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Author Interview: Jama Kim Rattigan

This was originally posted at Into the Wardrobe on May 20, 2009.

I am so happy that today's guest is Jama Kim Rattigan...

the author of these picture books. :D

Jama's blog alphabet soup, which "offers food for thought and fine whining," is one of my favorite blogs. It features children's books, young adult books, art, interviews, bunnies, alphabet pasta, soup, cakes, cupcakes, flowers, poetry... Every day, Jama blogs about what is cute, excellent, lovely, awe-inspiring, and heartwarming. And she responds to every comment! If you love literature for the young and young at heart and food, and you don't already visit alphabet soup, all I can say is: Why???

I consider Jama a very special online friend, so I am particularly pleased to be interviewing her. Welcome, Jama!

Can you please tell us a bit about your Asian American heritage?

I’m a third generation Korean American who grew up in Hawai’i. Both of my grandfathers emigrated from Korea to work on the sugar plantations. My paternal grandmother was a picture bride, and my maternal grandmother made the long journey from Korea all alone at age 15 to join her parents, who were already in the Islands. I’m in awe of my brave grandparents, who were part of the first wave of Korean immigrants to the United States. They had to labor long hours to earn a living, and struggled with discrimination.

If someone in casual conversation asks about my ethnicity, I’ll usually say, “I’m from Hawai’i,” because I identify more strongly with local Island culture than I do with Korean culture. I’ve never been to Korea, and I don’t speak Korean.

Why do you write books for children?

Books saved me when I was growing up. With parents busy at work, and a brother with his own friends and interests, I was often left alone to my own devices. I know how much the right book can mean to a child with questions and a longing to venture beyond a small, circumscribed world.

As I read, though, I could never find myself in any of the stories. I did feel the same as some of the characters, but none of them were Asian, and Hawai’i seemed like a non-place. So I guess writing for children is my way of hopefully giving them a tiny portion of the comfort, validation, and entertainment books afforded me at a crucial time in my own life.

What was your path to publication as a children’s book writer?

I started by writing and submitting short stories to children’s magazines, collecting my fair share of form rejection slips. The periodicals were always overstocked with fiction, so I decided to try my hand at nonfiction. When I heard that Cobblestone Magazine was doing a Laura Ingalls Wilder issue, I jumped at the chance, and submitted my idea for a piece about Laura’s daughter, Rose, who had convinced her mother to write the Little House books. My article was accepted on my husband’s birthday.

After a few years of writing picture books, and having them rejected as well, I finally entered one of them in Little, Brown’s first New Voices, New World Multicultural Fiction Contest. On the day the U.S. entered the Gulf War, I was notified that my book, Dumpling Soup, was chosen as the winner!

(Click here to read an inspiring recipe for a picture book - how Jama cooked Dumpling Soup!)

What are the challenges and rewards of being an Asian American children’s book writer?

The greatest reward is receiving positive feedback from kids and parents, who are happy to read stories reflecting their own experiences. Dumpling Soup is less about a particular Asian culture than it is about celebrating the unique cultural diversity that characterizes Hawai’i, and on a larger scale, America. It is exciting to be writing at a time when so many new voices are being heard, and cultural stereotypes are being shattered.

The biggest challenge is grappling with the label, “multicultural author.” At times it feels like a lot to live up to, and at others, limiting. While some of my stories certainly could be categorized as multicultural, or more specifically, “Asian American,” I’ve always written from my experience primarily as an American, who just happens to be of Asian descent. While I’m happy and proud to write about and share my Hawaiian heritage, and understand the need for authors to have a “brand” or identity in the publishing world, it is disappointing to have a good story rejected by a publisher because it’s not multicultural, i.e., what my readers would expect. Labels are convenient, but exclusionary. I’m more a product of my social environment, so that’s the place I write from.

Do you celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? How are you celebrating it this year?

I only started celebrating it because of my blog – last year with a series of potluck posts featuring Asian authors and their recipes, and this year, with some book reviews, and a profile of one of my favorite illustrators, Allen Say. Of course I’ve been indulging in some extra sushi, dim sum, Korean barbecue, mochi, chow fun, chicken tikka and biryani!

What kind of young reader were you? What were your favorite books? Who were your favorite authors?

I was a voracious reader as a child, and could safely call the library my second home. In addition to such classics as the Little House books, The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, Little Women, and Noel Streatfeild’s shoe books, I was obsessed with Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, Lois Lenski, Eleanor Estes, and Maud Hart Lovelace. The Boxcar Children and Island of the Blue Dolphins also stand out, but in essence, I wanted to be Ramona Quimby.

What are your favorite Asian or Asian American children’s and young adult books?

The list is very long, but some that come to mind at this moment are:

Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori
Kira Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord
Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear by Lensey Namioka
Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
Year of the Rat by Grace Lin
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Ruby Lu, Brave and True by Lenore Look
Under the Blood Red Sun by Graham Salisbury
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee
Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins
Long Season of Rain by Helen Kim
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.

What children’s and young adult books are you reading now?

Calvin Coconut by Graham Salisbury
Healing Water by Joyce Moyer Hostetter
Harper Lee: Up Close by Kerry Madden
Julia’s Kitchen by Brenda A. Ferber
And a slew of picture books!

What inspired you to start your blog? And what inspired you to combine food and children’s and young adult literature in your blog? What motivates you to keep blogging?

I started blogging about a year and a half ago to join the wonderful conversation about children’s books that I found online, and to find my “voice” again after some years away from writing. I was so inspired by the great bloggers I discovered in the kidlit community, and lurked for several months before getting up the courage to enter my first comment on the Blue Rose Girls. Each comment became easier, until it seemed the natural thing to do to have my own blog so others could reciprocate.

A blog featuring food and children’s books seemed like a deliciously exciting idea, because it would combine two of my greatest passions, and I hoped it would give my blog a unique identity, beyond being yet another writer or book review blog. I discovered through writing Dumpling Soup, that food is the great equalizer, a common denominator that instantly arouses interest and invites conversation. The blog’s name, “alphabet soup,” is a nod to my first book, as well as a reference to a chapter book I’m currently working on, which features a young alphabet collector.

What motivates me to keep blogging? Mainly, all the great people in the kidlitosphere, and the fact that blogging is mentally therapeutic, good writing practice, and a great creative outlet. It’s challenging to post every day: I’m part food-writer, part interviewer, part book reviewer, part historian, part photo essayist. I see blogging as an art form, much like handwritten letters once were, and I try to keep things upbeat, inspiring and informative. My mantra: “take the reader by the hand and show him what you love.”

What are you working on now?

In addition to the early chapter book mentioned above, I’m revising several picture books – two are set in Hawai’i, and the others are humorous stories featuring duck and panda chefs and their culinary misadventures.

Thanks so much for inviting me to be part of your Asian American Heritage Month celebration, Tarie! Aloha and Salamat!

Thank YOU, Jama. It has been a real pleasure chatting with you. :D And now I will go read your latest blog post... Oh, shoot! It's about flowers in food! See you at your blog!


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