The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Andrea Wang & Hyewon Yum_Review Luli and the Language of Tea
I have the honor to interview the dynamic duo - Andrea Wang and Hyewon Yum - about their poignant new picture book collaboration.
Andrea Wang is an acclaimed author of children’s books. Her book Watercress was awarded the Caldecott Medal, a Newbery Honor, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, a New England Book Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family.
She’s also the author of The Many Meanings of Meilan (2021), Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (2019), and The Nian Monster (2016), and seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market.
Hyewon Yum was born and grew up in South Korea. She came here to study illustration in the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. And now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family.
She is the author/illustrator of several acclaimed books for children, including Grandpa Across the Ocean (2021), Lion Needs A Haircut (2020), Saturday Is Swimming Day (2018), Puddle (2016), Twin’s Little Sister (2014), This Is Our House (2013), Mom, It's My First Day of Kindergarten!(2012) [received the Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award], The Twins' Blanket (2011), There Are No Scary Wolves (2010), and Last Night (2008). And she’s the illustrator of Not Little by Maya Myers (2021), I Am a Bird by Hope Lim (2021), The Happiness of a Dog with a Ball in its Mouth by Bruce Handy (2021), Bark in the Park!: Poems for Dog Lovers by Avery Corman (2019), Clever Little Witch by Muon Thi Van (2019), and A Piece of Home by Jeri Watts (2016).
Their newest picture book Luli and the Language of Tea, releases May 17th.
Welcome Andrea and Hyewon,
Hi Maria! Thank you so much for having us on The Picture Book Buzz!
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate? )
ANDREA - I’ve been writing stories since I was in third grade. I started in school and loved it so much that I made my own books at home, typed on my father’s typewriter with cardboard covers decorated with wallpaper samples. In the back of one of them is my first author bio, in which I wrote, “She wrote this book when she was 9½ years old and she wants to become a writer when she grows up.” But I took a couple of detours on that writing journey. I almost went to medical school, then almost became an EMT, before finally becoming an environmental consultant. When my children were born, I found my way back to creative writing and the dream of becoming an author. Now I write full time from a pale-peach home office that’s crammed with books and blank journals waiting for inspiration to strike. I love writing books about food, culture, and “big feelings,” as my editor would say.
HYEWON - My first book came out 2008 in US, so I’ve been writing and illustrating for quite a long time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2003 and am still living and working here. Since I’m working at home, I try to keep it regular time. I usually work from 8 am till 2 pm every day.
Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
ANDREA - I read broadly and voraciously as a kid so this is a hard question to answer. A few of the books that I re-read on a regular basis were Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and Time at the Top by Edward Ormondroyd. All have main characters who don’t fit in in some way but are also adventurous and maybe a bit feisty. I was a shy kid and connected with their loneliness and desire to belong, while also being envious of their courage.
HYEWON - I loved the fairy tales and the folk tales. My mom bought me this whole series of the world’s folk tales and I adored them all, the trolls, witches, princesses.
I can see these influences in your books. Andrea, what was your inspiration for Luli and the Language of Tea?
ANDREA - I had heard somewhere that the word for “tea” is very similar in many languages and decided to see if that was true. While researching, I discovered that they all stemmed from the Chinese word for “tea” (albeit in a few different dialects). As tea was exported around the world, traders brought the Chinese word with them, and it morphed as it was adopted into the local language. It felt like a game of “telephone” to me, the way “chá” could transform to “tea” as it circled the globe.
At the same time, I wanted to play with story structure and see if I could write a picture book with a structure different from the typical “conflict-three obstacles-climax-resolution” plot arc. At first, I thought a circular structure might work, where the story’s ending leads back to the beginning. Then I read about simultaneous increasing and decreasing stories, where half of the story is cumulative (something builds) and the other half is decreasing (something gets taken away). I liked the idea of having kids drink the tea (the decreasing part) while the number of kids participating increases. The final story is a mash-up of all these different ideas and themes.
Sounds like a lot of fun research! Hyewon, what about the Luli and the Language of Tea manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
HYEWON - I love this story because it’s about sharing and including everybody. I often marveled at how we all share some common aspects even when we appear very different at first sight. Andrea’s story tells this in such a simple way. Also I love tea, it doesn’t matter if it’s chai or cha, if it’s English, Chinese or Korean. I love them all.
I have to admit the title is what snagged me first - I love all teas, too. Andrea, how many drafts did it take for Luli and the Language of Tea to go from the spark of idea to acquisition? Was this typical or different from your other books?
