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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Songju Ma Daemicke and Review of Tu Youyou's Discovery

Songju Ma Daemicke grew up in Jilin, China, and came to the United States in 1996. Songju lives in a Chicago suburb with her husband and their daughters. Songju is proud of her heritage and loves to share the rich Chinese culture with people, especially young people. Trained as an engineer and with a strong science background, her books share both science and logic concepts with young children.

She is the author of Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant (2017) and A Case of Sense (2016).

Her newest picture book, Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria, releases on October 1st, 2021.

Welcome Songju,

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I started writing in 2012 when I attended a free English class for foreigners at our local community college. The draft for my first book, A Case of Sense, was actually one of my class assignments. The writing assignment was to write about something that came from one’s homeland. I took the basic concept from a childhood story as told to me by my grandfather– wherein a wise judge decides an unusual case with a clever and logical ruling over a greedy man - and expanded it into a story. The positive response I received for it from my teacher and classmates encouraged me to write more and pursue my interest in creative writing.

That's really cool. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

People know that I grew up in China and was an engineer before I started writing, but very few people know my experience in between. Before I came to the United States in 1996, I was a PhD student at L'Institute de Physique du Globe de Paris, France. My PhD thesis was titled “Modeling Propagation of the Rupture in Inhomogeneous Material” ( a comprehensive study of earthquake tremors).

In the beginning of 1996, being about two years into my PhD study, my funding wasn't renewed because of economic difficulties in France. I made a snap decision to come to America to finish my PhD studies. However, soon after arriving, I became aware of a new computer/ internet technology wave and quickly decided it would be prudent to change my major to computer science. Upon graduation, I became a software engineer at Motorola.

Interesting path to becoming an engineer! What was your inspiration for Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria?

In the beginning of 2019, a BBC program called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century caught my attention. The four candidates in the scientist category were Tu Youyou, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing. I was ecstatic that Tu Youyou, a Chinese woman scientist, had been selected. At the same time, I also realized that most Americans had never heard of her, even though Tu Youyou had saved millions of lives and had won the prestigious Nobel Prize. As a proud Chinese American, I had to write a book to share her amazing story.

I am so glad you did! How many drafts, or revisions, did Tu Youyou’s Discovery take from idea spark to publication?

I just checked and there were 98 versions. I'm a very slow writer as English is a very difficult language for me. A paragraph could take me hours to write or rewrite. There are no articles in the Chinese language, so I almost always forgot to add articles. I had to do a couple of drafts just to focus on them, i.e. the “the’s.” Chinese verbs remain in the same form for every tense. So, I also had to focus on the verb tenses. All these corrections and modifications took many rounds. Only then could I work on the accuracy of the words themselves, the pace, the arc and other aspects of the story.

Wow, writing in a second language definitely adds to the complexity. What was the hardest part of writing Tu Youyou’s Discovery? How hard was it to explain the science for 4-8 year-olds?

After doing the research, I had many good stories about Youyou’s life. Some great details were really hard to eliminate from the manuscript, like the personal sacrifices Youyou made for this project. She made the decision to send her two young daughters away to focus on her work because she travelled a lot and her husband was in an education camp. The project occurred during the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. But many of these facts are too complicated to explain clearly in a picture book format. So eventually, I tried to include this additional factual information in Tu Yoyou’s timeline. Choosing precisely the right details to be included in the manuscript is very challenging.

Tu Youyou’s story is a great example of the scientific method. However, I found it difficult to explain the concept precisely in the story. In the end, I decided to show the method in the back matter, by spelling out how it works step by step.

That is one of the biggest challenges with nonfiction and informational fiction. I love how you not only explain the scientific method, but that you show how Tu Youyou used each step to find the cure. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was favorite book as a child?

I grew up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and never read any western children books until I came to the United States. When I read Dr. Suess’s One Fish, Two fish and the Little House on the Prairie series, those reads were all for the first time for me as well. I re-lived my childhood with my children.

Chris Van Allsburg is my favorite author and illustrator. His work is full of mystery and suspense. His illustrations are original, detailed and beautiful. I love all his books. Jumanji ; The Polar Express; The Mysteries of Harris Burdick; just to name a few.

However, my favorite book as a child was a Chinese book called Journey to the West. I loved how the Monkey King helped the poor and the weak, defeated evil and the greedy, and stood up for fairness and justice.

Thank you for your sharing your childhood favorite. Was the writing and/or research for Tu Youyou’s Discovery easier or harder than your earlier books Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant or A Case of Sense?

Writing Tu Youyou’s story was a lot harder than writing my two earlier books Cao Chong Weigh an Elephant and A Case of Sense. My previous two books are both basically fiction, even though I got the ideas from both Chinese history and also folk tales. There was a lot of freedom in writing them.

Tu Youyou is the first non-fiction biography MS I have ever written.. It was a big learning curve for me. I can’t use my own imagination too much in Tu Youyou’s story. Everything had to be true to her actual life or work. I learned a lot along the way.

It's fun that you're able to write in both genres. When you first saw Lin’s illustrations was there anything that surprised you? What is your favorite spread in the book?

I felt all the hard work of the 98 versions was worthwhile when I first saw Tu Youyou’s story coming to life with Lin’s gorgeous illustrations.

Text © Songju Ma Daemicke, 2021. Image © Lin, 2021.

Spread 6 may be my favorite. One farmer’s story sprouted hope in Youyou. Excited, Youyou dug up some qinghao, which in English is called sweet wormwood.

