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Interview with debut picture book author Sylvia Chen & illustrator Fanny Liem about TRICKY CHOPSTICKS (Atheneum/S&S)

Thanks to author Sylvia Chen and illustrator Fanny Liem for answering some questions about their new picture book, TRICKY CHOPSTICKS, now out from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. This is Sylvia’s debut as a picture book author! Upcoming launch event: Mar. 19, 2024 at Brick & Mortar Books (Redmond, WA).

Author: Sylvia Chen ~ Illustrator: Fanny Liem
Publisher: Atheneum / Simon & Schuster Children’s
Publication date: March 19, 2024

Synopsis: A young Chinese American girl uses creative STEAM-powered problem-solving to master chopsticks so she can pick up her dumplings and eat them, too, in this charming and laugh-out-loud picture book perfect for fans of the Amy Wu series.

Jenny Chow struggles with chopsticks—aiya, those slippery, oh-so-tricky chopsticks! But cousin Victor’s birthday party is just around the corner, along with her family’s annual chopsticks challenge. Jenny doesn’t want to be the only Chow who never learns how to use the utensils. She’ll do whatever it takes to prove she can hold her own in her family’s long-held tradition—no matter how many experiments she wobbles and fumbles through.

Sylvia Chen is a New Yorker now living in the Seattle area. She is an Asian American kidlit author and the creator of #PBStudyBuddy, which features amazing picture books on social media for fellow creators, teachers, and librarians. Sylvia loves crafting picture books that spark kids’ interest in STEAM and creative thinking. You can find out more about Sylvia and her work at, Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky and Threads.

Fanny Liem is an illustrator based in Indonesia. “Art has been an integral part of my life, with a lifelong dedication to the craft. My passion for storytelling and illustration ignited during my formative years, sparked by the gift of picture books from my uncle. Since then, I have honed my skills and worked across diverse projects in children’s books and magazines, immersing myself in the world of visual storytelling. Beyond my artistic pursuits, I love watching movies and listening to country music.”Find out more about Fanny on Instagram, Behance, and The Cat Agency website.

QUESTIONS:                                                                                               .

Q. How was TRICKY CHOPSTICKS created?  

I had been pursuing the traditional publishing route for 5 years already, and kept hearing guidance that including cultural elements in my stories could help open doors for me further. Since I tend to like to write STEAM-based and humorous stories—oftentimes without an Asian American tie-in—I started brainstorming late one night to see what I could possibly write that would still stay true to my core focus for writing, but also lead to more possible opportunity given the advice. All of a sudden, TRICKY CHOPSTICKS popped into my mind, and I soon wrote a first draft that felt really promising!

What’s neat is that I often get inspired by titles I think up, so this was such a happy and true-to-my-writing happenstance. The first draft of TRICKY CHOPSTICKS started up almost the same as the final published version, but had some differences arc-wise. There was a great grandpa Lǎo Yéyé turning 100 years old instead of a cousin Victor. The original onomatopoeia didn’t have Chinese derivation. And Jenny had a cheery outcome, but not quite as remarkable and entertaining as what she has now. Looking back to that first draft, this story has evolved in the most incredible way with deeper layers and heart. And if I think about what else inspired me as I wrote this story, there are so many things!

My youngest son at that time still had trouble using chopsticks, so there was extra motivation to capture and represent his emotions as well as make sure he could get more comfortable using chopsticks by publication time (he did!). My father-in-law at the time lived with us, and used chopsticks for everything, including burgers and fries—which make an appearance in the book too. Even the main character’s name Jenny Chow is based on my college friend’s name Jenny Chou. She says people can pronounce it like “Chow” or “Cho” (I have other friends with the last name Chow too). Given the nature of this chopsticks story, I thought Chow would be both meaningful and alliterative. But another fun secret is that my friend Jenny Chou is part of the reason why I met my husband. So who knows, perhaps if the real Jenny Chou and I hadn’t met, maybe TRICKY CHOPSTICKS wouldn’t have made its way into the world!

I was contacted by my agent who mentioned a project that I would love. When I read the manuscript for the first time, I immediately fell in love with the story. It was a dream project for me to illustrate, and I felt both excited and grateful to be asked to work on it with Sylvia.

I primarily use digital tools in my artistic process for TRICKY CHOPSTICKS. My process usually start with thumbnail sketches, plan the layout and composition just to map out how I want each page to look. Once everything looks great with the overall design, I move on to sketching the interior pages. Then comes the fun part – coloring! I’m not flying solo on this. There’s an art director in the mix. Her insights help refine the details and enhance the overall visual narrative.

Q. Were you involved in the choice of the illustrator? What interaction with the illustrator did you have during the process, if any? What was your reaction when you first saw the illustrations?

I was very open to whomever the editors felt would be a perfect illustrator match for TRICKY CHOPSTICKS. Luckily, they were really communicative throughout this process and even sent Fanny Liem’s art samples to me early on, which I of course loved! Once they confirmed Fanny as the illustrator, they soon shared some character sketches so I could “meet” Jenny, which I absolutely adored! I also very clearly remember when they emailed me the initial sketches. On the first spread already I just kept cracking up over how Fanny set up the scene in such a funny and most perfect way!

I’m so grateful that my editor Kristie Choi kept me in the loop for the latest illustration progress so that I could see all of Fanny’s fabulous creativity and provide any comments as needed. As a writer, it’s really such a mystery how your words will ultimately meld with the art in picture book form. I’m so thrilled with how Fanny added so much humor and delightful enjoyment to our book with her artful talent, and I’m forever grateful that Fanny agreed to be the illustrator for TRICKY CHOPSTICKS in the first place. Thank you Fanny!

Q. What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?

That it is okay to struggle with something you really want to do or accomplish, but gutsy grit and creative thinking can go a long way to help you achieve your goals. And for those who wrestle with wobbly chopsticks, it’s totally okay to use chopstick trainers or helper tools until you get the hang of chopsticks.

I really hope that young readers take away this simple but powerful message from the book: never give up. Life can throw some tricky challenges your way. But here’s the secret sauce if you stick with it and stay consistent, you’ll find your way.

Q. What advice do you have for young writers? 

Here are some thoughts that may be helpful: Sometimes your best next story can surprisingly come from everyday elements in your life. If you want to deepen the heart in your writing, think about people who have crossed paths with you from your younger years to your life today, and what you do day-to-day that’s core to who you are. Your inspiration can come in the most unexpected ways at the oddest times. If you can’t stop thinking about a new idea, that’s when you have an amazing opportunity at hand. Each manuscript has its purpose, including making you an even better writer.

Q. What advice do you have for young illustrators?

Draw, draw, draw – and then draw. Make it a daily thing. Even on those days when you’re not feeling it, push through. Don’t just draw for the social media likes. Draw for yourself. Draw the things that light a fire in your creative soul. It’s not about impressing others; it’s about staying true to what you love.

Q. What are you excited about now? 

I’m really excited to see how readers of all ages feel about TRICKY CHOPSTICKS when it comes out. If anyone shares pictures of kids especially enjoying this book or even trying out their own chopstick challenges, I think my heart might very well burst into a million stars!

I am excited for the publication of the ‘Tricky Chopsticks’ book this year. Additionally, I’m looking forward to some upcoming projects, and I’m currently exploring traditional media.”

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Also see other Interviews with Book Creators and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators.

One thought on “Interview with debut picture book author Sylvia Chen & illustrator Fanny Liem about TRICKY CHOPSTICKS (Atheneum/S&S)”

  1. Thelia Hutchinson says:

    Wonderful interview. Congratulations everyone!

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