Hello and welcome to the first Backstory feature interview of 2024! I am thrilled to welcome my Kidlit Clubhouse pal, Kelly Zhang to the blog today with her picture book, TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO. Keep reading to learn about how this gorgeous book came to be and for your chance to win a 30-minute Zoom with Kelly.
AH: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
KZ: TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO is a lyrical picture book in which a little Chinese girl who misses her grandma during the Lunar New Year embarks on a dreamlike journey to find her lăolao. She travels into mythical realms and enlists the help of powerful gods and magical creatures of Chinese mythology to overcome obstacles along the way. Set against the festive backdrop of the New Year Lantern Festival, it is a heartwarming tale that celebrates family, cultural traditions, and the special bond between grandmother and grandchild.
AH: Kelly this book is absolutely beautiful! From your lyrical word choice to the expertly executed color palette by Evie Zhu, this book is perfection. In particular I love the dreamlike adventure and how each location seems to melt into the next as your MC tries to find her way to her lăolao.
AH: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
KZ: My extended family lives in China, and I usually go visit them once a year. But when the pandemic hit, it became practically impossible to travel there. I felt so lonely and isolated. As special occasions like Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival came around, I missed my folks even more. At those times, I would recite classic Chinese poems (from the Tang and Song Dynasties) that I had memorized as a child, because many of the poets also spoke about their feelings of loneliness and longing for family at the holidays.
Lăolao means maternal grandma. My lăolao took good care of me as a child and fostered my lifelong love for books and words. Even when I was a wee baby, she would hold me and communicate with me nonstop–singing nursery rhymes to me, reciting poetry verses, telling me interesting parables and folktales like a good old friend. I think she imprinted language into my brain, because I could talk even before I learned to walk. After immigrating to North American in my adolescence, I travelled back to China to see my lăolao every summer break. Sadly, my lăolao passed away several years ago. I think my heart hasn’t stopping grieving since.
So TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO is a story of my heart. It is dedicated to the memory of my lăolao, to her loving presence, to her stories, and to the cultural lore that nourished my imagination and sparked my curiosity as a child.
AH: This is such beautiful inspiration and the love for your lăolao is felt through your poetic language. What a gift you were given to be immersed in her world of words from such a young age and now you are providing the same gift to others through this book.
AH: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
KZ: One late night in January 2021, right before Chinese New Year, a surge of inspiration overtook me and words flowed out almost naturally. I wrote a story that expressed my intense longing for my lăolao and my family, and infused imageries from my favorite Chinese poetry verses and nuggets of my lived experiences as a Chinese immigrant into it. I finished the draft within an hour and made some minor edits over the next couple of days.
The original story was written in English, albeit punctuated by lines of Chinese poetry that inspired each segment of lyrical text. After I was happy with the edited version of the English manuscript, I translated it into Chinese.
Then I sent the English version to my writing peers and the Chinese version to my mom for critique. The feedback I received were all very positive. This gave me the confidence and reassurance I needed to further polish up the text and put together a query package.
When I pitched the story during a Twitter pitch event (shout out to #PBpitch!) months later, it was liked by a number of editors (including several from the Big Five) and agents. I was shocked and overjoyed. Indeed, this was the story that got me my agent and my book contract with HarperCollins.
AH: Wow! I have had the experience where the words flow like that just once and it feels magical!
I do not think anyone who has read your book will be surprised by the amount of love it received from agents and editors alike. That must have been a hugely rewarding yet overwhelming experience. It also serves as a great reminder to our friends in the query trenches that there are a number of pathways to publication and no one way is better or worse than the other. Take all of the opportunities that feel right to you.
AH: Did TAKE ME TO LAOLAO undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
KZ: When my agent reviewed the manuscript, she suggested some minor edits, and within a week, we went on submission. After the book sold to Quill Tree/HarperCollins, it went through three or four rounds of edits, some of which were more substantial than others. I worked with my wonderful editors Karen and Celina to flesh out the dialogue between characters, sprinkle in more backstory to help readers appreciate the close relationship between the MC and her grandma, and turn up the dramatic tension. We also added more emotional punch to the ending.
I was happy because each round of edits made the story stronger and the characters more relatable and emotionally compelling, without changing the heart and essence of the story.
