As a teacher, I’ve had many students over the years who have had to translate for their parents at family conferences. That’s why I imagine today’s picture book could have been written by any one of them.
Jack Wong (黃雋喬) has visited my blog before to discuss his delightful debut picture book. He was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. In 2010, he left behind a life as a bridge engineer to pursue his Bachelor of Fine Arts at NSCAD University (Halifax, Canada), where he now lives with his wife and two cats. You can learn more about him at his website or follow him on Instagram or Twitter.
THE WORDS WE SHARE is a touching story of a young girl, Angie, who helps translate for her dad from time to time. This comes in handy when he needs to write signs for his job and she decides to make it a business opportunity for others in her community. Unfortunately, translation isn’t as easy as she thought and (no spoilers) some things don’t go exactly as she’d hoped. And even more fascinating, as Jack is both the author and illustrator, are the approach to the illustrations. This book looks different from Jack’s first book, yet the approach works incredibly well here.
Welcome back Jack!
Me: Your book made me think of many of my former ELL (i.e., English Language Learner) students who have had to translate for their parents at Parent Teacher conferences over the years. What gave you the idea for this story?
Jack: I was one of those kids! The scenarios in this book were very much inspired by my own childhood experiences: when my family immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada, both my sister and I (at ages 8 and 6, respectively) picked up English very quickly, and from that point forward translated for our parents in a variety of situations. The father in the book was also modeled after my Dad who, after running his own electronics business in Hong Kong, had to find work he could do in Canada despite his limited English: he was a newspaper deliverer, a forklift driver, and a custodian for an office building. In the book, our main character Angie helps her dad write signage to post around the building; in real life, my dad would call home from work, asking my sister or I to translate a notice for him to circulate by company-wide email.
But that’s kind of where the similarities end: more than just depicting a scenario or set of circumstances, I wanted to tell a really good story. I have some concern that, in the process of striving to create accurate representation in our children’s stories, we can fall into the trap of mistaking true-to-lifeness for authenticity, and invention for inauthenticity—and end up repeating versions of the same stories confined to, say, being teased or misunderstood in the schoolyard for being different. So I was very cognizant that the less my character resembled myself, the better: Angie starts a business, becomes a presence in her community, then even has a small fall from grace… she is more interesting than I ever was at her age!
Me: Wow! Great insight. I love how you have incorporated a different language throughout the story, right from the very cover of the book. Was that your idea or someone else’s? Why was it important to you to have this as an element in your story?
Jack: The presence of a second language (Chinese) throughout the story came about organically as a result of the plot’s mechanics: Angie has a role in helping her dad, and other community members, because they aren’t fluent in English, so it was important to show that Angie’s interactions with them take place in another language. I was glad that the “speech bubbles” of Chinese text worked, so I wanted to replicate this on the cover as well—I have my art director Sam Tse to thank for coming up with a design that gave us the spaces for all that text!
More generally, though… it’s kind of funny that, for me, this book isn’t really all that much about language! I wrote this story when I recalled the events in childhood I mention above, but it wasn’t the experience of bilingualism or the tricky task of translation that spoke to me. At the core of those memories were feelings of pride and agency and injustice and regret for being given a special responsibility at a young age, which informed Angie’s character; and a sense of empathy for my parents that I didn’t have the wherewithal to feel as a child, which informed Dad’s arc and the validation I wanted him to experience. For me, the story is really about showing these things; fully and authentically representing the different languages that different characters speak was just a prerequisite for building the world in which the story can happen in the first place. I may sound a bit flippant saying so!—I obviously appreciate that, to the reader, seeing the characters interact in multiple languages is a big part of the reading experience; the task of incorporating a second language was also not one to be taken lightly (see next question). So what I’m describing was really more of my own North Star for the writing of the book.
Me: That’s a great star to guide you in your writing. Was it easy to include those translations? Did everything translate “correctly” from language to language, or did meaning shift?
The interior text, all instances being dialogue in everyday vernacular, was fairly straightforward. The title was a whole different story! I knew I wanted it to be four characters—this is the standard form of Chinese idioms called 成语 (“chéngyŭ” in Mandarin, “sing yu” in Cantonese). Like idioms in English, most 成语 are of historical origins, but it is also common practice when coming up with a new title to imitate their conventions, such as a symmetrical pairing of ideas (the first two of four characters typically form one idea, the latter two form its counterpart) and grammatical brevity (e.g. doing away with prepositions and conjunctions) to get to this really density compacted, poetic nugget. This wasn’t something I could even remotely broach, with only my conversational level of Chinese, so I essentially handed off to my translators the Herculean assignment of inventing the perfect idiom to capture the story (what they ultimately came up with is explained in the backmatter of the book!)
You’ve got me going on this topic—one more sticky wicket was that Chinese characters actually come in (at least) two forms, traditional and simplified, the latter being the result of China’s initiative in the last century to streamline and standardize such a complex language, but which saw variable adoption outside of China. Because Angie and her dad are from Hong Kong, where traditional characters are still used, I initially felt it was important for accuracy and authenticity that the translations be done in traditional characters. On the other hand… to the extent that the Chinese in the book is present not only to signal an illegible “foreign” language, but to actually be available to be read and enjoyed by any reader who happens to be able to—including any non-native learner in North America, who is much more likely to encounter instruction in simplified characters—the translations ought to be rendered in the most widely accessible form. It was honestly a tough decision, but it was my mom who made the latter argument, so I had to concede to her and go with the simplified characters!
