs. I’m vegetarian. I stopped eating eggs, and I got very sad that I couldn’t eat tomato and egg anymore. But then I discovered there’s like vegan egg kind of substitutes out there. So, I’ve just been kind of so happy that I can continue eating my tomato and egg comfort food. Even now, as a vegetarian.
Eva Chen: I eat it like kind of you kind of take a heaping spoonful or keeping, you know, you take a heaping scoop of it, and you put it over rice. And then what you want is like for the tangy kind of eggy soup, I guess broth, to sort of soak into the bottom of the bowl. And the best part is like that last spoonful of like tomato eggy rice that is just delicious and like my mouth is watering. It’s lunchtime here in New York and I know what I want to eat for lunch now. So, thank you.
Bianca Schulze: All right. Well, now I feel like we need to find a link to a recipe and include it in the show notes so that everybody can try it.
Sophie Diao: Next, we have the Noodle Bowl. So, eating long noodles for your birthday or New Year’s is very common in Chinese culture. It’s just kind of like long noodles signify long life. And so, you have to kind of get the longest noodles—like really long and skinny noodles and this nice broth. So, I had to include that. It’s like a classic celebration meal.
And then we have Si Ji Dou, which is like string beans—this is one of my favorite Chinese dishes. I always associate it when I think of my grandma and cooking in her house in China when I was growing up.
I always think of how she always gave my cousins and me these chores to prepare for the cooking. It was like a big communal thing where everybody cooked together, and our task as the kids was to take the string beans and break them in half and then break the little ends off and peel off the string to prepare them for her to cook. And I always think about how fun that was to, like, sit there with my four or five other cousins and like, just like, prepare these string beans and just how the meditative and yet like pleasant experience that was.
And then we had the sesame balls. We’ve even mentioned them in the manuscripts, so I had to include them. They’re just so delicious. And bok choy, like slightly seared with like red pepper. And then, of course, tomato and egg. I just feel like I tried to include as many of my favorite dishes as possible in this spread. There are so many more that I could have included, but I had to stop somewhere. I hope everyone’s inspired to eat some Chinese food afterward.
Bianca Schulze: I know I am.
So, as you said, this was a collaborative experience, which isn’t always the way with a picture book. I imagine that, well, typically, an illustrator will bring something to the book that the author never imagined, especially when you’re not talking with the illustrator as the author. But since the two of you were connected and talking, I imagine that there are probably some pretty personal experiences that could be found within the artwork. Before we move on from the artwork, is there anything you think the readers should know to look for that shares a little more about who each of you are?
Eva Chen: I think a lot of the photos. It was such a touching moment when basically, there’s a spread where they’re looking at photos of family and ancestors. And I remember going through photos with my dad. We went through his photo albums to find those pictures for me because we wanted to put them in the book in some way, shape, or form, and to see them rendered into an artform by Sophie was really touching. My parents haven’t seen the book yet, and anxiously, I’m nervous to hear what they think about it because even at my age as a fully grown-up adult, I still, of course, want them to love it.
And so, that spread with the photos is intensely personal to me. It’s a lot of family memories, and having my dad walk me through each picture, it was of a lot of people, you know, grandparents that I had never met because they passed away before I was born. So, it’s very, very intimate and personal, and this book is definitely my most personal book. It’s my eighth book. Eight is a very lucky number in Chinese culture, but it’s my eighth book. It’s my most personal book, and it’s the one that I feel tells my family story the most closely, and I’m really excited for it to finally be out in the universe.
Sophie Diao: Yeah, for me, as the illustrator, I think we have an outsized amount of power over what goes into the artwork, but it was so nice to talk to Eva about what was personal to her—what kind of imagery she pictured and the memories she had growing up.
And then, I was also able to sprinkle in a lot of memories from my childhood in the spread, where it is like looking at her reflection and her mom’s cutting her hair—that isn’t in the book. It’s not written in the manuscript that her mom is cutting her hair. But it’s just like such a clear memory that I had of these home haircuts and like my mom with her apron and the scissors and just sitting there and being like, all right, well, I guess I have bangs for another six months.
