Happy (almost) Book Birthday to TOFU TAKES TIME by Helen Wu 吴卉婷,
Illus. by Julie Jarema, Beaming Books, which releases April 19th!
“Tofu Takes Time is lovely in its simplicity and magical in its proportions. This is a story of a granddaughter and grandmother making tofu together and it is also a story of the natural processes that allow us the gift of a favorite food and its connections to family, history, and the natural world.”
–Kao Kalia Yang, Author of The Most Beautiful Thing and A Map into the World
Thank you to author Helen Wu for TAKING TIME out of her busy schedule to talk to us.
(See what we did there?)
Q 1. Welcome, Helen! You’ve mentioned that the inspiration for TOFU TAKES TIME comes from your childhood experiences cooking with your grandmother—and that some of the illustrations are based on family photos. How wonderful! Can you tell us more about your memories with her? How does her childhood compare with yours—growing up in Hefei, China- or that of your own kids in Southern California?
Helen Wu: The inspiration for this story was born of my tofu-making experience with my treasured grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat nearby and watched as she cooked—a process that sometimes involved tofu. She would wash vegetables, chop meat, stir porridge, and cook all the meals for our entire family. Above all else, I value the time spent listening to my grandma’s stories. Many of these were about life in the Chinese countryside, which is where she spent most of her life. Since I was born in the city, I didn’t know much countryside living—especially in the decades before I was born. So, I was always curious to learn about something so seemingly close to me yet unfamiliar as well.
Different Paths & Challenges
Helen Wu: Growing up in a small city in China, where many of my friends and family shared a very similar lifestyle to my own, I yearned to be different, to stand out more, to find a different path. I saw achieving higher test scores and ranking at the top of my class as an effective way to reach those goals.
Now my kids—growing up as minority immigrants—face a different challenge in how to balance the cultural differences that set them apart from their surrounding community. As an adult, I in fact am still learning how to do this as I look to stay true to myself while “blending in” with the majority. This is one reason why I decided to write children’s books grounded in my own personal immigrant experience: hoping to unearth some solutions for young readers in helping them overcome the same challenges.
Q 2. Besides the fact that they both take time, how do the steps in your writing process relate to the steps NaiNai teaches Lin, as they make tofu? (ED note: Huge thanks to Helen for sending me the wonderful Mandarin translations for each step.) Which of these steps is the most challenging—as a writer and a tofu maker?
a. Soak and rinse the beans 泡豆洗豆
b. Blend the beans 打成豆浆
c. Strain the soymilk 过滤豆浆
d. Boil, stir, and simmer the soymilk 煮沸搅拌
e. Coagulate 点卤
f. Mold 压模成型
Helen Wu: I think the most challenging step in tofu-making is coagulation. Aside from lemon juice, there are many other types of coagulants one can use during this process. It’s difficult to calculate just how much coagulant to add, and I sometimes worry that I’ll miscalculate accordingly during this step and ruin the mixture.
Revision takes time!
With respect to writing, the most challenging part of the process is definitely revising. In considering so many different ways to revise my work, I always want to ensure revisions set out to strengthen the story and make it more appealing to a broad audience while staying true to my heart. Sometimes it’s best to shelve the manuscript for a little while to gain a fresh perspective and new ideas before reworking the story.
Q 3. What surprises did illustrator Julie Jarema bring to the creation of TOFU TAKES TIME?
Helen Wu: Julie’s illustrations are full of imagination and perfectly capture the heart of the book. In Julie’s art, Lin goes on an epic adventure that features food and all sorts of cooking ware. One particular spread that comes to mind is when NaiNai and Lin read a book together.
Julie’s corresponding illustration reflects so many imaginative and culturally relevant elements: including traditional Chinese symbols, home goods, and natural components. (ED Note: Readers –> keep an eye out for these intriguing details throughout the book!)
Q 4. They say each of our books is a tiny bit autobiographical. Which character in TOFU TAKES TIME is more like you: NaiNai or Lin?
Helen Wu: I’m more like Lin, believing I need to become more patient in everyday life. As mentioned in the book’s dedication, my two kids truly teach me patience. My role as a parent helps me grow in this regard, and I learn to find delight in mundane, everyday activities. Writing this book serves as a great reminder that good things take time, even the simplest actions connect with the entire universe, and we should appreciate time spent together with the people we love.
Q 5. What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Helen Wu: Tofu is a food consumed in China for over 2000 years. I hope readers will enjoy this multi-generational tale that explores the magic of patience in making tofu, using sights, sounds, and lots of imagination. As an ode to patience and delayed gratification, this book supports the mindset that good things take time—a concept both children and families can apply in many areas of life.
Writing, Illustrating and Publishing–oh my!
Q 6. How do you balance (juggle?) your busy author/illustrator career with being an Associate Publisher of YeeHoo Press, and parenting? Any tips or tricks you’ve learned along the way?
Helen Wu: With my two kids now both in school full time, I can spend more time honing my skills as an author and editor. In constantly checking my busy schedule, I always first tackle items at the top of my to-do list and regularly check on deadlines. It’s the little bits and pieces authors and editors act on throughout the day and over the course of many months that ultimately brings books into the world.
Q 7. How does writing or illustrating for the US market differ from the international market? What is the process for others who might want to submit to Yeehoo Press, or create for the International Market?
Helen Wu: I believe great stories transcend borders and languages, but those with universal messages, commercial hooks, and educational purposes are sometimes most attractive to foreign publishers. Yeehoo publishes both English editions in the US and simplified Chinese editions in mainland China. In zeroing in on the US and China—two of the world’s largest children’s book markets—Yeehoo’s goal is to find common ground between diverse countries and cultures and publish books with universal interest and appeal for readers worldwide.
To learn more about Yeehoo’s open submission policy and guidelines, check out yeehoopress.com/submissions.
Q 8. Will there be a Chinese edition of TOFU TAKES TIME? (And will you be the translator?)
Helen Wu: I’m currently reaching out to some Chinese publishers in the hopes that someone will acquire the book. Of course, I would personally love to translate, but it’s typically up to the publisher to choose a translator they’d like to work with. Chinese publishers will sometimes also prioritize translators based in China, which can aid marketing efforts within that country.
Q 9. What projects are you working on now?
Helen Wu: My next picture book, LONG GOES TO DRAGON SCHOOL, illustrated by Mae Besom, will be published by Yeehoo Press in February, 2023.
Inspired by my experience as a minority immigrant student, this picture book follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. Wrapped in Eastern and Western dragon lore, this fantasy tale celebrates perseverance, self-acceptance, and cultural differences.
Did we mention a #giveaway?
Yes, we did!
Winner’s choice of either a signed copy of TOFU TAKES TIME or a zoom picture book critique (manuscript under 1000 words) from Helen Wu. To enter, follow @HelenHWu on Twitter and RT this blog post (or the original @ErinDealey Tweet where you found it) with the hashtag #TofuTakesTime. Deadline: April 19th–launch day!
Speaking of which…
To learn more about Helen Wu and her books see: linktr.ee/helenhwu.
Happy Book Birthday TOFU TAKES TIME!