“How We Say I Love You”: Nicole Chen on her picture book & middle grade debuts

Author Nicole Chen (photo credit to Sarah Deragon)

“How We Say I Love You,” with illustrations by Lenny Wen, features a Taiwanese American girl who shares how her family expresses their love for one another through actions rather than words.

If “How We Say I Love You” is, as Nicole Chen writes, “the story of [her] heart,” then Chen is an author and storyteller of our own Taiwanese American heart. Raised in the Bay Area, the author blends her experience of growing up Taiwanese American with her husband’s Catalan and Spanish influences to write and reflect a world that embraces diverse, multicultural identity, one in which her daughter can flourish:

“My daughter is so kind and generous in her love that she keeps me from becoming a cranky, cynical version of myself! We recently had a long debate at an airport souvenir shop because she wanted to go over her ‘budget’ of $5 that I was allowing her to spend. After a long negotiation where I ended up ‘lending’ her a $1 from a future tooth fairy delivery, she revealed that the stuffy she was buying was for a school mate of hers. That melted my heart, and reminded me how we must always do our best to be generous and thoughtful of others. And now, I doubt I’ll actually collect on her debt when the tooth fairy appears again!”

“How We Say I Love You,” with illustrations by Lenny Wen, features a Taiwanese American girl who shares how her family expresses their love for one another through actions rather than words.

“One unconventional way I show love is I write and publish stories about my family!” Chen tells us. “‘How We Say I Love You’ is a love letter to my parents, and it’s how I’m acknowledging them and the ways they’ve shown love to me as both parents and grandparents (although they jokingly like to point out that they look younger than the Ah-ma and Agong in the book!)”

“How do you tell your family you love them?” the jacket asks. For young protagonist Hana, love is received through walks with her Ah Gong; noodles stir-fried with scallions by her Ah Ma. In return, Hana expresses her love with an adolescence fully and radiantly lived: she is well-nourished, so she can run as fast as she can. She is encouraged by her father’s cheers, and so she can be brave. The heart of this book (though there are many hidden, illustrated hearts throughout!) is that love is not a word, or even simply an emotion. Love is a tender conversation, acted out in both big and small ways. “Our love lives,” the book concludes, “in all the things we do for one another.”

The picture book is a heartwarming and precious addition to the flourishing canon of Taiwanese American picture books: richly layered stories of families, reaching for affection and understanding that transcend space, language, and time.

“My hope,” says Chen, “is that this book illuminates the beauty—and legitimacy—of acts of service as a love language. I hope kids and families who read this will be inspired to talk about and recognize those small, special ways that they show their love to each other, because they count as much as big, more occasional acts of love.”

Just as young readers and families study each illustrated spread to find the hidden heart, so they may be encouraged to more sensitively appreciate the love imbued in their daily interactions. For Chen, that love looks like “every meal my mom cooks, or every ride to the airport my dad gives us or chocolate croissant breakfast he drops off at our doorstep, or fun exciting trip that my husband plans for our family. [These all] are acts of love that I appreciate so, so much.

As a child, I always marveled at how the words, “I love you,” flowed so casually into conversation from the families in the books I read or TV shows I watched. Back then, those stories or occasions nearly featured white characters. And so, I wondered why my parents didn’t say those words, which made me doubt at times if they actually did love me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I felt like I really “got them,” and realized that they do love me deeply. They just express it in different ways than I was being told they should be. I don’t want kids of today to have to wait that long to figure that out!”

Wen’s illustrations also breathe tender life into each page, infusing Chen’s prose with the dynamic actions it honors. Readers feel the crispness of an autumn walk; the bubbling aromas of xi fan; the warmth of mom’s hugs. Each meticulous detail points to the closeness of the Taiwanese and Asian American community and our various iconography (case in point: the you tiao can be found in multiple picture books! Tell us which!)

We ask Chen about her parents’ reaction to having influenced a book that will soon be shared by families worldwide:

“Yes, they’ve read it, and the way they’ve reacted is to preorder 100 copies of the book! To this day, they continue to show their love to me via acts of service like that, and I know what they are saying with those little gestures. We still haven’t said the words to each other, but we don’t need to. Funnily enough, they say, “I love you,” to their grandkids all the time, so times are definitely changing. But I want my kid to also value the things my parents do for her, like cook her udon or spoil her with bags of Cheetos, and I hope ‘How We Say I Love You’ reminds her of that!”

We were also thrilled to see Chen also had a middle-school novel debuting in Spring 2023. “It’s Boba Time for Pearl Li” is a story of family, boba, crochet, and Taiwanese desserts.