Then there’s the spread with the grandparents when they’re doing the video call over dinner in the background of the grandparents’ house in China. I put in a fly swatter. And I think that’s just kind of like a thing that I felt right to put in just because I have so many memories of all these summers I spent in China. It’s seemed like the entire summer we spent battling mosquitoes and flies.
My grandparents in their house had this beaded curtain in front of the front door so that every time somebody went in and out, the beaded curtain would try to keep the flies out. Of course, they would never completely succeed, so there were always a couple of flies in the living room. They always had a fly swatter handy. And I just remember, like, I can’t really picture them without a fly swatter nearby. And so, I just kind of added that in there.
Bianca Schulze: So, Eva, I have kind of a giant question for you here.
So, you were the editor in chief of the fashion and lifestyle magazine Lucky. You’ve also written for Elle Vogue, Teen Vogue, Vogue China, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and I’m probably missing something. And you’re currently the head of fashion partnerships at Instagram. With this incredible career in fashion and writing in magazines combined with raising a family in New York City with your husband. Where do you find the extra drive to create children’s books, and beyond that, what guides you? I also want to know where you find the time.
Eva Chen: Great question. I have a six-month-old at home right now, but I wrote this book when I was—I have lost track of time. I was still pregnant. I guess I feel like I’ve been pregnant for seven years at this point.
You know, I worked at Teen Vogue for seven years, and I remember doing an exit interview with the editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour. I remember her asking me, you know, she leaned over her desk, and she was like, where do you see yourself in five to ten years? What is your career aspiration? And I’m sure a lot of people lean back over, and they say, oh, I want to be a stylist, or I want to be a designer, or I want to be an editor in chief. And I leaned over, and I was like, my dream in life is to write children’s books. And she was like, oh, this is the first time I’ve heard that.
Growing up, I always wanted to write children’s books. I grew up, I feel like with friends, of course, I had friends, but books were truly my best friend. You know, on weekends, I didn’t have many playdates. Most of the time I spent in my parents’ store. They worked. They had a small business, so I would spend weekends reading while they worked. And so, I had friends like Ramona and Matilda and Claudia and, you know, just always had a book under my arm. So, the end goal was always to write children’s books, and I’m really grateful that my dream came true.
And in terms of finding time to do it, I think it accelerated after the birth of my first child, Ren. You know, I wanted to write a book for Juno Valentine that combined fashion and feminism and fairy tales. I wanted it to be a door that opened to incredible lives like Frida Kahlo, Sally Cook, Serena Williams, and kind of talking about these amazing modern feminist icons. And then I just did it. I did it at night. I’m kind of a night owl. My husband and I are on completely different schedules. He wakes up at five a.m. I often go to sleep at around 11:00 p.m. or midnight, and I just tried to carve out time every day to write.
And one of the things that I do when I meet authors is nerd out and ask them [questions]. I’m always curious about their process.
I remember I was talking with the Y.A. author Leigh Bardugo. I’m like a superfan of her books. I actually teared up when I met her because I was so excited and had no chill whatsoever. I met her at Book Con or a Book Expo, and she was like, oh my God, who is this girl like crying? But I asked her, and I’ve asked other authors, you know, how do you do it? Like, how do you write like a huge book that’s a thousand words? And she’s just like, do it. Just find the time. And just write everything. It doesn’t have to be kind of amazing. You will go back and kind of like look at it with a different eye.
And so that’s always what I’ve just done. I’ve written from the heart, and I Am Golden was the most organic to write because it felt I hadn’t written poetry since college, basically, but it felt closest in process to that, where it just kind of flowed very easily. So, I was writing the book as a kind of manifestation or as like a love letter to my children and my parents and myself as a child. So, it was the easiest and hardest to write in some ways.
Bianca Schulze: All right, Sophie Diao, I have a similar question for you because I know that you love illustrating natural wonders, and you are the talent behind many Google Doodles. So, what led you to create books for children? And is there something internal that drives you to do so?
Sophie Diao: I think for me, it’s much easier to draw the line between the work I do for my day job and children’s books. As an illustrator, I think there’s no shortage of ways to use your skill as an artist in multiple industries. And so, I was always interested in children’s books. Obviously, as a child, I was so obsessed with them. I grew up reading a bunch of books and just carrying books around and having the main characters of the books be like a constant presence in my head.
