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Interview with writer Andrea Cheng
by Aline Pereira*

Andrea Cheng is a writer of numerous children's and young adult books, most recently of The Lemon Sisters (Putnam, 2006) and Shanghai Messenger (Lee & Low, 2005).

When did you become aware that you could write, and that you wanted to pursue book writing as a career?

I started writing stories and poems in third grade.  For my birthday, my sister gave me a small spiral notebook with a blue cover.  On it she wrote: "For Your Poems."  She has been encouraging me ever since. 

In sixth grade, I had a teacher who gave us writing prompts each day and asked us to write as quickly as we could for ten minutes.  The fast pace of these assignments suited me well.  She loved my stories, read them carefully, and made lots of encouraging comments.  I was not a child who fell asleep easily, so after my mother made us turn off the light, I would imagine my next day's story.  In the evening after dinner, my father asked me to read my stories out loud to him.  He was very enthusiastic, and I developed an ear for the sound of the language.  So, in sixth grade I decided I wanted to be a writer... but I was just over forty when I got my first book contract!

You are not Chinese, yet you were interested in Chinese language and culture even before marrying your husband Jim, who is Chinese-American. What sparked your interest in writing, amongst other themes, books about Chinese and Chinese-Americans?

Most of my stories about Chinese and Chinese-Americans were sparked by watching our three children and by listening to stories of my husband's parents.  For example, Goldfishand Chrysanthemums (Lee & Low, 2003) is based on a story told to me by my husband's mother.  As a child, she used to love helping her grandfather in Suzhou tend his chrysanthemums and his fish.  I think the story that is closest to me and also involves the Chinese-American experience is Honeysuckle House (Front Street, 2004).  There are two alternating narrators in the novel, Sarah and Ting.  Sarah, who is Chinese-American, is based on both of my daughters, Jane and Ann, and Ting is based on one of Jane's friends who immigrated to the United States with her parents.  Many of the incidents in the book were observed in our own backyard, full of honeysuckle bushes.

As you have just said, Goldfish and Chrysanthemums is based on events and experiences from your own life, as are Grandfather Counts (Lee & Low, 2003), The Key Collection (Henry Holt, 2003) , and others. Is this also true of Shanghai Messenger? Can you tell us a little about the book?

Like my other books, Shanghai Messenger is a conglomerate of many experiences.  It's a story in verse, and the moments described in the poems are from our trip to Shanghai in 1999 to visit my husband's extended family.  Xiao Mei's feelings about going on a long trip alone are based on my own life.  When I was eleven, I went to Budapest by myself to visit my extended family.  Although I spoke Hungarian and had met my grandfather, I remember feeling scared and worried.  Shanghai Messenger synthesizes these two experiences.  I used both of my daughters, Jane and Ann, as models for Xiao Mei.  The illustrator of the book, Ed Young, asked for photos of our trip and modeled the main character on Jane.

Woud you say that exploring your and your husband's family heritage is a goal, when you set out to write a story?

I draw on my cultural background in my work. I am the child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, who grew up in Cincinnati,  Ohio in a racially integrated neighborhood. I am married to a Chinese-American man and we have three biracial children. I teach English as a Second Language so I am in contact with people from all over the world every day. I also speak a few languages and have traveled some. All this comes to play in my writing, but I don't really set out specifically to explore my heritage. Although my books do explore cultural differences and similarities, my main hope is that people who read my books are moved by them, affected by them. I hope that they will think about the characters and events long after they have finished reading or listening to the stories.

Your young adult book, Marika (Front Street, 2002), was one of the titles chosen for the 2003 "On the Same Page" city-wide reading program, launched by the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. The book was selected "to encourage readers of all ages to think about and discuss the experiences and viewpoints of others, while encouraging an understanding and appreciation of diversity and tolerance in society." Could you tell us a little bit about how it felt to have your book chosen for such a great project? How do you think the book helped young readers explore and understand differences?

I was honored that Marika was chosen for Cincinnati's city- wide reading program.  "On the Same Page" was launched in Cincinnati after the race riots in 2001 as a way to spark dialogue on questions of race, religion, diversity, assimilation, and tolerance.  I think Marika did in fact spark this type of discussion.  I had the opportunity to discuss the novel with hundreds of students in the Cincinnati area.  They talked about what it means to assimilate, and how assimilation plays out in their everyday lives. They referred to Apa's (Marika's father) efforts to help his family "pass" as non-Jews.  Why did he do this? They discussed anti-Semitism and prejudice in general. They wondered whether they would stand up against discrimination or whether they ever have.  I feel lucky to have been included in these dialogues.

There is an intergenerational element in almost all of your stories. Is that intentional? Is the theme dear to you? If so, why?

Intergenerational stories come easily to me.  When I was a child, three of my grandparents lived either in our house or within walking distance.  I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother, and I think she is the model for many of the grandmothers in my stories.  When my husband and I had children, I could not imagine raising them far from their grandparents, so we moved from Ithaca, New York to Cincinnati where my parents were living.  My father died in 1997, but our children see my mother almost every day, and they spent a lot of time running back and forth between her house and ours when they were younger. Contact between generations is very important to me and seems to find its way into most of my stories.

What sort of approach do you have to seeking inspiration? Do you keep a journal, take notes on little pieces of paper, or have any sort of ritual before you start writing a new story?

I don't really have any sort of writing ritual and I don't keep a journal, but I do sometimes jot down ideas on slips of paper.   Usually I start with an image, sort of like a seed, and go from there.  I don't plan my books out in advance, so I end up revising a lot. 

Any new books due to be published in the near future?

There is The Lemon Sister, my new picture book that just came out in January. Again, an intergenerational story, this time from the point of view of an eighty-year-old woman.  In the fall, I have a new middle grade novel coming out called Eclipse.  It is an immigrant tale, based on a family story, that takes place in the early 1950's. 

Could you share with us your warmest memory of being approached by a child or young adult who has read one of your books?

I am often touched by children or young adults who have read my books.  Recently I did a presentation in a rural school in Pennsylvania, and a little boy said to me,"I think Grandfather Counts is hen hao." Then he said,"And my grandpa is hen hao too." He didn't even blink when he used the new Chinese words he had just learned.

I recently went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, and did a few presentations without any hair.  One girl wrote me a note: "My mother is a survivor and you are too, but she doesn't write good books like you do."

On a different occasion, a fifth grade girl in a suburban school told me that she really could identify with Sarah in Honeysuckle House.  "I'm Chinese-American , and just like in the book, people mix me up with the other Asian girl in my class."  I was very glad to know that the characters struck a chord with her.

*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Manging Editor and Producer

Posted February 2006

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interviwee-Andrea Cheng

Andrea Cheng

By Andrea Cheng :

Shanghai Messenger, illus. by Ed Young (Lee & Low, 2005)

Honeysuckle House (Front Street, 2004)

Grandfather Counts, illus. by Ange Zhang (Lee & Low, 2003)

Goldfish and Chrysanthemums, illus. by Michelle Chang (Lee & Low, 2003)

The Key Collection, illus. by Yangsook Choi (Henry Holt & Co., 2003)

Marika (Front Street, 2002)

More on the web:

On The Same Page

For a complete list of books by the author, visit her website.



Interested in fiction and nonfiction for grown-ups from the Pacific Rim and South Asia? Then take a look at the latest PaperTigers: Books+Water project, the online literary journal
WaterBridge Review.



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