Helen Wu: TOFU TAKES TIME
Hello kidlit creatives! Welcome to my new blog series My Path to Publication. The kidlit community has an amazing ‘pay it forward’ attitude and it is my hope that the stories shared here will provide the nugget of information that could help catapult another’s career.
My first guest is the talented Helen Wu. Helen is the author of TOFU TAKES TIME and an editor at Yeehoo Press.
Hi Helen H. Wu and congratulations on your new book TOFU TAKES TIME! Thank you for being a guest on my blog and sharing your path to publication. First off, please share information about your latest book.
My latest book is Tofu Takes Time, illustrated by Julie Jarema, published by Beaming Books and scheduled to release on April 19, 2022. It’s a story about a young girl, Lin and her grandma, NaiNai making tofu from scratch. When NaiNai goes through each step, from blending soybeans with water to molding curd into shape, Lin gradually becomes impatient. But she soon discovers that making tofu not only takes time, but also takes the whole universe! It takes the seed from soil and sunshine, the cloth from thread and fiber, weight and space, books of words and pictures. And most of all, it takes spending lovely time with her beloved grandmother. In this charming tale, readers will marvel at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish made by a modern Chinese American family.
Sounds lovely! What was your inspiration for this book?
The inspiration for this story was born of my childhood memory of tofu-making with my grandma. When I was a kid, I often sat by my grandma and watched her cooking, including making tofu. She washed vegetables, chopped meat, stirred porridge, and cooked all the meals for the whole family. While cooking, my grandma always told me stories, which brought me to faraway places and times. After I moved to the US and had my own family, once I made tofu with my kids, and they asked me a lot about the process and all the tools we used. This reminded me of the sweet time I spent with my grandma in the small kitchen across the ocean. A story began to take shape.
In the early stages, it was centered on the complicated process of tofu making itself. I searched about the history of tofu and I was amazed it has been consumed for over 2,000 years. My grandma used a secret ingredient to coagulate soy milk to produce tofu. I never knew what this coagulant was called in English or where to buy it in the US. When I made tofu with my kids, I used nigari as the coagulant. But this vocabulary was a bit sophisticated for 4-8 years old. I searched on YouTube and cooking blogs about all kinds of home-made tofu recipes. Luckily I found lemon juice and white vinegar could also be used as the coagulant. I tried these and they worked just fine. I decided to use lemon juice in the book, which was more poetic and kid-friendly.
To be a story in the true sense, it also had to be about something bigger and more relevant to kids. And when I cooked with my kids aside, they would start their imaginative play and occasionally complain about how long it takes to cook a meal. This inspired me to include the topic of patience. When I took a closer look at the tofu making process in an imaginative way, I discovered an assortment of elements it contained to connect the nature and even the universe. When reflecting on the time cooking with my grandma, I realized the time we spent together were the most important. So in the end of the book, the plot circles back to the love between the grandma and the grandchild. I’m pleased to find a sweet spot to include food, culture, patience, nature, and the family love in one book.
Knowing the inspiration behind the story makes it all the more sweet! Many kidlit creators are teachers, librarians, etc. What is your background?
I’ve been passionate about writing and drawing since I was a kid, but I never thought it would be a career option growing up in China. After I graduated from the University of Georgia with an MS in Economics, I landed a job in the marketing field. I learned how to use and draw in Photoshop to make attractive marketing materials. I did digital drawings and put a portfolio online. To my surprise, someone asked me if I could illustrate their picture book. Gradually, I illustrated more self-published picture books. I got involved in every step of bookmaking—from illustration to layout to cover design, typography, and book printing. When my son was born, I was inspired to write and illustrate my own picture books. The positive feedback encouraged me to do more. I knew I needed a professional team with an editor, designer, and art director and marketing resources to back me up. Traditional publishing was the route to take. I started taking classes and attending conferences.
In August 2019, I attended the SCBWI conference in Los Angeles and met Mr. Zhang, the publisher, and two editors from Yeehoo Press. They were looking for someone to take charge of their publishing house’s US division. They wanted someone who could speak Mandarin and English and had experience in children’s book publishing and connections to authors in the US. My background was a perfect fit for Yeehoo’s criteria. After a few months of planning, I officially joined the team in November 2019.
I’m lucky to work in a children’s publishing house to help bring other authors’ books to life and create my own books at the same time. My writing and illustration skills prove to be very helpful when I work as the associate publisher in Yeehoo Press publishing various children’s books. Being an author/illustrator helps me understand the book’s purpose and it enables me to get fully involved in the picture book publishing cycle.
What an amazing journey! Congratulations on your position at Yeehoo Press, it is well deserved. As far as your writing journey, are you part of a critique group? If so, how did you find your group?
