By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Julie Jarema and Helen H. Wu to the WNDB blog to discuss their picture book Tofu Takes Time, out today, April 19, 2022!
Homemade tofu is good, and good things take time.
CLICK CLACK WHIRRRR . . . Lin and her grandma, NaiNai, are making tofu from scratch! When NaiNai goes through each step, from blending soybeans with water to molding curd into shape, Lin gradually becomes impatient. But she soon discovers that making tofu not only takes time, but also takes the whole universe! It takes the seed from soil and sunshine, the cloth from thread and fiber, weight and space, books of words and pictures. And most of all, it takes spending lovely time with her beloved grandmother.
In this charming tale by Helen H. Wu,, readers will marvel at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish made by a modern Chinese American family. Perfect for fans of Fry Bread, Drawn Together, and Thank You, Omu.
First of all, welcome to We Need Diverse Books! Could you tell us a little about yourselves?
Helen: It’s truly an honor to be on WNDB. I am thrilled to share more about Tofu Takes Time and my publishing journey. I’m a children’s book author and illustrator, as well as a translator. I work as the associate publisher at Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publishing house which publishes picture books in Chinese and English. I’m the author of Tofu Takes Time.
Julie: Thank you! I’m the illustrator of Tofu Takes Time, but I’m also a writer, bookseller, and former WNDB intern.
Where did the inspiration for your book Tofu Takes Time come from? And do you have any personal connections or stories surrounding tofu yourselves?
Helen: The inspiration for this story was born of my tofu-making experience with my own grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat by my grandma and watched her cooking, including making tofu. She washed vegetables, chopped meat, stirred porridge, and cooked all the meals for the whole family. While cooking, my grandma always told me stories, which brought me to faraway places and times. After I moved to the US and had my own family, once I made tofu with my kids, they asked me a lot about the process and all the tools we used. This reminded me of the sweet time I spent with my grandma in the small kitchen across the ocean. A story began to take shape. But I knew to be a story in the true sense, it had to be about something bigger and more relevant to kids. When I cooked with my own kids, they would start their imaginative play and occasionally complain about how long it takes to cook a meal. This inspired me to include the topic of patience. When I took a closer look at the tofu-making process in an imaginative way, I discovered an assortment of elements it contained to connect nature and even the universe. I’m pleased to find a sweet spot to include food, culture, patience, nature, and intergenerational love in one book.
Julie: I’ll let Helen tell you about her inspiration for the story, but I’m adopted with Midwestern parents, so I grew up with more meat-and-potatoes meals than anything with tofu. I now enjoy tofu and cook it frequently (though the only time I made it from scratch was while working on this book).
How did you both find yourselves getting drawn into the world of children’s books? What were some of your favorite examples growing up?
Helen: I was first introduced to the world of picture books by Jimmy Liao’s books, when I was in college. I’ve been passionate about writing and drawing since I was a kid; however, I never thought it would be a career option when I grew up in China. My parents were very supportive, but we didn’t have typical picture books when I grew up. We had black-and-white comic books and only in the last two decades, picture books were introduced into China. The Chinese children’s book market started much later than other markets around the world.
Julie: I’ve always been a bookworm, and many books I read when I was little have stuck with me throughout my life—particularly ones with mischievous protagonists, probably because I was such a well-behaved rule follower. I got to vicariously get up to trouble with none of the consequences by reading books about girls who jumped into rivers and yelled at buses. Madeline, Eloise, and shelves of chapter book heroines like Ramona and Junie B. Jones kept me reading and laughing.
Where would you say you first found your love of storytelling? Were there any illustrators or writers who inspired you in your own journeys towards becoming creative artists?
Helen: I first found my love of storytelling by illustrating other authors’ self-published books. I did digital drawings and put up a portfolio online, then someone came to me and asked me if I could illustrate their picture books. Gradually, I illustrated more self-published picture books and got involved in every step of bookmaking. When my son was born, I was inspired to write and illustrate my own picture books. I wanted to tell stories about Chinese culture and to feature immigrant families so that my children and families with a similar experience can see themselves represented.
Julie: Whether reading them or making them up, stories were always a constant. My dad played storytelling games with my sister and me when we were little, encouraging and challenging us to weave wacky tales together based on a handful of words we each picked out. In elementary school, I would staple booklets of paper together and write and draw stories about friends going on adventures. It feels like the habit was cemented in early.
The list of writers and illustrators that have inspired me is endless! I think I really started digging back into picture books in high school and realized how drawn I was to their universality and whimsical illustrations. To name a few specific creators, though, I admire Maira Kalman, Carson Ellis, Matthew Forsythe, Rebecca Green, Isabelle Arsenault, Julie Morstad, Yas Imamura, Felicita Sala—and those are just off the top of my head. Plus everything Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen work on together. They’re experts at creating that picture book tension between the words and the images with such concision and humor.
Besides these giants, my own amazing writing/illustration group inspires me and keeps me creating!
Based on your own experiences, what would you say goes into making a children’s book, including the collaboration process between illustrator and writer?
