Today’s Simply 7 is with another award winning picture book author: Teresa Robeson. And this is only Teresa’s second picture book! I expect we will see many amazing stories from her.
It was only last fall that Teresa visited my blog to talk about her first book “Queen of Physics” and reveal the cover of the story we will talk about today. Little did she know what was in store for that first book. It would go on to win the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature during the ALA Youth Media Award announcements just this last January. I was SO excited for her when she won. I love seeing my writing and illustrating friends succeed on their own journeys!
Teresa Robeson was born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, and now writes and creates from her mini-homestead in southern Indiana, where she lives with her scientist husband. A nonfiction winner of the We Need Diverse Books mentorship program, Teresa advocates for greater scientific and cultural literacy. You can learn more about her on her website.
“Two Bicycles in Beijing” is another stunning story. This isn’t a non-fiction story, but a fictional story told from the point of view of a bicycle in Beijing. A BICYCLE!! I haven’t seen that done before (that I can recall).
It reminds me ever so slightly of an old movie I once saw in the late 90s where the guy and gal who are supposed to be together never meet up until the very end of the movie. This story is a bit like that. Two bicycles start life together, but when one is sold, the one left behind longs for her friend to return, constantly hoping to catch up to the other bicycle. It’s a story of missed meetings, but it’s beautifully written, cleverly done (working in many landmarks in Beijing), and oh so sweet! I admit that it makes me a little misty eyed when I read it.
Welcome back Teresa!
Me: This is a sublime book. I admit I teared up a little at the end. I have heard that it’s harder to write and sell a picture book with an inanimate object as the main character. I’ve paid close attention to any story along these lines after my hubby’s book came out (and after a manuscript I’ve written with an inanimate character). Yet this book is so full of beautiful emotion. Did you find that to be true? Was it hard to write? Was it hard to sell?
Teresa: Oh, Jena, that makes me so happy that you were moved by my book! I have heard of editors who don’t like inanimate objects as characters in picture books, but there are plenty of editors who like or don’t mind them (luckily for me and your husband!). At its heart, this was a friendship story…it begins with a friendship between objects but grows to encompass a human friendship. And friendship is a perennial topic in books. So perhaps that’s what helped sell this one?
This book wasn’t hard to write. I had the setting in mind (Beijing) for several years and when the idea of friendships lost and found came to me, it all fell into place. The only somewhat difficult part was tracing the path of Lunzi and the boy as they raced through the city because I wanted their route to be based in reality. I wanted to follow a logical line of travel for a person doing a day’s worth of deliveries.
As for selling, my agent wouldn’t send it out at first because she didn’t think she could sell it. But, she told me, she kept coming back to it and thinking about it, so she decided to give it a go. We had some passes but Albert Whitman editor Christina Pulles, who bought Queen Of Physics when she was at Sterling, really gets my writing (I feel like we are artistically in-sync) and loved the story. It didn’t take long to sell, fortunately. In fact, this has to be a record: from the time she offered to when the book released is almost exactly one year!
Me: Wow! That’s amazing! I’m also astonished that no one has written a story told from the point of view of a bicycle before (at least not that I’ve found). What gave you the idea to use this point of view for this story?
Teresa: After a family trip to China in 2013, I couldn’t get the sights and sounds of Beijing out of my mind. The last time I was there was in 1987 and while it had changed a bit in 25 years, the things that made it magical were the same. Because I wanted to showcase the city, it wasn’t a huge stretch to use bicycles since Beijing is known for its many bikes! I think I first envisioned the story with bicycles as merely transportation but then it morphed into its current form by the time I wrote it down.
Me: I know the story was sparked by a family trip to Beijing, so I have to ask how did that trip influence the story? Especially as the colors yellow and red are so pivotal to the story. Did you notice yellow and/or red everywhere you went? Or did that come in a much later draft?