When I became, you know, a little bit older, I wanted to go into animation, and so I went to animation. You learned how to make films and about the whole pipeline and process of animated films, and I ended up at Google, which was such a crazy, serendipitous turn of events. I have been here for eight and a half years now. I’m making Google Doodles, and the whole time I just feel so lucky to have continued to nurture the thing that makes me want to draw.
It’s very easy to kind of lose that, and I’ve definitely lost touch with it from time to time, just feeling like, oh, I just draw so much for work. I don’t really feel like drawing in my spare time, or all my creative juice is gone at the end of the day, and I don’t really have it there anymore. But I think the amazing thing about working on children’s books is each one is so, such a self-contained and magical world. It might not look like very much, but it’s, you know, usually 32 or 40 pages. So that’s a really a lot of artworks and a lot of story that can be told in that amount of time.
And each time you embark on illustrating a children’s book, it’s like you’re diving into this whole new world of like, who is the person I’m illustrating? Like, who are these people? What is this world? And like, what is it going to look like? And there’s just this exciting rush of inspiration that comes when you crack it open for the first time, and you start to try to figure out what it’s going to look like. It’s sort of an addictive process. The more children’s books I do, the more I want to do, and I hope to be lucky enough to continue illustrating them as time goes on.
It’s very complementary to the sort of work that I do for my full-time job, which is shorter-term, quick projects. None of them ever take one or two years to complete—with the very rare exception of some of the bigger things we do.
And so, like having this long project after work with a children’s book to like, sink your teeth into and like, really tell a story over many, many pages, it’s such it’s like a warm bath. Sometimes it’s very stressful. So, it’s like a warm bath with like sharks in it or something. But then, most of the time, it just feels so, so nice to have this constant creative project at the end of the day to, like, go back to and work. So, my motivation to do children’s books at the end of the day is very, very high.
Bianca Schulze: You both mentioned right upfront when you started answering those similar questions was that you were both readers as kids. And it’s a question I ask in each episode of my podcast, which is to be a writer. They say that you need to be a reader first. So, I’m just curious if there’s a pivotal moment that each of you remembers from your lives where you thought I am a reader.
Eva Chen: So many times! My mom was telling me the other day—because she spends a lot of time with my kids, which I feel so grateful and lucky to have her help and a constant presence in our lives. But we’re talking about different play styles, and we were talking about [how] my kids are very physical—they’re very active. And my daughter, she’s seven, just kind of turned a corner where she started reading, and there’s this moment where you see them sounding out words.
You see them, like they say, stretch the words out like bubble gum. Although she doesn’t really eat bubble gum, but anyway, like stretch the words out like glue. And I was like trying to be chill about it all summer. Like not kind of hovering over her too much trying to help her, but suddenly, like, there’s this moment where things clicked, and she started reading, and I just felt so overwhelmed with joy and happiness, seeing her break into that new experience in this whole new world. And I could imagine this door, this magical, shimmering gateway opening.
And so now it’s like she’s always with a book now, and I can hear her muttering to herself, you know, reading to yourself, and it makes me so happy.
And I was talking to my mom about it, and she was saying, you know, you were the same way. Once you learn how to read, it’s like you always had a book and didn’t want to play with dolls. You didn’t play with Barbies. No disrespect to Barbie, but you didn’t play with any of these things. All you wanted to do was read and write. It must have been around seven then as well. I remember reading. I mean, there were so many books that kind of launched my book love.
My Mom says the first book that I really fell in love with was Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, which I think is a classic. There are so many books with that similar theme if you think about it, like looking for your mom, looking for a family seeking validation. And so, my mom said that was the first book I just loved so much all the Dahl books—Roald Dahl books— which of course, my kids love them. I think it’s because there are things in those books that are slightly offbeat, slightly dark, slightly weird, slightly rude. Like if you think about the idea of like wiz poppers and like The BFG.
And so, I think those books really clicked.