ANDREA - I think I wrote the initial draft and then revised the manuscript about six times over the course of a year, so about seven drafts before it was acquired. That’s unusual for me, both in terms of how quickly the manuscript came together and how few drafts there were. In contrast, Watercress took me about eight years to write the final draft and I’ve lost count of how many revisions there were during that time period. I’ve come to accept that I’m not a fast writer—I tend to go down a lot of rabbit holes while researching and it often takes me a long time to find my way “in” to a story as well as figure out the right voice for it.
Sounds like the idea found you. Hyewon, how many revisions did it take to create the illustrations for Luli and the Language of Tea? How did this compare to some of your other books?
HYEWON – I didn’t make many revisions. Luckily, I worked on this book with Jennifer and Neal, and they are very experienced. We were on the same page from the start and it was a smooth sail. As soon as I read Andrea’s manuscript, I could picture the book in my head. From there, it didn’t change much.
Wow. Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from Luli and the Language of Tea?
ANDREA - While I know that the history of the tea trade is rather grim, having its roots in colonialism and imperialism, I hope that readers will take away from Luli the idea that what happened in the past can now help us to overcome and transcend our differences. I think that’s the theme of many of my books – that no matter where we come from, the color of our skin, or the language we speak, we have more in common than we might think.
HYEWON - I hope readers find we’re not so different after all even when we look different, use different language, and drink tea differently. We can still be friends and share many things, make our lives richer.
I hope Luli helps a lot of people realize that. Hyewon, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Luli and the Language of Tea? Could you share one or more with us?
HYEWON - I took the ESL classes in the community center when I first came to US. I was already a grownup when I came here, still I felt like a little child in ESL class. We felt so happy whenever we found something in common despite our language barrier, age differences. I thought about all those friends and the moments we had in that ESL class while drawing. And Miss Hirokane is modeled after my dear friend Makiko.
Thank you for sharing that with us. Andrea, what is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about for Luli and the Language of Tea in particular?
ANDREA - I think the most challenging part about writing children’s books for me is finding the heart of the story – that emotional core. I usually start with a character and go from there. But for Luli and the Language of Tea, I began with the concept (the word for tea in many languages originated from the Chinese word) and a structure (a circular plot), and then tried to figure out the story and the emotional journey of the main character. It took me a while to come up with the setting of the playroom with the parents attending ESL classes next door!
Hyewon, what was the hardest part about illustrating Luli and the Language of Tea?
HYEWON - The map in the back matter is the hardest part. I had to think about so many things and we did make a few changes at the end.
Andrea, did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Hyewon’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
Text © Andrea Wang, 2022. Image © Hyewon Yum, 2022.
ANDREA - I was surprised and amazed by the spread where the children are sitting around the table enjoying their tea, each one having poured a little tea into Luli’s previously empty cup so that they all have some. Hyewon drew this illustration from an aerial viewpoint, looking down at the table and the heads of the children. It amazed me because I have almost the same exact diagram in my notebook for the story! While plotting out the story, I drew a large circle and wrote all the kids’ names around it. I also included their languages and the phonetic pronunciation of the word for “tea” in each language. I love all of Hyewon’s illustrations, but this spread is my favorite—the circular edge of the table literally draws a line that connects all the children, in the same way that the tea has brought them all together.
Hyewon, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Andrea Wang, 2022. Image © Hyewon Yum, 2022.
HYEWON - I like the spread where all the kids gathered together at the table. It took me long time to decide all the children’s clothing, hair and skin color. I want them to look all different but harmonious at the same time. I’m pleased with how it turned out.
I love seeing your two favorite spreads together. The tentative beginning and the creation of friends. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?
ANDREA - It’s been really hard, honestly! But I am fortunate to have several books under contract and the deadlines motivate me to keep researching and writing. Other than that, I’ve been trying to visit museums and art exhibits more, because I find that helps spark story ideas or different approaches to what I’m working on. I just went to Meow Wolf in Denver and it blew me away!
HYEWON - I’ve been reading lots of books these days. Sometimes I go to the museums and take a walk. I used to love to take a subway reading a book or watching people. I haven’t done that for a while, this spring I want to do that more often.
Andrea - I love the treehouse featured in their website! Hyewon - here's getting back to people watching and "normalcy." Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
ANDREA - I’m working on my second middle grade novel, which features a group of kids at a Chinese heritage summer camp. I’m also working on two picture book biographies of Chinese Americans which I hope will shed light on aspects of American history that aren’t typically taught in schools.
HYEWON - I’m illustrating several books right now. One that’s on my desk right at this moment is Not Perfect by Maya Myers. It’s the second book I’m working with her and I’m very excited about meeting the whole cast of Not Little again. Also I was able to write a new book, which would come out in 2024.
