The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/ Kimberly Lee, Charlene Chua, and Boys Don't Fry
Kimberly Lee is a lawyer and Managing Editor of parenting platform, makchic.com.
Her love of cooking good food is superseded only by her love of eating it. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with her husband and their two young sons.
She writes picture books for children that serve to empower and enchant, poetry that gives voice to the female experience.
Kimberly’s the co-author of What if? by co-author Liyana Taff, illustrated by Delia Razak (2021).
Charlene Chua (she/they) has illustrated many things over the years for kids of all ages.
Her work has won several illustration awards, while books she has illustrated have been nominated for OLA Blue Spruce & Silver Birch, Lambda Literary Awards, USBBY Outstanding International Books, and others.
Charlene was born and grew up in Singapore and moved to Canada in 2007. They started work in 1998 as a web designer, and went on to become a senior designer, web producer and interactive project manager. However, what they really wanted to do was draw pictures all day. In 2003, they decided to give it a go, and after a few years, they became a full-time illustrator.
When she is not making art, she enjoys cooking, reading, and playing with her cats. She now lives with her husband (and cats!) in Hamilton, Ontario.
Charlene's author/illustrator debut, Hug? was published by Kids Can Press in 2020. They are the illustrator of 29 books, including the 2023 Stonewall Book Award Children's & Young Adult winner, Love, Violet by Charlotte Sullivan Wild (2022), Amy Wu and the Warm Welcome by Kat Zhang (2022), Amy Wu and the Patchwork Dragon by Kat Zhang (2020), and Amy Wu and The Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang (2019).
Kimberly and Charlene’s newest picture book, Boys Don’t Fry, releases on November 14th.
Welcome Kimberly and Charlene,
Tell us a little about yourselves. (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?)
KIMBERLY - I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. Being an only child (with a very active imagination), stories became my first friends - along with my wonderful storyteller of a mother, who would always conjure up new worlds with me.
But life slowly got in the way, and I put my writing dreams on the backburner as I pursued my legal career. I was in practice as a litigation lawyer for several years before taking a sabbatical from practice in 2017 after giving birth, rediscovering my love for writing during this period, and eventually, realizing my dreams as an author. Life has a funny way of coming back full circle!
CHARLENE – I’ve been illustrating for about 20 years now; I started out doing work for various clients but these days I mainly illustrate for children’s books. I like working on all kinds of stories, although one day I would like to work on a picture book about cats.
Nice to meet you both. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written of illustrated a manuscript?
KIMBERLY - I’ve written in a variety of spaces and places - planes, trains, long car trips, quiet mountain retreats, at home, and on the go. Inspiration can strike anywhere but oddly, it has done so on many occasions while I’m in the shower!
I’ve often found myself dreaming up an idea mid-shampoo-and-soap, then hurrying to open up the Notes app on my phone (in a desperate, dripping mess) just to capture the thought before it disappears! 😉
CHARLENE – My studio is in my home office, so I don’t really do any of the major artwork outside of the home. I know some other illustrators enjoy working at a café or something, but I can’t concentrate well in such places even if I had my equipment. Occasionally I’ve done some work while travelling; I have worked on rough sketches and concepts on planes and trains and sitting around in airports.
Inspiration certainly picks funny moments to 'strike.' Kimberly, what was your inspiration or spark of interest for Boys Don’t Fry?
KIMBERLY - Boys Don’t Fry is a loving ode to my Malaysian-Peranakan Chinese heritage and the glorious food and family that I’ve grown up with, here in Malaysia.
It’s a tale about a food-loving boy called Jin, who just knows that cooking is in his blood -that is, if he can prove this to his meddling, but well-meaning aunties! With the help of his grandmother, the formidable matriarch of the family, Jin learns to challenge gender and cultural norms and gain entry into the fascinating world of spices, secrets and Nyonya cuisine. This is a story that will aim to warm the hearts – and stomachs – of readers, and showcase the culture, colours, and cuisine of this unique subculture in Southeast Asia.
You can find more about the book here.
In addition to the breaking of norms, I love the glimpse at Malaysian culture. Charlene, what about the Boys Don’t Fry manuscript appealed to you as an illustrator?
CHARLENE – I really enjoyed Kimberly’s story, and I was very pleased to see a story focusing on a culture that comes from where I grew up (I was born and grew up in Singapore). I am not Peranakan, but my great-grandmother was adopted and raised by a Peranakan family. I wish that I could have learned more about the culture from her, but she passed away when I was very young. So apart from having a general interest in Peranakan food and culture, I felt working on Boys Don’t Fry was also, in some way, a chance for me to re-connect however briefly with that aspect of great-grandmother.
It's awesome that you both were able to create an ode your families. I love this title page, by the way! What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing or illustrating Boys Don’t Fry?
KIMBERLY - I wouldn’t necessarily call it hard or challenging, but it was a wonderfully interesting process working with Charlene on ensuring accuracy in the book’s illustrations. Charlene was always so respectful about making sure that her art correctly depicted the Peranakan culture - and I had a lot of fun finding references for her, such as old personal family photos or videos of heritage houses.