Me: Your story has many surprising twists and turns. I absolutely love how this plot evolves and the problems are solved. Was your text always this tight? How many revisions did it go through to get to this published stage?
Jack: Thank you for your kind words—and for sending me down memory lane! It definitely took a lot of revising to get to the final text, and I’m very lucky and grateful that I had the opportunity to do so through a mentorship with Annick Press (who eventually published the story), working with my wonderful and indomitable editor Katie Hearn.
I took a look back at all the Word documents from the mentorship: there were about five rounds of revisions, some rewrites or nearly so, in the span of a month and a half—something I couldn’t have done without encouragement and guidance (and a bit of deadline pressure). On the surface of comparing the revisions, it would appear that our main concern was noodling with the second half of the plot until it worked—it didn’t initially have the conflict that it did, nor Angie recalling a particular formative memory in the climactic moment, nor even Dad’s special talent saving the day! But the underlying thrust of all the changes were Katie’s pointed questions about why the characters feel the way they do, when they do; she seldom suggested any story point. The experience affirmed—in case I had any doubt—that someone (read: agent, editor) doesn’t need to share the exact experience you had in order to contribute positively to even very personal stories. A desire to understand and empathize with something they don’t directly know can be equally, if not more, important, since that’s ultimately the place that the dear reader comes from, too.
(Psst: Annick Press is offering another round of mentorships to eligible, Canadian authors! Check it out and apply by September 29th.)
Me: This book has a completely different look from your previous one, WHEN YOU CAN SWIM. Can you talk about your art process for this book? Did you use traditional media or digital, or a blend of both? What made you decide to use this medium for this book and have a completely different look that the previous one?
Jack: To be honest, the medium and style for this book came about more by necessity than by design! (Or maybe that’s the same thing.) My previous book WHEN YOU CAN SWIM featured poetic text set to scenes of nature, which seemed to invite the style of gentle pastel and watercolour rendering that I already knew how to do. But it was totally not what this snappy and plot-driven book seemed to be calling for—and I didn’t really have anything else up my sleeve to suit it!
I explored a lot in my studio but had trouble making any firm decisions at all about what I wanted. There are a number of fundamental choices in any visual work that transcend the material used: for example, will the characters be more realistic or stylized? Will lines and shapes be accurate or simplified? Will environments obey light and shadow? Will the palette be representative or limited?
The blend of traditional and digital media was really just a kitchen-sink approach that allowed me to keep going back and forth on these decisions until I got something I liked! The final process consisted of first creating swatches of texture and colour (with acrylic paint or with printmaking ink rolled on paper), and separately, line drawings in pencil or crayon, which were then all scanned and digitally collaged in Photoshop.
Me: That’s so interesting. What is one thing that surprised you in the creation of this story?
Jack: Given that the story draws from my childhood experiences, Angie’s perspective is the one that most closely corresponds to my own, but in the course of writing, I began to identify more and more with the character of Dad—partly because I was reexamining childhood memories through grown-up eyes, and partly because my own father passed away when I was younger, so the act of imagining his perspective became a special exercise for me. My sympathies really went towards those who immigrate in adulthood, or anyone similarly thrust into a new and challenging environment, while still having to raise a family, etc.
I didn’t even realize that I felt a type of way until the book started going out to advance readers: while I was so gratified that people responded to and felt represented by Angie, I was also like, “Hey, don’t forget about the dad!” So I’m very happy that Angie gets to enjoy the spotlight, but I personally take a lot of joy in the fact that it’s Dad’s story as well, and a tribute to my own parents.
Me: At one point in your story, the main character is surprised when she hears a dialect she didn’t understand (given her translation skills). I visited France last June and felt so lost when my French speaking skills weren’t as strong as I thought they were. Have you ever felt lost, confused, or surprised by language like this? Why was this something you wanted to share with young readers?
Jack: Oh gosh, the real challenge that your question brings to mind is actually how difficult it is sometimes to communicate with my family (my mom and grandparents) in Cantonese. I have enough grasp of the language to converse about day-to-day things, but more in-depth topics can be really frustrating. Similar to your experience in France, I’ll often come up against a wall whenever I’m trying to express something more abstract and I realize my vocabulary isn’t adequate for it.
I wanted to share with young readers that living in multiple languages can make you feel lost, confused, or surprised—but my bigger hope is that the story creates a bridge to broader ideas, so that it isn’t only about someone in Angie’s exact circumstances, and the book’s relevance isn’t limited to certain readers and communities. I think kids will find it exciting to see a child character who has such a big role among adults—but I hope somewhere in their imaginations, that idea expands to include young persons who take on responsibilities for a variety of other reasons (being in a family where a parent works multiple jobs, or has a special need, for example). The bigger message may be that we can’t always tell on the surface what someone is going through! This is even better illustrated through Dad’s arc, where we see that someone shouldn’t be written off simply for not having the means to communicate in the way we’re used to.
I love that Jack. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog today and sharing insight into your work.
Dear readers, this book is being released in both Canada and the US on different dates! As such, the book is released in Canada, but not yet in the US. That means that you could still participate in Jack’s pre-order campaign/raffle and get bonus swag. Check it out! This is a book you won’t want to miss.