By Gail Vannelli and Gayleen Rabakukk
Spotlight image: Doan Phuong Nguyen celebrates the release of her new book.
Today Cynsations is excited to share the publishing journeys of two children’s authors, Doan Phuong Nguyen and Patricia Tanumihardja. Doan Phuong is the author of Mèo and Bé (Tu Books, 2023), a middle grade (MG) historical novel taking place during the Vietnamese War. Patricia is the author of Ramen for Everyone, illustrated by Shiho Pate (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2023). Doan Phuong and Patricia both love Asian food, have been reading voraciously since childhood, and are members of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).
Doan Phuong Nguyen
From the promotional copy: Eleven-year-old Bé hasn’t spoken a word since her mother left. She hangs on to the hope that one day they will be reunited, but after two years of waiting, it’s becoming more difficult. Her father—who is now frail and helpless after a stroke—can do little to protect her from her stepmother, Big Mother, who treats Bé like an animal and a servant.
Thankfully, Bé has a secret friend, her little kitten Mèo, to comfort her in the worst of times. Maybe if she just steers clear of Big Mother and is obedient, everything will be okay. Unfortunately, Big Mother has other plans. She accuses her of stealing, and Bé is drugged and sold. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a locked underground bunker being held captive with a group of young women. Bé is too young to understand why they’re prisoners, but at least she still has Mèo! He was hiding in her shirt when she was taken.
As weeks pass, Bé makes a friend her own age, Ngân, even without speaking, and Mèo becomes a solace for the women—being available for cuddles and catching the mice that annoy them. Suddenly, a violent uprising enables the imprisoned women and girls to escape, only to realize the wider world of war is just as dangerous. Can Bé and Mèo, and their newfound friend, Ngân, find their way to a safe place they can call home—even though the world is literally exploding all around them.
Congratulations on your debut novel! Mèo and Bé blends compelling characters with incredibly immersive worldbuildng to create an emotional Vietnam-War-era story that’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming. What inspired you to write this powerful book?
My father, who had immigrated from Vietnam to the U.S., was working on his memoirs, and I read a scene about how my (adopted) aunt came into our family. She’d been abandoned by her mother, and abused by her father’s first wife, who tattooed her forehead and left her to die at a nun’s doorstep. Mèo and Bé was inspired by some of these events and also situations my father experienced while he was in the army. As I was writing, I added fictional events, upped the stakes and conflicts, and made my child protagonist a selective mute.
Also, throughout my life, I’ve been told stories from the Vietnam War from my grandmother, my father, my aunts and uncles, and my parents’ family friends, who all directly witnessed and endured this war. Their stories have been ingrained in my psyche since childhood, and I thought what better way to pay homage to my history and my culture than by setting my novel in that world. It’s a perspective that Americans don’t often hear about.
You worked on this book while pursuing your MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. How did that experience impact both the evolution of the book and your literary journey?
Mèo and Bé (originally titled Finding Ma) won the 2016 SCBWI Work in Progress Grant, and at that time, I’d only written about 40 pages. It was an important story that I needed to write, but I got writer’s block due to my writing process. Typically when I’m writing, I fully immerse my mind into the story. As I type, I see the scene unfolding in front of me like a movie, and I try to use words to describe what I see and feel. I put myself in the character’s shoes and I live my life as hers. This way of writing—my version of method acting, you could say—is very emotional, and writing can be slow. Since I couldn’t bear to put 11-year-old Bé through the story’s difficult times (e.g., being abused, sold, drugged, imprisoned), I sought help and support through an MFA writing program.
I finished a (short) draft my first semester as my advisor gently pushed me in the right direction and gave me confidence and encouragement. In the following semesters, I learned more about craft, and the novel became more polished. By the time I graduated, I had a manuscript that I was proud to send to literary agents.
How did you navigate the process of finding an agent and a publisher?
After receiving my MFA in 2019, I queried literary agents. After querying about ten, I signed with my agent, Sara Megibow of KT Literary. She requested that I make one change to Mèo’s story arc and after those edits, we sent the manuscript to editors. There were a lot of rejections during this process, but finally Elise McMullen-Ciotti at Tu Books (an imprint of Lee & Low) loved the book.
Unfortunately, the upcoming Lee & Low acquisitions week was cancelled because New York and publishing shut down due to Covid. When acquisitions opened again, no one wanted sad books, so we softened the manuscript and in December 2021, I got a book contract for a two-book deal. It was a long process, but I’m thankful it came to fruition and my lifelong dream of being a published author came true!