CHARLENE – I try my best to bring in visual elements that best represent the story accurately, while staying fun and inviting to readers. That said, for Boys Don’t Fry - because I now live very far from Singapore and Malaysia, it was difficult to gather reference material that was accurate and up-to-date. It’s not like I could just hop over to the Peranakan Museum in Singapore or take a day trip to Malacca and take my own photos (as much as I would have liked to do that). As with other projects that require cultural accuracy, the end result is a collaboration between myself and the author, and Kimberly was kind enough to help confirm that the references I found were correct and appropriate for the story.
Thats a rare and special thing to get to collaborate on a book. How many revisions did Boys Don’t Fry take for the text or illustrations - from first draft to publication?
KIMBERLY - I always had a fairly clear idea of where to take Boys Don’t Fry, knowing the core elements I considered crucial and I wanted the beating heart of it to be my main character’s relationship with his grandmother - someone who honors his skills and passions, believes in him, and encourages him to be everything he can be. I got to work on honing this aspect more clearly, together with my editor, to really drive the message home and that’s what you’ll see when the book is out!
CHARLENE – I think it was pretty standard as far as my book projects go; I handed in rough sketches, then clean sketches, then final art. There were edits along the way and changes were incorporated at the various stages.
So fairly standard revisions. Charlene, many illustrators leave treasures or weave their own story (or elements) throughout the illustrations. Did you do this in Boys Don’t Fry? If so, could you share one or more with us? Text © Kimberly Lee, 2023. Image © Charlene Chua, 2023.
CHARLENE – There are some elements in the kitchen that are based on my grandmother’s old kitchen in Singapore. I included them as I think they are quite rarely used nowadays, I thought it would be nice to preserve them in some way. One is the little dish things under the legs of a cupboard – I was told people put water in this to stop ants from climbing onto the cupboard. There is also what looks like a big pot or urn on the floor with a dragon pattern. My grandparents used that to store their raw rice. On another page, there is another cupboard that has a wire mesh on the door. This was used to store plates and goods but also served to temporarily store food, as different family members ate at different times. Lastly, there are a couple of geckos on the side of one of the shophouse walls – geckos were everywhere when I was a kid! I still have a paranoid fear of them. But they are ubiquitous especially on older buildings in the region, so their inclusion is a nod to that.
Interesting, I just thought they were coasters. And even though you're afraid of them, the little geckos are cute! What's something you want your readers to know about Boys Don’t Fry?
KIMBERLY - At the heart of this book is a message about honoring the desire in every child’s heart to feel seen, valued, and included. I hope Boys Don’t Fry will serve as an encouragement to young readers to be unafraid of challenges, to keep dreaming big, and to keep chasing after what inspires them.
CHARLENE - It’s a great book and they should read it? 😅
HA! Kimberly, when you first saw Charlene’s illustrations in Boys Don’t Fry, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
KIMBERLY - Oh my goodness, Charlene’s illustrations were an absolute joy! She captured the essence of this story so faithfully and I love how the colors and details pop on every page. From the intricate beauty of the Peranakan tiles that decorate the characters’ home and the book’s cover, to the quirky features of a typical Asian kitchen and vivid details of the food prepared there, to the beautiful traditional outfits to showcase Lunar New Year - there’s so much to love in this book!
Text © Kimberly Lee, 2023. Image © Charlene Chua, 2023.
One of my personal favorites would have to be the big reveal of the gorgeous spread that Jin and his grandmother, Mamah, prepare - featuring some of the most beloved Peranakan dishes.
It all looks delicious! Charlene, is there a spread that you were especially excited about or proud of? Or perhaps one which is your favorite spread?
Text © Kimberly Lee, 2023. Image © Charlene Chua, 2023.
CHARLENE – I like the page where Jin and Mamah are laughing and crying while cutting onions. It reminds me (emotionally anyway) of the good times I had with my grandparents when I was a child.
I think it will spark a similar memory for many people - as it did for me, too. Can you think of something you wish you’d known before you started the publication journey with Boys Don’t Fry?
KIMBERLY - That the road to traditional publishing is a loooonnnnggg one! Patience (and resilience) are key - and my advice to other authors is to keep using the time in between to write and continue honing your craft.
CHARLENE – I wish I knew that the Singapore restaurant (relatively) near to me was going to close! I was hoping to do a book launch there but it closed earlier this year and there isn’t another suitable alternative in the area.
Great advice Kimberly. Oh, Charlene, I'm so sorry! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
KIMBERLY - I’m currently working on a book on internet safety in my home country of Malaysia - and I have another book that will be launching a week after Boys Don't Fry is out - The Flight of Imagination, illustrated by Munsya Rahman (11/20). November’s been such an exciting month!
In the US, I’ve got a couple more projects brewing - I’m not sure how much I can reveal at the moment but do stay tuned for further details down the line!
CHARLENE – I am working on illustrating various books, as well as my second author-illustrator title. It’s based on my aunt who passed away, so I hope that the book will come out good.
