By Amy Nam
Today we’re pleased to welcome Joanna Ho to the WNDB blog to discuss Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma, illustrated by Teresa Martínez.
Eyes that Kiss in the Corners is a picture book that I would’ve loved to read as a young Asian girl who saw little representation in her favorite books, movies, and TV shows. How do you hope this book will impact Asian children and non-Asian children?
Growing up, I didn’t ever see myself in books, in movies, in magazines. As a kid, it didn’t even occur to me to dream about having books or movies with characters like me. It doesn’t even cross your mind that it’s a possibility because we never see it. It’s taken me decades to realize that something different is possible. I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who has low self-confidence or someone who wished to be a different person, but there were messages that I internalized as a child because I didn’t see myself in anything, and the things I did see were horribly stereotypical. One of the things that I internalized was that I was not beautiful, that I had to have really big eyes to be beautiful.
The very surface layer of what I hope people will take away when they read the book is just knowing that they’re beautiful and should be proud of the way their eyes are shaped. We get our looks from our parents, and there’s so much that’s carried down from these characteristics. So when we want to look different, it’s saying something about how we feel about who we are and where we’re from. I hope when somebody reads the book, they’ll know that they’re beautiful, they’ll feel beautiful, and they’ll see their family members and people with eyes like theirs and think they’re beautiful. The deeper goal is for them to know that they have power, that they can create change. These things that they take as normal don’t have to be normal.
I also hope the book will help people question why the white beauty standard is the white beauty standard. What’s the impact of that kind of messaging on people and how can we disrupt that? You can really disrupt white supremacy and things that are oppressive and be the change, even if you’re a child.
For people who don’t have eyes that kiss in the corners, I would love it if they could read this book and stop slanting their eyes and making fun of eyes that look like ours. I want people to look at the book and think Asian eyes are beautiful. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people read this book and realized we need to stop being racist or at least stop making fun of kids’ eyes?
If you’re someone who feels like they don’t match the white beautify standard—which frankly is pretty much everyone, even if you are white— there’s just something about the way we create our culture where no one feels beautiful. I wish people would read the book and recognize power in who they are.
How has being the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan and China influenced your stories?
It’s such a huge part of who I am; it’s like asking a fish how the water influences how they live. It’s hard to differentiate. As an adult, I’ve certainly done a lot more exploration into better understanding what that means and gaining a deeper appreciation of my culture. The older I get, the more connected I feel. I feel really proud of who I am, I’m proud of where I come from, and I’m also very aware of all the history and culture and stories.
But there’s so much history I don’t know. On one hand, I feel really empowered by my own identity, but I also feel incredibly inadequate in that I feel like I should know more and I’m really intentional about trying to pass these things on to my kids. Whether it’s overt or not, there are ways that culture and family influence you in ways that you just can’t articulate because that’s just how you function in the world.
As the vice principal at a school in the Bay Area, do you find that your students inspire some of your fictional characters? If not, what/who inspires your characters and their motivations?
Anybody I love in this world is, in some way, in some of my books. It’s not like a character is directly a reference to them, but rather different pieces of different characters.
I feel like my students have their own stories to tell, and they’re not mine. As much as the stories I’m telling reflect my experience as an educator, I don’t think I’m pulling from my students’ lives. If they’re influencing my characters, it’s bits and pieces of personalities, but not their stories. I don’t feel qualified to tell their stories for them at all. I hope that I’m empowering them to tell their own stories.
Your writing is incredibly lyrical and poetic, with a plethora of gorgeous imagery. How have you come to develop this writing style?
I think that I naturally write more lyrically. I also read a lot of picture books by people whose writing I really love. I love Margarita Engle, I love Jacqueline Woodson, I love Kwame Alexander—those are people whose books I would read, study, and feel. And then I think it’s just about practicing and revising. Writing the crappy thing, and then going back and revising. It’s finding good critique partners and being open to feedback and not taking it personally.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that throughout your writing journey, you grappled with the question: “What stories are mine to tell?” What led you to ask this question, and how has it changed your approach to storytelling?
I came into writing to increase inclusion and disrupt inequitable systems for the sake of young people. Because of that, when I was still starting off writing, I was telling stories that I felt needed to be told.
I’ll give you an example. I spent a couple of years working to reimagine prison. I designed a residential, holistic educational experience for this nonprofit, so if somebody was sentenced to jail, they could apply to serve their time in this program. I had lots of opportunities to go into prisons and jails, so I wrote this story that was about a young boy whose father was incarcerated.
I sent it to Karen, who is now my agent, but at that moment I was querying her for the first time. She rejected me after seeing that story and another one that I thought needed to be told. I also had someone give me feedback along the lines of: “Listen, if you haven’t gone through that experience of having an incarcerated parent, it doesn’t matter how much research you’ve done and how many people you’ve talked to. You won’t understand.”
