By Sara Conway
Today we’re pleased to welcome Maggie P. Chang to the WNDB blog to discuss her graphic novel Geraldine Pu and Her Lunch Box, Too!, out June 29, 2021!
Meet spunky, funny, and friendly Geraldine Pu as she takes on a bully and makes a new friend in this first book in a new Level 3 Ready-to-Read Graphics series!
Geraldine Pu’s favorite part of school is lunch. She loves her lunch box, which she calls Biandang. She can’t wait to see what her grandmother, Amah, has packed inside it each day. Then one day, Geraldine gets stinky tofu…and an unexpected surprise. What will she do?
Ready-to-Read Graphics books give readers the perfect introduction to the graphic novel format with easy-to-follow panels, speech bubbles with accessible vocabulary, and sequential storytelling that is spot-on for beginning readers. There’s even a how-to guide for reading graphic novels at the beginning of each book.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with We Need Diverse Books! First off, what inspired you to write Geraldine’s story?
Thank you so much for having me! Much of the inspiration comes from my own childhood. As a second-generation Taiwanese American, I grew up in Kansas with my own Amah (whom I adored!), and in many ways, Geraldine’s voice is my own. As you might imagine, there were things and people that made me feel like I didn’t belong, and the lack of characters who looked like me in books and the media didn’t help. So Geraldine is very much about AAPI representation.
I was also inspired to write about a confident, well-adjusted girl just navigating a typical elementary school landscape, and that girl happens to be Asian American. There were books about Lunar New Year, about BIPOC kids as victims of bullying—important topics, but what was beyond that? Could I touch on universal themes while also championing the unique, minority voice?
How did Geraldine’s character and her lunch box, Biandang, come about, both visually and story-wise? What caused you to tell Geraldine Pu and Her Lunch Box, Too! from Biandang’s perspective?
I started by illustrating different memories from my childhood, and a recurring theme was … food! I then wrote the story—one not based on my own life because Geraldine is third generation, as well as more self-assured than I was. With the early drafts, I loved that the story was so relatable, but I wanted to present it in a fresh way. Also, the story seemed kind of sad! Not the tone I wanted for my spunky protagonist. She needed a fun sidekick, so I gave her lunch box thought bubbles and a name. Biandang literally protects what she loves (her Amah’s Taiwanese food) and can defend without making Geraldine seem overly defensive. Plus, Biandang is kind of like Geraldine’s subconscious and a way to include all the confident things that she knows … but doesn’t say out loud. Because at the end of the day, Geraldine knows her Amah’s lunches are de-licious but doesn’t feel she has to prove herself.
Visually, I brightened the tone with a cheery color palette, and the gritty ink, the watercolor washes, and the splatter all reinforced the idea that sometimes things get messy!
Summarizing all that makes it sound easy-breezy, but let it be known that there were several writing revisions, character sheets, sketches that got cut, critique group notes, input from my super-smart editors, etc., etc., etc.!
Geraldine’s relationship with her Amah is central to the story; did you draw from any personal experiences to create this dynamic?
Definitely! I was raised by my mom and my grandparents, and because my mom worked—it was my grandmother, my Amah, who did all the cooking, packed the lunches. She was always in the kitchen prepping a thing. Pots and dishes always clanging, leftovers always simmering in a soup. Pretty regularly, she’d make these incredible, ten-dish Taiwanese meals, and then I’d have the nerve to ask her for a cheeseburger or a Hot Pocket instead! Anything that seemed more American (that made me seem more American). I think she got it, but also the ingredients available to her where we lived were limited. She’d replace Chinese sausage with hot dogs and make other mash-ups—making it her own still, the way Geraldine’s Amah does with her “special sandwich.”
My Amah was also big and tall like Geraldine’s Amah. The character’s stature embodies safety and groundedness—things that Geraldine finds at home that allow her to embrace her culture, and ultimately herself. Lastly, my Amah was full of wisdom but seldomly doled it out. There was some distance between us with the language barriers and cultural differences, but I like to think she gave us space to figure things out on our own and provided stability with her love and presence.
Nico is the new kid in school, and his (loud) reactions cause Geraldine’s other classmates to turn their noses up around her lunch. What inspired Nico’s character?
I use to be a teacher and loved all my students (including the loud ones). I could see that the kids who picked on other kids had a reason, even if their actions were hurtful and wrong. I wanted Nico’s portrayal to have a bit more dimension than the typical bully. The book introduces him as a kid who’s afraid of anything new—he wears only striped shirts and eats the same exact lunch every day. Because empathy is a big part of the story, I hope that readers understand on some level that Nico is acting out of fear, and even “bullies” have their issues to work through.
Why was a graphic novel the best way to tell Geraldine’s story?
