Kirstie: Congratulations on your new book AMAH FARAWAY. Reading it was like a trip back to 1994-1995 when I lived in Tianmu with my husband and toddler. We spent a lot of time at the park and visiting the night market where I purchased jade bracelets for friends and family. Your book being about Taiwan was really special for me and brought back a lot of wonderful memories of my time spent on the island.
Margaret: Thank you! I’m so glad you connected with the book. Living in Taiwan sounds amazing! Since the book has been out, I’ve heard from a few people who lived there when they were younger–it makes me wish I had done that too!
Kirstie: Clearly, you were inspired by your grandmother to write Amah Faraway. I love books that tell inter-generational stories because those relationships are so important. Tell us why you wrote this book for young readers.
Margaret: Like Kylie (the main character in Amah Faraway), I grew up in the United States, and my grandmother lived in Taipei. I adored her, but our relationship wasn't easy because we were separated by distance, language, and culture. At times, I felt jealous of friends who saw their grandparents more often and who shared all the things that my amah and I did not. I hope readers who are growing up far away from loved ones will see themselves reflected in Amah Faraway and will take away how special their relationships with their faraway loved ones can be. If they speak Mandarin at home with their family, I hope they will feel proud to see their language reflected in a real book. If they are Asian, I hope they will feel happy to see a character who looks like them. Any of these reasons are why I write for young readers. I hope after reading Amah Faraway, young readers will feel validated, valued and seen.
Kirstie: Amah Faraway is beautifully written in reverse poem, which I imagine is challenging, but it works perfectly for this story. What made you choose this method of writing?
Margaret: The first time I read a reverse poem, I noticed that the meaning changed between when the poem was read normally and when it was read in reverse. I also noticed that the tone seemed dramatically opposite. During the first half of my story, Kylie feels awkward and unfamiliar with Taipei--the culture, the food, the language, even Amah and her faraway family. I chose the reverse structure because I wanted to highlight the dramatic change in how Kylie feels mid-way through the story, when she opens her heart to Amah and Taipei.
Kirstie: You included simple Chinese words throughout the book. Why was that an important addition to the text?
Margaret: Speaking different languages is one major barrier which can cause two people to feel distant from one another. I felt it was important to show how Amah and Kylie are distanced in this way–Amah speaks Mandarin, and Kylie only "kind of understands." In the reverse poem format, Amah speaks Mandarin words while Kylie remains silent in the first half of the story. But in the second half of the story, Kylie speaks the same Mandarin words that Amah spoke. When I was young, even though I knew some Chinese words, I was reluctant to speak them because I was embarrassed -- the words felt unwieldy on my tongue, and I knew my pronunciation was less than perfect. I imagine Kylie having these same feelings. Kylie speaking Chinese without reserve in the second half of the story shows how she's feeling emotionally closer to Amah.
One wonderful side effect of having Mandarin in the text is that children who speak Mandarin at home with family members can feel proud to recognize their language in an actual book. On a recent virtual school visit, a little girl told me a bit shyly yet proudly that she could speak Mandarin. We had an exchange, and her teacher emailed me later that same day to tell me how the little girl's face had lit up during our visit.
Kirstie: At KLIC we value children being exposed to different cultures and peoples and you did a great job of incorporating Taiwanese culture into your book. Did you rely solely on your memory or did you conduct research?
Margaret: One of my inspirations for Amah Faraway came from visiting Taiwan with my own children. I used my memories from that trip to plot out the story. For example, during that trip, my mom took me to a mom-and-pop youtiao (Chinese donut) shop that looked exactly like the one Tracy Subisak illustrated in the book. My mom also planned a huge family banquet for us, inviting 14 tables worth of relatives (12 people each) that we hadn't met before. My children literally only ate rice. I remember this because I wondered what they were going to eat for the next eight days. For the finer details that I couldn't recall, I searched the Internet. For example, I had to search for exactly how many courses are served at a banquet. Even though I've been going to banquets my whole life, I never paid attention to this detail.
I can’t take credit for all the details though. Many of the wonderful cultural details were added through Tracy Subisak's beautiful illustrations. She lived in Taiwan as a young adult, and her visual mind captured so many amazing details!
Kirstie: The illustrations are colorful and fun. How was it working with Tracy Subisak and what is your favorite illustration?
Margaret: Tracy and I worked together through our editor, Sarah Shumway. We never actually met until after our work on the book was done. Now that the book is out and we’re promoting it, we’ve been lucky to share some events.
I'm so pleased with Tracy's heartfelt illustrations. It's hard to pick a favorite spread, but I love the second big banquet scene after Kylie, the main character, has had her big emotional change. She's devouring food at the Lunar New Year banquet. Her mouth is wide open and she's lifting the bowl up as she shovels food in. For readers who don't know, in Chinese culture, we lift the bowl to our mouths when we are eating rather than leaving the bowl on the table and using the utensil to bring food up to our mouths. I also love the expression on Amah's face as she watches Kylie enjoy her food. Finally, I love the Chinese lion dancers in the background meant to set the story around Lunar New Year, but which add to the joy and celebration in the scene.
Kirstie: What is your hope that children will take away from Amah Faraway?
Margaret: I hope Amah Faraway will resonate with readers who have felt disconnected from faraway family and/or their family heritage, and that they will see how one moment of being open to something "new" led to hope, happiness, and connection for Kylie. Maybe they will see Kylie and Amah speaking Mandarin and simply feel proud to speak Mandarin. Or maybe they will get joy out of finding a character who looks just like them in an actual book. Ultimately, I hope that children who read Amah Faraway will come away feeling valued and validated.
Kirstie: Your book is coming out right before Lunar New Year. How will you celebrate the holiday?
Margaret: For the first time, we prepared for Lunar New Year by having a huge cleaning day where we mopped, swept, scrubbed, vacuumed and wiped the house from top to bottom. I have to say I really like this tradition and think it will be something we strive to do before every Lunar New Year. I love starting the year with a clean house!
To celebrate, we did the most important thing–reuniting with family (it’s not hard since we live within thirty minutes of each other) and shared a delicious meal. We also ate lots of yummy pineapple cakes.
Kirstie: What are you working on next?
Margaret: Next up is Hooked on Books about a deep sea anglerfish named Pearl who just wants to finish reading her book. But she keeps getting interrupted. So she swims down, down, down deeper into the ocean to find the perfect place to read.
What are you currently reading?
Margaret: Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids by Susan Cain (Author), Gregory Mone (Author), Erica Moroz (Author), Grant Snider (Illustrator)
Kirstie: When you’re not writing we can find you…?
Margaret: Playing board games with my family, watching my kids play soccer, jogging, reading, or hanging out with friends.
If you told Margaret Chiu Greanias she would be an author when she grew up, she would have said you were dreaming. She dreaded writing open-ended homework questions, term papers, and especially essays—until her last year in college when she fell in love with creative writing. She is the author of Amah Faraway (Bloomsbury Children's, 2022), which was a Junior Library Guild selection; Maximillian Villainous (Running Press Kids, 2018); and the upcoming Hooked on Books (Peachtree Publishing, 2023). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram, or sign up for updates on her website at margaretgreanias.com.