Helen H. Wu - Tofu Takes Time
Interview by: Alliah L. Agostini
ALA: What ultimately compelled you to make your sweet tofu-making memories into a story?
HW: The inspiration for this story was born of my tofu-making experience with my treasured grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat nearby and watched as she cooked—a process that sometimes involved tofu.
She would wash vegetables, chop meat, stir porridge, and cook all the meals for our entire family. It was during these times that she would share stories that transported me to faraway places and other eras.
After I moved to the US and had my own family, my kids would ask many questions about the process and tools we used to make tofu together: serving as a warm reminder of the sweet time I spent with my grandma in the small kitchen across the ocean. Hence, a story began to take shape.
ALA: This book is not only about creating tofu, but all of the items (and concepts) used to create it. How did you decide to integrate a more holistic experience into the text?
HW: A great book calls for multiple layers with varied messages readers can take away from the story. Though the idea behind the book was grounded in the tofu-making process, I knew the story must involve a bigger concept that is more relevant to kids.
When I cooked with my own kids, I noted their preoccupation with imaginative play and occasional complaints about the time required to cook a proper meal, which inspired me to weave the topic of patience into the text.
In examining the tofu-making process in a more imaginative way, I discovered an assortment of inherent elements that connect with nature and even the universe at large. I’m now so happy to have found a sweet spot that includes food, culture, patience, nature, and intergenerational love all tied into one story.
ALA: I loved your integration of auditory cues into the text, especially since smells and tastes are more predominantly used in stories of food. Why did you decide to use sound cues to engage your readers?
HW: In some tofu-making steps, the use of onomatopoeia comes naturally: such as when blending beans with water and boiling soymilk. It was during the revision process that I realized using onomatopoeia would add a pattern to the structure, making it fun and predictable and more satisfying for young readers to read aloud while adding another layer to the storyline. It’s for this reason that I added sound cues to each tofu-making step as well as in preparing for meal time together.
ALA: Julie’s illustrations are so cheerful and whimsical. Did you incorporate many illustration notes into your manuscript, especially for the more succinct ‘And it takes…’ spreads, or did she just run with the text? And are there any fun ‘easter eggs’ hidden in the illustrations that readers should look out for?
HW: I didn’t add many art notes at all. Though I am an illustrator as well as an author, I didn’t have many specific thoughts regarding the illustrations in this case. There were so many different ways to interpret the text, and I felt it best to leave this task to the illustrator, editor, and art director to do so per their preferences. This required high levels of trust—among the author, editor, and illustrator—to believe in one other while working together to bring the story to life.
When NaiNai and Lin read a book together, Julie’s corresponding illustration reflects so many imaginative and cultural elements: including traditional Chinese symbols, home goods, and natural components. Readers should look out for these intriguing details.
ALA: What do you hope children and families ultimately take from the book?
HW: I hope readers will enjoy this multi-generational tale that explores the magic of patience in making tofu (a food consumed in China for over 2000 years), using sights, sounds, and lots of imagination. As an ode to patience and delayed gratification, this book supports the mindset that good things take time—a concept both children and families can apply in many areas of life.
ALA: What is your favorite memory of passing time while you made tofu with your grandmother?
HW: Above all else, I value the time spent listening to my grandma’s stories. Many of these were about life in the Chinese countryside, which is where she spent most of her life. Since I was born in the city, I didn’t know much countryside living—especially in the decades before I was born. So, I was always curious to learn about something so seemingly close to me yet unfamiliar as well.
ALA: What are your favorite ways to eat tofu?
HW: I love Mapo tofu with ground meat; but since my kids don’t like spicy food, I only occasionally eat tofu prepared in this manner.
ALA: As an author, illustrator, and associate publisher of Yeehoo Press, you wear many hats within kidlit, alone. Which role has been your favorite so far?
HW: My two favorite roles are author and associate publisher. As an author, I can tell the stories I want to tell while gaining a first-person perspective about the type of support an author needs in publishing: helping me understand how a publisher can better collaborate with authors.
As a publisher, I enjoy access to inside industry information including multiple ways books and book-related products are developed and sold. This inspires me to become a better entrepreneur. My ultimate goal is to produce successful books, which I believe requires a combination of compelling storytelling from the author and the illustrator as well as publisher contributions with respect to sales, marketing, and distribution platforms.
ALA: Your book trailer and the theme song are adorable. Have you convinced your children to do a dance to it yet?
HW: Thank you for your kind words. It in fact took me some time to arrange a dance for the song, which called for fun, easy-to-learn moves that aren’t too simple. I did convince my children to perform the dance, and I’ll release a corresponding video soon!
Tofu Takes Time - Picture Book Trailer - Helen H. Wu
ALA: Can you share a bit more about your previous books - and any to come?
HW: The first picture book I ever wrote was a rhyming book, GOOD NIGHT, GOOD NIGHT. Back then I didn’t know anything about meters, beats or patterns. Part of me was embarrassed and part of me was pretty proud that I wrote a rhyming book even before I had the concept of these rules. Sometimes it just takes passion and courage to start a journey!
My next picture book, LONG GOES TO DRAGON SCHOOL, illustrated by Mae Besom, will be published by Yeehoo Press in February, 2023.
Inspired by my experience as a minority immigrant student, this picture book follows a Chinese dragon who struggles to breathe fire in his new Western dragon school, only to discover he must carve his own path to finding a sense of belonging. Wrapped in Eastern and Western dragon lore, this fantasy tale celebrates perseverance, self-acceptance, and cultural differences.
Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author, illustrator, translator and publisher. She is the author of TOFU TAKES TIME, illustrated by Julie Jarema (Beaming Books, 2022) and LONG GOES TO DRAGON SCHOOL, illustrated by Mae Besom (Yeehoo Press, 2023). Helen is the Associate Publisher of Yeehoo Press, an independent children’s book publisher. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that can empower children to understand the world and our connections.
Currently, Helen lives in San Diego, California, with her family and two kids.
Learn more about Helen Wu at:
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