An Interview with Best Friends Eugenia Yoh and Vivienne Chang, and a Review of Their Debut Picture Book
This is a totally unbiased review of the greatest debut picture book I’ve ever read.
The first time I read This Is Not My Home was, indeed, not at my home—rather, it was at a publishing house. For context, this publishing house was supposed to be a new home for not only myself, but also Eugenia, for we were both newish hires at the time. At the time, the publishing house still felt so foreign to me: eating my lunch alone on the fourth floor, wandering around the ancient-maritime-machine-warehouse-turned-office-building, attending a rooftop goodbye party for a longtime editor who I’d barely even met. So when a fellow Taiwanese American new-hire named Eugenia said hello to me at this rooftop goodbye party, and when she mentioned that her co-author Vivienne had personal ties to TaiwaneseAmerican.org, I felt a comforting familiarity, and I knew what I wanted my first article for TaiwaneseAmerican.org to be: a review of their upcoming picture book.
Their picture book itself is—as Eugenia and Vivienne love to say—about “a girl who is mad.” Lily, the girl, is mad because she doesn’t understand why she and her mom have to move from the United States to Taiwan. What about their backyard barbecues? What about the fireflies at Parsley Park? What about the Strawberry Hill Farmer’s Market? Needless to say, Lily is not very excited to move away from home.
You know who is excited, though? That’s right: Eugenia and Vivienne. They’ve been quite busy ahead of their book launch events—they’re basically celebrities now!!—but of course, they’ll still make time for their old pal Ian. So yes, I got to catch up with these rising stars ahead of their brilliant book launches, and as friends do, I opened with a complex question: “How are you doing?”
Eugenia: I’m really nervous. I’m more nervous than excited, honestly. Actually, I want to pee my pants.
I hoped she could hold it in for the rest of the interview, though we could barely hold in our laughter. I wondered how long Vivienne’s answer would be, for the sake of Eugenia’s pants.
Vivienne: I don’t know. I feel weird because it’s been much anticipated. But so much has happened since when we first started writing our book together. Eugenia went back to Taiwan two times, I got to study abroad. I had two internships, Eugenia found a full time job. So I feel like we’ve been kind of removed from this book. But it’s exciting to see how people are going to receive our nineteen- and twenty-one-year-old brains, because that was when we wrote it. And now it’s two years later. I’m twenty-one now (Eugenia is twenty-three). I feel like our entire minds and the way we think about things have changed drastically over time. So it’s interesting to see how people will receive our brains at the time. But I’m excited. Mostly nervous.
Their nervous excitement is, of course, natural. They’ve nurtured this project for two whole years—how could they not be nervous to finally share it with the world? But if they’re reading this review before their book launch events (hi Eugenia! hi Vivienne!), there’s one thought I’d like to share, in hopes of reassuring those nerves. And it was the first thought that came to mind when I first read their book: their nineteen- and twenty-one-year-old brains are absolutely genius.
So that first time I read This is Not My Home, when Eugenia came to work with an F&G (an unreleased, unbound, folded and gathered version) of their picture book, I did what any average picture-book enthusiast should do: I judged it by its cover. And WHEW, WHAT A COVER! And not only the front cover, but WOW, WHAT A BACK COVER, TOO!
Eugenia: I’m really fond of, conceptually, the front and back covers because a lot of thought was put into it that might not be caught by anyone else. In the front cover we have Lily’s face, who’s vocalizing, “This Is Not My Home!” And the things she’s thinking about are on the back cover, which run throughout the entire book. So every time she vocalizes these things out front, it’s in these speech bubbles. But in the back of her head, she’s thinking about all of these things that make this place not her home.
In the back of my head, I was thinking about how this is the coolest combination of covers ever, and I asked if there were any other favorite pages or spreads from the book?
Eugenia: I’m also very fond of the endpapers that Vivienne and I came up with together. It makes so much sense that, [in the front endpapers], her home begins in the U.S. with all these suburban [houses], modeled after my neighborhood with the palm trees. And then it makes sense [in the back endpapers], her new home is in Taiwan with the landscape there, at nighttime—maybe [because of] the time zones, or maybe because it just shows the progression of time.
See, I told you—Eugenia and Vivienne are picture book geniuses. And speaking of the progression of time, as Vivienne mentioned earlier, they have been combining their genius brains and collaborating on this book for over two years. Ever since they came up with the idea of the book together at a Panera Bread in October of 2020, their teamwork has truly been greater than the sum of their very talented parts. But it’s not just talent and teamwork; what makes their picture book project so, so special is…
…the power of friendship.
Which may sound cheesy and cliché, but as someone who works in children’s publishing, I can attest to actually how rare it is for friends to work together on a picture book. And what’s even better, is that Eugenia and Vivienne are best friends.