Because graphic novels are awesome! And it’s how I see things. When stories first come to me, it’s like I’m watching an animated movie. Scenes play out with different camera angles, dialogue, and sounds. I think graphic novels and animations have a lot of similarities. Motion lines help readers experience static visuals as action. Sound effects can provide rhythm, emotion, emphasis like a soundtrack does. I love playing with dramatic cinematic elements, too. Like the moment when Geraldine realizes her Amah packed her a bao as her “sandwich” and it’s depicted with three panels that zoom in. A real dun, dun, DUN! moment. Plus, so many facial expressions are possible in GNs! So, to me, this format really brings the story to life, and I wanted Geraldine to feel real—like she could be a friend you know at school.
Since Geraldine Pu and Her Lunch Box, Too! is all about food, do you have any particular memories about food, especially Taiwanese food? And since Geraldine tries new food, what is a type of food that you would like to try?
I have fond memories of wrapping yummy things with my Amah—dumplings, baos, zongzis (sticky rice often bundled with meat, egg, mushroom, and peanuts wrapped in banana leaves). Dumpling days always took over the kitchen because we’d make many batches all at once. Zongzis were too tricky for my small hands, but I loved watching my Amah sit on a low stool, with ingredients in bowls on the floor, and a broomstick horizontal on two barstools where she’d tie all the wrapped banana leaves. I also vividly remember the first time I tried stinky tofu! We were out to eat in Texas, on a family trip. I hear my Ayi (my aunty) order stinky tofu casually like its name is not the funniest/best name ever. She was a big fan of this dish, but my mom—not so much! Giddy with curiosity over what such a dish could taste like, I smelled it before it even came out of the kitchen. I thought, “Oh, that’s gotta be it.” When the server brought it to our table and took off the lid, the stink socked me in the face! But I took a bite, and truthfully—I love, love, LOVED it. And I still do!
A new food I’d like to try—chaat! Indian street food. I just moved to an area in Orange County that’s ten minutes away from Little India, and according to my Indian friends, chaat is where it’s at. Taiwan is so big on street food, it’s more like a way of life. So, I’m eager to discover what Indian street food is all about!
Geraldine Pu is going to be a series! What can readers expect in the upcoming books?
Yes, it’s very exciting! There will continue to be opportunities for our girl to showcase her compassion, self-development, and spunk. And her confidence will continue to be tested but it will largely come from within—from her own introspection—instead of being provoked by her classmates. Each book in the series will feature a different belonging that’s related to the story’s theme. So in the second book, we meet Geraldine’s cat hat, and the theme is hair! Last thing I’ll say: Things will still tend to get hilariously messy for Geraldine … but that’s life!
Do you have a question you wished you were asked more (and the answer)?
I always want to talk more about feelings! The book is absolutely about food, inclusion, and cultural diversity, but the subplot for me is how Geraldine navigates her feelings. Food is a love language in many cultures, and most certainly in Taiwanese culture. Amah shows Geraldine her love through her food, which is why it feels so, so bad when Geraldine rejects Amah’s bao. Then Geraldine ends up wasting her delicious bao—and oh, the shame! This scene sums up the guilt I have on behalf of younger me who wasted opportunities to just enjoy the thing from my culture that I genuinely enjoyed, instead of rejecting it because others outside of my culture did. There’s also Geraldine’s angry outburst. Traditionally, good little Asian girls are not angry but taught to be polite and obedient. But to feel angry is authentic to any child’s experience—really any human experience. I wanted to show that while it’s okay to be angry, it’s what you do with your anger that’s important. You can easily hurt someone/something you love … or you can right some wrongs.
For readers of Geraldine Pu and Her Lunch Box, Too!, what other books would you recommend? What books and/or other media are you currently loving?
Babymouse for emergent readers wanting more graphic novels. The Jasmine Toguchi series for those ready for chapter books and who want more Asian American main characters. Geraldine is also a part of Simon & Schuster’s new Ready-to-Read Graphics line, and I’m certain the other books in the line will be great!
Personally, I currently have been gobbling up middle-grade books. I hope to write one of my own one day!
And lastly, what food is home for you?
Ooo, sooo many of my Amah’s Taiwanese dishes! A prominent one is probably yellow chicken curry. Gosh, I could really go for some right now!
Maggie P. Chang grew up in Kansas, where she constantly had her nose in a book and art supplies close by. She began her career in art education, but after teaching the most fabulous and talented teens at LaGuardia Arts High School (a.k.a. the Fame school), she was inspired to follow her own passion for children’s books. This Taiwanese American is the author-illustrator of the Geraldine Pu series and is also the cofounder of two education nonprofits. Maggie lives in California with her husband, their daughter, and their dog, Benihana.
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.