Search the Site

Interview: Cheryl Kim & Nat Iwata, WAT TAKES HIS SHOT: THE LIFE & LEGACY OF BASKETBALL HERO WATARU MISAKA

Wat Takes His Shot is the stirring biography of Japanese American basketball star Wataru Misaka–the first person of color to play in the NBA.

The book has already garnered praise, including being a Junior Library Guild Selection and garnering a starred review in School Library Journal.

Title: WAT TAKES HIS SHOT: The Life & Legacy of Basketball Hero Wataru Misaka
Author: Cheryl Kim ~ Illustrator: Nat Iwata
Publisher: Lee & Low
Launching June 18, 2024.

Cheryl Kim is an elementary school teacher from San Jose, California, teaching K-5 Art at an international school in Thailand. She received the SCBWI Kate Dopirak Craft and Community Award
for her original manuscript of WAT TAKES HIS SHOT. When she’s not teaching or writing, she enjoys spending time with family and friends- drinking bubble tea, watching movies, playing games, cheering on her sons’ sports teams, and traveling. She is also an advocate for child survivors of human trafficking through ZOE International. Visit her online at cherylkimbooks.com.

Nat Iwata has worked as an art director, 3D artist, illustrator, professor, and animator on everything from video games to children’s books. His debut picture book, Sumo Joe, was called “a refreshing new take on the martial arts genre” by Kirkus Reviews. Like Wat, Nat is also Japanese American, about 5′ 7″ tall, but lousy at basketball. He lives in Washington state with his wife and three boys, all of whom serve as an endless source of encouragement and inspiration. You can visit him online at iwataillustration.com.


Q. for Cheryl: What was your journey to publication?

My writing journey began in 2007, after teaching 2nd grade for a few years. I joined SCBWI and my hope was to one day write books for kids- books that I wished I had growing up, with main characters that reflected my Asian American upbringing. I stumbled upon Lee and Low’s New Voices Contest and sent in an entry! No surprise- it didn’t win. I realized I had a lot to learn about the craft of writing for kids and that it was going to be harder than I thought.

I set that dream aside and continued to focus on teaching, had two sons, and moved halfway around the world to join an anti-trafficking organization in Thailand. Yet, that initial desire to write grew stronger. It was no longer just about wanting to write the books I wished I had, but that my own sons, nephews, nieces, and students could see themselves in too. So I joined a critique group/12×12, attended conferences, and took several kidlit courses. I also entered Lee and Low’s contest again (6 years after the first entry!) and this time, my manuscript was a finalist. Through that entry, Lee and Low reached out to me several months later and I began to work with editor Kandace Coston on a picture book biography (TBA).

Meanwhile, I was watching the Linsanity documentary with my sons. At first, I assumed Jeremy Lin was the first Asian American NBA player since he was the only one I had heard of. I was shocked to discover there were others before him, and the first was a man named Wataru Misaka who broke the color barrier in basketball the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of him? At the time, there were no books written about him. After researching his story, I found him inspiring and wanted the next generation to know about him! I knew that in order to write his story well, I would have to reach out to Wataru himself. Both Wataru and his wife Katie (a former highschool librarian) were very supportive and answered questions and gave feedback to an early manuscript.

I pitched the manuscript during a Twitter pitch party in 2017 and signed with an agent later that week. We went on submission with the story in 2018 but ultimately, it received multiple passes and 1 revise & resubmit from Kandace. After compiling all the feedback,I spent the next year+ revising the manuscript again. We resubmitted to Kandace and she acquired the manuscript in 2020! From first draft to publication, it was a 7-year journey! Long, but worth it and I was able to work on some other fun projects during that time like Capstone’s Sports Illustrated for Kids Stars of Sports Series.

Q for Cheryl: What do you hope young readers will take away from this book?

I hope young readers will find inspiration in Wat’s story and believe that anything is possible when we choose hope in the midst of adversity. I also want readers to know that they have equal worth and value despite conflicting messages they may hear about their race, height, etc. Last but not least, I hope this book breaks the stereotype that Asians aren’t good at physical sports or that shorter kids can’t play basketball. The illustrator, Nat Iwata, who is now the same height as Wat, has said that this was a book he could have used as a kid!

Q. for Nat Iwata: What kind of research did you need to do for this illustration project? What was your illustration process?

Since Wat Takes His Shot is a historical biography, I had to do quite a bit of research before starting. Using a tool called PureRef, I gathered and organized several reference photos for each page. I scoured the internet for images of Wat and his family, along with time-era-specific photos of clothing, places, and vehicles. Most people didn’t have cameras in the 1930s and 40s, which made the process of finding what I needed a challenge! I wanted the illustrations to feel authentic to the time, places, and people they are portraying and I hope I succeeded.

As for the process, early on in discussions with the book’s art director Christy Hale (who was wonderful to work with, and elevated the book’s visuals), I pitched that we lean towards a graphic novel style. To my delight, Christy was all for it, which allowed me to explore some more dynamic and sequential visual storytelling options than I might have had available in a more standard picture book.

For the art process, I generally follow the same flow for these types of illustrations:

Q for Nat: What advice do you have for young illustrators?

Practice – Many have said it before me: draw as much as you can! I love to draw, I always have, but I also have a very full life. I don’t often have time to sit and illustrate a beautiful spread for hours on end, but I can sit in a waiting room and sketch people in line, or the room architecture, or the garbage can! Just like learning an instrument, the more comfortable you get with the fundamentals,  the more fun, creative, and ‘yours’ the creative process becomes.

Study – I study the work of other illustrators all the time. I don’t just mean scrolling Instagram and feeling either inspired/inferior by what I see, but finding other illustrators who’s work speaks to me and finding out why. I have several pages in my sketchbooks where I’ve written the name of an artist at the top, and then spent time trying to mimic their style in an attempt to understand the appeal in their art. It’s not about copying their style, but about developing your own unique style, which is influenced by tons of different factors. Also, buy their books! 🙂

Grow – Draw the things you suck at drawing! It’s natural to want to avoid drawing things that are hard for you, but so much more satisfying to lean in and learn. Good at characters but intimidated by scenes? Draw some backgrounds. Unsure about perspective? Watch some videos and make some 1/2/3 point perspective drawings. Can’t draw hands? Draw LOTS of hands! I have so many things on my list to work on!

Q. for Cheryl: What advice do you have for young writers?

Write what you love and keep reading the kinds of books you want to write one day. For instance, my son loves to write fantasy stories but he also reads a lot of fantasy, too! Write for fun but also have the courage to share your writing with others. Be open to feedback. Be willing to learn and grow as a writer.

Q. for Nat: What are you working on next?

I have several unfinished book projects (apologies to my agent), but one graphic novel in particular that is inspired by my childhood growing up with my identical twin brother Josh. There are a lot of books featuring twins out there, but they’re usually portrayed as a cliche, written by singletons. I hope to explore the complexities, insecurities, and joys of being a twin, wrapped into a fun “creature in the woods” caper.

Q. for Cheryl: What are you working on next?

I am currently working on edits for my next picture book biography with my editor, Kandace Coston. I am also writing 5 short stories for National Geographic Learning. As an educator, I was excited to work on an international curriculum project, knowing these stories would be read in classrooms around the world!


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


Leave a Reply

If you’d like to share your comments, fill out the form below and click Post Comment. Your email address will not be shared.

Required fields are marked *