Vivienne: Essentially, every time before we had any work session, Eugenia and I would talk about our lives for like two hours. And then we’d be like, “Oh my God, we need to talk about our book!” And then we would start writing. When we first started, we didn’t think so much about like, “oh, what will the end result be?” We just knew, like, we really like spending time with each other. And we will find any reason to spend time with each other. It’s like, if you had a friend when you were younger, and your mom would be like, “Hey, you have to go home.” And you’re like, wait, no, we’re building a fort. It’s like that. We’ll do anything to spend more time with each other. That’s why we work together. Like we didn’t see any other way to do it. Because it was kind of like, yeah, the way that we spend time.
The fort that these two friends have built together is truly an incredible feat. But don’t just take my word for it. After all, their talents and effort have already earned them starred and glowing reviews across the country. Perhaps their most memorable accomplishment (so far), though, comes from outside our country. In April of 2021, way before the book was even published, Eugenia and Vivienne received a runner-up prize from the prestigious Clairvoyants Illustrated Children’s Book Project Competition in Poland!
Eugenia: It was one of those things where we submitted it past the deadline, but maybe because of time zones, they still accepted it. We got runner-up, “a close win to the first,” and people just started speaking, like all the juries are talking about the books in Polish. And we’re like…we have no idea what they’re saying.
Vivienne: Oh, that was so good. The first video ever made about our book—the first piece of content ever put in the world of our book—is in Polish. I remember that so vividly. I got an email the day before. And I was like, I was like, I can’t read a single thing on this email. So I Google Translated it. And they’re like, oh yeah, the results are coming out. I was like, oh my God, I totally forgot that was a thing. And I was like, oh, it’ll be interesting tomorrow to see what will happen. I opened my phone the next day. There’s not a single thing I can understand on the next email, except for, “Vivienne Chang and Eugenia Yoh, This Is Not My Home.” And I was like, “WHAT?!” Like it was the funniest thing in the world. I just remember Eugenia being like, “WHAT?!” Both of us just did not expect it, could not understand what we won, and didn’t realize how big of a deal it was at the time.
But oh, what a big deal it is! Out of over a thousand submissions, from over forty different countries, Eugenia and Vivienne had won the runner-up prize. That’s right, they’re already worldwide superstars, and again, this was before their book was even published.
Of course, working with a best friend isn’t always all sunshine and runner-up prizes, and I asked them if there are any challenges, too.
Eugenia: It’s hard to separate personal life and work life in general. But I think the hard part of it now is that so much of it feels like we have to just focus on work and can’t touch on the personal, especially with such tight deadlines. But I equally want to know what’s happening in Vivienne’s life. Like she adopted a dog! And that’s really fun, so I wish I could hear more of that. Instead of just being like, we have to work on a book right now, we’re super stressed.
Vivienne: Like Eugenia said, it’s hard. Now, a lot of times, we just have to be professional with each other, when like before we could recap our personal life. But I think that working with a friend in this capacity is really invaluable because you don’t just respect them as a colleague, but you genuinely really like them as a human being. And so you really want to listen to their opinions, and their opinions matter.
Eugenia: And I think it’s really hard to have some conversations with a best friend because suddenly you care immensely about their feelings, versus if it’s a complete stranger, you’re like, ‘ah, they don’t matter as much.’ But now, we have to sometimes sacrifice things for each other, which is very difficult. That’s why every time I hear that close friends are working with each other, I’m very curious about how it goes, and if they’re willing to let go of some things for someone else.
Well, if there’s someone else who knows how to work with close friends, it’s our very own Alvina Ling. Here on TaiwaneseAmerican.org, you may recognize Alvina as the lovely judge for the 2022 Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prize’s inaugural Middle School Category. Out in the children’s literature world, you may know that Alvina is also the legendary Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. And most of us know the fateful story of how Alvina ended up editing children’s books for her childhood best friend, Grace Lin. So it also feels like fate that Alvina has fittingly ended up as Eugenia and Vivienne’s editor (and friend!), too.
Vivienne: I actually didn’t know Alvina really well, or how prominent she was in the industry until I got to work with her, until Eugenia kept being like, “She’s a superstar!” Then I was like, “Oh, she’s a superstar!” It’s really nice working with her because, for how senior she is at Little Brown, she’s extremely hands on. Like, she’s on every single email chain we ever do. She’s on every single edit. She’s really on our project. And I think that’s really nice to get that really intensive attention from her. And also she’s just a really nice human being. I got to eat with her while we were in New York. We didn’t talk about the book at all. We talked about her husband, like what he was doing. We got…well I got drunk. But it was really nice. She’s a really friendly human being.