Although the book’s text is told primarily in English, Vietnamese words and phrases are used throughout. The easy-to-follow English/Vietnamese transitions create a rich cultural reading experience. How did you come to use a bilingual format and were there related challenges?
Being bilingual, I think and experience the world that way. Writing bilingually was a natural progression that didn’t require much thinking. The words in both languages just came as I wrote. Since the book’s characters are Vietnamese, my unconscious mind decided that some of the words they’d use would be Vietnamese.
When I was in my MFA program, workshop students had spirited debates about whether the Vietnamese words in my writing should be italicized or not, and if readers could infer their meaning by the context. Ultimately, these issues were decided by my publisher, and I love that they included a Vietnamese glossary. It’s an easy way for children and readers to understand the Vietnamese text.
Author, wife, mother, full-time photographer: How do you find time to write and what is your writing schedule like?
I love spending time with my husband, my toddler son, and my fur babies (two Shih Tzus and a calico cat). And I feel fortunate to have a successful full-time photography business. But writing is hard because my schedule is so full—balancing family life and work while I also chase after my writing dreams. When my son was a baby, I woke at 5 a.m. and wrote for two hours. Now that he’s older, I write for an hour after he gets dropped off at preschool. That hour isn’t always productive, but some progress is better than none. Unless I’m on deadline, I take it easy on myself with writing.
Recently, I’ve devoted one full day mid-week to writing with an author friend at a coffee shop. It makes me more motivated and accountable. I also do writing sprints with a friend in the U.K. We’ll write for an hour or two, then share our work. This helps me remain on the right track. Plus, getting immediate feedback keeps my inner critic from being too harsh.
What advice can you give aspiring MG writers?
Keep writing and don’t give up hope. If writing is your passion, you’ll continue to write no matter how busy life gets, or how hard the writing is. Even if your manuscript gets repeatedly rejected by agents and publishers, move on to the next project, the next story idea, and keep going. Perseverance is the key to success.
If you’re writing a MG book, finding the right voice is vital. Reading multiple MG novels will give you a sense of that age-group voice. It also helps you see what themes and stories are being told in this genre. In addition, adult authors writing MG may feel disconnected from the experience of being a kid in middle school. So it’s important to remember the child-you. What did you sound like? What kind of things did you think about? Care about?
What’s up next for you?
I have a MG verse novel coming out in the fall of 2024 that is tentatively titled Girl Split in Two. I also have a picture book that hasn’t found a home yet, but I’m hopeful that one day it will. I’m also working on a young adult historical/fantasy that I’m writing just for fun.
From the promotional copy: Hiro loves ramen. Every Sunday, Hiro’s dad makes delicious, perfect ramen for dinner, using a recipe passed down from his dad. There’s nori seaweed, briny like the ocean; nitamago egg, the yolk golden like the sun; and chashu pork so tender, it melts in your mouth. Yum! Hiro’s dream is to make his own perfect bowl, and he’s sure he can do it after watching his dad and taking notes.
But when he gets started, things don’t go according to plan. The seaweed crumbles! The eggs slip through his fingers! The pork falls apart! Hiro is worried he’ll never be a real ramen chef…but thanks to his father’s wise advice and his own creativity, Hiro discovers that every person’s perfect bowl of ramen is unique.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
From the time I was a teenager, I’ve always loved being around young children. I’ve worked at camps, preschools and kindergartens, and I volunteered at children’s events. They are a joy to be around. I didn’t want to be a schoolteacher, so I thought, “Why not write for children?” Writing for children allows me to express my silly self in all its glory and have fun while doing it. Plus, I knew I had so many stories just begging to be told!
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
I’ve always considered myself a good writer. However, my writing experience was initially only in nonfiction, whether it was writing for newspapers and magazines or developing recipes for my cookbooks. I had a lot to learn about writing for children. In the beginning, I read craft books (The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb was one of my first purchases) and read and studied a lot of books. I joined a critique group which was immensely helpful for getting feedback on my work.
