Anna Kang received her MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. “You Are (Not) Small” is her first children’s book. The following is a complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I wrote stories as a child, but I had always thought of writing as a hobby, so I geared myself towards more “serious” goals and pursued a career in International Relations. But when I kept finding myself signing up for writing and filmmaking classes (until I eventually received my MFA at USC film school), I finally realized that what I really wanted to be was a storyteller.
Why do you write for young people?
I love young people—their innocence, vulnerability, curiosity, enthusiasm—and I’ve always loved children’s books, even as an adult. I may not remember all the details of my childhood, but what remains burned in my memory is how I felt: all the intense emotions I experienced from year to year. Childhood can be a very lonely and painful place, and books and stories provided me great comfort and validation. To me, writing for young people is an honor and privilege because if I can speak to a child through my writing, there is nothing better.
Where do your ideas come from?
My childhood, observing my daughters and what they experience, characters I want to see come to life, a particular feeling or problem.
Where specifically did “You Are (Not) Small” come from?
I’ve been playing a version of the dialogue in the book in my head since I was a child. I’m considered “small” or “petite” here in the U.S. (I’m Korean American), and among other things, it’s extremely challenging to find clothes that fit. When I was nine years old, I spent the summer in Korea, and I remember shopping with my Aunt and discovering racks and racks of clothes that were exactly my size in every store we entered, as if the clothes were custom-made specifically for me. The clothes weren’t in a special “petite” section or in a younger, more “junior” section. They were just clothes. Regular, everyday clothes for a nine-year old girl. For the first time in my life, my size—in addition to my skin color, hair and eye color—was “normal” and unremarkable. I suddenly looked like everyone else in the world, including the people on TV, in movies, advertisements, and in books. As a child, this was an overwhelming experience. It made me feel incredibly safe and empowered, and it boosted my confidence and grounded me when I returned home at the end of the summer. I was not “other” or “different.” I was just “me.”
I eventually learned that how you saw yourself and others depended on your personal experience and your community, that perspective is subjective and not necessarily the entire truth.
So, years later, when I sat down to write a story for a children’s book, this idea naturally popped out.
What are the challenges of writing a picture book?
Brevity and emotional truth. Making sure every word needs to be there while allowing the illustrations to do their job. Being careful not to short-change the child’s perspective or the complexity of their feelings. And doing all this in thirty-two pages.
What were the highlights?
Seeing my husband’s illustrations make the story that I’ve had in my head for years come to life and working with our wonderful agent, Holly McGhee, and our editors at Two Lions. They were all so enthusiastic and supportive right from the beginning that I couldn’t have asked for a more positive and rewarding experience, especially for my first book. Also, receiving the F&G’s in the mail and seeing the book, in print, for the first time! That was thrilling.
How long did you work on “You Are (Not) Small”?
The story came out quickly and it miraculously sold a couple of months after that, but our agent told us how incredibly rare that was, so I don’t expect that to ever happen again! After we met with our editor, I rewrote it several times, tweaking words here and there, making sure each word was there for a reason and that the point about perspective was clear.
Did the book turn out the way you thought it would?
Why do you think young people will enjoy your “You Are (Not) Small”?
The creatures that Chris created are so loveable that I think young people (and old) will be immediately drawn to them. Being judged or told that you are different is a universal experience so I hope that young people will connect to it on that level as well. The spare text and repetition of words also make it a great book for beginning readers. But most importantly, I think people of all ages will enjoy the book’s fun, humorous tone.
Most authors don’t have the opportunity to work directly with illustrators. How was it working with your husband?
I was extremely lucky that the illustrator of my first picture book happened to be my lovely and extremely talented husband with whom I could bounce off ideas and collaborate so that we were both happy with the vision of the book. I knew that most authors didn’t have such a luxury (and my husband gently reminded me of this fact several times). But at a certain point, I had to learn to let go and allow Chris to take over and do his job. I joke that Chris and I now have three kids: two are human and one is a book.
What are you working on now?
The sequel, THAT’S (NOT) MINE, will be published by Two Lions in August of 2015. In the meantime, I’m working on new book ideas that will hopefully make their way onto bookshelves one day soon.
Is there a book from your childhood that still resonates with you today?
The Giving Tree, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary; A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird.