Interview by: Kirstie Myvett
What inspired you to write Tu YouYou’s Discovery, and how long did it take you to complete this project?
My inspiration for writing this book was from a TV show. At the beginning of 2019, I watched a BBC program called Icons: The Greatest Person of the 20th Century. Tu Youyou, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Alan Turing, were the four candidates in the scientist category. I was excited that Tu Youyou had been selected. I also realized that most Americans had never heard of her, even though Tu Youyou had saved millions of lives and had won the prestigious Nobel Prize. As a proud Chinese American, I had to share her remarkable journey.
For this particular story, it took me months to do the necessary research before writing. The first draft took me about two hours. The revising process took me over one year.
I enjoyed learning about natural remedies to illness and the benefits of plants in healing. I would imagine you had to research not only Tu Youyou’s life but Chinese medicine as well. Tell us about the research you did for this book.
There is very little material about Tu Youyou available in the US. Luckily, I can read Chinese and found a lot of Chinese books and material about Tu Youyou on the Chinese internet. I did extensive research about Tu Youyou’s experiment process and learned so much about qinghao (sweet wormwood). Even though I can’t cover many details in my book, I gained a lot of health knowledge about qinghao, which is the grassy plant that artemisinin is extracted from. I always had a special taste for a Chinese vegetable named tonghao, which is related to qinghao. Now I plant it in my garden every year and have plenty to enjoy, not only for its taste, but also for its medical benefits. I use it on salads, stir fry, even dumplings.
As a former software engineer, your career path probably correlates in many ways with Tu Youyou’s. Share the importance of children seeing themselves in non-traditional roles.
I grew up in China. There, like a lot of the world, the male has the dominant role in society and the family. My family has four girls and one boy. The reason that my mother had four girls is because she was determined to give my father a son to pass on his family name. In my family, my younger brother was always more important than the four girls. My parents actually wished I would become a teacher or a doctor, which are more in a female domain. I wanted to be a scientist or engineer because that was where my interests were. Throughout my engineering career, there have always been more men than women in my working place. Statistically, only 25% of those in a STEM career are women. Tu Youyou is a great role model. I hope Tu Youyou’s story will inspire young girls to study Science and Engineering. These fields are not for boys only. As a former engineer myself, I can tell you that engineering is a fun job and women make great engineers.
Tu Youyou is 90 years old now and received a Nobel Prize in 2015. Have you had an opportunity to speak with her or her representative?
Tu Youyou is retired and she is a very private person. She doesn’t accept any interviews. I did try to connect several times with Professor Tu Youyou through her working place, the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. I haven’t yet received a response. If I ever have the opportunity to talk with her, I would love to know more about her childhood. I would ask about her favorite memory of her childhood, her favorite color, game, book, and food as a child. These facts would have added more color and personality to the book.
What’s an interesting fact you learned about Tu Youyou that you weren’t able to include in the book?
During the process of researching the book, I was deeply touched by the personal sacrifices Tu Youyou had made for this project. She volunteered to be the first human tested with the extract of the sweet wormwood to prove it was safe before a clinical trial. It was truly a selfless and brave deed. I wrote this incredible fact in my draft as I wanted to show what a courageous scientist she was. Eventually, however, this was removed from the book. My editor considered that talking about this personal medicinal testing by Tu Youyou was probably not a good idea for young readers as experimenting with drugs in any way could be very dangerous for them.
Tell us about Lin and her illustrations.
The illustrator Lin did a wonderful job of bringing Tu Youyou’s story to life with her gorgeous illustrations. Unfortunately, for a long time, I was unable to communicate with her because she lives in China. Recently, I finally was able to connect with her through Instagram. I am excited to get to know her more.
What are your must-have writing tools?
I write on a desktop PC. Microsoft word is my must-have writing tool.
What are you working on next?
I’m working on a picture book manuscript about an extraordinary Chinese American activist named Grace Lee Boggs. She went beyond class and racial boundaries, fighting for a more just and fairer world.
Songju Ma Daemicke, a former software engineer with Motorola, grew up in China and is an award-winning children’s book author. Her picture book Cao Chong Weighs an Elephant was a Best STEM book, and the Winner of the 2018 CALA Best Juvenile Literature. When she’s not writing, she loves attending to her garden and shooting her next special photograph. Songju lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and their daughters.
To learn more about Songju please visit her website and social media pages.
Order: Tu Youyou's Discovery