I also signed up for workshops through Children’s Book Academy (thank you, Mira Reisberg!), which led me to an online course by author Dashka Slater. Through Dashka’s course, I pushed my picture book writing skills to another level and that’s how I met my current critique group. We’re still together after eight years! More recently, being an SCBWI member has allowed me to attend both free and low-cost workshops online. I’ve also signed up for editor and agent critiques when I can. This has been helpful in learning what they are looking for. Above all, I write. I’ve written many, many stories. Some stories are languishing on my computer, others have been submitted and rejected. Yet others are still just seeds waiting to be planted. But each and every one of these stories have led me to today.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
My son has loved ramen from the very first time we brought him to a ramen restaurant at age three or four. You should have seen how quickly he slurped those noodles! Over the years, I watched his relationship with his dad grow. He so looked up to his dad and wanted to do everything his dad did. I’m also a cookbook author and I was developing ramen recipes at the time. All three elements intersected and inspired me to write this book.
How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion?
I’m realizing that making this transition takes a village—from your critique group, to your agent, to your editor, to the marketing team, to your community of writers and allies. I can still remember when I had so much self-doubt and wondered if I would ever be a published children’s author. Even now that the time has come, I often doubt myself and joke that I’ll be a three-book wonder (it’s been three years since I sold my last manuscript).
I’ve also discerned that marketing and promotion are essential parts of being an author. I’m an introvert and would rather be typing at my keyboard than talking to a bunch of strangers (although reading to a group of cute kids is definitely fun!). I see publicity as a collaborative process. With Ramen for Everyone, I was lucky to get publisher support, but I know that’s not true for every book and author. In addition, I’m thrilled that my illustrator Shiho Pate and I have been working closely together to promote our book!
It’s been wonderful coming up with ideas and cross-promo events, and it’s made it such a fun process too. I also belong to a PB debut launch group—we’re PBJam2023 on Instagram and Twitter—and we’ve been co-promoting our debut books. It’s been great having their support and getting to know other picture book creators. I believe in “strength in numbers” and it makes the process less lonely.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Work hard, don’t give up, and your time will come. I started writing for children in 2002—I remember this clearly because it was the year my husband and I got married. I pursued publication for another three to four years but I wasn’t getting anywhere so I put my children’s stories aside. I started writing about food and cooking, and I went on to publish four cookbooks.
Eventually, I came back to writing for young readers because I knew it was my passion. I think the hiatus was instrumental to my success, even though it took nine years to get from first draft to publication the second time around. I now write what I know (and you should too) in so many ways—food, cooking, culture, immigrant life. Timing is also everything. Being BIPOC, I write stories that reflect my experience and I’m so thankful that the publishing world has finally realized that there’s a need for more diverse books.
What’s next as you move forward with your literary art?
Picture books are a lot of fun to write. In addition to Ramen for Everyone, I have two more picture books coming out this year and I’m working on several other ideas. But I also have a chapter book out on submission (plus more in the works). Also, I have been honing my novel-writing skills in order to write a MG novel. Each of these genres is its own animal—it’s definitely not one size fits all. However, they allow me to be creative in different ways. It’s a good thing that I enjoy being a lifelong learner!
Doan Phuong Nguyen writes realistic novels for MG. Mèo and Bé (Tu Books, 2023) is her debut. She was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States when she was in elementary school. After growing up in the South, she settled in the Midwest. She received her B.A. from Vanderbilt University and her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Besides writing emotionally compelling children’s stories, she also documents beautiful love stories as the owner of Zoe Life Photography.
Patricia Tanumihardja was born in Jakarta to Indonesian Chinese parents, raised in Singapore, and moved to Seattle for college. She has her BA in Communications from the University of Washington and her MS in Arts Administration from Boston University. Besides her children’s books, she also writes cookbooks and stories on food, travel, and lifestyle.
In addition to Ramen for Everyone, she has two picture books coming out this year: The Sugar Plum Bakers: And the 12 Holiday Treats (Melissa de la Cruz Studio, 2023) and Jimmy’s Shoes: The Story of Jimmy Choo, Shoemaker to a Princess, illustrated by Derek Desierto (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2023). She currently lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and son.
Gail Vannelli retired as an attorney and now writes children’s/YA fiction. She has her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her Post-MFA Certificate in the Teaching of Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She’s won several Writer’s Digest awards for her fiction. Her recent work has appeared in Cynsations, where she’s a news reporter and writer, and in Lunch Ticket, where she’s been a lead editor, assistant editor, interviewer, and blogger. She’s the founder of Kids Story Studio, a free kids story writing class.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.