OCA Weekly Author Feature: Icy Smith
|OCA Weekly Author Feature: Icy Smith
As a part of the OCA National APA Heritage Month Children's Book Tour, OCA will do weekly interviews with participating authors on their experience as an APA children's book author.
This week, we are featuring Icy Smith, author of Mai Ling in China City.
Icy Smith is an award-winning author and the founder of East West Discovery Press, which specializes in publishing and distributing multicultural and bilingual books in more than 50 different languages. Her acclaimed book, The Lonely Queue: The forgotten history of the courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, was described by the Los Angeles Times
as "a bilingual book that celebrates the Chinese American community of
Southern California… with the intimacy of a family album and the
authority of a historical monograph.” The Lonely Queue won the 2002 Clarion Award for best nonfiction book.
Smith’s first children’s book Mei Ling in China City
was named the winners of the 2009 Chinese American Librarian
Association Best Children’s Book Award, 2008 Moonbeam Children’s Book
Award and 2008 Independent Publisher Award.
Her recent publication is the Half Spoon of Rice
which presents a child’s account of life in Cambodia during the Khmer
Rouge regime in the mid-1970s. The book was named the winners of the
2010 Skipping Stones Honor Awards and 2009 Moonbeam Children’s Book
Award, and a finalist of the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Awards in the
Multicultural Children’s Book category.
APAHM Children's Book Tour is made possible through a partnership
between OCA, Nordstrom and designer Phillip Lim. Nordstrom has
collaborated with Phillip Lim on a limited-edition T-shirt, which will
be sold exclusively at 16 Nordstrom stores and online for the month of May.
Buy a tee and support OCA's Youth Programs!
Who or what inspired you to write your first book?
15 years ago, I was doing some research on the history of Chinese
Americans in Southern California, for a local community group. I came to
find out that this topic had been neglected. There had been some
material on the subject. However a complete work on the history of
Chinese Americans in the Southland was not available. In a short time, I
became fascinated with the subject matter, and something fantastic
happened. I got to know many people who lived part of the history
themselves. As a result of talking to many seniors and a lot of
research, I decided to write a book about the 150 years of Chinese
Americans in Los Angeles. My first book The Lonely Queue was published 10 years ago.
Are the characters/plot based on your own experiences?
If so, how much?
people who had lived through much of the history was a real pleasure. I
made many wonderful friends who had compelling stories to tell about
their lives. One of those was Mei Ling. That led to my second book, a
children’s story based in Los Angeles.Mei Ling in China City
is based on a true story of friendship between a Chinese American girl
Mei Ling and her best friend, Japanese American girl Yayeko during World
War II. In 1942, Yayeko and her
family were taken away to live in a war relocation camp by the U.S.
government. So these two girls were sadly separated. However, they were
able to write letters and always imagined they would see each other
again when the war was over. Mei Ling and Yayeko wrote letters to each other during the war years, and their relationship endured through this tragic part of American history. Mei Ling in China City
reveals both some of the fascinating history of China City and the dark
history of the Japanese American internment. The lives of many Chinese
and Japanese Americans during WWII resonate in the friendship of Mei
Ling and Yayeko.
Where did you grow up and has that influenced your writing?
grew up in a very poor and an entirely dysfunctional family in Hong
Kong. Since I was a young child, I worked many odd jobs to support my
family. One of those was as a janitor in a small library. I enjoyed
being around books while I worked and remembered dreaming about writing
and maybe being an investigative journalist, probably that, because I
witnessed a lot of injustice in the community I lived. My family lived
in an extremely small flat near loan sharks, gambling gangsters, etc. I
made my way to the U.S., and ended up studying journalism having a real
passion for writing. I did not end up going into the field directly,
but I started my first book about 15 years ago.
How does being an Asian Pacific American (APA) affect your writing style?
I grew up in near abject poverty in an Asian country, I know what it is
like to have lived with very little. But I am proud to have the
experiences I had and appreciate what I have now. Being an Asian
American, I was able to relate to the experiences of the interviewees in
my previous book projects so that I can authentically portray their
stories and histories.
What challenges do you face when writing your books?
the biggest challenge is just finding the time. It is very difficult to
juggle my own writing with my more than full-time work at East West
Discovery Press. With my latest book, it was not easy to write on such a
tragic subject, that of the Cambodian genocide, especially for kids.
Genocide may not seem like a children friendly topic. But even tragic
stories can be compelling to children if the book is written in a child
Can you share any projects in the works with us?
Half Spoon of Rice
is my latest children’s book with the major character Nat, a
nine-year-old boy. He barely survived the four years of horror of the
Cambodian genocide. The book features illustrations and historical
photographs documenting Cambodian history from 1975 to 1979.
What do you like to do in your free time outside of writing?
Actually I enjoy writing a lot. While spending time with my supportive family maybe on a long road trip, I can’t be happier.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
In Mei Ling in China City,
Mei Ling and Yayeko were remarkably reunited after 66 years of
separation, as a result of the book’s publication in 2008. A reader and
docent at the Japanese American National Museum helped in reconnecting
these two ladies who are now in their early eighties. Both live in Los Angeles and have picked up their friendship again, right where it left off. Today 31 years after the end of the Cambodian genocide, little is taught in schools around the world. I hope that through Half Spoon of Rice, young people can learn the lessons of genocide history and become advocates for global peace and understanding. My goal is to write a series of historical fictions with an emphasis on Asian American history and culture for kids.
just did a great reading at the Alhambra Civic Center Library this past
Saturday! There will be another event in the Los Angeles Area on
Saturday, May 29 with author Lisa Yee.
Please contact Lan Nguyen for more information.
OCA-Greater Los Angeles Chapter
Los Angeles Chinatown Branch Library
639 N. Hill Street
Saturday, May 29
Author: Lisa Yee
Or attend one of the other many events in our APA Heritage Month Children's Book Tour:
OCA-St. Louis Chapter
Chinese Culture Day
Missouri Botanical Garden
4344 Shaw Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63110
Saturday, May 15
OCA-New Jersey Chapter
Forest Avenue School
118 Forest Ave, Verona, New Jersey 07044
Friday, May 21
Author: Kam Mak
OCA-Central Illinois Chapter
Thomas Metcalf School
7000 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790-0001
Time: Monday, May 24
Author: Kam Mak
OCA-Las Vegas Chapter
Paseo Verde Library
280 S. Green Valley Pkwy, Henderson, NV 89012
Saturday, May 22
Author: Milly Lee
OCA-San Mateo Chapter
Foster City Public Library
1000 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, CA 94404
Saturday, May 22
Author: Cynthia Chin-Lee
OCA-Westchester Hudson Valley Chapter
Asian Pacific American Heritage Festival
Kensico Dam Plaza County Park, Valhalla, New York 10595
Saturday, May 29
Author: Pooja Makhijani