By Sara Conway
Today we’re pleased to invite Karen Chan to the WNDB blog to discuss her picture book What’s That?, illustrated by Basia Tran, out November 30, 2021!
Jax loves the food his family cooks. But when his grandmother packs his favorite Chinese dishes for his first day of school, Jax discovers his lunch looks very different from what the rest of his classmates are eating. Embarrassed to eat his food, Jax finds himself sitting alone. When Meena sits next to him, the two strike an unexpected friendship over their lunches, sharing a mutual joy of time spent in the kitchen and the delicious meals they eat with their families. What’s That? is a heartwarming story about the foods that make up who we are and how the meals we eat can bring us together.
Hi Karen! Thank you for joining me on We Need Diverse Books today. Please introduce yourself and What’s That?, your new picture book!
Thanks for having me! I’m a mother of two boys, an entrepreneur, and an attorney. I started a publishing company, Gloo Books, after writing my first children’s book. When I became a mom, I noticed there weren’t a lot of books that featured Asian characters. I started buying books with diverse characters as I felt it was not only important for my son to see himself represented in books, but also people different from him. What’s That? explores Asian American identity through food and is about a boy named Jax who brings homemade Chinese food to school for lunch. He finds that his lunch looks very different from what the rest of his classmates are eating and ends up embarrassed and alone when he hears others teasing him for his lunch. A new friend, Meena, joins him and she has a lunch packed full of Indian food, and the two strike up an unexpected friendship over their lunches and mutual joy of spending time in the kitchen and eating with their families.
What’s That? is full of subtle rhythm, as you wrote it with a rhyming scheme. What informed your decision to write the story this way?
Even though the book talks about the experience of feeling marginalized, which can be a serious or sad topic, I wanted the focus of the story to be about the celebratory nature of eating food, which is a very universal and relatable experience. There’s an element of joy in reading in rhyming books aloud and I wanted a book that talks about Asian American identity to be imbued with that sense of joy in both the visual and text.
Basia Tran’s artwork is gorgeous and lively! Do you have a favorite spread? What is it, and why is it your favorite?
Her work is so beautiful! My favorite spread is the one with Jax and Meena sitting on a dragon flying through mooncakes—it is magical.
What experiences did you draw on to create What’s That? A moment that stood out to me was when Jax realizes that some of his classmates are criticizing his lunch and saying “ew” to his favorite foods.
I drew from my own experiences growing up. Being teased for the foods you eat is a pretty common experience for Asian Americans. As a kid, all you want to do is fit in and I remember being embarrassed about the Chinese foods my dad would pack for me. Now as an adult I love sharing the foods from my heritage!
Readers get to immerse themselves in Jax and Meena’s memories when they eat certain foods. Do you have any strong memories attached to specific types of food?
Yes, lots! From the book, I have lots of memories of eating hot pot with my family. There were plates of veggies, seafood, and meat and little bowls of dipping sauce, and everyone reaching over each other cooking food in a hot steamy kitchen.
And while we’re talking about Meena, what inspired her character?
Meena was inspired by one of my childhood best friends. I would always go over to her house and eat the food her mom cooked. She was an incredible cook. There were always fresh chapatis and a simmering pot of chai on the stove. I loved the way her kitchen smelled and it was my first introduction to Indian home cooking. To this day, the smell of ginger, garlic, and spices cooking take me back to her kitchen.
At the end of the glossary, there is a note about how the pronunciations given are not the only ones for the dishes. Why was it important to you to mention the variety of languages and dialects spoken in the countries where these dishes are eaten?
It was important to acknowledge the many languages, cultures, and foods in China and South Asia, and that the regions are incredibly diverse and vast.
Since What’s That? is all about comforting food from home, what is a food (or foods) that reminds you of home?
My mom’s oxtail. It’s braised in a sweet soy sauce with some carrots and tomatoes and the sauce becomes thick from all the collagen from the oxtail. It’s so delicious and one of my favorite dishes to eat. It’s also become a fast favorite of her grandkids!
What do you hope readers, particularly young readers, discover or take away from What’s That?
I hope What’s That? will teach young readers to be proud of their culture and to pique their curiosity about foods from other cultures. Most importantly, I hope this book will inspire a love for cooking and food!
What’s That? is definitely a book so many will love and need. What other picture books do you see in conversation with your own?
Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao, Tomatoes for Neela, No Kimchi for Me!, Our Little Kitchen, Thank You, Omu!—books that celebrate food!
Do you have books you are currently loving? What recent or upcoming releases are you looking forward to?
I’ve been loving El Cucuy Is Scared Too! I love that it’s an introduction to the Mexican folklore of El Cucuy while also talking about topics of homesickness and starting a new school. I’m also really looking forward to reading Eva Chen’s I Am Golden, which is described as a manifesto of self-love for Chinese-American children.
Basia Tran is a Polish-Vietnamese children’s book illustrator currently based in Jersey City, where she lives with her husband. She hopes that she can share her love of laughter and learning with the world through her art.
Sara Conway is a New York-based writer of many things, including books, art, and music. She is currently a library page at her local library, where she discovers even more books to add to her ever-growing TBR pile. Sara also runs Lyrical Reads, a book blog dedicated to uplifting diverse voices, with a soft spot for Asian and Asian American stories. She can be found writing reviews for her book blog, taking photos for her Bookstagram, or (re)tweeting about all the books on her Twitter.