We will definitely need to keep our eyes out for your next books. I wish you both the best of luck with your projects. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
KIMBERLY - I would absolutely love to visit the Yosemite National Park someday - there’s something about the sheer majestic beauty of the sequoia trees that would be incredibly humbling to bear witness to. A trip to the West Coast is definitely in store - perhaps when my next book is out in the US! 😉
CHARLENE – It’s not exactly a park but I enjoy going for walks at the Hamilton Cemetery. It’s the oldest cemetery in the city, with many graves from the 1800s. It is very park-like, and it’s nice to go for a walk there amidst the mature trees and blooming wildflowers (except in Winter, of course). The area around the cemetery includes parts of an actual park, a great lake, and parts of the Royal Botanical Gardens; it’s usually peaceful and quiet, with people jogging, cycling, and walking their dogs.
Thank you, Kimberly & Charlene, for sharing with us a bit about yourselves and your new picture book.
To find out more about Kimberly Lee, or to contact her:
Twitter (X): https://twitter.com/kimlsywrites
To find out more about Charlene Chua, or to contact her:
Review of Boys Don't Fry
I loved spending time with my grandparents. They were good cooks (especially of shaped pancakes) and amazing candy makers. They handmade delicious caramels and fudge. It was always a treat to visit their house. This book celebrates a young boy's relationship with his grandmother and her loving encouragement of his desire to 'break norms' and learn to cook.
Boys Don't Fry
Author: Kimberly Lee
Illustrator: Charlene Chua
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2023)
Gender roles, cooking, family, culture, and traditions.
Jin wishes his family would ask him to help prepare the Lunar New Year feast. But boys, or Babas, never get asked—only Nyonyas, the girls.
It’s the eve of Lunar New Year, and Jin can’t wait for the big family reunion dinner. He loves the aromas and the bubbly chatter coming from the kitchen. His grandmother, Mamah, is cooking up a storm!
As his aunties dice, slice, and chop, there’s nothing Jin wants more than to learn about the history of his family’s cooking and to lend them a helping hand. After all, no one else can tell the difference between ginger and galangal as well as he can! But his aunties shoo him away, claiming he’ll just get bored or be in the way. Luckily, Mamah steps in and asks Jin to help her prepare their special meal. Soon, Jin is squeezing, slicing, and stirring, too!
This loving picture book about a young Malaysian boy who defies gender expectations will make hearts warm and stomachs hungry. With beautifully vibrant illustrations of a traditional nyonya kitchen, Boys Don’t Fry is a heartfelt celebration of family, culture, and traditions—both old and new.
Jin sniffed. He could smell the spices in the air, and he couldn't decide
whether to sneeze or smile. He took another whiff. Ooh, was that lemongrass?
And makrut lime leaves, too. Mmmm. Their bright, sharp scent made his taste
buds tingle. His grandmother, Mamah, was cooking up a storm.
Dinner was sure to be goooood.
What I LOVED about this book:
This is such a sensory and visually delicious opening. The scent wafting out of the house and Jin's excited and happy response encourages the reader to turn the page to figure out what's cooking. Did you find the geckos? I love the bright colors of the houses and the tropical plants; it's so inviting and cozy.
Text © Kimberly Lee, 2023. Image © Charlene Chua, 2023.
I love the analogy Kimberly immediately creates of a kitchen as a hive "aunties flew in and out of the kitchen like bees...picking out the best herbs for their queen." And while his Mamah (grandma) said "the kitchen was the stomach of the house," Jin knew what the heart of the house was...
Text © Kimberly Lee, 2023. Image © Charlene Chua, 2023.
In preparation for the Lunar New Year's feast, the kitchen buzzed with excitement and enticing smells. Despite customs and norms, Jin proudly announces he wants to help. His aunties buzz with disbelief and comments that he'd get bored, be underfoot, or mess things up. But with the thump of her walking cane, the queen, Mamah, announced "Let's see what you can do." The wide-eyed stunned faces of aunties contrast so beautifully with the excitement radiating from Jin and Mamah's loving, knowing looks.
The brightly colored, detailed illustrations beautifully capture the energy, excitement, and personality of the house. They are so full of little touches, like a tangine pot, rice cooker, and steamers, as well as others mentioned by Charlene above. And the text masterfully connects Jin to the kitchen, "the fire danced in the same way his insides were leaping, the pot on the stove bubbling over like his laugh."
The text and illustrations radiate the joy of Jin and Mamah as they work together to prepare the food, share jokes, and discuss family recipe secrets. [look back at Charlene's chosen image]. Overcoming nerves and an auntie's unnerving observation, Jin learns into Mamah's instruction to "cook from his heart." The ending is joyous, gorgeous, and hugely satisfying. It even leaves the reader to fill in the very last portion themselves. This lovely book explores family, pursuing one's dreams (regardless of norms or traditions), and a very special ingredient. It is the perfect book for any holiday gathering, young readers interested in cooking, and encouraging everyone to follow their passions.
- check out over 50 crafts and activities for lunar new year.
- try helping an adult make the recipe for Peranakan Pongteh Chicken at the back of the book.
- what is your favorite family dish? Do you eat it especially for a holiday? If you're interested in cooking have, or can, you learn to make it?