Last Saturday, BPC hosted a reading and conversation with Oliver Chin, author of The Year of the Ox and an array of other books, in celebration of Lunar New Year. Check out our exclusive interview with Oliver below to learn more about his personal journey to becoming a children's book author, the values that he seeks to highlight through his publications, and more!
Please tell us a little bit about your personal journey, and how you became the author of children’s books. What brought you to children's books specifically?
As a child, my favorite hobby was drawing. In college, I was the cartoonist for the daily newspaper and drew almost everyday. I enjoyed expressing my opinions and illustrating stories. After graduation, I worked for mass media companies that made books, magazines, and comics. I wrote my first books in 2001, including The Tao of Yao: Insights from Basketball’s Brightest Big Man and 9 of 1: A Window to the World.
After I became a father, I decided to take a chance and start my own publishing company. Founded in 2005, Immedium focuses on producing entertaining and multicultural children’s picture books. Our first children’s book was The Adventures of WonderBaby: from A to Z.
How do you conceptualize your stories? What plants the seed for a particular narrative, and where do you go from there?
We try to work with talented artists and encourage them to create their own stories, such as The Octonauts. Ultimately, we want our books to be unique. They should feature charismatic main characters and fantastic artwork. They should appeal to kids and parents and have different levels of meaning, so that families can still find joy after repeat readings.
Our stories showcase main characters whom the reader can identify with—the protagonist faces a challenge which compels them to grow. Plus, even funny stories need conflict and drama. Like a television show or movie, each of our books should build anticipation to an exciting climax near the end.
For example, our first book in the Tales from the Chinese Zodiac series was The Year of the Dog, which was published in 2006. It set a trusty roadmap for the sequels—a young animal explores the world, meets the other animals, and makes a best friend, but must blaze its own trail to discover its true character.
What is the role of illustrations in enhancing and complementing your stories?
Teamwork and communication between the writer and artist make a book better. The artist creates the world and helps bring the writer’s characters to life. An artist’s input influences the writer’s refinement of the plot. The art enables the reader to appreciate the message on that page, soak up the action, and internalize the emotion. Also, the art encourages the reader to turn the page to see what will come next.
Our goal is for every illustration to be eye-catching, impactful, and memorable. Ideally, a reader could frame it, hang on their wall, and appreciate it independently.
What helped you decide to make your stories bilingual, particularly The Year of the Ox?
Each year we enjoy visiting more Chinese bilingual schools, where parents, teachers, and librarians enjoy our Tales from the Chinese Zodiac series. However, they have told us that there aren’t enough bilingual children’s books, and they encouraged us to translate our stories.
We wanted to provide this service to our readers. So, we worked with translators to provide free downloadable translations (simplified and traditional Chinese) for existing books.
By planning ahead, we were able to add the translation into the first printing of The Year of the Monkey (2016) and The Year of the Rooster (2017). Then we decided to reissue new editions of the Dog, Pig, Rat, and Ox with bilingual translations. We intend to keep doing this as we move through the cycle into the future.
25% of our titles are bilingual. We have published two stories in Spanish and two in Japanese.
How do you incorporate issues of representation, identity, diversity, and multiculturalism into your writing? Why are these issues important to you, and how can we raise awareness about them in our communities?
When I was growing up, there were very few American children’s books that had people of color. Even thirty years later, when I was a new father, I found few storybooks that featured diverse characters. Only later did I learn that in American publishing for the entire 20th century, less than 5% of the children’s books each year involved people of color.
So when I decided to start my own children’s book publishing company Immedium in 2005, I wanted to publish some stories that had multicultural and Asian American themes. Now, we’ve published more than 50 books, and 40% have featured diverse characters.
In 2050, people of color will be 50% of American citizens. It is very important that children see themselves in books. Kids can see that they belong in our society, and dream to achieve their full potential.
What are your tips on how to build consciousness about these topics among children from a young age?
At Immedium, we like making fun stories, so our approach is to infuse consciousness into our words and worlds to the point where diversity is a given. Our characters don’t preach, but they do practice. If a secondary character discriminates against the main character, hopefully the secondary character can mature and by the end of the book, practice tolerance and acceptance.
Since there had never been an American children’s picture book series on each of the twelve animals, I decided to start the Tales from the Chinese Zodiac. Each adventure would feature a new cast of 12 characters and spotlight how the animal of the year grows up and to appreciate their special qualities. But, within that structure, there is ample opportunity to confront prejudice and provide alternatives to it.
For example, in the beginning of The Year of the Snake, many animals and people don’t like the main character Suzie. They don’t personally know her or her family. They just don’t like snakes. They believe stereotypes and apply them to Suzie. Although Suzie disagrees with them, she decides to live her life and do her best. Eventually, others recognize the errors of their assumptions and behaviors. They change their minds and agree to live in mutual respect and harmony. Children understand this parallel world of animals, how it feels, and what to do.
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