interview by Anne-Marie Strohman
Hi, Kristen! Welcome to the blog!
Full disclosure, you and I have been in a picture book critique group together for over five years, so I’ve seen many incarnations of what is now your debut picture book, Ginger and Chrysanthemum, the story of two cousins who are as close as two beans in a pod, but don’t always get along. (Here’s a preview of Kristen introducing the story.) I’m so excited these characters are out in the world so other people can fall in love with them as much as I have.
KidLit Craft: Ginger and Chrysanthemum came out in October from Levine Querido. What prompted you to write this story?
Kristen Mai Giang: It all started when my niece conked my daughter over the head with a plastic ladle. In her defense, she was only three years old at the time. Instead of reaching for an ice pack, I reached for my notebook. In my defense, I was hungry for a book idea.
And there it was – cousins who loved each other but didn’t always get along. As I continued writing, a sense of place and culture bubbled up as well. It was important to me to showcase contemporary Asian American culture, though the characters and story are universal, as I had personally struggled to find picture books with modern Asian American characters and settings to read with my daughter.
How much did the story change from your initial draft? How many revisions did you do?
This particular inspiration was already the second or third version of this story, which I knew I wanted to be about girls and friendship. In previous versions, they weren’t cousins. And for each version, I did literally dozens of revisions.
For Ginger and Chrysanthemum, part of that was due to the submission process, during which agents and editors asked to see widely varying changes. The characters of these hot-and-cold cousins never changed once they were born, though, and it wasn’t until then that the story began to attract attention.
I am always amazed at your ability to reinvent a story–sometimes from the ground up. You have a fantastic way of cutting characters, adding characters, taking the story in a different direction, giving it a new ending. One book we workshopped in our critique group started as an allegory and turned into a historical realistic fiction. Two questions here: What about your brain or your life/work experience gives you that ability? and Can you teach me how to do it?
Thank you! I am always amazed by your capacity to read so many versions of a story with unwavering patience, brilliance, and enthusiasm. And honestly, I think having a trusted group of writers who will read your work seriously and thoughtfully, no matter what, is a big part of the answer. I was able to play and try different approaches because I always had a good sounding board.
I do think though that it’s also important to reach beyond this trusted group. I would get feedback by submitting to (and being rejected by) agents and editors, which forced me to revise, rethink, rewrite. The allegory you mention was rejected, so I had to start over. So, basically, rejection is key.
As far as my life and work experience specifically, I think it comes down to my natural stubbornness. My husband actually calls me Little Miss Stubborn. Just don’t give up.
Ginger and Chrysanthemum is really a story of two characters with two distinct personalities. How did you balance their stories so readers come out of the story loving and relating to them equally?
You know, I think it’s because I love both these characters so much. I’ve known many a Ginger and Chrysanthemum in my life. I’ve loved and struggled with many of them. And I actually think it can be a relative thing. Depending on whom I’m with, I have sometimes been the Ginger and sometimes (more often) the Chrysanthemum. So I relate to both. Honestly, don’t we all have a little Ginger and Chrysanthemum in us?
Do you tend to enter stories through character, plot, structure, setting, or some other element?
I usually begin with a combination of character and concept. I’ll be struck by something–like cousins who are close but don’t always get along or a suburban bat who feels out of place–and from there additional character details, world, voice, and plot will develop as I keep noodling on the concept.
I know you’ve done some work on picture book biographies. Do you approach non-fiction in the same way you approach fiction?
Non-fiction is a little different, but I still begin with a character and concept I really love. In this case, the character is of course a real person, and the concept is the big idea or what strikes me about their life. What about their life is interesting and worth telling? From there, I do a lot more research, then try to illustrate that big idea while staying true to their real characters and lives.
What’s coming next, and what are you working on now?
I have a picture book biography coming out with Crown Books for Young Readers – The Rise (and Falls) of Jackie Chan – as well as another picture book with Levine Querido based on the true story of how my family escaped from Saigon called Last Flight. I am currently working on another picture book biography and a couple more character-driven picture books, one about a shy girl who struggles to unmask her secret identity and a darling dragon with a tricky temper.
Kristen Mai Giang is a Chinese American author who immigrated from Vietnam when she was 18 months old and grew up in San Gabriel, California, a melting pot of Asian cultures and cuisines. When not writing, Kristen has spent the past two decades creating kid-targeted Emmy Award-winning digital content for Disney, NBC Kids, and Mattel, among others. She is a proud member of SCBWI.
Check out some more KidLit Craft author interviews:
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.