Helen: The text and the illustrations are equally important to making a picture book.
For this book, Julie and I mainly collaborated through our editor Naomi Krueger. During the phase of character design, Naomi asked me to share some photos of my grandma with Julie for inspiration. My parents in China helped me. They went through stacks of family albums and dug out some old photos of me at about 5 years old, which drew me back to sweet memories with my grandma and grandpa. I almost cried tears of joy to see the little girl that Julie drew, with my name on a children’s book representing Chinese culture! I am so incredibly grateful that I got to work with Julie on this book.
Julie: Much like the tofu process in this book, it took a lot of time and imagination. I was lucky to be paired up with this delicious story and the lyrical text that Helen wrote. I was given a lot of room to interpret the more poetic parts of the book.
Besides looking at family photos from Helen, we didn’t have much interaction with each other. I think it required a lot of trust—both on Helen’s part and my own in myself—to bring something that would express the stated text, but also bring additional layers to the story.
What are some of your favorite parts of the writing/illustrating process?
Helen: Reading the book and singing its theme song with my kids. I wrote a theme song for the book trailer. My son and daughter had a lot of fun reading the book and then singing the song together with me. I’m working to arrange a dance to the song. My favorite part is to create an inspiring experience for young readers inside and beyond one book.
Julie: I grew up doing Chinese dance, cultural camp, and Mandarin classes, and didn’t appreciate most of it at the time. But now, any opportunities to dive in and learn more about my heritage are valuable to me.
I enjoyed scouring through pictures, including Helen’s family photos that she shared with me, as well as my own from my parents’ trips to China, and gathering imagery from silk embroidery, Chinese fairytales, folk art around the house, and letting these come through in the book’s details. Also, I enjoyed collecting many mouthwatering tofu recipes.
Since this definitely a book based on a love for food, I was wondering what are some of your favorite dishes to eat?
Helen: Suan Cai Yu, it’s hot and sour fish with pickled mustard greens. We’d order this dish almost every time we go to a Chinese restaurant.
Julie: I love a good dumpling! From pierogis to pot stickers, I’m reminded of joyful gatherings with family and friends.
What advice would you give to other aspiring writers and artists, whether those wanting to create children’s books or otherwise?
Helen: Read as many books as you can in the genre you intend to write. Take picture book writing classes. Find a critique group and get feedback on your stories. Revise, revise, revise. Most importantly, keep writing and keep going.
Julie: Make sure you’re putting in the time to practice your craft. Some of it is daydreaming, but a good portion of it has to involve actually sitting down and putting your ideas on paper. Find a supportive critique partner or group to keep you accountable and motivated.
What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet, but wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?
Helen: How important is an author’s media presence and marketing?
Author’s media presence and marketing definitely helps. Every time the author tweets, posts, or shares the work, it helps spread the word and lets more people know about the book, even just among family and friends and local communities.
For book marketing, instead of using it for promoting and selling books, I would see it as an opportunity to learn about the publishing industry, get connected with fellow writers and illustrators, and support each other in the community. Publishing is already a long journey. I hope fellow authors will enjoy the process of being published and building connections with the community and being proud of every step of their accomplishments.
Julie: What have you been cooking lately?
Vegetarian soup dumplings. Zucchini potato soup. Fruit smoothies. Mushroom pasta.
Are there any other projects you are incubating and at liberty to speak about?
Helen: My next picture book, Long and the Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom, will be published by Yeehoo Press in February 2023.
Inspired by my experience as a minority immigrant student, this picture book follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. Wrapped in Eastern and Western dragon lore, this fantasy tale celebrates perseverance, self-acceptance, and cultural differences.
Julie: I can’t mention anything specific yet, but I promise I’m working on things! They happen to also involve food and family.
Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
Helen: Here are some of my favorite new books, So Not Ghoul by Karen Yin, illustrated by Bonnie Lui, The School of Failure by Rosie J. Pova, illustrated by Monika Filipina, Anzu the Great Kaiju by Benson Shum, Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation by Sylvia Liu, and Abuelita and I Make Flan by Adriana Hernández Bergstrom.
Julie: If I could reach through the screen and put Ten Little Dumplings by Larissa Fan and illustrated by Cindy Wume along with The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen in your hands, I would. But instead, I’ll just have to beg you to run to your indie bookstore or library and check those two out.
Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author, illustrator, translator and publisher. She is the author of Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema (Beaming Books, 2022) and Long Goes To Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press, 2023). Helen is the Associate Publisher of Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publisher. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that can empower children to understand the world and our connections. Currently, Helen lives in San Diego, California, with her family and two kids. Learn more about Helen at helenhwu.com and follow her on Twitter at @HelenHWu and on Instagram at @HelenHWu.
Julie Jarema is an illustrator, writer, and bookseller. She graduated from Bard College with a degree in Written Arts. When she’s not making up stories, you can find her going on backyard adventures, sending snail mail, or practicing her circus skills.
Michele Kirichanskaya (she/