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A To Z With Cynthia Chin-Lee

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With the recent release of Akira to Zoltan, Craig Wiesner interviews Cynthia Chin-Lee about everything from almond cookies to zipping around from her day job to puppet shows and reading time in the evenings and quiet moments working on the next book.


Cynthia Chin-Lee arrived at the restaurant on a rainy April afternoon with an early-release copy of her latest book in hand. Akira to Zoltan has recently arrived on bookshelves as a follow on to her most popular children's book to date, Amelia to Zora. "I hope people will be as drawn to this one as they were to the last," she said. "Lots of folks recognize the name Amelia, but maybe not so many will recognize Akira."


These beautifully illustrated biographical A-Z books tell the stories of people who have had a great impact on our world. Starting with Amelia Earhart, Cynthia Chin-Lee wanted children to know that each child can grow up to do great things. Asked if picture books of this nature were still popular with older kids, she said "People give Amelia to Zora to young women as High school graduation gifts, as a way of letting them know that some day they too could wind up being in a book like this. I'm hoping that the same will be true for boys, when Akira comes out."



People probably would have recognized the first name intended to grace Chin-Lee's latest A to Z book. It would have been Albert, if not for one little problem. Using Einstein's image came at too high a price. $10,000 per print run seemed a tad unreasonable so Chin-Lee decided to celebrate Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa instead. In retrospect, she's glad it worked out that way. "I love the fact that I get to choose from so many wonderful people when I do a book like this. While Albert Einstein might have been the obvious choice for the letter A, isn't it wonderful that Akira Kurosawa gets to be first in this book?"

Celebrating 26 men who have made our world a better place was a natural follow on to Chin-Lee's award-winning Amelia to Zora. The inspiration for Amelia came during a difficult period in Chin-Lee's life. Dealing with divorce from her first husband, she felt that society didn't value women's contributions enough. "I really wanted to write a book that would celebrate women."

Like all of her work, the time between inspiration, idea, writing, re-writing, and getting published took quite a while. Nightly reading time with Vanessa, Chin-Lee's then two year old daughter, was the initial inspiration for writing children's books. "I felt like I had read a thousand children's books," she quipped, "or maybe it was a hundred books a hundred times over and over." Having grown up with a love for biographies, she decided that she could apply the joy of learning about real people in this new endeavor.


Her first published children's book was called "Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea." Semi-autobiographical in nature, it tells the story of Erica Howard being invited over to Nancy Hong's house for a play date after school. For Nancy, this helps to overcome her fear of being different from the other children and Erica gets to learn a lot about Chinese culture. And, both kids get to enjoy delicious almond cookies and tea!

According to Chin-Lee, her own grandmother did make the best almond cookies in town. And, what made them so good was the secret ingredient, beef lard!

Along with accolades for Chin-Lee's story and the illustrations by You-Shan Tang, the venue for this first book did raise a few objections. "One of the most frequent comments I got about that book was people wondering why I had chosen such a stereotypical setting, above a Chinese laundry." The fact was, Chin-Lee's grandparents did run a laundry in Washington D.C. and it made perfect sense for that to be the setting of her first children's book. "People said I should have had the characters be doctors, lawyers, or other professionals but the fact is that my grandparents did run a laundry."

One of the driving forces in her writing has been to celebrate who people really are, rather than trying to make them into someone else. Through diversity of art in her books and the people represented, Chin-Lee shows that no matter how different children might be from others around them, love, support, and faith can help to overcome any adversity. But she is quick to point out that success in most endeavors takes hard work and patience.

"Someone in my extended family says that he wants to write a best seller" Chin-Lee said, "as though all it takes is a little time." Not so. It takes hard work, a lot of time, and a lot of luck, and even really good writers may never have a best-seller. Chin-Lee has been fortunate to be part of a children's book writing group for many years now, with group members helping each other grow. And, despite her success, she still gets rejections today for some of her book ideas.

It took years to get Almond Cookies and Dragon Well Tea published. Chin-Lee had read about a contest a publisher was having for children's picture books. She wrote the story of Almond Cookies and sent it in, and waited.

"First, I got a letter saying that the contest I had read about was over a year old, and over." Chin-Lee said. "But they said they would consider publishing it." They eventually rejected it. "At least I had a manuscript now!" Chin-Lee sent it to another publisher and an editor there liked the idea of the manuscript but he wanted her to rewrite it. She did. He rejected it. Next she sent it to Polychrome Publishing which specialized in Asian-American books, they liked it, and it finally got published, launching Chin-Lee's new part-time career.


