Jenny Mei Is Sad by Tracy Subisak is on sale now.
By Tracy Subisak
I remember exactly where I was when I began to write this book. I was sitting in a hammock in my backyard when the first words came out in my notebook. “Jenny Mei is sad.” I began to cry because it was my way of admitting to myself that I was sad. My mom had passed away the month before after a nine-month battle with stage four lung cancer. I was going through a year of grief and trauma that I did not know how to comprehend, and I had big, confusing emotions.
There are a couple of themes that I wanted to embody in this book—the complexity of sadness and grief, and the beauty of friendship.
Jenny Mei is going through something sad. Even as she faces her challenge, the world doesn’t pause for her to digest her feelings. She still goes to school, she still shares her snacks, she still does activities. Even though she’s sad, she can be happy too. When she’s reminded of her sadness in a school activity, her emotions bubble out in anger and her classmates don’t understand why she acts out, except for one friend who knows what Jenny Mei is going through.
This is exactly what I went through—watching my mom in pain, watching her health diminish, and not being able to do anything about it, but be her friend. It was so hard that I felt angry, sad, and heavy all at once.
Sad things are hard to talk about. Sometimes I really wanted to talk about what I was going through and what my mom was going through, and sometimes I just wanted a break from thinking about it all the time. Sometimes I would tell a friend what was going on to hear them say, “That’s too sad” or “Oh, let’s not talk about that,” and feel like a burden for saying anything. Sometimes I would have to say, “It’s not going to get better,” to a friend who was trying to brighten the mood.
Before mom was diagnosed, I did not know how to be a friend to someone who’s going through grief. Grief really stinks and few people know how to talk about it. It’s hard to know what that friend might need or what to say in a situation that might not get better.
I received so much kindness and love from my wonderful friends who inspired this book.
Have you ever had a really stinkin’ tough time, and when you see someone, you are able to be vulnerable with, like your mom or a good friend, you begin to cry?
My friend Nicole would always know when I was sad and give me mangoes to cheer me up. My friend Zoey would listen and cry with me. My friend (and partner) Matty would give me big hugs and the space to express my wide range of emotions. Some friends would go on walks with me, some would simply check in and see how I was doing, and some would send me silly videos to watch. There are so many ways to support a friend.
It takes a lot to open up about hard things, and checking in, listening, and validating can be some of the best things someone sad may need. It was the friends who opened the door to me and kept it open—to listen, to comfort, to hug – that made all the difference.
In addition to being a book about grief and friendship, Jenny Mei Is Sad is about representation.
I grew up with my mom validating that I am Asian; however, my identity was questioned consistently. I had to find my own way of defining myself. It wasn’t until I was in college that I heard the term 混血, mixed race.
Mixed kids are magical—they are lucky to grow up in multiple cultures, with multiple viewpoints. They are curious about everything. They can belong everywhere and not quite belong anywhere. Having never seen myself, a mixed Taiwanese American, in any book growing up I wanted mixed kids to see themselves in this book and any book I create.
Jenny Mei’s name has a special meaning—“Mei” has multiple possibilities, and I wanted her name to be both 美 (mei), which means beautiful, and 妹妹 (meimei), meaning little sister.
Another small nod to Taiwanese culture is that food is a form of love and it always helps us feel a little better. It can be something small, like sharing an orange or digging the change out of your pocket and buying a snack at the corner shop. It’s nurturing, sharing, and caring.
It’s been a hard year—we all have been through our own challenges and our own grief, as well as finding ways to step up to support our friends. I hope you can find your way of listening to those that are in need and maybe take a walk with popsicles together.
There was a time when Tracy Subisak was very, very sad. Tracy’s friends helped her through this time by going on walks with her, eating favorite foods together, and giving her big hugs often. She is the illustrator of several picture books, including the award-winning Shawn Loves Sharks by Curtis Manley and the nonfiction picture book Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane by Kirsten Larson. Tracy is from Ohio and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. To learn more about Tracy, you can visit her website, tracysubisak.com and her Instagram, @tracysubisak.