About the Author: “Joanna Ho is the New York Times bestselling author of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners. Her upcoming picture books include Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma (Fall 2021), and One Day (2023); her debut YA novel, The Silence that Binds Us will be released in 2022. She is a writer and educator with a passion for anti-bias, anti-racism and equity work. She holds a BA in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s from the Principal Leadership Institute at Berkeley. She has been an English teacher, a dean, the designer of an alternative-to-prison program, and a professional development mastermind. She is currently the vice principal of a high school in the Bay Area, where she survives on homemade chocolate chip cookies, outdoor adventures, and dance parties with her kids. Keep your eyes open for more books to come!” (Bio and headshot taken from author’s website.)
A big thank you to Joanna Ho for the following interview on her bestselling debut picture book, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners (HarperCollins, 2021), out now! Make sure to check out our review of Eyes That Kiss in the Corners here!
Joanna Ho: It feels surreal and hard to believe! Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to experience anything in person, I just see updates online, so it feels like this exciting thing that’s happening to someone else and not me! I’m incredibly grateful to readers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and everyone who has purchased, borrowed, shared or gifted the book. I am so honored.
JH: I saw an article about Yo-Yo Ma playing at the border of Mexico and Texas to send a message about building bridges and not walls and I knew I had to write the story. My mom used to blast Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s cello suites early Saturday mornings when I was a teenager and I hated it at the time, but grew to really love the music. This story was one way I could raise my voice about the inhumane immigration practices and one way I could share the inspiration of a truly remarkable man.
As an author, I have very little communication or interaction with the illustrators of my books. I get to see drafts as they come, but the illustrator works mostly with the art director and editor. I feel so grateful to be able to work with such talented creatives! Teresa’s art is beautiful!
JH: Picture books are really challenging to write because you have to fit an entire story arc, character development and emotional growth into 400-600 words. Every single word must be perfect and there is no room for fluff. When you read them, they seem so simple, but if you dive deeper, they are actually quite complex and layered, especially if you look at the ways the art works together with the text.
JH: I never intended to write more than one book about eyes, but my editor came to me one day with the idea for a companion book that showcased a young boy’s experiences with his male family members. I was hesitant at first because I’m against the idea of boy books and girls books; I don’t think we should gender books. But after talking to her, and thinking of my son, I could see how a companion book gave me a way to share some of the story that I wasn’t able to squish into the first book and if nothing else, I’m glad I did it because my son is very excited for this book – there is an illustration of a train on one of the pages and that’s basically all he cares about!
JH: To me this is much more than appreciating beauty. It’s a challenge to the white standards of beauty that are pervasive through our society. It is resistance against all the ways systems of white supremacy have used physical characteristics to dehumanize others and justify their oppression. It’s a call to action and change and hopefully something that will open the way for readers to step into their own power.
JH: The Silence that Binds Us is the story of a Chinese teenager who loses her brother to suicide and not only has to deal with her grief, but also the racism of a community that blames Asian culture for the pressure and stress in its schools. It’s very much based on the community where I went to high school and explores grief, healing, racism, Asian-Black solidarity, silence and power. It is my first novel and I love that writing YA gives me a space to explore challenging topics with an older audience. I work in high schools and I love teenagers and young adults; they inspire me every day.
JH: In some ways my process is the same. I get an idea that I want to pursue and I let it percolate in my mind for a long time – sometimes months. I do a lot of work internally before I ever put anything on paper. I explore the idea, play with possibilities, try to get to know the characters a little bit. Sometimes I’ll think through a story arc then I’ll jot down key points in my notes, then I start drafting. Drafting is the hardest part for me. I hate it. My favorite part of the writing process is revision. I love getting feedback and playing with the story and words to make it better. The process obviously takes a lot longer for a novel than it does for a picture book, but both are challenging in their own ways.
I am inspired by SO many authors – the kidlit world is full of unbelievably generous, talented, and critically conscious human beings and they inspire me beyond craft. So many established authors were so generous with advice, encouragement and time long before I ever had a book deal or published book and so many are vocal in issues of social justice. I feel privileged to be part of the space. In terms of writing, I love the lyrical styles of Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Margarita Engle.
JH: I can’t choose! I am obsessed with all of them! I literally cried every time I saw them, from character sketches to drafts to color drafts to final art. I love every page and discover new layers and symbolism each time I read! The editors and Dung really put a lot of thought into the art. For example, the end paper color is based on Constance Wu’s yellow dress from an event for Crazy Rich Asians. She wore it as a way to take back the derogatory “yellow peril” way of demonizing and discriminating against Asians in America, to show how beautiful and powerful we are. I had no idea until the book was published that this was the reason! I just thought Dung had ESP and knew my favorite color was yellow! There are layers of symbolism like this all throughout the book.
JH: I would really love to write something about Monkey King. I grew up reading stories about him as a child and one day, if I could learn the craft of magical realism or even fantasy (though that seems impossible to me right now!), I’d love to write something inspired by his stories.
JH: The middle grade is just something I’ve been working on for fun. It’s not under contract, and who knows where it will go! But, after a year of not writing anything new (thanks 2020!), and just revising my YA, it’s been fun to try something different. It’s definitely a learning process!
JH: This question is too hard to answer in just a few sentences. 2020 has been both an incredibly challenging year for me personally in ways that are unrelated to the pandemic but absolutely exacerbated by it. It was also a year of incredible blessings and joy in my life! One of my biggest learnings is that I need to let go of control and trust that God is guiding my life and watching over me. I’ve read so so so many books and loved them all! Some stand outs are Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi, We Want to Do More than Survive by Dr. Bettina Love, How to Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera, and everything Christina Soontornvat writes.
JH: I think we’re just at the beginning of making children’s lit more inclusive. If you look at the numbers, we still have a long way to go! We need to get to a place where every book about a marginalized identity doesn’t have the pressure to represent every experience from that identity; it’s impossible. We need multitudes of stories about every kind of experience and identity because no group is a monolith. I would also love to see some more stories with Polynesian characters by ownvoices authors [and] illustrators.
JH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I think social media is a powerful tool; I’ve learned a ton from people I follow and have loved the communities I’ve become a part of there. In many ways, I’m grateful for the space. However, there are limits. It is naturally reductive and there is no way one can express thoughts about incredibly complex topics in a single post. The post you mentioned is a good example of this. I wasn’t able to express the fullness of my thought process, and in trying to reduce it to fit text limits, wrote things in a way that misrepresented my thoughts and ended up hurting others.
I think change is relational and built on trust. It’s uncomfortable and hard in real life. When it’s online, it can become transactional; people make quick judgements without understanding someone’s entire body of work or growth, because most of the work and learning doesn’t live online. Social media culture can, but doesn’t always lend itself to genuine relationship and trust building. For me personally, it can create its own pressures (which are likely internal!) and suck me out of my real life, so I’m learning I need to create better boundaries! It’s absolutely one way to expand the work of equity and social justice, but as an educator and an author and a mother, my work must be focused in other spaces first.
I do think solidarity between BIPOC groups is necessary to dismantle systems of white supremacy. We are each played and used in different ways to uphold the systems that oppress us, and it’s important to recognize that ultimately we have to fight for liberation together.
PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro