Chinese New Year! The Year of the Rooster. While I was hoping to post this interview before the holiday on January 28th, it didn’t happen. I was also hoping I could say something pithy about a personality trait of the Rooster to excuse this. “See?” I would say, “It is meant to be late because the Rooster is fill-in-the-blank.” Alas, this too was not meant to be. Google tells me that a trait of the Rooster is to be punctual! Bah! BUT such is life. Sometimes things do not go the way we want or plan.
Which is exactly what happens in the story of “The Nian Monster,” now that I think about it! A young Chinese girl, Xingling, comes face to face with a surprise visit from a monstrous legend when she is preparing for Chinese New Year. The monster not only disrupts her plans but Xingling must scramble to save the day.
This book, dear readers, is the PERFECT book to read to a classroom full of kids to explain what Chinese New Year is all about. I did! So did my husband (who is also a teacher). And the kids loved it. I have never found a better book on the topic that SO captivates the kids’ imaginations.
While this is Andrea Wang’s first picture book, it is not her only published book. She has also published several nonfiction books. You can learn more about her at her website.
Thank you so much for interviewing me! I’m thrilled to be on Simply 7!
Me: I know you have several other nonfiction books for kids and you’re working on a middle grade novel. What draws you to writing picture books?
Andrea: There’s something so magical about the interplay between the words and the art in a picture book. I love how the art adds a different dimension to the story, how there can be subplots or hidden recurring characters that aren’t in the text. From an author’s perspective, I find writing a satisfying story in so few words to be kind of an irresistible challenge. It forces me to pare away all the extra stuff until I’ve found the heart of the story.
Me: These are such great characters! Xingling is so creative and resourceful, unafraid to challenge what could be a terrible fate. The Nian Monster is a curious combination of terrible and slightly adorable. What gave you the idea for this particular story about the Chinese New Year and these characters?
Andrea: I’ve always loved trickster tales where the underdog outwits the bully or villain. So when I came across the Nian monster folktale, I thought it would be a great story to retell in a modern setting. When I began writing the story, most Chinese New Year picture books were set in ancient China, and I wanted kids to be able to see what modern China is like – the people, the buildings, the culture, etc. Now there are a bunch of contemporary Chinese New Year books, which is wonderful.
There was never any question in my mind that the main character was going to be a strong, resourceful girl. We need more stories featuring smart and strong girls to both empower young girls and to show young boys that girls are their equals (and not to be trivialized or trifled with!). Even though Xingling goes to adults for assistance, she directs them and they listen to her ideas for defeating the Nian Monster.
The illustrator, Alina Chau, has a terrific explanation of why she drew Nian to be kind of cute and cuddly. You can listen to her talk about Nian in her awesome behind-the-scene video. Nian isn’t evil – he represents the old habits and negative thoughts/feelings that may have “consumed” us in the past year. We have to banish him in order to start the new year with fresh hope.
Me: The illustrations are absolutely beautiful! What influence (if any) did you have on them? Were you able to communicate with the illustrator at all during her creation process? Or did you just leave her alone to create all on her own?
Andrea: Aren’t the illustrations stunning? I am so in awe of Alina’s talent. I didn’t have any communication with her during the creation process, although my editor was kind enough to ask me for input on what my vision of the book was. It was important to me that Shanghai be represented as it is today, a blend of the ancient and the modern, from the buildings right down to the clothes people wear. I sent photos of the landmarks mentioned in the book to my editor, and I know Alina did a lot of research on her own, too. She grew up in Hong Kong, another large and modern Chinese city, and I think that really informed her illustrations and added so much character and life to them.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Andrea: When I wrote The Nian Monster, I’d been working on a novel for years. Once I’d figured out that food would be the cause of the monster’s downfall, the story came together in an afternoon. The speed at which the words flowed and that they largely didn’t change surprised me. I’m used to endless revisions…
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Andrea: I’m definitely a plotter, not a “pantser.” I honestly like writing outlines, chapter summaries (for novels), and figuring out who my characters are before I dive in. I also like to find the perfect word or phrase before I move on to the next sentence, which makes for very slow going. I’ve been trying to allow myself write more freely and quickly, to get the scenes and ideas down and finish the first draft, but it’s so hard! I have to constantly remind myself that I can always go back and change things later.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Andrea: This is my first picture book, so I don’t feel particularly qualified to give advice! There is a wealth of excellent information on writing picture books on the Internet and in craft books, and I think it’s a good idea to read it, digest it, and then put it away. Find a good critique group or online writing community or go to conferences where you can submit your work for critique, and, this is super important — be open to the feedback you receive. Even if you loathe their suggestions, try them and then decide whether the result is better or not. You can always change it back. Try everything, persevere, and keep your chin up!
Me: This story is set in Shanghai. Have you ever been there yourself? Any place in the world on your travel wishlist?
Andrea: My in-laws live in Shanghai and we’ve visited them there several times. I’ve been to all the landmarks in The Nian Monster and spent a LOT of time eating my way through the city. I love to travel – my wishlist is very, very long. At the top right now are Italy, Peru, and the Galapagos.
My travel list is very long as well. I too want to visit Italy someday and Europe with my husband (who has never been). I’ve been dreaming of travel quite a bit lately, truth be told. Perhaps in part due to this book. It does indeed take the reader to Shanghai and make you feel as if you were really there.
I also admit that I’m madly in love with the illustrations and the behind the scenes videos. If you enjoyed the first one linked above, you can find a second one on Andrea’s website here. Alina Chau makes her gorgeous work seem so effortless. It’s STUNNING! You can also read an interview with her here if you’re curious to learn even more.
And that’s not all! There’s a Teacher’s Guide for the book, along with an Event Kit which includes directions on how to make the monster’s mask for readings and an origami bookmark! There is plenty for readers and teachers alike to love about this book. Do yourself a favor and find a copy to read today. It’s a wonderful read.