This spread illustrates one of the major turning points of Tu Youyou’s discovery. Lin even included the ancient Chinese remedy book, which inspired Youyou’s a-ha moment, in the picture. That was a nice detail. I also like the color of this illustration. It is just beautiful.

I agree that Lin's illustrations are phenomenal. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from Tu Youyou’s Discovery?

This book celebrates women in STEM. Tu Youyou is a great role model whom I hope will inspire young girls to study science and engineering and even pursue a STEM field career. We need more women scientists and engineers.

Tu Youyou’s deep knowledge of both modern medicine and traditional Chinese Medicine gave her a wide vision. Increasing overall knowledge is very important to help boost a person’s creativity and problem solving abilities. I hope that students might consider a broad range of unconventional studies, including perhaps herbal medicine, gardening, or training a dog.

I hope it inspires lots of kids to look into STEM careers. How are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to keep being inspired?

I enjoy photography. I love doing research for hours like the best way to shoot a glowing tent under a starry sky, or how to capture a camp fire in the night…. I spend hours to shoot and edit my photos. The experience is fun and very rewarding. One of my photos won our local newspaper Father’s day photo contest. That was pretty cool!

Congratulations! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m working on picture book manuscript about an extraordinary Chinese American activist named Grace Lee Boggs. She went beyond class and racial boundaries, fighting for a more just and fairer world.

That sounds interesting. We'll have to keep an eye out for it. If you have a critique group(s) and writing partner(s), what have you learned from them over the years? Or from your writing journey so far?

Nadia Salomon (the author of Goodnight Ganesha) is one of my critique partners. Last year, she wrote 20 new PB drafts, which I thought was impossible. She has inspired me to work harder. This year, I have been writing at least one new MS per month. Thank you, Nadia, for the inspiration.

What would we do without critique partners? Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment? Why?

Tigers. I love all the big cats and appreciate their strength, speed, grace, and beauty. Also, I was born in the year of tiger.

Thank you Songju for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest picture book.

To find out more about Songju Ma Daemicke, or get in touch with her:

Review of Tu Youyou’s Discovery:
Finding a Cure for Malaria

One of the newest books added to Albert Whitman's exciting nonfiction series - She Made History. A collection of "true stories of historic women who, despite many obstacles, persisted and forever changed out world."

This wonderfully inspirational nonfiction picture book explores the contribution made by the first Chinese woman to ever win any Noble Prize for discovering the cure for Malaria. A cure that has saved about 6.8 million lives.

Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria

Author: Songju Ma Daemicke

Illustrator: Lin

Publisher: Albert Whitman (2021)

Ages: 4-9



STEM, curing Malaria, biography, women in science, and discovery.


Tu Youyou had been interested in science and medicine since she was a child, so when malaria started infecting people all over the world in 1969, she went to work finding a treatment. Trained as a medical researcher in college and healed by traditional medicine techniques when she was young, Tu Youyou started experimenting with natural Chinese remedies. The treatment she discovered through years of research and experimentation is still used all over the world today.

Opening Lines:

In 1969, people all across the world were sick. Malaria, a life threatening

disease carried by mosquitoes, was spreading quickly and seemed

resistant to all known treatments.

What I Liked about this book:

In a unique twist, Songju Daemicke begins by setting the scene in 1969 with people around the world dying of Malaria and an adult Tu Youyou thinking of how she'd wanted to save lives since she was a child. Then flashes back 39 years to a young Youyou accompanying her brothers to school.

Text © Songju Ma Daemicke, 2021. Image © Lin, 2021.

Unfortunately, while her parents shielded her from cultural bias against girls going to school, they couldn't shield her from tuberculosis. After a long fight, and help from the doctor's antibiotics and her mother's herbal teas, she finally recovers. Determined to save others, she studies modern and traditional Chinese medicine.

Shifting back to 1969, Songju follows Youyou as she heads a research group tasked with finding the cure for Malaria. Interviewing patients, she learns of a farmer's story of quinghao (wormwood) curing him. I really enjoy Lin's colorful and stylistic illustrations. Especially this one of Youyou curiously examining the quinghao against her Chinese herbal text.

Text © Songju Ma Daemicke, 2021. Image © Lin, 2021.

Using trial and error, on hundreds of herbs and compounds, Youyou and her team try again and again to find a cure. But she couldn't forget the farmer's story. So, she tries quinghao again. And fails. Tenacious and determined, You you continues trying. After 100 experiments, she's no closer to a cure and much closer to dissension in the team.

Text © Songju Ma Daemicke, 2021. Image © Lin, 2021.

I really like the way Songju and Lin capture the spirit of Youyou, both as a child standing up to others to attend school and then as a frustrated scientist standing up to male colleagues to fight for what she believed in. She is a wonderfully determined, spunky, smart, and caring person who is a great role model for all children, scientists, and inventors. When 100 attempts didn't work, she tries 90 more. Until ..... Well, I'm sure you can guess, given the title, but the ending beautifully wraps up the personality of amazing woman.

This is a wonderful STEM biography of an inspirational female scientist we should all know about and celebrate. As well as a wonderful reminder not to forget about herbal, traditional medicine as we look for more cures. The delightful back matter has a time line of Youyou's life and a great author's note. But I especially love how the scientific method is broken into steps with actual examples from Tu Youyou and her team.


- using pencils, tape, and water, make your own homemade microscope ( and look at plants, dust, dirt, etc. around your house.

- try a few of these six experiments ( on osmosis, chromatography, homogenization, capillary action, etc.

- imagine you could discover a cure for anything, what would you cure and where would you find the cure?

- read Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies to get a look at some tiny critters without needing a microscope.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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