Today we’re pleased to welcome Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson to the WNDB blog to discuss their middle grade series Cookie Chronicles. The first two books in the series, Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom and Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Endless Waiting are out now!
Meet Ben, a literal-minded kid with a big heart and an even bigger sweet-tooth, who cracks open a fortune cookie and discovers that TODAY might be his last day on Earth! Perfect for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid or The Terrible Two.
Live each day as if it were your last.
When Ben reads his fortune-cookie fortune, he’s alarmed and inspired. Immediately, he begins drafting a bucket list of unfinished tasks and lifelong dreams (finish his 1000-piece model of the Taj Mahal, eat an entire cake, etc….). As Ben marches himself in and out of trouble, takes useful risks, and helps both his parents to see the bigger picture, readers discover how something that seems scary can instead be empowering–leading to friendships that might never have been made, neighbors that might never have been known, and apple pies that might otherwise never have been baked.
Good things come to those who wait.
Ben does his best to heed his fortune cookie’s advice, and as a result he is paired with Walter–the kid who’s always picked last–for a school scavenger hunt. Working with Walter must be a good thing if the cookie said so, but so far all he does is talk too loud and recite obscure facts about feet. Meanwhile, Ben has an argument with his best friend Janet, and waiting for her to apologize first isn’t going so well…. But eventually, Ben’s patience starts paying off: if he and Walter are able to pull out a win in the scavenger hunt, they’ll earn a half-day of recess for the whole school! Waiting may not always be a good thing, but taking the time to listen and consider all options isn’t half bad.
How the husband/wife co-creators of the Cookie Chronicles
worked together to tell a story that reflects their shared—
Robbi: Hi. I’m Robbi. I’m the illustrator of a new middle grade series called Cookie Chronicles.
Matthew: And I’m Matthew. I wrote Cookie Chronicles.
R: We’ve been asked to tell you how we worked together to make these books.
M: As a warning, I’m sometimes long-winded. Robbi, may I do a bit of table-setting if I promise to compliment you a lot?
R: If you must.
M: I’ll try to keep it short and sweet.
R: I won’t be holding my breath.
M: Here’s the thing folks. My life would be so different if hadn’t met Robbi.
I never would have had the guts to quit my high-paying corporate job in the name of chasing my dream of being a writer. I certainly wouldn’t have moved into the drafty hayloft of an old barn to spend a decade making strange and unsellable books while slowly finding footholds in the publishing world.
I wouldn’t be a permit-holding commercial salmon fisherman who spends his summers working for Robbi’s family business on the Alaskan tundra, avoiding grizzly bears, and wearing rubber pants while pulling sockeye from the Bering Sea.
And, to the point of this interview, if I’d never met Robbi, the hero of Cookie Chronicles would probably be named Ben Smith. Or Ben Jones. But certainly not Ben Yokoyama.
Which is to say, in case you’re thinking of marrying Robbi, tread carefully. It comes with certain…consequences.
Robbi has strong opinions and bold ideas. She doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind or put her mark on things.
Robbi: Okay, white man. I appreciate the kind words, but do I get to say anything?
Matthew: Yes, I’m done. I mean, I could go on but….
R: Most of those things Matthew said were true enough, if maybe a little heavy on the flattery. Who is he trying to impress, I wonder?
M: Did I mention that Robbi hates compliments?
R: Also, why are you showing those tiny fish? This is a real salmon.
M: Did I mention that Robbi is incredibly strong?
R: Okay, okay. Let’s move on to the book stuff. This is supposed to be about books, right?
M: Yes, and the fact that there aren’t nearly enough that are diverse and representative.
R: This is true. Is that why you invited me? Somehow in all of that long-windedness, Matthew forgot to mention that I’m half-Japanese.
M: I hinted at it.
R: Be direct, man! I’m half-Japanese! My tough-as-nails mom grew up in post-war Tokyo and came to the States in her early twenties to fulfill a lifelong dream of freedom and adventure. My dad is a white guy who grew up with all of the privileges afforded to white men in America but is a dedicated nonconformist. They met and married (saving my mom from an arranged marriage in Japan) and moved to the small rural town in Maryland where I grew up.
M: In a house two blocks from the drafty hayloft I mentioned earlier.
R: Back then, there was no discernible Asian community here.
M: There still isn’t.
R: True, true. Honestly, as a kid, I never felt like I was part of a larger Japanese or Asian American community. I didn’t really identify as being Asian or half-Asian, even though there were plenty of times when my Asian-ness was cited by other kids as a point of difference. There was a boy down the street who called me and my siblings “Chop Suey,” and it wasn’t until I went to a Chinese restaurant for the first time in college and saw chop suey on the menu that I realized it was more than just a funny nickname.
M: Were you offended?
R: Ha! Well, mostly I felt kind of dumb for not even realizing he was making fun of us. If only he had called us yakitori instead!
M: So how did you identify growing up?
R: I guess just as my mother’s daughter. When I went off to college, people started asking me where I “was from,” and I would answer, completely earnestly, that I was from Maryland. But what they really meant was, “What’s your ethnic background?” It wasn’t until I got that question for the hundredth time that I started to realize that “Asian” was a cultural category, and that “half Asian” was also a thing that I was.
M: I’m guessing from that answer that the books you read growing up weren’t particularly helpful on this front?
R: Not really, and honestly, I can only remember one book with a Japanese protagonist. It was Sign of the Chrysanthemum by Katherine Paterson. But it was about an orphan in feudal Japan, which didn’t reflect my experience at all. So, while I thought it was extra cool to read a book about what I thought of as my mom’s culture, it wasn’t something I especially identified with.