Eugenia: I’m the complete opposite of Vivienne, where I knew Alvina from the get go. And so it’s a different experience because I attended the SCBWI Summer Spectacular, where Alvina Ling and Grace Lin had a one on one, and they were talking about picture books, and I was like, “Oh my gosh…I love them so, so much.” And so I was admiring Alvina from afar, and I did a lot of picture books seminars and research after that, so to be able to work with her and have her dress up as Lily for Halloween was like, “WHAT?!” Like this is a weird dream that’s happening. But then when Vivienne had dinner with Alvina without me, then that was like a complete nightmare. Like, how is that even fair! It’s okay, I actually called Ian afterwards and then screamed about it, but it’s okay.
It is okay, Eugenia—I’m sure one day you’ll get to eat a lovely dinner with Alvina without Vivienne. Just kidding (I hope all three of them can enjoy a lovely dinner together eventually!). But the fact that they were both laughing with each other about the unfairness of the situation just goes to show how close Eugenia and Vivienne are, and how much joy they get from working with Alvina. And Alvina has truly brought out the best out of Eugenia and Vivienne, for these three Taiwanese American friends have also brought their Taiwanese American experiences into the book itself.
Eugenia and I talk about Taiwan all the time at the office, and although she hasn’t gotten to eat dinner with Alvina in New York yet, we did get to hang out in Taiwan for a day over winter break! We spent the whole day running around bookstores in Taipei, as you’d expect from coworkers in the children’s book industry, but I also wanted to know how the rest of her trip went, and if she considers Taiwan, “home?”
Eugenia: It’s interesting because this time [when] I went back to Taiwan, I got to realize the concept of the book in its entirety. The book’s finished—not just being made—and I feel like I was kind of living Lily’s life in a way. My parents actually took us back to where our ancestors were buried. And it was the first time I ever saw that. And I don’t know, it just gave me a lot of insight. In Taiwan, it wasn’t just the house that I was living in; it was the fact that there were ancestors buried there, I had a friend’s mom who was able to drive me home, I had a place to stay. And it just felt like you can call a place home when you have a friend’s mom being able to drive you home, and somewhere to call home.
Meanwhile, I have not yet gotten to hang out with Vivienne in Taiwan, but I was just as interested in the way her relationship with Taiwan has made its way into the book.
Vivienne: I haven’t been to Taiwan in a while, but I grew up from zero to six years old in Taiwan. For me, Taiwan has always been a very nostalgic place. And I think you can see it in the way Taiwan is depicted [in the book]. It’s very colorful, it’s very vibrant. There’s a lot of culture in it. But more than that, I wanted it to tell my parents’ story of moving from Taiwan to the US. [Or] what would happen if I moved back to Taiwan? And that was that was kind of an interesting concept for me to understand. Because Taiwan was such a nostalgic place for me, it was so amazing that I couldn’t imagine anyone who didn’t like it. And so ultimately, Taiwan is probably still depicted in a more favorable view than what would’ve happened if I actually moved there in real life, but I don’t know, I just feel like Taiwan is just so nostalgic and beautiful to me.
Emotionally, my favorite spread is definitely the Night Market scene. It brings so much nostalgia for me. I love just how vibrant it is. And like how many things that I can see in my childhood memories, all on one page. And it’s just such a beautiful spread. I love it.
Eugenia: Yeah, I think that spread spoke to me a lot, too, visually.
And I bet the Night Market spread speaks to Alvina a lot as well. It sure speaks to me. Somewhat similarly to Vivienne, I grew up in Taiwan from zero to three years old, and I would go back to Taipei almost every summer after that, so with spreads like the Night Market scene, there are also so many things I can connect to, too. The colorful balloon-popping games with the cutest plushie prizes. The people buying boba from a stand to cool off from the humid, 熱鬧 atmosphere. The “小龍包” stand (which we will return to later). As Eugenia and my coworkers know, I like to call these things “mini-mirrors,” building on the great Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s influential theory of “Mirrors” in children’s literature, but on a much smaller scale. Mini-mirrors, to me, are all the small things in a book that reflect bits and pieces of the reader’s identities and experiences, thus connecting the reader more and more to the book.
As a Taiwanese American reader, I am overjoyed to connect to This Is Not My Home as a book FULL of Taiwanese American mini-mirrors. And it’s not just the details in the illustrations. The spelling of “Ah Ma” is a mini-mirror to me. The emotional moment with the mom is a mini-mirror to me. What’s more, following the logic of Dr. Bishop’s theory again, a mini-mirror for one reader can also be a mini-window for another. When I showed the book to my parents, they found a mini-mirror that connected to their childhood: the 1 PM naptime at Lily’s new elementary school. Which was a mini-window for me, as they explained to me how the Taiwanese education system has mandatory naptime all the way through high school.
My favorite mini-mirrors, though, are all of the incorrect Chinese words in the book. A couple months ago, Eugenia told me she was a little sad about some small mistakes in the art—it had come to her attention that she had drawn some of the Chinese words with incorrect characters. Since then, my family and I have actually had a lot of fun looking for those incorrect characters—it’s like a seek-and-find!—and I’ve also had a couple conversations with Eugenia on some of my thoughts about them. (Note: they’ve fixed these incorrect Chinese characters for future reprints, so now the first print edition has become a cool collector’s item—get it while you still can!)
