Interview: Author Of Lunar New Year Mad Libs Shares Thoughts On Writing, Asian Representation In Books

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Lunar New Year is an annual festival celebrating the New Moon on the lunisolar calendar by Chinese people and those in several other Asian cultures. One fun way to learn about the celebration, which begins today, is through Ellen Lee’s Mad Libs book.

Ellen Lee is a children’s book author, journalist, daughter of Chinese immigrants, and the person I’m interviewing today. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. In this interview, she talks about her experiene with writing, Asian representation in books, and more:

Question: Why do you love to read so much? 

Answer: I’ve always loved reading! As a child, it was a wonderful escape and a window into so many different kinds of worlds, characters, adventures, ideas, and stories. And as an adult, I still love immersing myself into new experiences.  

Q: Mad Libs are so fun! What gave you the idea to write a Mad Lib book on Lunar New Year? 

A: I confess it wasn’t my idea! An author friend shared that an editor was looking for someone to write a book on Lunar New Year. I reached out, pitched myself and shared how I’d approach it. I wanted it to be fun and hilarious, but also a respectful reflection of my culture and our traditions. I love how it’s an opportunity to share it with a wide audience. (There are also Mad Libs about Diwali, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.) 

Mad Libs have been around since the 1950s. I have the best memories playing with Mad Libs with my friends, and, now, with my kids. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to create one! 

Q: What is the easiest part of being an author? The hardest? 

A: The easiest (and best) part is that I get to read as part of my job! 

The hardest part is when I have a deadline, and I know I have to finish a project. I always feel like there is more I can do — more research, more writing, more editing. It’s hard for me to let go!

Q: Why did you choose to write for The New York Times and other publications? 

A: As an independent journalist, I look for ways to share and tell stories, and The New York Times and other publications offer a platform for me to do so. I love working with the many editors at these publications, who have so much patience, guidance and expertise to help shape, craft and refine my stories.  

Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a writer? 

A: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in the second grade, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I could be paid to write, that it could be a career. Growing up, I didn’t see that as a possibility — there were only a handful of children’s books by or about Asian Americans, and Asian Americans were more or less invisible or caricatured in pop culture and media. It also frustrated me (and to be honest, still frustrates me!) when I saw other people telling our story, and doing so inaccurately, poorly or disrespectfully. I feel hopeful that this is changing now, with efforts like We Need Diverse Books.   

Q: I read your article about how Asian representation is lacking in textbooks. Do you think that will change in the near future? 

A: I hope so! It’s gratifying to see the push for more inclusive and diverse books, histories, narratives and curriculum in our schools. But I’m also worried about other efforts, like in Florida, to ban books. Kids need to be able to see themselves in what they read, and they should also be able to read, learn and experience multiple perspectives — not just one. 

Q: What is your favorite book by an Asian author? 

A: This is SUPER HARD because it’s like picking your favorite child, and I can’t do that! There are so many amazing and beautiful books by AAPI creators, and I’m thrilled that so many more are hitting the shelves. It’s about time! A few recent books include Watercress, a picture book written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, which is poignant and touching; Juna and Appa, a picture book by Jane Park and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino, is magical while also reflecting a very real part of the Asian American community.  

Q: Anything else you want to add?

A: I also wrote Greatest Grandma Mad Libs and I’m Nine, Everything’s Fine Mad Libs, and I’m at work on another project that I can’t wait to share.  

Ellen Lee’s Mad Libs book!

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