A new year brings new blessings. One of which is the release of Joanna Ho’s “Eyes that Speak to the Stars,” a companion to her New York Times bestseller “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners.”
Stunningly illustrated, “Eyes that Speak to the Stars” tells a beautiful story that connects generations of family members. The book follows a young Asian boy who finds a new love for the way his eyes are shaped. At the beginning of the book, he notices that his classmate draws his eyes differently than the rest of the class, but by the end, he has a newfound appreciation for his unique features.
I sat down to talk to Ho — a Bay Area native, writer, and educator — about her latest entry in the “Eyes” collection. In addition to sharing her passion for anti-bias and anti-racist work, she admits that she didn’t think her first children’s book necessarily needed a follow-up. Continue reading to learn what changed her mind and more about her creative process in the interview below. This interview has been edited for brevity.
GO: Before your bestselling book “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners,” what started you down this path of writing children’s books?
JH: I am an educator. I got into education because I have always been really driven by desire to create change, and I’ve always been really passionate about anti-racism. The main reason I got an education is that I love teaching, but also because the school system is so broken. It’s oppressive. It’s so inequitable.
I wanted to create change in that system, and so that’s a long way to say that as an English teacher, I was really conscious of trying to find inclusive voices, books, stories, and texts that my students could see themselves in and see a much more inclusive world and history.
And [while] that’s always been a passion, I got into children’s books after I had my first child. I was looking for picture books for him, specifically Christmas books at the time — he was born in August — and couldn’t find any inclusive, diverse Christmas books. I found very, very few that were recent and weren’t about animals or white people. I went down this rabbit hole, and I was like, “Wow, there is so little diversity in children’s books like picture books.” And so I had this epiphany that I should try writing picture books, and I didn’t know at the time how hard that was.
GO: Me too! I think to myself, “Yeah, I could write a picture book” whenever I read one to my son. So for those of us who don’t understand how hard it is, can you share a little bit about the process of writing and getting a children’s book published?
JH: I can tell you about the process itself a little, at least the way it’s worked out for me. Since I am a writer and not an illustrator, I write a text, or I’ll write lots of text, and then you can submit your texts. For the big five main publishing houses, you typically need to have an agent to submit to them. There are some smaller publishers that you can submit directly to if you’re not agented.
For me, I knew I wanted to have an agent because I wanted to submit everywhere, but also because I wanted somebody to help me navigate contracts and all that stuff. So [to get an agent], you query a lot of agents, and publishing works really, really slow, so you might never hear back from the agents you query. Typically the wait time is six to eight weeks, so it’s like several months, and it might be longer.
And so, for me, with “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners,” there were actually like four other stories that were all being submitted at the same time. And I got rejections for over a year and a half on all of them, so it took over a year and a half for “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” to get picked up. It was acquired after many rejections from lots of different editors, but it landed with the perfect editor who, I think, is brilliant. She read it and was like, “This is the story I wish I had when I was a child.”
Once your book is acquired, you go through several rounds of revision with the editor. When that’s done — for picture books — the editor finds the illustrator, and it varies whether an author has a say in that selection. Once the illustrator starts to work, I get to see sketches and offer some feedback on interiors and the cover. It really is a beautiful thing to see someone bring your words to life. I love seeing the illustrations as they develop!
GO: That’s kind of exciting! You put it into the hands of somebody else that you trust to put out your vision, and it’s done. These days, we are seeing a lot more diverse children’s books out there. Today, what are editors looking for?
JH: [It’s hard to say] what editors are looking for. It’s pretty subjective, and I think that’s one reason that there are gatekeepers in this industry. The predominant group in the industry is mostly white women. Even if you, [as an editor], are trying to be inclusive, the stories that speak to you are the ones that resonate with your personal experience. So often, if you don’t have a super diverse body of editors, the stories that are selected are not super diverse, or they fit a very singular narrative of any particular group of people.
GO: What do you tell your children when they ask why their eyes are shaped differently?
JH: Luckily, we are in the Bay Area, which is a relatively diverse space. But I grew up in Minnesota, so it was definitely not predominantly Asian over there, and I definitely remember people making fun of my eyes. I just hope that, frankly, we can have conversations openly. Like if they ask, I will tell them about genes, but I am going to tell them about culture and family and also talk to them about questioning why someone said that to them. Talk about the norms and standards of beauty and have those conversations very early from a young age.
GO: On a totally different topic, has your book been banned?
JH: My book is part of the Conscious Kid’s book package that they are sending to school districts. There was an effort to ban the books that they were sending out, so my book hasn’t been directly banned. It was more like they were banning diversity.
But why are people banning books? There’s lots of ways to phrase it, but straight up, I think it is that people are afraid to have narratives that tell truth. [Narratives] that are different than the dominant narrative, which is very white supremacist and glorifies and whitewashes history in order to tell a very one-sided perspective of life and experience and culture. [Those narratives] normalize one thing, and when you have a lot of stories that are critical — even picture books are really critical — and give you a different lens and a different perspective, it shifts the power balance. It helps people know that they have the power to make change — and that’s really scary if you have power and your whole identity is based on having that power and holding it over other people, whether you recognize it or not.
GO: What catalyzed this companion book, “Eyes that Speak to the Stars”?
JH: [Before “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” came out,] my editor was like, “Hey, I have an idea, what do you think about writing a companion book about a young boy?” And at first, I was like, “I don’t know … I don’t think there should be ‘girl books’ and ‘boy books.’”
I took some time and thought about it, and you know, it’s true that there really isn’t a lot of representation of young Asian boys in picture books or a lot of representation of Asian men, fathers, and families.
Even though I do believe we should all be able to see ourselves in characters and develop those skills, there was something when I saw my daughter reacting to the illustration, like “That’s me! Mommy, that’s you!” that it meant more to her. It just felt like it would be nice for my son to be able to have that. It took a while, but when I came around, I could see why it was needed. Even though I don’t want to gender books, I can see why it is powerful to have that representation when you haven’t had it before.
“Eyes that Speak to the Stars” is available at your local bookstore starting February 15. Joanna Ho is a writer and educator with a passion for anti-bias, anti-racism, and equity work. 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!
Last modified: January 20, 2022