That was a really good learning experience for me. I can’t take people’s stories. I can’t do them justice even a little bit. I don’t need to speak for people; they have their own voices. That experience helped me dig deeper and ask, “Joanna, what are the stories of your heart? What are your lived experiences? What are the stories you can tell?” Eyes that Kiss in the Corners came out of that.
Can you tell me about your picture book biography, Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma? What led you to write this story?
It’s a picture book about Yo-Yo Ma, a cellist who played at the border of Mexico and Texas in 2019. It was part of his Bach Project, where he would play in key locations around the world and then do a day of action. He played Bach’s cello suites at the border during the Trump administration when families were being separated and refugees were being turned away. He said, “In cultures, we build bridges, not walls.”
I really appreciated that for multiple reasons. The first one is that my mom used to play the Bach cello suites in the early morning on Saturdays. I love the cello suites; they remind me of my mom. I listen to them every week, so I feel some kind of personal connection to the music.
I also wanted to write something about what was happening at the border, about immigration. But it just wasn’t my story, even though I am the daughter of immigrants. When I saw Yo-Yo Ma playing, I thought that was one way I could write about immigration and say the things I wanted to say.
The more I researched, the more I realized that Yo-Yo Ma is a phenomenal human being. He does so much good around the world and has always been someone who challenges borders, culture, and customs, and tries to blend things together.
What do you hope readers will take away from Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma?
I hope we recognize that borders are man-made. There are so many ways we can build bridges and connections. Why are we dividing people? What the story is trying to say is that we are all one people, and there are so many ways we can cross boundaries that have been created.
There’s another part of the story that’s about valuing the power and the contributions of immigrants not just to this country, but to any country.
And, of course, if there are any music lovers, the story is saying that music is powerful.
Your debut young adult novel, The Silence that Binds Us, comes out in 2022. How has the transition from writing children’s books to adult novels been?
It feels really natural because I work at a high school, so I feel probably the most myself and the most comfortable when I’m with students of that age. I think learning the young adult genre was so different. Picture books are really short and really hard to write, but young adult novels are so long and take a really long time to write.
I loved that I could write about things in a more direct way. For young kids, I think you should have books about hard topics but obviously written in a way that’s accessible. But for young adults, I feel like they know, see, and process everything, so you don’t need to dumb anything down or simplify ideas. You can just talk about the hard things, and so it was fun to be able to explore that freedom of topic and genre.
How greatly have your life experiences influenced The Silence that Binds Us?
It’s very much based on the community where I went to high school and where I live now, in the Bay Area. There were two epidemics of suicide from high school kids, many of whom jumped in front of a train (spoiler alert: that’s how the brother in the book dies). I had an experience where I was at a dinner and the people were talking about the pressure in the community. One man said, “It’s because of all the Asians.” It just made me think: What would it be like to be a parent and have that accusation flung at you, saying that you are the reason your child died by suicide? That’s where the idea came from.
I was really fortunate to be connected to a really dear friend of a cousin. Her brother died by suicide in front of a train when they were in high school in this community. She was very generous with her time and sharing her story with me. The Silence that Binds Us is not based on her story at all; it’s a very different story. But I think I learned a lot from her; it really informed a lot of the story.
Do you have any diverse, inclusive picture book recommendations for parents and educators?
I have so many. My Instagram account (@joannahowrites) is where I post all the books that I read. One book that just destroyed me was Wishes; it’s about a child who leaves Vietnam. It’s the most devastating thing you’ll ever read but it’s so beautiful and powerful. The pictures are just amazing.
I love When Lola Visits. The language is really moving; the book’s about when a young Philipino’s grandma—her lola—comes to visit. I also love Toasty by Sarah Hwang; it’s about a piece of toast that wants to be a dog. I love Lakshmi’s Mooch; it’s about a little South-Asian girl who realizes she has a little mooch—a little mustache. She really doesn’t like it, but she learns why it’s okay to have hair on your body. It’s really funny and cute!
Joanna Ho is passionate about equity in books and education. She has been an English teacher, a dean, and a teacher professional development mastermind. She is currently the vice principal of a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Homemade chocolate chip cookies, outdoor adventures, and dance parties with her kids make Joanna’s eyes crinkle into crescent moons. Her books for young readers include Eyes That Kiss in the Corners. Visit her at www.joannahowrites.com and @JoannaHoWrites.
Amy Nam is a student from Toronto, Ontario. She serves as the executive director of The Reclamation Project, a nonprofit organization focused on raising the next generation of informed and anti-prejudiced people, where she leads the publication of The Radical Magazine and campaigns for more inclusive and anti-biased youth education. Through her work, Amy has gained a deep passion for social activism and the power of storytelling. She enjoys writing short stories that provide snippets into people’s lives and politically charged op-eds with clear-cut calls to action and no space for passivity.