The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Helen H. Wu, Review of Tofu Takes Time, and Giveaway
Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author and illustrator of over 20 picture books, as well as a translator and publisher. Her upcoming picture book, Long Goes To Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press), releases in 2023. Helen is the Associate Publisher of Yeehoo Press, a San Diego based children’s book publisher. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that can empower children to understand the world and our connections. Born and raised in Hefei, China, Helen moved to the US in her 20s. Currently, she resides in sunny Southern California, with her family and two kids.
Helen’s newest picture book, Tofu Takes Time, releases next Tuesday, April 19th.
Welcome Helen, I’m so excited to have you here.
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?)
I’ve been passionate about writing and drawing since I was a kid; however, I never thought it would be a career option growing up in China. I didn’t have typical picture books when I was a kid growing up in China. We had black and white comic books and only in the last two decades, picture books were introduced into China. After I graduated from the University of Georgia with a MS in Economics, I landed a job in the marketing field. To make attractive marketing materials, I learned how to use Photoshop and how to draw in Photoshop. In 2011, I did some digital drawings and put up a portfolio online. To my surprise, someone asked me if I could illustrate their picture books. Gradually, I illustrated more self-published picture books. I got involved in every step of bookmaking, from illustration to layout to cover design, typography, and book printing. When my son was born, I got inspired to write and illustrate my own picture books. The positive feedback encouraged me to do more. In 2018, with ten picture books that I wrote and illustrated under my belt, I realized I wanted more than just a book out there; my dream was to write a book that would reach a wider audience and be carried by libraries and brick and mortar bookstores. I knew I needed a professional team of an editor, designer, art director and marketing resources to back me up. Traditional publishing was the route to take. I started to take classes and attend conferences. Tofu Takes Time was acquired in 2020 and it is my first traditional published picture book.
I’m always drawn into picture books because picture books have the potential to pass on the joy from generation to generation, and it’s one of the channels that children can learn about the world when they snuggle on the laps of parents and grandparents. It’s a magical format that I feel can perfectly encapsulate a feeling, a moment, a subject, a place, and time. As an art lover, I also find it’s very entertaining and soothing to simply enjoy the artwork of picture books. Currently, I’m most into writing stories grounded in my personal immigrant experiences with Chinese cultural background.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I was a child, I lived in a small city in China where many of my friends and family shared a very similar lifestyle. My home, my grandparents’ home, the elementary school, middle school, high school that I went to, and a renowned national university were all on the same road within 20-minute walk. I felt like I could almost foresee my lifestyle in my thirties. I was always curious about the vast world outside and wanted to see if I could possibly find a different path. So during my school days, achieving higher test scores and ranking at the top of my class served as an effective way to achieve that goal. Now my kids—growing up as minority immigrants—face a very different challenge than me when I was a kid—how to balance the cultural differences. As an adult, I in fact am still learning how to balance the cultural differences as I look to stay true to myself while finding a sense of belonging in the new community. This is one of the reasons why I decided to write children’s books grounded in my own personal immigrant experience. I hope I could unearth some possible solutions for young readers who are facing similar challenges.
Now that we know more about you, what was your inspiration for Tofu Takes Time?
The inspiration for this story was born of my tofu-making experience with my treasured grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat nearby and watched as she cooked—a process that sometimes involved tofu. She would wash vegetables, chop meat, stir porridge, and cook all the meals for our entire family. It was during these times that she would share stories that transported me to faraway places and other eras. After I moved to the US and had my own family, my kids would ask many questions about the process and tools we used to make tofu together: serving as a warm reminder of the sweet time I spent with my grandma in the small kitchen across the ocean. Hence, a story began to take shape.
Such a wonderful tribute to your grandmother and the time you spent together. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books in general? And in particular, what was the most challenging aspect of Tofu Takes Time? Why?
The most challenging part of writing is definitely revising. In considering so many different ways to revise my work, I always want to ensure revisions set out to strengthen the story and make it more appealing to a broad audience while staying true to my heart. Sometimes it’s best to shelve the manuscript for a little while to gain a fresh perspective and new ideas before reworking the story.
