November Writer-in-Residence Sennah Yee on How Picture Books Can Teach Kids About Connecting Across Generations & Cultures
Any kid lucky enough to get to know their grandparents knows it can be a totally unique and fun-filled family connection. But sometimes it takes something special to bring the generations together - just like in Sennah Yee's debut picture book My Day with Gong Gong (Annick Press, illustrated by Elaine Chen).
Prior to writing for children, Yee has previously published a collection of poetry for adults and produced a feature film. Her first foray into writing for young readers is a heart-filled hit -- a story brimming with charm as young May travels through Chinatown with her grandpa. She's bored of the long errands and can't understand gong gong's Chinese words or friends. Just when she is longing to go home, gong gong reveals a surprise that changes everything. From Chen's beautiful, detailed cityscapes and good-enough-to-eat dumplings to Yee's intuitive understanding of a child's point of view and what it takes to feel seen by the grown ups in your life, My Day with Gong Gong has the feel of an instant classic - one of those reads that parents and kids will return to time and time again.
The book also includes a glossary featuring translations of gong gong's Chinese words into both English and their Chinese characters, giving a great jumping off point for discussions of language and culture with young readers.
We're incredibly excited to announce that Sennah will be joining Open Book for November 2020 as our writer-in-residence. You can get to know Sennah here, as we discuss My Day with Gong Gong as part of our Kids Club interview series. She tells us about how her own grandfather lives on in the book, her unexpected reaction to seeing proofs of Chen's illustrations for the first time, and the books from her childhood that she still loves to this day. And stay tuned all month for new, original content from Sennah on our writer-in-residence page!
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
My Day with Gong Gong follows May, a young girl who spends a day in Chinatown with her gong gong (maternal grandfather). May’s a little nervous because she only knows a few words in Cantonese, and her gong gong speaks little English - but as the story unfolds, the two find other ways of connecting with each other!
This is my first children’s book, it came to be all thanks to Annick Press and my wonderful editor, Claire Caldwell. Claire reached out to me after reading my poetry collection How Do I Look? - she asked if I had ever considered writing for a younger audience, since I had a few pieces in that collection about my childhood. It was a dream come true - I grew up reading Annick Press books, and I had always wanted to write a children’s book, but hadn’t yet tried. So I started brainstorming ideas! When I chatted with my family, it was my younger sister who suggested writing about our beloved gong gong and a trip through Chinatown. While sadly he isn’t around to read this book, it means a lot to have our love for him live on through it!
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
I hope this book can show kids (and adults!) how there are many ways to communicate and show love - and to practice patience and care if something gets lost in translation due to differences in language, culture, age, or whatever other reason. I want this book to show readers that it’s also normal to feel mixed emotions during these kinds of misunderstandings, and that it can help people feel less alone in processing them.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
I relate to May in the way that I also grew up not knowing how to speak Cantonese with my grandparents, which sometimes led to confusing exchanges or my parents having to be there to help translate. But May and I are different in how we react to this language barrier - it brings frustration and impatience to May’s character; I would say it brought me more sadness and shame sometimes, because I wanted so badly to connect with them in that way. That said, I’ll admit I do get hangry like May sometimes, ha!
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
When Annick Press sent me the first sketches from the wonderful artist Elaine Chen, I burst into tears without meaning to. It was my first time experiencing the story and characters brought to life like that! I didn’t expect it to be such an emotional journey, but seeing the illustrations made my heart warm and ache all at once, because I miss him so much.
A delightfully strange and memorable moment was realizing the simultaneous specific and universal qualities of my gong gong, “gong gong” the character, and “gong gong”/grandpa as an overall concept. Elaine and I didn’t talk at all beforehand, and yet she captured parts of my gong gong’s essence dead-on: how he carries himself with his arms behind his back, leaning on the counter at the store with his legs crossed, etc. These are details I initially thought were specific to my own gong gong, but turns out are very common among many grandpas, which I find so sweet!
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
To me, a great book for young readers is one that grows up with you as you reread it throughout your life, one that invites you to discover something new every time, whether new meaning or a new detail in the illustrations. This experience is such a gift. Love You Forever by Robert Munsch immediately comes to mind. My mum read all of his books to us as kids, and when I reread this one as an adult, I was floored at its complexity and richness. I can’t read it now without bawling!
I also remember loving Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton. I found Jane so cool and peppy - and I loved the twist that she befriends the dragon rather than slays him. I like how the book uses its narrative surprises not only to shock and delight, but to convey its themes about following your heart, taking the time to learn about others’ feelings and dreams, and not judging a book by its cover.
What are you working on now?
I find it helpful to work a little bit on a lot of things at once, so that I can “procrastinate” from one project by working on another! I also like to switch between genres/styles as I go from project to project. Right now, I’m working on my first novella! It’s a soft sci-fi about a woman navigating grief and guilt about her mother, alongside a doppelgänger. It’s the first time I’m writing in this genre; I’m finding it incredibly challenging and thrilling all at once. I’m also working on an idea for another children’s book, inspired by my sisters!
Sennah Yee is from Toronto, Ontario, where she writes poetry, short stories, and film criticism. Her first book, the creative nonfiction collection How Do I Look?, was published by Metatron Press in 2017.
Author photo credit: Christine Ting Wei Wang