And then The Babysitters’ Club was huge for me. I remember reading them and just kind of being like, wow, this is so cool. It’s a story about entrepreneurship if you think about it. Yes, but also these awesome girl entrepreneurs, and not coincidentally, the fact that it had an Asian character, Claudia Kishi, was huge for me. It was the first time I’d ever read like a fellow Asian name in a book. And so that was a huge moment for me as well, but so many moments throughout the time that really cemented my reading reader status.
Bianca Schulze: How about you, Sophie?
Sophie Diao: For me, I think I remember when I was a kid, I think I started off being super rambunctious and crazy, running around a bunch. But then, for some reason, once I got like a little bit older, like six or seven, I got really introverted and shy. It might have been something to do with, like, we were moving around a lot, and I kind of became like, oh, I’m like, nervous to be the new kid all the time. And so, it kind of took a turn of my personality.
But then, as I became more inward and interior facing, I really developed an addiction to books. And I remember whenever my parents would go to like family, friends, houses for potlucks, which is like, you know, feel like you’re always going to potlucks with other Chinese families. I would just go to those families’ kids’ rooms and sit on the ground and read their books instead of engaging or socializing with adults. I just felt more comfortable being there, and it was like my go-to activity. I don’t think a specific book or event turned me on to it. It just kind of seemed like it was such a natural thing.
I remember I tore through all the Baby-Sitter’s Little Sister books, those chapter books, in first or second grade. All the books in the Scholastic Book Club. I remember being so excited to like, order them and like, take them home.
And then it’s funny, as I was getting older, I was asking my mom about the books I was reading when I was a kid, and she said that even when I was like two, I would just sit and like, flip through the phone book and be so interested in all the texts and the pages. What was on the next page turn? And even though it’s like all the same lines of tiny, tiny names and numbers, I think there is something very fascinating to me about the wonder of what’s going to be on the next page and like, what is this? These shapes that I don’t understand.
And so, I probably just kind of like cemented this interest in the book format ever since I was a kid.
Eva Chen: Literally nothing better than the Scholastic Book Club where you got that flyer. And I remember the texture of the paper was kind of thin and floppy. And then you had that little bookmark-shaped strip that you rip off at the end, and you could check off the books you wanted. I had such a strong, visceral reaction when you said that. So, because I was like, oh, I remember that, and I remember that being the time of year that I looked forward to the absolute most, it was just like my joy. We need to bring that back. I don’t know if they still do that.
Bianca Schulze: They do. They do. Yeah, my kids bring home the flyer, and you can check it off. But of course, everything is sort of online now. So, you get the flyer, and then you can go online and put your classroom’s code in, so your teacher gets credits and bonus books and whatnot. I think what you guys just said is why I think books and reading are so amazing because there were so many little things that each of you said that I was like, yes, me too.
And I feel like books connect us and unite us, I Am Golden is a celebration of Asian-American children, but it’s a celebration of all children and all cultures and all life at the same time. I mean, when you said Scholastic Book Clubs, yes! When you said Claudia from the Babysitter’s Club, I loved Claudia. She was like the coolest one. So, books are just magical. They connect us, and they unite us. And so, I want to close out by allowing each of you just to share what impact do you hope I Am Golden will have on readers?
Eva Chen: Sophie, do you want to go first?
Sophie Diao: Yeah. Well, I feel like we get asked this question a lot, and I freeze because I’m like, I don’t know. It’s such a big question. I hope I have a good answer for it. I would say I just think, as I was growing up when I was a kid, I frequently felt very singled out. I felt very alone in the classroom, and I was usually the only Asian child in my classroom or school. In each new community that we moved to, my parents had one other Asian family or two other Asian families they knew in the entire city that we always hung out with.
And so, I was very aware of, I guess, my status as a minority, as a child of immigrants, with parents who didn’t quite understand all the random things that my teachers would ask them to do. Like bake cookies. It wasn’t really a thing like we don’t really bake cookies in Chinese culture. And so, being asked to bake cookies for the classroom was very stressful for us. It’s kind of interesting to reflect on that.
Now, as I’m older and thinking about what I would have wanted to be told when I was a kid, I think I just would want this book to be a reinforcing thing for kids, children of immigrants, or anyone who feels singled out to remind them that they’re very special.