I’m part of several critique groups. I’m an active member of a critique group which is held on a monthly basis. I occationally exchange critiques in other groups as well, as a “fresh eyes” reader can spot plots holes in a manuscript so I’d like to hear thoughts and critiques from partners who have never read the manuscript before. I found my critique partners from Storyteller Academy, SCBWI, and 12x12.
These groups are such great resources! The groups you mentioned, and many others, hold workshops and conferences. Have you attended any writing conferences or workshops? If so, which do you recommend?
I attended workshops, conferences and webinars from Storyteller Academy, Children’s Book Academy, 12x12, Picture Book Summit, Children’s Book Insider, Rate Your Story, and SCBWI. All of these organizations and groups offer free and paid resources, for both beginners and seniors. You can check them out and find the ones fit your needs the best.
What is the best piece of advice you received about writing and the publishing world?
Follow your passion and run your own race. Let your passion carry you through the ups and downs of the journey.
Excellent advice, thank you for sharing! If you don’t have an agent, are looking for one or do you prefer to query editors directly? Also, where do you find agents and/or editors to submit to?
My previous agent stepped away from the business and I’m querying agents. At this moment, I submit to both agents and publishers who accept unsolicated submissions.
I search agents on Publishers Marketplace, https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/, Manuscript Wishlist, https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/, the rights reports of children’s bookshelf newsletter of Publishers Weekly on every Tuesday and Thursday, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/48255-children-s-bookshelf-archive.html, and I read agents interivews from various blogs to get to know agents and the genres they represent. I also participate the pitch events on Twitter, such as #pbpitch, #pitmad, and #dvpit.
Do you know how many rejections you received before hearing that longed for “yes!”?
For TOFU TAKES TIME, I wrote the story in 2018 and submitted the manuscript when Beaming Books had an open submission policy. The acquisitions editor Naomi Krueger rejected me but she invited me to submit more. I rewrote the whole story in 2020 and submitted to about four editors, including Naomi. It took about two months from submission to an offer. I have another manuscript that was on submission for over three years and has received over 30 rejections so far. There was good feedback from time to time, so I knew I was on the right track, and the feedback inspired me to revise and improve the manuscript. Most times, a rejection was really just not fitting to the agent or publisher’s list.
Yes, it it important to remember that a rejection isn't personal and can be for a number reasons. How were you notified that your manuscript had been accepted?
The acquisitions editor from Beaming Books, Naomi Krueger sent me an email to notify me the manuscript had been accepted. I was over the moon when I received the email. It will be my first traditional published picture book and I truly appreciate that Naomi and the team at Beaming Books believe in me and the story.
Again congratulations on your book and thank you for sharing a bit of your journey. One final question, what do you love about children’s books?
Children’s books have the potential to pass on joy from generation to generation. Children’s books are one of the channels that children can learn about the world when they snuggle on their parents’ and grandparents’ laps. It’s a magical format that can perfectly encapsulate a feeling, a moment, a subject, a place and time. As an art lover, I also find it’s very entertaining and soothing to simply enjoy the artwork of children’s books.
I couldn't agree more! I wish you the best of luck as you continue on the path to publication and I look forward to seeing more of your books on library and bookstore shelves.
Helen has generously offered a free critique to one lucky winner! Comment below to be entered to win. Winner will be announced September 30, 2021.
More about Helen H. Wu
Helen H. Wu is a children’s book author and illustrator of over 20 picture books, as well as a translator, graphic designer, and publisher. Helen is the Associate Publisher of Yeehoo Press, a Los Angeles based children’s book publisher. Being fascinated by the differences and similarities between cultures, Helen loves to share stories that can empower children to understand the world and our connections. Born and raised in Hefei, China, Helen moved to the US in her 20s. Currently, she resides in sunny Southern California, with her family and two kids.
Her new picture book, TOFU TAKES TIME, illustrated by Julie Jarema, will be published by Beaming Books in spring 2022. In this charming tale, readers will marvel at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish made by a modern Chinese American family. Helen is doing a preorder campaign and there is a monthly prize draw for preorder or request from a library. Find out more on helenhwu.com/books
Purchase TOFU TAKES TIME on Amazon
Helen Wu on Twitter: @HelenHWu
Helen Wu on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/helenhwu/
Helen Wu's website: https://helenhwu.com/
CLICK CLACK WHIRRRR . . . Lin and her grandma, NaiNai, are making tofu from scratch! When NaiNai goes through each step, from blending soybeans with water to molding curd into shape, Lin gradually becomes impatient. But she soon discovers that making tofu not only takes time, but also takes the whole universe! It takes the seed from soil and sunshine, the cloth from thread and fiber, weight and space, books of words and pictures. And most of all, it takes spending lovely time with her beloved grandmother.
In this charming tale by Helen H. Wu, readers will marvel at how patience brings a whole universe together in a simple dish made by a modern Chinese American family. Perfect for fans of Fry Bread, Drawn Together and Thank You, Omu.