This month we’re excited to chat with New York Times bestseller Joanna Ho, who has two new books out: On the Tip of a Wave and We Who Produce Pearls! We asked Joanna about her new titles, how to fight book bans, and more.
How did you convey Ai Weiwei’s powerful and often political work to a younger audience?
When you boil down so much of political activism, it often comes down to inviting people to recognize humanity in others and treat people accordingly. Though young people are learning to navigate the social constructs and systems that have been set up around them, they have the strongest sense of justice. They recognize when people are being unkind or when rules are unfair. They have a strong sense of right and wrong.
This particular story focuses on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of Safe Passage, artwork that calls attention to the world’s refugee crisis and asks us all to hold out our hands with humanity. When you get down to it, it is about helping others in a time of need, and I find young people don’t need any convincing that this is the right thing to do. They, as we all should be, are horrified when they learn there are those who would turn away someone in need of support, food, comfort, shelter. It is sometimes easier to convey these stories and ideas to young audiences than it is to adults who seem to lose sight of what and who really matter.
What do you hope readers take away from reading On the Tip of a Wave — a desire for action or advocacy?
First, I hope readers come to recognize that these stories are all about real humans, they aren’t entertainment or lessons. They are living, breathing, hoping, loving people and we all have a responsibility to hold out our hands in whatever ways we can.
Secondly, I hope the book moves people to recognize the power they have to create change — in their lives, in their communities, in the world. The world’s issues are complex and often overwhelming, but we can all start somewhere and do something.
Finally, I hope readers recognize the ability art and artists have to see possibility and create toward this vision. We should all nurture this desire to create in ourselves and our young people.
How did you work to celebrate the wide array of diversity in the Asian American community in WE WHO PRODUCE PEARLS?
I researched for a year before I began writing WE WHO PRODUCE PEARLS, and the more I learned about history, the more I came to understand that Asians in America have so many parallels and shared experiences. We are an incredibly diverse community, and it can sometimes feel like we are focused on making sure people understand ways we stand apart because we are not a monolith. Yet, as I researched, I came away with a stronger understanding of the ways we have been similarly used in white supremacist systems, ways the narrative has been weaponized against us to make us invisible, ways we have always turned to community for support, and perhaps most memorably for me, ways we have always stood up, spoken out and taken up space. In WE WHO PRODUCE PEARLS, I tried to show these parallels with a call toward solidarity without flattening our complexity; we are powerful and beautiful and we shape history.
The illustrations and colors used in WE WHO PRODUCE PEARLS are beautiful! Tell us about the process of working with Amanda to combine your lyrical style with her images.
Typically, authors and illustrators don’t interact at all during the process of book creation and I usually love this! I love seeing the ways an artist interprets and adds layers to my words. In some ways, I tried very hard to stay out of Amanda’s way as she designed the illustrations – she is a force in the world and her art is unreal!
Because the text is written such that every stanza points to multiple points of Asian American history, I wanted Amanda to know all the inspiration behind each word or phrase or page. Initially, I submitted a manuscript with an obscene number of illustration notes (pages and pages of them!). I didn’t want to direct her artwork, but I wanted to give her an idea of the depth and history captured in the words to inspire ideas for her art. She was the perfect partner for this project not only because her art is stunning, but because she brings her own critical understanding of history and social structures and I trusted her to add these layers into her illustrations.
We ended up developing a friendship and communicating a lot throughout the process of illustration and I’m very grateful to have her in my life! While the art is very much all Amanda’s doing, we talked about it all the time. For example, on one page, she included a quote from a poem on Angel Island – one that inspired the title and central theme of the book – but for visual reasons, we couldn’t include the whole thing. We ended up texting with my stepdad, who is a doctor, a scholar and (who knew!) a poet – and he wrote another line of poetry for her to include on that page.
With your background in education, how do parents and community members rise up, speak out, and step into power to support educators when books are being challenged?
First, be aware of what is happening in your community. I’ve spoken to so many friends around the country who are shocked when I tell them what is happening in their own districts. Know that the accusations made against the books come from words taken out of context and twisted into lies. They are harming students, destroying education, and driving people out of the profession.
Attend your local school board meetings. The people banning books are highly organized and funded by billionaires, so while most people don’t support book bans, book banners are able to gain ground because people simply aren’t paying enough attention to act. Please show up at your school board meetings, write your school administrators, step in to support your teachers and librarians. Organize your own groups. There are so many people around the country working for students’ right to read. Follow, donate to, and join groups like We Need Diverse Books, PEN America, the Florida Freedom to Read Project, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, and the Texas FReadom Fighters.
Work to bring authors — especially those from marginalized identities — to your schools and communities. The louder and more visible we can be, the more power we have to move history in the right direction.
What other Power of Story books would you recommend to our readers?
But that’s just a few of the many incredible titles I love in this collection!
Thanks so much to Joanna for sharing about her new books! Be sure to check out On the Tip of a Wave and We Who Produce Pearls. WNDB uses affiliate links, and if you purchase via them we earn a small commission. Thank you for supporting our work!
Joanna Ho is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of many books for kids. She has received the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature Honor, a Golden Kite Award, an Ezra Jack Keats Honor, and a Golden Poppy Award.