Writer in Residence

Comparing Myself with May from My Day With Gong Gong

By Sennah Yee

Writing May, the main character in my kids book My Day With Gong Gong, was a joy! It was my first time writing from the perspective of a kid as an adult, and for kids as a main audience. A lot of her dialogue and reactions came naturally, and while I've joked about how that must say something about my maturity, I've truly always admired how kids react from their hearts - for better or worse. It was important for me to write this story from May's perspective to show the wide range of emotions that kids feel - emotions that they may not have names for yet, but that they still understand and process on a different, non-verbal level.

A question that’s popped up often when talking about my book is whether May is based off of myself as a kid. The short answer is yes and no! The long answer is this list of ways in which we’re similar and different:

  • May and I are both Chinese-Canadian, and we both love our family. My dad came to Canada when he was four. My mum was born in Toronto and grew up in Chinatown. Visiting my gong gong (grandpa) in her childhood home was so much fun - for one, he had cable TV, meant everything as a kid! I remember watching cartoons on the couch, next to the lacy curtains that had become yellow with age and cigarette smoke. We’d either go out for dim sum close by, or gong gong would cook us something yummy - my favourite was his crispy chicken wings. Afterwards, he’d keep the treats going with popsicles from the freezer.
  • May has a much more stylish hairdo than I did when I was her age!
  • Neither May nor I know how to speak Cantonese - though we both know a few key words, such as: hello, thank you, I love you, and of course, our favourite dim sum foods (turnip cakes, baos, congee, and of course dumplings, all dumplings)!
  • Speaking of food, May and I both get “hangry” (angry from being hungry) easily! Poor May’s tummy is rumbly for the first half of the book. She tries her best to tell her gong gong that she wants to go eat, but he doesn’t seem to understand (or so she thinks)! Getting hangry is something I’m guilty of, and try my best to avoid by packing a granola bar in every purse or backpack I own. I realize now that this habit comes from my mom, who always made sure to have a small snack or a juicebox on hand - a sweet comfort, and an instant cure for a hangry loved one.
  • The language barrier between May and her gong gong brings May impatience and frustration - this was a great idea from my wonderful editor, Claire Caldwell, to create a bit more conflict in the story. For myself, the language barrier with my grandparents didn't bring me those feelings May had, but rather sadness and a bit of shame. I really regret not taking the time and care to learn Chinese so I could chat with them more, without needing a parent or relative to translate while I sat and smiled awkwardly. Apparently I went to a single Chinese class with my cousins as a kid, and we were all so scared that we never went back. I normally have a great memory, but I must have suppressed this one!
  • May and I are both born in the year of the monkey in the Chinese zodiac - that’s why gong gong gives May a stuffed toy monkey from a gift shop as a surprise! Those born under this sign are generally seen as social, lively, and adaptable - but can also be impatient and moody.
  • Last but not least, May and I both learn from our family about the different ways we can love. I've been thinking about this more and more as I get older and find new ways to show, as well as accept love - whether through listening, helping with an errand, thoughtful gifts, hugs, or of course, eating yummy food together. I hope this book can show readers how love can take on endless forms!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

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. Her debut picture book, My Day with Gong Gong, was published by Annick Press in 2020.