By Samantha Leong
Today we’re pleased to welcome Eugenia Cheng and Amber Ren to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book, Bake Infinite Pie with X + Y, which comes out on February 15, 2022!
X + Y are dreaming of baking infinite pie…
But they don’t know if infinite pie is real.
With the help of quirky and uber-smart Aunt Z, a whole lot of flour and butter, X and Y will learn that by using math they can bake their way to success!
Where did you get the inspiration for Bake Infinite Pie With X + Y?
Eugenia: I was inspired by the many baking projects I’ve done with my nephews, starting from when they were very little—just like I started baking with my mother when I was very little. I show them mathematical things whenever I can, including when we’re baking! I love seeing their excitement at creating our own exciting food, and I hope to capture some of that excitement in creating our own exciting math as well.
What medium(s) did you use in Bake Infinite Pie With X + Y?
Amber: I used ink wash in combination with Photoshop.
Eugenia, how was the transition from writing for an older audience to writing for children? Are there any elements that stay the same in your approach to making math accessible for all ages?
Eugenia: Although I’ve only recently started writing books for children, I’ve done math outreach with children for longer than I’ve done it with adults. I started helping with math in elementary schools when I was a grad student, and I always love giving math presentations in elementary schools as I find that the youngest children are so excited about everything, and they often jump up and down and scream with delight. They haven’t yet been traumatized by math! I love working with those children because it would be so much better to preserve that existing math excitement rather than waiting until they’ve been put off math and then intervening when they’re adults with a math phobia.
Sometimes I find that small children are more open-minded about what math can be, because they haven’t had something rigid ingrained yet. They’re also more open to things they can’t fully understand, because when you’re a child you obviously can’t understand the world. We adults can’t understand the world either, but somehow adults often have the impression they’re supposed to fully understand what they’re reading, and panic if they don’t.
But basically my approach is always the same at root: convey my love and enthusiasm for the subject, and show the more imaginative and open-ended aspects of it that usually don’t fit into a school curriculum unfortunately.
Amber, how long have you been making art? What are some inspirations for your artistic style, and how did you get into children’s book illustration?
Amber: Like many artists, I’ve been drawing since I could remember. It was my favorite way of expressing myself ever since I was a child.
I am definitely influenced by art from both the East and West. I like to draw inspiration from traditional Chinese painting and folk art, as well as my own childhood memories from China. I am also a fan of children’s book illustrators such as Gyo Fujikawa and the Provensens.
One of my teachers at CalArts, Brigette Barrager, is an amazing children’s book illustrator. She introduced me to the world of children’s books. I remember she brought Jon Klassen to our class and he talked about his journey from working in animation to illustrating his first book. I realized that you could do both animation and book illustration as a career. After graduating when I was looking for a job in animation, I also looked into illustrating books. After some research I reached out to my current agent Jennifer Rofé and started from there.
What was it like to collaborate with each other on this picture book, if at all?
Eugenia: It was really fun for me to see my characters come to life from someone’s else’s perspective!
Amber: For this book, Eugenia and I mainly collaborated through our editor and art director. Eugenia gave a lot of great advice to me regarding the looks of math concepts. It was very helpful for me, who has very little knowledge about mathematics beyond high school Calculus.
What was your favorite part of working on this book? What was the most challenging?
Eugenia: When I’m writing books I always imagine I’m talking to a real person and watching their reactions. My favorite part of working on this book was imagining I was talking to small excited children who can’t stop asking questions. In reality I was in lockdown and never leaving the house, so it gave me a chance to dream and imagine. The challenging part was really that we were in a pandemic and I did not know when I’d be able to talk to children about math in person again.
Amber: My favorite part of working on this book is doing research on all the different pastries. The most challenging part is getting hungry from looking at pastries all the time. I watched so many seasons of Great British Bake Off while illustrating this book. I probably gained a few pounds working on this project.
Eugenia, you use baking as a way to show math in everyday life. Do you have a favorite mathematical concept and a favorite pastry that you included in this book?