But also as something for immigrant parents or people who’ve moved here who don’t really have the same cultural background as their kid, or just because of the gap where people grow up and what it’s like when you grow up, for those parents to feel like they have a book that can express all the joy and hope and dreams they have for their kids in words that maybe they can’t quite say themselves—whether there’s a cultural or a language barrier—or something that would enable them to use this book as a tool in their relationship with their kids.
Eva Chen: Definitely. I think that this book is absolutely a tool and a toolbox for a lot of people.
I think for teachers, for them to be able to reflect on the Asian experience. But as Sophie said, it also is a tool to talk about bullying. For instance, there’s a spread in it that’s about bullying. I remember the first time I was bullied and made aware that I was different, and still, I can remember exactly what I was wearing. I remember the playground I was standing in. I walk by it still, sometimes, because I grew up in New York City and the schools in New York City, and I still have that kind of tingling feeling like I’m seven or eight years old again. So, I think it’s a tool for educators.
I think kids who might not be able to talk about certain things with their parents or don’t feel like their parents have ever explained their personal story of immigration. It’s a tool for children and parents to talk about experiences together. My family is not very emotive. I would have to ask these questions: what was it like for you when you were like seven years old? What was your favorite color growing up? I think the relationship I have with my kids is a little bit different because we literally talk about everything.
But my parents, they moved here in the seventies. They had this like work, work, work, work, work, work culture where basically it’s like they weren’t working. If they weren’t eating or sleeping like that, was it.
And so hopefully, this book can kind of help parents open a door and kind of be a foot in the door to that conversation about what it was like for them if they’re coming from a different country and not just for Chinese immigrants, but also any kind of immigrant experience, because so many of us have stories.
You, Bianca, have a story of coming from Australia that you can share. And so that story of like coming to a new place, forging your path, and that self-affirmation, self-esteem wasn’t a term that I had heard or confidence that I really felt like was a kind of muscle I was flexing or kind of learning about until it was 30. To be honest, or like kind of more recently.
But it’s something that I hope that when children read this book, they understand that there’s something in them that makes them special, and what makes them different is actually what makes them special. It’s cool to be different. It’s powerful to be different. And those differences are what define you. So that’s my modest wish for I Am Golden. Sophie and I have like these modest, huge wishes for the book, and we hope that it resonates with audiences and children and parents and educators everywhere.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Oh my gosh, listeners, this book is truly so beautiful. You have to go out and buy this book. And don’t just buy it for yourself. You need to buy it for everybody, you know. Share it with your family. Share it with your friends. Tell your libraries that they need to get copies. I mean, it’s incredible. It really is a special, special book.
I think one thing we didn’t touch on, so I’m just going to mention it really quickly, is that when a parent is reading this book, no matter what their cultural background is, there’s this beautiful concept of parental self-sacrifice that just comes across. It creeps into your heart and fills it. I loved that element to it, so I just had to mention it right before we go.
It truly is a gorgeous book. I am so, so grateful to you, Sophie Dahl and Eva Chen, for your time today. I wish you all the best with this book.
About the Book
Publisher’s Synopsis: This joyful and lyrical picture book from New York Times bestselling author Eva Chen and illustrator Sophie Diao is a moving ode to the immigrant experience, as well as a manifesto of self-love for Chinese American children.
What do you see when you look in the mirror, Mei? Do you see beauty?
We see eyes that point toward the sun, that give us the warmth and joy of a thousand rays when you smile. We see hair as inky black and smooth as a peaceful night sky. We see skin brushed with gold.
Buy the Book
Chinese Tomato Egg Stir-fry: https://thewoksoflife.com/stir-fried-tomato-and-egg/.
Scholastic Book Club: https://clubs.scholastic.com/.
Books of Wonder: https://booksofwonder.com/.
Book Con and Book Expo: https://www.bookexpoamerica.com/.
- A story summary of I Am Golden.
- Asian-American Identity
- Asian-American Hate Crimes
- All about I Am Golden
- Creating the book cover artwork
- The author and illustrator collaboration
- Immigrant Stories
- Becoming readers
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Eva Chen and Sophie Diao Discuss I Am Golden. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Asian American Books, Emigration and Immigration Books, and Picture Book.
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