A great book calls for multiple layers with varied messages readers can take away from the story. Though the idea behind the book was grounded in the tofu-making process, I knew the story must involve a bigger concept that is more relevant to kids. When I cooked with my own kids, they would start imaginative play and occasionally complain about the time required to cook a proper meal: which inspired me to weave the topic of patience into the text. In examining the tofu-making process in a more imaginative way, I discovered an assortment of inherent elements that connect with nature and even the universe at large.
In some tofu-making steps, the use of onomatopoeia comes naturally: such as when blending beans with water and boiling soymilk. It was during the revision process that I realized using onomatopoeia would add a pattern to the structure, making it fun and predictable and more satisfying for young readers to read aloud while adding another layer to the storyline. It’s for this reason that I added sound cues to each tofu-making step as well as in preparing for meal time together.
I’m very pleased to have found a sweet spot that includes food, culture, patience, nature, and intergenerational love all tied into one story.
Finding that balance of the hooks and the heart of a story is definitely tricky. How many revisions did Tofu Takes Time take from first draft to publication?
I wrote the first draft in 2018 and continuedly revised the draft till 2020. After I was confident with the “final” version, it took only about one month from submission to acquisition, which was lightning fast. I’m so grateful that my editor, Naomi Krueger, and the amazing team from Beaming Books believed in me and the book.
Do you think being an editor yourself helped with the writing process?
I think being an editor helped me understand more about marketability of a book and how to add multiple layers and hooks to a story.
What's something you want your readers to know about Tofu Takes Time?
Tofu is a food consumed in China for over 2000 years. I hope readers will enjoy this multi-generational tale that explores the magic of patience in making tofu, using sights, sounds, and lots of imagination. As an ode to patience and delayed gratification, this book supports the mindset that good things take time—a concept both children and families can apply in many areas of life.
A great mindset for us all to adopt. when you first saw Julie Jarema’s illustrations in Tofu Takes Time, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Julie Jarema’s illustrations capture the spirit of the story and they have such a beautiful, tangible warmth. On the cover, there’s a sense of wonderness as the grandma and granddaughter are marveling at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish. The book is set in a modern Chinese American family, and I love the way Julie has illustrated the setting–the color palette of mint and pink and the pattern in the background lend the cover gracefulness, traditional yet modern. During the phase of character design, my editor Naomi Krueger asked me to share some photos of my grandma with Julie for inspiration. My parents in China helped me! They went through stacks of family albums and dug out some old photos of me at about 5 years old, together with my grandma and grandpa. Julie used the hair style of the 5-year-old me and I almost cried tears of joy to see the little girl on the cover! And with my name on a children’s book representing Chinese culture! I am so incredibly grateful that I got to work with her on this book.
Text © Helen Wu, 2022. Image © Julie Jarema, 2022.
In Julie’s art, Lin goes on an epic adventure that features food and all sorts of cooking ware. One particular spread that comes to mind is when NaiNai and Lin read a book together, Julie’s corresponding illustration reflects so many imaginative and culturally relevant elements: including traditional Chinese symbols, home goods, and natural components. Readers should keep an eye out for these intriguing details throughout the book.
Such an imaginative illustration! Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?
Read other picture books and learn about what’s out in the market. Take picture book writing classes. Find a critique group and get feedback on your stories. Revise, revise, revise. Most importantly, keep writing and keep going.
Can you share a little bit about your next book, Long Goes To Dragon School?
My next picture book, Long Goes to Dragon School, illustrated by Mae Besom, will be published by Yeehoo Press in February 2023. Inspired by my experience as a minority immigrant student, this picture book follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. Wrapped in Eastern and Western dragon lore, this fantasy tale celebrates perseverance, self-acceptance, and cultural differences.
Text © Helen Wu, 2022. Image © Mae Besom, 2022.
This sounds so fun. I can't wait to see it. And thank you for the early illustration sketch. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I’m most longing to visit Yellowstone National Park. It’s always the top 1 national park on many travel recommendations. It’s been on my mom and dad’s bucket list for many years. I hope I can visit there some day with them as well as my kids and husband.
Thank you, Helen, for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your new picture book.