R: It’s not that I suffered particularly growing up, but looking back, I can see that there were a lot of missed opportunities to better understand the greater context of who I am, why my family ate the things we did, why we celebrated the things we did, and what it really meant for my mom to break every convention and come to the States as a young Japanese woman and start a new life for herself. I had no idea that my ethnic identity was a thing I’d eventually have to grapple with. Or that it was a thing I could be proud of. My mom was so amazing, and I had no idea.
But getting back to your original question, no, none of the books I read growing up were much help when it came to understanding or connecting with my half-Asian-ness.
M: Which brings us back to Robbi’s talent for putting her mark on things. A few years ago, I wrote a story about a literal-minded boy named Ben who gets a fortune cookie fortune that says LIVE EACH DAY AS IF IT WERE YOUR LAST. Taking the fortune as gospel, Ben panics, makes himself a bucket list, and tries to cram a lifetime’s worth of tasks and moonshots into a single day. I wrote this book because I was a literal-minded kid. Ben’s adventures are exaggerations of my own struggles as I tried to figure out how language worked.
As is my practice whenever I write something I feel good about and hope that Robbi will agree to illustrate, I printed the manuscript, crossed my fingers, and handed it to her.
R: I loved the story. I love how Matthew writes and I love how he thinks. But he leaves all sorts of holes in his books. His writing is full of humor and voice and ideas, but in his early drafts especially, he never tells you the seemingly basic and important things, like what his characters actually look like. This is great for me as an illustrator because it leaves plenty of room for me to bring in my own ideas.
M: You’re welcome.
R: Reading this story full of holes gave me an idea. Since Matthew hadn’t written Ben as having a specific ethnicity or cultural backstory, I wondered if we had an opportunity to tell the story of a kid who grew up like I did—with one white parent and one Japanese parent and an otherwise straightforward American life.
M: What’s a straightforward American life?
R: Good question. I guess I mean a life in which “American” is the primary point of identity and not some subset thereof. Even though I was half-Japanese, I thought of myself as American first. Do you think of yourself as White first or as American?
R: Right. That’s your privilege. And, frankly, it’s mine. As a kid, I bought into that whole melting-pot thing. I had a Japanese mom, but I was American. And I wanted Cookie Chronicles to be books about a half-Japanese kid growing up in America—but not about Japanese culture per se. Because that’s not really my experience.
R: Even though my mom grew up in Tokyo and had a heavy Japanese accent, she wanted to be as American as she could. And she wanted us kids to be American. I never learned to speak Japanese, for example. In retrospect, I really wish I had. And now that I have my own kids and my mom has passed away, I truly regret that I didn’t learn more about my heritage from her and that I didn’t feel a part of a greater Asian-American community growing up.
M: For what it’s worth, I think she would have really liked these books, in part because they’re about a kid who’s living the childhood she wanted for you.
R: I like to think so, anyway. Thanks for leaving me holes to fill.
M: You always fill them so well. Once we figured out that Ben was half-Japanese, I went back into the manuscript and adjusted it to reflect Ben and his dad’s heritage—working with Robbi to strike the right balance. For example, in book three, The Cookie of Perfection, Ben’s Aunt Nora uses Kintsugi as a metaphor to help Ben understand the implicit beauty to be found in imperfection. But Nora has to use the internet to look up the word Kintsugi. She knows the concept but can’t remember the details. Even though she’s ethnically Japanese, she’s culturally American. We wanted to be true to Robbi’s experience. And to the experience of our kids. From never wearing shoes in our house to saying Itadakimasu when we sit down to eat, their lives are informed by countless little touchstones that tie them to their Japanese heritage.
R: No one in Ben’s family wears shoes in their house, either! The illustrator made sure of it. It makes me really happy to think that some half-Japanese kids might read these books and see their experience represented. But I think it’s equally important that all our other readers will encounter this half-Japanese kid who is culturally similar to them.
M: Exactly! But if Robbi hadn’t been the person illustrating this book, Cookie Chronicles definitely would have been the story of a white kid, because that was my experience. But, luckily mine isn’t the only name on the front of this book. Robbi choosing to make Ben half-Japanese is an act of co-authorship. She wasn’t just illustrating a story I wrote. She was making a choice that expands and deepens the book’s meaning. And hopefully, its impact.
R: We’re glad to have been able to take a stab at contributing to the growing roster of non-white protagonists.
M: But we’re not claiming to be doing anything revolutionary.
R: No! There are tons of great books that and expand readers’ sense of the incredible variety and richness of the human experience. And more every day. My own kids have so many more opportunities than I did to read about the experience of other mixed-race kids.
M: Our point, if we have one, is that sometimes expanding representation in books is just a matter of looking for authentic opportunities to do so. And inviting illustrators to flex their authorial muscles.
R: Isn’t your other point that, in spite of all associated calamity, marrying Robbi wasn’t such a bad thing after all?
M: I wouldn’t go that far. Did I mention that we have four children and one bathroom?
R: I stand corrected. Robbi really is the worst.
Robbi and Matthew are the wife/husband, illustrator/author co-creators of the Cookie Chronicles series, the first two books of which will be published by Knopf on March 1. To learn about their many other books and ask them to visit your school or conference, visit www.robbiandmatthew.com. To follow their adventures (and watch their daily, 60-second videos) follow them on Instagram or YouTube.