One interesting tidbit: during the second round of edits, I debated about cutting a textual reference to Jiaoren–a silk-weaving merperson in Chinese mythology that really intrigued me. Ultimately, that segment of text was removed because it was non-essential to the story development and might even distract from it. But that was a ‘darling’ I hesitated to kill.
AH: Thank you for sharing the revision process. It is so hard to delete those elements that we feel tied to. I appreciate in your comments how you acknowledge how each round strengthened your story. I think so many of us reach the point where we can't fathom there being room for any more edits. It is wonderful what a fresh pair of professional eyes can suggest to elevate our already polished pieces to the next level.
AH: Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on TAKE ME TO LAOLAO?
KZ: As I alluded to earlier, the lyrical tone and imageries in the story were strongly influenced by classical Chinese poetry, while the magical beings featured were all drawn from Chinese mythology and folklore [a huge nod to Journey to the West, the quintessential Chinese fantasy novel by Wu Cheng-En from the 15th century which also introduced the amazing Monkey King to the world].
The trope of a character's dreamlike magical journey/nocturnal adventure can be found in various eastern Daoist/Buddhist tales (Zhuangzi Dreams of the Butterfly, Journey to the West), as well as western fairytales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan) and picture books (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, Journey by Aaron Becker).
AH: Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
KZ: I have found inspiration for my writing from interacting with my child, from observing beautiful nature, and from reading other books. A spark of inspiration can strike me at anytime, anywhere, so I try to jot them down before they fly away.
AH: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
KZ: I'm currently working on a second picture book about the intergenerational bond between grandparent and grandchild, interwoven with a special aspect of Chinese culture. It's kind of like a story sibling to LĂOLAO, but uniquely its own. Stay tuned!
I’m also drafting a Chinese mythology-inspired MG novel that I hope one day will see the light of publication.
On the translation front, I'm very fortunate to be collaborating with the amazing team at Levine Querido to bring out two books this year. GRANDMA’S ROOF GARDEN by TANG Wei is a rollicking PB tale about a big-hearted Chinese grandma with a greenthumb that comes out on January 16th. Then in May, we have the upper MG novel TILTED SKY by YAO Emei, a heartrending coming-of-age tale set in contemporary China about a boy navigating poverty, homelessness and family dysfunction to find his own voice and place in the world.
AH: All of these forthcoming endeavors sound amazing. After reading TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO I am dying to read this new pb you are working on and a middle grade novel, too! I am in awe of authors who write longer texts. It sounds incredible and I hope it makes its way to publication for all of us to enjoy.
AH: Where can people connect more with you?
KZ: Please visit my author website: www.kellyzhangyl.com
My social media handle is KellyZhang_YL (on Insta/Bluesky/X)
AH: Readers be sure to check out Kelly's website and connect with her on social media. And while you are at it please consider supporting Kelly and TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO in anyway you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Kelly thank you so much for sharing TAKE ME TO LĂOLAO. I loved getting a peek at what inspired this beautiful book!
Kelly is generously offering a 30-minute Zoom session, which can be a query critique or PB manuscript critique or Ask Me Anything about publishing.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on social media and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT KELLY ZHANG
Kelly Zhang was born in mainland China, and immigrated to North America in her early teens. She is currently based in Ottawa, Canada. Her English language writing is represented by Hilary Harwell of KT Literary.
As a bilingual writer and literary translator (English/Chinese) of Picture Books through to Middle Grade novels, she aims to create and uplift stories that honor her cultural heritage & lived experiences, while inviting readers to discover peoples, cultures, and worldviews beyond their familiar ones.
She is the inaugural Translator Coordinator for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Canada East, and member of the Author’s Guild, American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and PEN America Translation Committee.
She is a freelance translator for the New York Times for Kids (China) and a regular contributor to the WorldKidLit Blog. Her writing and translations have been published in Words Without Borders, Sine Theta Magazine, the Paper Republic, People’s Daily Newspaper (Overseas Edition), and Journey Planet
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a writer, second-grade teacher, and father of three. He is also the author of the upcoming Ollie, the Acorn, and the Mighty Idea, Curlilocks and the Three Hares, and Hope and the Sea. Andrew recognizes that being a kid is hard and he writes to create ways for kids to see themselves in stories and characters, to accept and overcome their insecurities, or to escape for just a little while through the power of their imaginations.