By Thushanthi Ponweera
Today we’re pleased to welcome Gillian Sze and Michelle Lee to the WNDB blog to discuss My Love For You Is Always.
This story centers around the simple act of a mother cooking a meal for her child. What do you think it is about food that translates into love across any language?
Gillian: Food is both literal and figurative nourishment. The task of preparing food for loved ones is so profound on the one hand, but, on the other, so quotidian. There is, I believe, a direct correspondence between the two. What does it mean when someone prepares your favorite food for you? All of that time, effort, thought, and maybe even inconvenience, is a demonstration of love. And that end goal of making someone something that they will enjoy—that will make them happy—is love in its simplest form.
Michelle: There’s a Korean term that comes to mind that illustrates this food-love connection. Sohn-maht, (손맛) which literally means “hand flavor”, describes the flavor that’s imbued into the food by the love and labor of the person cooking the meal—traditionally one’s mom, grandma, or aunt. Sohn-maht is unique, developed, and learned from the older generations, so experiencing my mom’s home cooking is more than just tasting salt/sweet/sour/savory… It’s a reminder of family-present and past, and my place in it.
We all (as humans) need food to survive, but when food is used as a vehicle for love, we feel comforted, secure, connected—emotionally full. It’s pretty magical that food can convey all this and not one word needs to be said!
How are you carrying these traditions forward in your own lives? Do you think they change with each generation?
Gillian: I try to continue making the foods that I was taught to make, like wrapping dumplings and wontons, or rolling sweet rice balls for the lunar new year. I admittedly lack the skills to wrap rice in bamboo leaves and the patience to make my own red bean jiandui. But I love sharing food experiences with my kids, including eating my mother’s cooking when she visits or taking them for dim sum.
I think there are inevitable changes with each generation, depending on many factors, such as the contingencies of location, or the composition of one’s family. My husband is Indian, and so our children’s palates are accustomed to curries, dosa, idli, and all of those glorious Indian sweets. My kids are also true Montrealers—they love their smoked meat!
Michelle: Food is the most accessible tradition for me, and I’ve been trying to improve my Korean food cooking skills. I’ve been slowly working through Maangchi’s Big Book of Korean Cooking. I think there is value in learning from experts and in doing things the “traditional” way. It provides a solid foundation and gives me the confidence to trust my own palate and the memory of the food I grew up with. So many of my favorite memories with my parents and grandparents involved food or family meals. I don’t have kids, but it is important to me to provide memories like that for the ones who are in my life.
I think traditions can and do change, and that this change is natural especially in this global and connected world. While I aspire to make jars and jars of kimchi, like my grandma used to do, I think it’s also really amazing that I can find it at the regular ol’ grocery store!
How did you decide which specific types of food to highlight?
Gillian: I wanted to celebrate ingredients that my mother used when I was growing up, ones that were also found in the kitchens of my aunties, grandmothers, and other elders. I wanted to spotlight foods that were particular to my culture, reach out to readers who recognized those same flavors, as well as introduce dishes to those who were less familiar.
Michelle: Gillian’s beautiful, evocative words provided all the ingredients to illustrate, so I didn’t have to make too many tough decisions. My main decision was whether to depict an intimate meal between a mother and child, or something bigger. But once I did research and learned about the symbolism behind the foods, colors, and animals, it felt right to make this meal as celebratory and as expansive as possible.
When the pandemic hit, and gathering with loved ones became unsafe to do, it was very meaningful to at least be able to create one on paper. In addition to the traditional lucky celebration dishes (steamed fish, noodles, oranges, etc…) there are extra dishes in the final feast, included as little tributes to Gillian and her mom, my sister, and my mom.
Gillian, how does your experience writing poetry help when writing picture books?
My Love for You Is Always is a story that centers on analogy. Love is such an abstraction, such a gargantuan concept, so how can we describe it to a child? The mother in the story contemplates the qualities of her love in terms of the food that she prepares for her son. Love is expressed so immediately in the tastes, smells, and textures of the meal. I think my background in poetry was particularly helpful when selecting the right words for their meanings and sounds. For example, when deciding between using the word “goji berry” or its alternative “wolfberry,” I settled on the latter. Both are sonically pleasing, but I love how “wolf” seems mismatched here, the word losing much of the usual edge it carries when it appears in children’s books.
