By Olivia Mules
Today we’re pleased to welcome Karen Yin to the WNDB blog to discuss picture book So Not Ghoul!, illustrated by Bonnie Lui and out August 2, 2022!
On her first day haunting a new school, all Mimi has to wear are old Chinese gowns from her great-great-great-great-great-ghost-grandmother. She wants to look horrifying and rattle chains with the cool American ghouls at school, but her ghost ancestors insist she dress and behave like a good Chinese ghost. Desperate to fit in and find a middle haunting ground between her cultures, she plans a ghastly new look. But she questions whether her haunt couture is a fabulous fright or a grave mistake when her family finds out, and another ghoul at school appropriates her Chinese fashion.
This ghoulishly playful ghost story offers a boo-tiful reminder that while sometimes school and family can make you feel invisible, bicultural pride never goes out of style.
Tell me a little about your new book, So Not Ghoul. What inspired you to write it? What can readers expect?
My love of ghosts from the Chinese culture inspired me to write a story about a little Chinese American ghost named Mimi. Her ghost ancestors insist that she dress like a classic ghost from their Chinese culture instead of a classic ghost from her American culture. This makes it tough for her to look ghoul when all the ghosts at the new school she’s haunting are wearing super awesome sheets and chains!
To my knowledge, So Not Ghoul is the first picture book in the U.S. to feature a Chinese-style ghost. Her look is a cutified version of the Diao Si Gui, a ghost with a tongue lolling out and eyes peering through long hair. Google it at your own risk! She’s also decked out in ghostly hanfu, inherited through her ghost lineage. Straddling two cultures and being rejected by both takes on another dimension in the afterworld. I’m beyond delighted to contribute So Not Ghoul’s intersectional perspective to the rich ghost lore from China and the U.S. and to have illustrator Bonnie Lui’s fun reimagining of a Chinese ghost.
Did you have to do any research for this book? If so, what was the most interesting thing you found out about?
Research takes me places I’ve never been, so I love the discovery stage of writing. To create my own ghost proverbs, I found English translations of Chinese proverbs to study ways to tell people what to do without telling them what to do. Here’s a hint in the form of an example: Successful proverbs make an observation instead of a demand.
I also consulted my mom, who’s Chinese, at every opportunity. Writing this book was an excuse to call her up and talk about things like the Ghost Festival in China, the pronunciation of the word for “father’s grandfather” in Mandarin, and appropriate Chinese surnames for my ghost family. In the end papers, So Not Ghoul has a message written in Chinese that my mom helped craft. How ghoul is that?
Did you encounter any challenges or unexpected surprises when writing the book?
The biggest challenge was the denouement. So Not Ghoul deals with bullying and cultural misappropriation—pretty big topics—and between the two, the ending could’ve gone in a number of directions. For a picture book, I decided to keep it simple and express my eternal hope for repair and healing, which starts with respect.
In your book, Mimi is trying to fit in with her peers. She ends up learning to be happy with herself and how she is. What message would you like to tell children who want to fit in?
To be honest, I’ve never cared for the sentiment “Be yourself,” because I learned early on that there are consequences to self-expression for some but not others. We’re not free in equal degrees, and placing the whole burden of happiness on the individual is unrealistic. Mimi’s solution, then, is not to be herself but to buck the arbitrary rules imposed on her by both cultures. So in the end, Mimi is happy but not because she changed. Mimi is happy because the ghoulmates changed also, in a way that made it safe for all of them and future ghosts to express themselves and be happy. Like with my first picture book, Whole Whale, illustrated by Nelleke Verhoeff, I encourage readers to challenge the realities reinforcing unfairness instead of developing a habit of helplessness. How things are is not how things can or should be.
What question do you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
“Where would you like your stacks of Benjamins?” (Meet me at the bank.)
Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books or voices we should be reading?
Yes! I manage my book recommendations through Bookshop.org. My affiliate commission goes toward running the many free services I offer to the writing, editing, and reading communities, including Conscious Style Guide and The Conscious Language Newsletter. Please check out my themed lists—like Body Positivity Picture Books, Immigration Picture Books, and Social Justice Picture Books—at DiversePictureBooks.com. Thank you!
Karen Yin is an author of inclusive and intersectional children’s books, including Whole Whale (Barefoot Books, 2021) and So Not Ghoul (Page Street Kids, 2022), and the upcoming nonfiction book for adults, Conscious Language (Little, Brown Spark). Recent acclaim for her writing includes a 2021 California Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship and selection of her flash fiction for the Los Angeles Public Library’s permanent collection in 2020. An award-winning editor, Karen founded several digital tools, including The Conscious Language Newsletter, the Editors of Color Database, and Diverse Databases, but is best known for her groundbreaking Conscious Style Guide. Find her online at KarenYin.com and her book recommendations at DiversePictureBooks.com.
Olivia Mules is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Olivia’s goal is to work in academic librarianship and reference services with a focus on information literacy. Before starting her degree program, she was a special education teacher and taught math and science. Her favorite literary heroines are Elizabeth Bennet, Gemma Doyle, and Arya Dröttning. When Olivia is not doing schoolwork, she enjoys cooking, music, hikes with her wife and daughter, and drinking an inordinate amount of iced coffee.