Simply 7 with Andrea Wang: LULI AND THE LANGUAGE OF TEA

It’s been a while since I’ve had Andrea back on my blog, but it was well worth the wait!

Andrea Wang_Headshot_Photo by Elaine Freitas PhotographyAndrea Wang visited my blog back in 2017 for her debut picture book.  She is now an acclaimed author of children’s books. Her book Watercress was awarded the Caldecott Medal, a Newbery Honor, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, a New England Book Award, and a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor. Her other books, The Many Meanings of Meilan, Magic Ramen, and The Nian Monster, have also received awards and starred reviews. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. She is also the author of seven nonfiction titles for the library and school market. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family.  You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

Luli COVERLULI AND THE LANGUAGE OF TEA is another brilliant book written by Andrea.  Seriously.  I’ve been trying to think of a picture book for years involving tea that doesn’t include tea parties or manners and never quite found it.  THIS is a picture book with heart and yes, tea.  Yay for amazing picture books about tea!

Little Luli is adorable.  She has been coming to a playroom for children of “English as a Second Language” Learners.  It’s the saddest playroom you’ve ever seen as none of the kids are playing together.  None of them speak the same language and they’re all so alone (even though they’re in the same room).  BUT Luli has a plan to unite them all.  She has brought tea and cookies to share and oh my stars!  The resulting story blew me away.  It made my eyes misty AND I learned something new about tea that I’d never known before.  Did you know that the word for tea is almost the same in many different languages?  WOW!  What a concept!  Plus, there’s tons of back matter about each country that a kid is from, what their tea traditions are there, and facts about immigrants in the US from those countries.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but this is one you will want to read.  Trust me on this!

Welcome back Andrea!

Me: Luli won me over from the very first page of your book.  Her desire to unite her classmates and bring them together is so heart-warming.  What gave you the idea for this story?

Andrea: Thank you for the kind words! I heard somewhere that the word for “tea” is similar in many languages, which piqued my curiosity. I set out to discover if that was true, and if so, why was it true? At the same time, I wanted to stretch myself craft-wise and try writing a picture book with a circular structure, or perhaps an increasing-decreasing structure. The structure of the final book isn’t either of these, but it does have some circular and increasing-decreasing themes.


 Me: I love how intentional you were about picking the nationalities of each kiddo in the story.  How did that come about?  Did you always know which countries you wanted to include?  Did you research first?  Or did that come after many revisions?

Andrea: I almost always research first for books that have nonfiction elements, and Luli was no exception. There’s a couple of pages in my notebook where I wrote down the phonetic pronunciation of the words for “tea” in about 40 languages. From there, I looked up which countries drank the most tea and tried to choose the ones where their word for it fit a progression of pronunciation in my mind. I was envisioning a sort of global game of “telephone,” where the first child (Luli) says “chá” and the next child hears something slightly different and says “chay” and so on and so forth. I tried to have a “turn” in the middle where “tee” then progresses almost back to “chá.”

One of my early drafts included Greek, French, German, and Italian, but I realized that it weighted Europe too heavily. It was important to me that I have at least one country from each continent represented. And then I wanted to show the different scripts for different languages because they’re so beautiful, so I chose some countries that use non-Latin scripts. So, a lot to think about and a lot of revisions!

Me: Wow!  That is a lot to think about.  Every book you’ve written seems to carry a little piece of you.  I cannot imagine anyone else writing this book.  Why was this a story you wanted to tell and share with young readers?

Andrea: Oh, so many reasons! My parents were Chinese immigrants and tea is an important part of the Chinese culture, having been “invented” there thousands of years ago. So tea had a huge presence in my life. My parents made tea for everyone who visited our home. I still think it’s such a lovely gesture of friendship and hospitality. My parents also helped immigrants with limited English skills—my father taught ESL classes, mostly to adults. I hoped that by incorporating these little bits of my parents’ lives into the story, I could show how people from all different backgrounds can have similar experiences. Even our languages and our foods can be quite similar. I’m always trying to show the connections we have to each other.


Me: I love that.  I also love the back matter in this book!  I love all the tea facts and traditions you were able to include, but also all the different languages.  How much research did you have to do for this section?  Did you always want it to be two full spreads at the end of the book?

Andrea: I spent a lot of time trying to find facts and tidbits that would appeal to younger readers. All the tea-drinking rituals and practices that have arisen in each country are so fascinating—it was hard to pare it down to just one fact per country! And since the story was about immigrants, I wanted to include statistics about the number of immigrants from each continent (as reported on the U.S. Census).  Actually, I didn’t know that it would be two full spreads in the book. I kept waiting for my editor, Neal Porter, to ask me to reduce the amount of back matter, but he never did. It was a lovely surprise to have it all included, and with Hyewon Yum’s wonderful art to show the kids and the maps! 🙂   

Me: This story strikes me a “quiet” one.  There has been a lot of conversation about how impossible quiet picture books are to sell.  Were there any challenges for you in marketing this story?

Andrea: I was very fortunate that Watercress and Luli sold to Neal Porter Books in a 2-book deal. I consider both of them to be “quiet” books, and yet I didn’t encounter any resistance—the opposite, actually. I haven’t done any formal analysis, but it’s my belief that there’s usually a place for “quiet” stories that have heart and agency.


Me: The illustrations by Hyewon Yum are absolutely wonderful!  Those gorgeous tea cups on the end papers are just one of my favorite parts.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  Do you have any favorite illustrations?

Andrea: I love the endpapers, too! I love all of the illustrations, really. Hyewon’s art is so warm and inviting—just like a cup of tea! 🙂 My favorite illustration is also the one that surprised me the most. It’s the spread where the text reads in part, “Now everyone had a share” and the children are all sitting around the table enjoying their tea and the beginning of their friendship. I was surprised because I have a very similar sketch in my notebook, where I drew a circular table from an aerial viewpoint and wrote all the children’s names and countries around it. It was wonderful that Hyewon also felt it was important to have the table be a circle. (I didn’t include any art notes to that effect.)

Me: The Nian Monster still remains one of my favorite picture books to read around the New Year to my students.  Since that book first released, your books have continued to win much well-deserved acclaim and awards.  What advice would you offer now to picture book writers?

Andrea: There’s no magic formula. I would say to follow your curiosity, write about something that ignites you, and then revise, revise, revise.

Thank you so much for having me back on Simply 7, Jena!

Thank you for stopping by my blog again Andrea.

Dear readers, this book just released last week.  If you haven’t yet had a chance to track it down and read it, you have to find it.  This is a story that is deceptively simple, yet picture book writers will recognize the craft involved here.  Here is a character who will capture your heart in the wink of an eye.  Here is a story with progressive elements that lead to a very satisfying finish.  Here is a subject that is an obvious passion topic with plenty of interesting back matter to support it.  Trust me when I say, this is not a picture book you will want to miss!

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