To find out more about Helen H. Wu, or to contact her:
An Extra Special Giveaway
Helen Wu has graciously offered to give ONE lucky reader, either
- a copy of Tofu Takes Time OR
- a zoom picture book critique (for manuscript under 1000 words).
- Simply comment below to be entered in the random drawing.
- Be sure to say where you shared the post (Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram), and I'll add additional entries for you.
- *Sorry, Canadian & US Residents only.*
Review of Tofu Takes Time
I excited to give you a sneak peek at Helen H. Wu's sweet picture book about precious time spent with a grandmother learning to make tofu and develop patience.
Tofu Takes Time
Author: Helen H. Wu
Illustrator: Julie Jarema
Publisher: Beaming Books (2022)
Family, grandmother, traditions, nature, cooking, and patience.
Homemade tofu is good, and good things take time.
CLICK CLACK WHIRRRR . . . Lin and her grandma, NaiNai, are making tofu from scratch! When NaiNai goes through each step, from blending soybeans with water to molding curd into shape, Lin gradually becomes impatient. But she soon discovers that making tofu not only takes time, but also takes the whole universe! It takes the seed from soil and sunshine, the cloth from thread and fiber, weight and space, books of words and pictures. And most of all, it takes spending lovely time with her beloved grandmother.
In this charming tale by Helen H. Wu,, readers will marvel at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish made by a modern Chinese American family. Perfect for fans of Fry Bread, Drawn Together and Thank You, Omu.
Today I’m making tofu with NaiNai. All from scratch!
“Let’s see if you are patient enough to make tofu,”
NaiNai says, rinsing soybeans into a big bowl.
“That doesn’t look like tofu!” I say. “It looks like seeds.”
“You’re right! Making tofu takes time,” NaiNai says.
What I liked about this book:
A line in the author's note captures this book perfectly - "A simple dish can truly connect us with the rest of the world." Using the process of making tofu, Helen Wu shows how nature (seed, soil, rain, and sun), man-made items (appliances, pots, and cloth), and most importantly time (both its passage and the precious moments spent together) all comes together to make tofu.
Through first person narration, dialogue with her grandmother, and wonderful onomatopoeia, the reader follows Lin's adventure in making tofu from scratch. Keep an eye on that adorable chicken timer; it pops up somewhere throughout most of the illustrations.
Text © Helen Wu, 2022. Image © Julie Jarema, 2022.
With each step —rinsing, blending, straining, heating, and pressing soybeans— Lin's impatience and hunger grows and her imagination wanders. Julie Jarema's softly colored, illustrations visually explore Lin's imagination as NaiNai repeatedly hints at the role of the wider natural world's involvement in the making of tofu. Working to strain the soy milk, Lin impatiently asks “Why don’t we buy tofu from the supermarket?” Reminding her that "handmade tofu is good, and good things take time,” NaiNai adds "and it takes cloth, from thread and fiber."
Text © Helen Wu, 2022. Image © Julie Jarema, 2022.
This is such a fun and lively image of Lin parachuting with the cheese cloth among giant bowls and a strainer.
Waiting can be so hard, especially when you really want something (or are hungry). Kids (and adults) will relate to Lin's impatient questioning, sprawled position against the fridge, and bored staring at a timer as time slowly clicks by. But they may also see their own loving relationship with their grandparent or other adult, through NaiNai's loving patience and story time snuggle as they pass the time.
Though predictable, the tofu is ultimately made and eaten, the ending is a loving celebration of Lin, her parents, and NaiNai. It is an ode to grandparents and time spent with family. As well as fun primer on the creation of tofu. There are also notes on tofu and the author's inspiration and discovery of tofu dishes around the world (like Indian butter tofu and tofish and chips). This is a fun exploration of creating both tofu and loving family memories.
- try making a parachute for a toy or ball (six fun easy options).
- what is your favorite food? How is it made? Write a list of ingredients or draw a collage of the ingredients "dancing together."
- waiting is hard. What are some of the things you do to help pass the time when you have to wait? Do you let your imagination wander? If so, draw a picture, or write a story, about where your imagination took you while you waited. Or make a list of things to you do while you wait.
- check out Beaming Book's teaching guide for activities and descriptions of many tofu dishes.