Michelle, how does your background in science and education contribute to your art?
This sounds like such an obvious thing to say as an illustrator, but I’ve always liked looking at things. Deep observation is such an important science (and life) skill! When I was teaching, my favorite units to teach were the more open-ended and inquiry-based ones—these were purposefully designed to allow kids’ natural curiosity to guide their learning. I always have this in the back of my mind. When I illustrate, by including lots of details to observe, my hope is that the viewer can get a little lost in that world being depicted and maybe something will osmose its way into their head in the meantime. In regards to my practice, I try to research what I’m drawing and understand what I can, even though it might not show up in the art.
Who or what do you draw inspiration from?
Gillian: I think being attentive is an early sign (or symptom!) of a curious and creative mind. Writing is how I process events, emotions, history, struggle. It’s also how I celebrate the mundane and the miraculous. I pay attention to the trees, the afternoon light, the way pencil sounds on paper, the songs my son makes up, and the words of my daughter now that she is starting to form sentences.
Michelle: A daily connection with nature is very important to me. This can be as simple as spending time in my vegetable garden, watering and watching the squirrels and bugs, or taking a more extended trip into the mountains to camp and hike. I also seem to get ideas when I’m creating or problem-solving in other, more tactile ways like sewing or crafting.
The authors/books I return to again and again are The Phantom Tollbooth, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl. The worlds they create combine reality and magic seamlessly and are so satisfying to experience. Also, anything by Jessixa Bagley is wonderful.
If you were arranging a cultural food tour, but the picture book version, what other books would you recommend alongside this one?
Gillian: Dim Sum for Everyone! by Grace Lin, Our Corner Grocery Store by Joanne Schwartz and Laura Beingessner, Awâsis and the World-Famous Bannock by Dallas Hunt and Amanda Strong, Our Little Kitchen by Jillian Tamaki, and The Tea Party in the Woods* by Akiko Miyakoshi.
*The Tea Party in the Woods features talking forest animals. Even though it’s a totally fictional world, I’d love for those animals to be part of the tour!
Michelle: At the top of my mind is the graphic novel Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu (since I’m currently in progress on illustrations for another book by Lily). There are so many others to choose from, but I love how these focus on family and community: Sunday Funday by Aram Kim; Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules and Katherine Mitter; Freedom Soup by Tami Charles and Jacqueline Alcantara; Sopa de Frijoles/ Bean Soup by Jorge Argueta and Rafael Yockteng and What’s Cooking at 10 Garden Street by Felicita Sala. I’ll include Dozens of Doughnuts by Carrie Finison and Brianne Farley since donuts/dessert deserve their own category and the story features a bear as its main character!
Gillian Sze is the author of multiple poetry books, including Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), Redrafting Winter (BuschekBooks, 2015), and Panicle (ECW Press, 2017), which were finalists for the QWF’s A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Her forthcoming prosimetrical collection, Quiet Night Think, explores the early shaping of a writer, the creative process, and motherhood, and will be published next spring with ECW Press. Since becoming a mother, Gillian has started writing picture books. My Love For You Is Always (ill. Michelle Lee) is her second picture book. www.gilliansze.com
Michelle Lee is an illustrator/author from Los Angeles. As a former K-8 science teacher, she’s always been interested in the areas where science, art, and education intersect. In addition to illustrating picture books, Michelle co-owns The Bee’s Knees, a children’s clothing and accessories line, as well as her own line of invitations and cards. She enjoys camping with her husband Charlie. Her work and doodles are on Instagram @fromthebear.
Thushanthi Ponweera is a blog volunteer for We Need Diverse Books and a WNDB 2021 picture book mentee with author David LaRochelle. She was born and raised in Colombo, Sri Lanka where she lives with her husband and two children. She grew up reading and falling in love with stories about children and places that were foreign to her. She believes that someday children from around the world will read and fall in love with stories about children in Sri Lanka. She hopes to write those stories. You can find her on Twitter @thushponweera and on Instagram @bythush.