Andrea - we'll keep our eyes open for your books. Hyewon - I LOVED Not Little, I am so glad that spunky gal is getting another book! Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
ANDREA - My favorite park is the Glen Helen Nature Preserve in the town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I lived when I was young. We visited regularly and it’s where I fell in love with nature and science. They have a wonderful welcome center called the Trailside Museum with exhibits and displays of natural objects that you can touch. I still remember the beehive encased in glass and trying to spot the queen bee. Glen Helen had a huge impact on me. It stoked my curiosity about the world and provided a place of peace and refuge.
HYEWON - I wanted to visit the Bukhansan in Seoul. It’s the mountain on the northern side of the city. I used to go hiking with my family on the weekends when I was a kid. I hated the hiking at that time , but all those memories are so dear to me now. I want to go hiking again with my dad, this time I won’t whine.
Thank you Andrea & Hyewon for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your newest picture book.
To find out more about Andrea Wang, or to contact her:
To find out more about Hyewon Yum, or contact her:
Review of Luli and the Language of Tea
I'm excited to offer you all a sneak peek (releases May 17th) at this wonderful story reminding us that life is so much better when we practice kindness; reaching out to others through our shared commonalities, irrespective of differences.
Luli and the Language of Tea
Author: Andrea Wang
Illustrator: Hyewon Yum
Publisher: Neal Porter Books/Holiday House (2022)
Universal experiences, tea, friendship, kindness, and immigrants.
Though they may speak different languages, kids from all over the world come together to enjoy the shared pastime of tea in this delicious book for young readers.
When five-year-old Luli joins her new English as a Second Language class, the playroom is quiet. Luli can’t speak English, neither can anyone else. That’s when she has a brilliant idea to host a tea party and bring them all together.
Luli removes her teapot, thermos, and teacups from her bag and calls out “Chá!” in her native Chinese. One by one, her classmates pipe up in recognition: in Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and Spanish, Portuguese, and Swahili. Tea is a tasty language they all know well, and it gives them a chance to share and enjoy each other’s company. When all the tea is gone and it’s time for dessert, Luli gets to use her favorite English word, cookie! After that, the playroom isn’t so quiet.
Informed by her own experience as the child of Chinese immigrant parents, Andrea Wang makes the point that when you’re looking to communicate with people, you look for a common bond. The word for “tea” is similar in many languages, and tea becomes the unifying metaphor that brings a diverse group of children together. Additional material at the back of the book explores the rich and ancient history of tea drinking across cultures all around the world and contains maps, statistics, and fascinating details that will delight young readers.
The playroom was quiet.
Luli couldn’t speak English.
Neither could the others.
All around the room, children played alone
What I LOVED about this book:
The book begins with two wordless spreads before the title page. The first is a display of beautiful and varied tea cups from around the world.
Text © Andrea Wang, 2022. Image © Hyewon Yum, 2022.
The second explains the setting (a community center) and why a diverse collection of kids are in a room together (immigrant parents at ESL classes).
Text © Andrea Wang, 2022. Image © Hyewon Yum, 2022.
There is so much heart-tugging emotion packed into those few opening lines and the soft colored-pencil image of kids scattered about the playroom entertaining themselves or looking miserable. Bidding their time while their parents' class ended. Unsatisfied with her last visit, Luli had drawn a plan and came ready this time.
She unpacks her backpack and with a little "plop" of tea leaves and a "ploosh" of hot water, Luli sets her plan in motion. She calls out, "“茶!”(Chá!)." The other kids perk up and reply in Russian, Hindi, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, Spanish, German, Swahili, & Portuguese. I love that in addition to the characters or spelling in each language, Andrea and Hyewon included the pronunciation for each one. Tea is a universal language they all share. It really is fascinating how similar the word is among these represented languages.
As the kids head toward Luli (see Hyewon's favorite spread above), Andrea changes the mood with a tweaked refrain, "All around the room, children joined together." There's a delightful horizontally split spread as the kids pass a cup of tea (and then presumably another and another) around two halves of the round table. Until, in a brief moment of angst, everyone has a cup of tea - except Luli. I'll leave you to discover Andrea & Hyewon's wonderful solution.
The ending is sweet and boisterous. And so kid-like with the one English word they all know - " " (oops, spoiler). In addition to an author's note, gorgeous backmatter provides fun, global maps with pronunciation guides of the kids names and an interesting fact about tea in each country. This is a wonderful story of finding common ground and making friends; a celebration of our similarities and kindness.
- celebrate National Tea Day (April 21st) - make a teapot card for a neighbor, parent, or teacher.
- have a tea party with your class, friends, or family & play some tea party games - like Tea Party Relay, Tea Bag Toss, Sugar Cube on a Spoon, Sugar Cube Stacking Contest...
- buddy up with a new kid at school, in your neighborhood, or on your team. What do you have in common? How can you help make being new easier?