Eugenia: Yes—I’ve included a special recipe for banana butterscotch pie which everyone can make at home. My favorite mathematical pastry is puff pastry, which is made by wrapping butter in dough and then folding it in 3 repeatedly. Each time you fold it, you multiply the number of layers in three, and the math of exponentials says that the number of layers will grow very, very quickly! However, this is quite a difficult thing to make at home.
Amber, do you have a favorite mathematical concept and a favorite pastry that you drew in this book?
Amber: My favorite mathematical concept to illustrate is definitely the fractal. It is very fascinating and interesting to look at. Amazing how math and art can intersect!
I had the most fun drawing the square, pentagon and hexagon pies.
Eugenia, you have spoken about congressive and ingressive qualities as a way to think of social/gendered behavior and even wrote a book on it, x+y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender. In addition to showing the concept of axes, was it intentional to name the characters X and Y? What do you hope readers will take away from this?
Eugenia: Yes, it was! Thanks for asking. It is intentional that Y is a little bit more ingressive—rushing boldly into things—and X is a little bit more congressive—thoughtful, cautious, looking out for others. I hope readers will get the idea that being cautious, thoughtful, and less bold can be a good way to be, especially with something like math which requires deep thinking.
Amber, I love your use of full spreads combined with the close up illustrations of abstract math concepts. Were there any challenges to illustrating the concept of infinity?
Amber: Thank you! I had some trouble figuring out how best to illustrate the concept of infinite pies while still making the spread interesting. Luckily my editor Sam and Eugenia gave me a few great ideas to work with!
What is a question that you wish you were asked more often, and the answer?
Eugenia: I sometimes wish I were asked why I don’t have children, although in reality I think it would be impolite to ask that question. Perhaps I would like to be asked, “Are you child-free by choice, or childless not by choice?” The thing is, I think people assume I was ambitious about my career and so I didn’t want children, and then they’re surprised by how much I love children and how much I love working with and talking to children. The reality is that I was unable to have children, and this has been a source of profound grief. I longed to pass things on to my children, but I’ll just have to pass them on to other people’s children instead.
Amber: One question that I wish I was asked more often is the impact of diversity in children’s books today.
I really believe children’s books help shape us into who we are today. I think especially now, it’s important to give voice to those that are underrepresented. Diversity in children’s books lets kids of color see themselves in the story and help them get a sense of who they are and what they can be. There are not that many people of color in children’s books today; although it is definitely getting better, there is still work to be done. I am always happy to be a part of this push for diversity.
Can you share anything about any projects you are currently working on?
Eugenia: I’m always working on many things at once! I have a new book coming out on category theory (which is my research field)—that’s a slightly more technical book. I’m also working on the manuscript of my next general book, which is about asking questions in math, and explores how math is, in a way, more about asking questions than answering them. So, it’s not really about “getting the right answer,” but about curiosity and exploration.
Amber: Currently I am working on a picture book written by Charlotte Cheng about the journey of a street dog as he discovers the magic of Taiwanese night market, where he makes a friend and eventually finds a home. I am having loads of fun working on this one. It’s a very sweet story and also another one that makes me very, very hungry.
Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician and Scientist in Residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as an honorary visiting fellow at City, University of London, and the author of How to Bake Pi, Beyond Infinity, The Art of Logic in an Illogical World, and x + y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender. Visit her at eugeniacheng.com or on Twitter @DrEugeniaCheng.
Amber Ren is the New York Times bestselling illustrator of Because by Mo Willems. She currently works as a visual development artist for Dreamworks TV, and her work has been featured in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art’s first online exhibition, Art in Place: Social Distancing in the Studio. She lives in Southern California. She invites you to visit her at amber-ren.com.
Samantha Leong is a Special Sales sales assistant at Ingram Content Group. She has previously interned at Scholastic Library Publishing, Candlewick Press, and Simon and Schuster. Her favorite genre is fantasy, and she loves to bake.