Teresa: My parents had been wanting to take the whole family (me and my family and my sister and her spouse) to China for years because my husband and kids had never been. They wanted the grandkids to know about their cultural heritage. Sadly, my mom passed away before we could go with her, but my dad was determined to still do it. The trip itself was quite the adventure, and while family dynamics made it difficult at times (the person involved shall remain unnamed since he is now out of the picture), overall, it was an incredible trip with lots of great memories that we will treasure forever. It made me appreciate the landscape and history of my culture.
Red is an important auspicious color in China and used on many things, like lanterns and flags; adding to the fact that it’s my favorite color, I knew had to use it. As for yellow, not only was it my mother-in-law’s favorite color (I can’t think of her without thinking of yellow), I thought it would provide a bright and child-friendly contrast to red. It was a kind of an organic and subconscious decision.
Me: I love that! This story is so well written, it feels as if it must’ve been a gift from the muses. Was it? Or did you struggle to write it? If so, how many drafts did it take to get to the published story?
Teresa: You are making me blush, Jena! But your feeling is right: I would say that of all the stories I have written, this one definitely felt like it came from the muses! I didn’t really struggle with it. It didn’t go through the hundreds of revisions that Queen of Physics did. From my files, it looks like I had 6 drafts before it was submitted to editors. And then we had some minor edits—some in the story, some in the backmatter—on the manuscript after it was sold. All in all, a very easy “birth.”
Me: Junyi Wu’s illustrations in this book are pitch perfect. They are so soft and whimsical, but also precise with landmarks around Beijing. They are such an interesting mix! Did you communicate with her at all during the creation of them? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Teresa: I had goosebumps when I first saw Junyi’s rough dummy! She perfectly captured the mood and feel of Beijing on a gorgeous autumn day. She did good research on what each of the landmarks looked like; I only had to point one thing out to be edited (the lamps outside of the National Art Gallery). Like with Queen of Physics though, I only communicated with my illustrator through my editor. Junyi and I follow each other on Instagram and I would love to meet her in person one day.
I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how the art should look so every page was a wonderful surprise…like opening presents on Christmas!
Me: You’ve now had a chance to publish one AWARD WINNING (yay!) nonfiction picture book and one fiction picture book. Which was harder to write? What differences stood out in their creation and/or publishing process?
Teresa: Well, in my rather limited experience, I would say nonfiction is much harder. You have to get so many facts right AND make it interesting, too. With someone like C.S. Wu (Queen of Physics) who was multi-faceted and accomplished so much, it was hard to keep track of everything and decide what to include and what to leave out.
For Two Bicycles in Beijing, I wrote mostly by feeling with only some research into the geography of the city. As I said before, this story practically wrote itself after the essence of Beijing incubated in me for years.
While in the publication stages, Sterling carefully went over all the details in Queen of Physics and I was tasked to confirm facts, do more research to make sure that the illustrations were also correct, as well as to revise to clarify more difficult concepts. I spent a lot of time with that story!
Whereas for Two Bicycles in Beijing, I had a few small and fairly easy edits. It was a walk in the (Beihai) park in comparison!
Me: Given how prominent bikes were in this story, I have to ask: do you love bicycles? Did you have one as a child? Does this story bring up childhood memories of bicycling for you?
Teresa: Well, this is pretty embarrassing because I now I have to confess I’m a terrible cyclist. I have a lousy sense of balance so riding a bike makes me nervous. My dad had a motorcycle in Hong Kong and I rode that as a passenger sometimes, but I never had an opportunity to tackle bicycles while growing up there. It wasn’t until I was 12, 4 years after immigrating to Canada, that my dad got me and my sister a bicycle. It was one of those goofy banana seat ones. I never got very good at it.
So, no, this doesn’t remind me of childhood memories…but it does remind me of the time I tried to bicycle through the lovely Netherlands countryside and nearly killed myself. Now that 34 years have passed and my bruises have gone away, I can say that it was a hilarious incident.
All that said, I think bicycles are wonderful! I admire (and envy) people—like my husband and kids—who can ride with ease and grace. I think more people should ride bikes, really.
Aww! Thank you for stopping by my blog again Teresa. I love this insight into such a wonderful story. Dear readers, this is a book you won’t want to miss. You simply must track down a copy and give it a read.