Eugenia: I thought about this a lot over the past few months, especially after receiving the first email. They were like, “There are a few Chinese characters that are done incorrectly.” And I was like, “Ah, how does this happen?” And I was feeling really devastated. But Ian brought up a good point that it was how Lily saw Taiwan, and I realized that it was how I saw it, too. One of the misspelled words was 小籠包 and 籠 means basket. But actually, up until this point, I thought it was 龍 as in dragon. My entire life, I thought it was, “little dragon dumpling.” And I don’t know why. Maybe it was just me being ignorant, but I don’t know, I thought there was something to say, that in some ways, I am kind of like Lily, and it’s Lily who’s making this book.
Vivienne: We’re all human.
That’s right, even the book’s flaws are Taiwanese American. As someone who’s struggled with Chinese all of my life, I can connect so, so much to writing and reading Chinese characters wrong, and so can Lily, Eugenia, Vivienne, Alvina, and so many more Taiwanese American readers out there. That’s why those “incorrect” Chinese characters are my favorite mini-mirrors; they reflect how we’re flawed, Taiwanese American, and human. And for what it’s worth, I thought it was “little dragon dumpling” my entire life, too.
All of this, to me, is what makes This Is Not My Home the greatest debut picture book I’ve ever read.
But don’t just take my word for it. Go get a copy for yourself, for your friends, for the kids in your life. Find your own mini-mirrors, your own ways of connecting with the book. And then…share it! Share it with any and everyone, whether they are Taiwanese American, Taiwanese Canadian, Taiwanese New Zealanders, or not Taiwanese at all! Yes, the book has so many specific mini-mirrors for us Taiwanese Americans, but we can share those as mini-windows to anyone around the world. And since the book is also simultaneously so universal (it’s already won an award in Poland, remember?), I bet non-Taiwanese readers will find their own mini-mirrors, too—maybe in the reverse-immigration story, or perhaps in the “girl who is mad.” In any case, this picture book truly has the power to form connections, to form community, within and beyond both Taiwan and America.
This is why you must read my favorite debut picture book, This Is Not My Home.
Ian: Is there anything else either of you would like to say to the TaiwaneseAmerican.org community?
Eugenia: Vivienne actually worked for TaiwaneseAmerican.org for some time, so…
Vivienne: I did! I am very proud of this community that Ho Chie and Leona have developed as the founder [and editor-in-chief] of TaiwaneseAmerican.org. I grew up in this community for a very long time—I knew Ho Chie and Leona since I was six years old, and I’m very grateful for this community. If I had to say anything, it would be to continue to support Taiwanese American creators. There’s so many amazing Taiwanese American creators, businesses, across the United States. It’s crazy like, Taiwanese Americans who write picture books, there’s at least five of us, which is insanity. Five may not seem like a lot, but it’s a lot for such a niche industry, so continue to support Taiwanese American creators, and continue to read TaiwaneseAmerican.org, you guys do amazing stuff. And check out the 100 Taiwanese American project!
Eugenia: Yes, my brother and sister are both there because Vivienne needed Taiwanese people of all ages to be interviewed. And she was like, “what about you, Eugenia?” Then she was like, no, we’ve got to save my interview for this book. And so it’s so funny that now Ian, who is my coworker, is now interviewing Vivienne, who used to work at TaiwaneseAmerican.org. I just feel like the Taiwanese American community is so tightknit that everyone does really know each other, and, I don’t know, I find that so comfortable…and familiar…and cozy…
Ian: …and home?
Eugenia: And home!
Keep up with Vivienne and Eugenia at https://www.vivienneandeugenia.com/
To buy THIS IS NOT MY HOME:
Bookshop – https://bookshop.org/a/6825/9780316377102
STORY TIME! – Linden Tree, Saturday, January 28, 2023. 10:00 am
BOOK LAUNCH! – Mrs. Dalloway’s, Sunday, January 29, 2023, 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm
CENTRAL LIBRARY STORY TIME – St. Louis Central Library, Friday, February 3, 2023, 10:30 – 11:30 am
EDUCATOR’S EVENT and READING – Novel Neighbor, Saturday, February 4, 2023, 10:30 – 11:30 am
STORY TIME! – Betty’s Books, Saturday, February 4, 2023, 3:00 – 4:00 pm
BOOK LAUNCH! Subterranean Books, Tuesday, February 7, 2023, 6:00 pm
Ian Tseng was the 2022 Betty L. Yu and Jin C. Yu Creative Writing Prizes Grand Prize Winner, College Category. You can read his work, Deconstructing Da’An Forest Park, here.