Sennah Yee's debut children's book My Day With Gong Gong is a love letter to Chinatown and her grandpa
The Toronto author recently appeared on the CBC Kids Book Club to discuss her first book
Sennah Yee is a poet, writer and film producer from Toronto. She is the author of the 2017 poetry collection How Do I Look?, which dissects pop culture and reflects on identity.
Her debut children's book, My Day With Gong Gong, tells the story of a bored little girl named May who unexpectedly makes a connection with her grandpa over the course of a day in Chinatown. Vancouver-based artist Elaine Chen illustrated the book.
My Day With Gong Gong was named one of best Canadian picture books of 2020 by CBC Books. The Toronto author recently appeared on the CBC Kids Book Club in a humorous segment with Mr. Orlando to talk about My Day With Gong Gong. The CBC Kids Book Club features Canadian children's book authors paired up with CBC Kids best friends Gary the Unicorn and Mr. Orlando.
Yee spoke with CBC Books to discuss the inspiration behind her first kids' book.
Keeping it in the family
"Actually, my younger sister gave me the idea for the story. One of the editors at Annick Press, Claire Caldwell, had reached out to me and asked if I had any ideas for a children's book. She had read my previous poetry collection, How Do I Look?, and I think she kind of noticed similarities in my poetry and was wondering if I was interested in kids' lit. I hadn't tried it yet, so it was still pretty brand-new and I was like, 'Let me get back to you.'
My grandfather has since passed, but this is a love letter to celebrate how much we loved spending time with him in Chinatown.
And my younger sister said, 'Wouldn't it just be so sweet to write a story about our Gong Gong (our grandpa)?' And that was kind of the seed that planted the idea of writing a love letter. You know, he's since passed, but [this is] a love letter to celebrate how much we loved spending time with him in Chinatown. That's kind of how it came about."
From poetry to kids' books
"I think I was surprised at how similar they were. My background is also in screenwriting — which is also very sparse, visual, to the point. And so it kind of felt like this really nice amalgamation of all of that.
"I actually had the biggest trouble with coming up with conflict and resolving it in such a small amount of time. I always loved writing very succinct visuals, but it was always the story part and the conflict part that was the biggest challenge. That's where I was so grateful for having an editor who helped me find the true heart of the story and the real conflict."
Collaboration is key
"I think my advice would be to remember that it is a collaboration. I think I loved getting help from my editor and seeing that, 'Oh, actually this whole section can just all be visuals.' You know, 'We can have the illustrator just draw this out and you can shorten this paragraph to one sentence because the kids will see through the illustrations.'
"So I think that part to me was the biggest learning. This is a full collaboration [with illustrator Elaine Chen]. It's called a picture book, so remember just how powerful that imagery will be for the story as well and how you can convey so many more themes and little gestures through those visuals. So it's really one puzzle piece of the larger story.— making sure that you are collaborating well with the illustrator and sharing reference photos or giving feedback or seeing what kinds of ideas they have.
This is a full collaboration. It's called a picture book, so remember just how powerful that imagery will be for the story.
"I trusted Elaine so much. All of the references that she had I loved so much. I had been very involved with the process and being really open to it being a collaboration between me and the artist."
Writing from experience
"I always write from personal experience, but I think what interests me is finding what makes a personal story universal at the same time. So even though Gong Gong is definitely based on my grandpa, but at the same time I knew I wanted the heart of the story to be something that everybody could relate to. And so that's where the themes of language barriers or intergenerational learning across generations and things like that really played in.
Even though Gong Gong is definitely based on my grandpa, at the same time I knew I wanted the heart of the story to be something that everybody could relate to.
"What has been really exciting about the book is realizing that at first, it came from just wanting to write about my grandpa, but then realizing it's such a universal story.
"The love that you have for your family or learning how to connect with them in different ways has spoken to a lot of people. So that's been something I discovered along the way."
The power of connection
"Growing up, I always felt so many feelings as a kid, not always being able to speak the same language as my grandparents. You know, sometimes it made me sad or ashamed or frustrated, and I kind of kept those feelings inside. So I hope that when people read this book, they can know that those feelings are okay, but also how to maybe channel them into a new direction or way of showing love for someone, even if you don't speak the same language. [You can] find new ways of spending time with someone as a way of connecting.
Hearing just how many different kinds of people are responding to the story, to me, that's all I could ever ask for.
"Anytime I hear about anyone who's like, 'Oh, you know, this reminds me of my grandpa' and they might not even be the same background that I am — hearing just how many different kinds of people are responding to the story, to me, that's all I could ever ask for. It's cool to see kids connecting with it and adults reading it to their kids.
"And I got to meet Mr. Orlando! The CBC Kids Book Club was so much fun. It was my first time doing something like that. I remember being nervous because I laughed very easily and I was like, 'I'm going to be laughing the whole time.' So it was so much fun getting to be there.
Sennah Yee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.