Chen shares, “this joyful, sweet story is about a young Taiwanese American girl who loves crocheting adorable amigurumi dolls. But she feels like a misfit in her tech-loving family, especially with her mom, who’s the founder of a tech startup and doesn’t quite understand how special crafting and amigurumi are to Pearl. The only adult who does get Pearl’s creativity is Auntie Cha, the owner of Pearl’s favorite local boba tea shop, Boba Time. And so when Boba Time comes into financial trouble, Pearl decides to embark on a secret, entrepreneurial journey to sell her crocheted dolls to save the shop. Along the way, she learns how to advocate for herself and her passion and discovers that there’s more that her family shares than she once thought.”

Chen herself was the inspiration behind feisty Pearl Li: “Honestly, I’m Pearl in a lot of ways! I loved making crafts as a kid and still find excuses to do art with my young daughter. Yet I work in the tech world in my day job, so I also see the creativity in technology and coding. I even went to business school at an art college because I realized how much business, art and technology go hand in hand, and the power and potential when all three are considered. So it was only natural that my first novel deals with the intersection of those three themes.

I think every reader will understand how it feels to really love something and want to share that love with the ones you care about. Pearl so badly wants her mom to care about her crocheting, but Pearl doesn’t really have the courage and words to tell her mom why that craft means so much to her. At the same time, Pearl doesn’t see how her mom has her own challenges to surmount, that even adults have their own ways of being creative and exercising bravery. My hope is that we all see Pearl and her family’s vulnerabilities in ourselves, whether we’re a young reader or an adult one. Then, maybe in reading this story, readers will gain some confidence and insight into how to talk openly about the things that truly matter to us…and why.

This is also a story about friendship, about how they change and shift and evolve as we explore different interests and facets of our identities. I hope every reader can relate to that feeling of wanting to hold onto those important relationships, yet also learn when to flex and make room for each other so we can grow as friends and make those relationships really last.”

And, of course, we had to ask about the all-important dessert element:

“Ha, to tell you the truth, I’m pretty happy about the variety and quantity of Taiwanese desserts that I was able to squeeze into the book. Some of my favorites that I mention include baked goods like hot dog cheese buns and pineapple cake, steamed snacks like peanut mua-chi, bowls of tofu pudding or shaved ice with lots of toppings…and of course, boba! Perhaps the one simple thing I missed mentioning in the book is just good old fruit, like oranges or apples or Asian pears, cut by a loving family member and eaten after dinner. When I was a kid, my mom used to give us tomato slices with a sprinkling of sugar for an after-dinner dessert. I don’t know if that’s a Taiwanese thing or not, but it is something I remember very fondly. I may try to get that into a future book one day!”

I note that it feels like we’re in the golden age of Taiwanese and Asian American literature, and Chen is kind enough to share some of her family’s favorites:

“My young daughter loves DRAWN TOGETHER and LIFT, by Minh Le and Dan Santat, and we still read DREAM ANIMALS by Emily Winfield Martin every night before turning off the lights. The musicality of DREAM ANIMALS is always ringing in my ears when I draft a picture book text, and what I love about Minh and Dan’s partnership is how their stories say so much with such thoughtful detail. There’s a spareness to Minh’s text and a richness in Dan’s illustrations that play so well together, and reading their books remind me that every word counts, every stroke counts, and that there is so much both can say and complement each other. Of course, the Asian American representation in their stories is so wonderful, too, in both its subtlety and joy.

For IT’S BOBA TIME FOR PEARL LI, Jessica Kim’s STAND UP, YUMI CHUNG! was hugely influential (and I’m SO thrilled that Jessica read BOBA TIME and wrote a lovely blurb for it!). Her book is such a joyful, fun, modern, and relatable story about a Korean American girl who yearns to be a stand-up comedian against her parents’ wishes, and it was the first time I read a book where I truly went – I wish I had this as a kid! Yumi is just so real and relatable and quintessential Asian American, and I wanted to write a book along a similar vein (although Jessica is a way funnier writer than I could ever be!).”

More about Nicole Chen

Website: https://www.storiesbynicolechen.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/nychen
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ncheny/

HOW WE SAY I LOVE YOU, illustrated by Lenny Wen
Bookshop link: https://bookshop.org/a/6825/9780593428399
Publisher link: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/677036/how-we-say-i-love-you-by-nicole-chen-illustrated-by-lenny-wen/?ref=PRH4733A90B1623&aid=4424&linkid=PRH4733A90B1623

Bookshop link: https://bookshop.org/a/6825/9780063228610
Publisher link: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/its-boba-time-for-pearl-li-nicole-chen?variant=40489120071714


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