By Michele Kirichanskaya
Today we’re pleased to welcome Karen Yin to the WNDB blog to discuss Whole Whale.
Congratulations on your debut picture book, Whole Whale! Could you please tell the readers a little about what the book’s about?
Thank you! In Whole Whale, one hundred animals gather inside the book to play, but the largest one, a blue whale, is in danger of being left out. It’s up to the rest to figure out how to include their whale friend. Whole Whale encourages young readers to think inclusively and solve problems creatively.
Children will love the fun STEM component, with counting, biodiversity, and animal identification, a chart of all one hundred animals, plus pages that fold out to reveal the solution to the animals’ dilemma. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the whimsical illustrations are by award-winning illustrator Nelleke Verhoeff.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
The prospect of a “whole whale” had me wondering about size and space. At the time, like many US Americans, I was grappling with the reality that our government was bent on tearing migrant families apart at the US-Mexico border. Writing is my activism, so I sought refuge in pen and paper. I wanted to put my whale in a scenario with a similar emotional resonance, that of being excluded because of structural inequity.
The first lines I wrote were, “A hundred animals can fit on one page—but surely not a whole whale! A story about making space for all.” And that was all I needed to imagine an immigration-themed story that children can relate to. It’s one thing to believe in inclusion but another to know how to include, so my hope is for young readers to be empowered to think outside the book when making space for those who’ve been excluded throughout history.
In a previous interview, you mentioned a very sweet note about your book dedication. Would you mind sharing what it is?
Though I’ve been writing for years, my mom had never read anything of mine. I was born in the US and she emigrated from Taiwan, so our fluency in the other’s language is limited to essential things, like food, family, work, money, and love. When Barefoot Books asked for a dedication, I immediately thought of thanking my favorite beings in the multiverse—my mom and my partner. But I wanted my mom to read “Mama” in her native language. I’ve never seen Chinese in an English dedication before, but Barefoot was totally on board. My mom was the first to receive an author copy, and it was truly special to witness her surprise at the dedication. We took turns reading Whole Whale out loud, and I made her look for all the animals mentioned—haha!
How did you find yourself getting into the world of children’s books?
Picture books are my literary comfort food. My reading life began with me devouring stacks of library books every week. I’ve always immersed myself in stories to keep reality at bay, so it’s almost expected that I return to the world that has brought me so much joy and calm.
My first foray into kidlit lasted a few hours. In 2002, I took a one-day course on writing picture books, dreaming of reclaiming the wonder that life had eroded. But I foolishly let the instructor convince me that picture books are harder to write than novels, and I dropped the idea. My next attempt was in 2019. I had been writing short stories and even shorter fiction and had awards to show for it. So I signed up for this Children’s Book Academy picture book writing course I had been eyeing. It was wonderfully supportive. The random skills I had collected along the way—including drawing and design—fell into place, as though I had known I would end up here.
As it turns out, picture books are much easier for me to write than novels, because short fiction is where I thrive. Within months, I signed with Red Fox Literary, the first literary agency I cold-queried. A few months later, thanks to #DVpit, I sold the first manuscript I ever submitted, and I sold it to the first publisher I ever submitted to, Barefoot Books. And that was Whole Whale.
How would you describe the process of writing a picture book script?
Before I begin a manuscript, I spend a lot of time prewriting—dreaming, making lists, jotting down notes, outlining—because inefficiency is a nightmare and steals time away from sleep. I only write when words are ready to burst forth or I’m on deadline. Otherwise, the writing’s too cold. The prewriting stage is the most delicious part of writing because my mind is free to make odd but beautiful connections that form the spine and nervous system of my story. Once a draft is done, then I can refine it. But until words are on the verge of spilling over, I’m content to let everything simmer.
What advice would you give to other aspiring children’s book writers?
When you hear blanket statements like “The market is oversaturated with picture book biographies,” it doesn’t apply if you’re writing about your underrepresented culture or about your historically excluded community. In those cases, not enough has been published, so I hope you go for it.
Do you have any books to recommend for the readers of We Need Diverse Books?
On the topic of immigration, I highly recommend Migrants, written and illustrated by Issa Watanabe. This wordless picture book follows a motley crew of animals on an arduous journey to a new place. The art is absolutely stunning and evocative, shrouded in the kind of detachment that pulls you in. Just beautiful.
Are there any other projects you are incubating and at liberty to speak about?
My picture book that’s closest to my heart is coming out in 2022, called So Not Ghoul. Mimi, a Chinese American ghost, is caught in bicultural fashion limbo when her ghost ancestors refuse to let her wear a sheet and chains like the ghoulmates at the new school she’s haunting. We’ve all been there, right? To my knowledge, this will be the first picture book appearance of a ghost from Chinese lore, at least in this country. So Not Ghoul will be published by Page Street Kids and is illustrated by the mega-talented Bonnie Lui.
Karen Yin is the author of Whole Whale (Barefoot Books, 2021) and So Not Ghoul (Page Street Kids, 2022). Acclaim for her writing includes a Lambda Literary Fellowship, a Table 4 Writers Foundation grant, an SCBWI Nonfiction Grant, and selection of her flash fiction for the Los Angeles Public Library’s permanent collection. Winner of the 2017 ACES Robinson Prize for advancing the profession of editing, Karen founded several nationally acclaimed digital tools for writers and editors, including Conscious Style Guide and The Conscious Language Newsletter. Karen is a member of SCBWI, the Authors Guild, and the Dramatists Guild. She lives with her partner and their cat friends on a mountain near Los Angeles. Find her at KarenYin.com and her book recommendations at DiversePictureBooks.com.