With Almond Cookies as a first success, Chin-Lee then pondered what might come next. With so many "A to Z" books on the market covering animals, plants, and other things, it seemed there was nothing that focused on celebrating people and cultures, especially far-away places like Asia. The idea for A Is for Asia was born! Chin-Lee partnered with illustrator Yumi Heo, an award-winning artist who was born and raised in Korea. The book was very successful and most notably was included in Ruminator Review's Best 100 Books of the Century (on par with books by Dr. Seuss and Katherine Paterson). "I don't know how I got into that league," Chin-Lee laughed, "but it sure felt great."


After A is for Asia, her family suggested that she do something closer to home. "After all," they said, "We live in the Americas." At a writer's retreat, she had met novelist Terri De La Pena, whose novels focused on Latinas living in the U.S. and social differences arising from age, class, and sexual orientation. She seemed the perfect partner for writing A Is for the Americas. Artist Enrique O. Sanchez, whose illustrations grace various multicultural-themed books, rounded out the team. Selected for an award by the National Council for the Social Studies Children's Book Council A Is for the Americas was a great success. Though now out of print, it continues to be in demand and is available through used book stores (on-line and brick and mortar).



Next Chin-Lee's childhood love of biographies really came into play as she worked on the award-winning Amelia to Zora and on the soon-to-be-released Akira to Zoltan. Beyond the June release of Akira, Chin-Lee has other ideas in the works, which is amazing considering her busy life.

Juggling a full-time career managing technical writers at Sun Microsystems, a family at home including young son, Josh, husband Peter, and daughter Vanessa, one might be surprised that Chin-Lee still finds time to work on new book projects. "Late in the evenings, when the kids are in bed, I head into our study to do a little work." Saturday mornings are also a special time for writing. Family vacations are often a mix of family fun and quiet research and writing time. As she partners with wonderful illustrators on her books, Chin-Lee also has a wonderful partnership with her husband Peter, who focuses primarily on managing the house and keeping up with Joshua.

Asked about whether Joshua enjoyed nighttime reading rituals as much as his older sister had, Chin-Lee said "Josh expects more of a puppet show at bedtime, and Peter is so good with puppets." Still, Chin-Lee reads to him as much as she can, believing that a love for reading starts with parents modeling that love.

Wondering if she had any advice for parents whose children did not seem to enjoy reading, Chin-Lee was quick to point out that it was critical to make sure the child didn't have a learning disability like dyslexia. Having experience with that in her own circle, she said that teachers and school administrators often ignore serious problems which, if caught early, could make a huge difference in a child's success. Difficulties faced by children with learning disabilities and other physical challenges are the seeds of Chin-Lee's next project. A special education teacher who attends her church encouraged her to write a book about children who face unique learning challenges.

"This one won't be an A to Z book," Chin-Lee said, but it will hopefully help children facing tough odds to realize that given the chance they can do great things.

Take someone whose grandparents ran a Chinese laundry and made the best almond cookies in town. She grew up to work at Sun Microsystems, have a great family, and write award-winning children's books! If people believe in you, encourage you, and give you the support and love that you need, anything is possible. That's a message that every child needs to hear every single day. Thanks to Cynthia Chin-Lee's books, reading time can be a great teaching moment to remind children of how special each one of them is, from A to Z.

About Cynthia Chin-Lee:

Cynthia Chin-Lee grew up in Washington D.C., graduated from Harvard University, and studied and worked in Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Today she lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband and two children. She has written non-fiction business books and journal articles, and has taught college writing classes She frequently speaks at conferences and expositions on writing and children's books. She manages a technical writing staff at Sun Microsystems and is a member and active participant of the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto.


  • Amelia to Zora
    • 49th Annual New England Book Show Juvenile Book Award (2006)
    • CCBC Choices (2006)
    • National Parenting Publications Gold Award (2005)
    • Summer 2005 Book Sense Children's Picks
  • A Is for Asia
    • Ruminator Review's 100 Best U.S. Children's Books of the Century
  • A Is for the Americas
    • NCSS/CBC Notable Children's Book in Social Studies in 2000

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NOTE: Photograph of Akira Kurosawa courtesy of (permission to use pending).

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