June 11, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #291: Cherry Mo

I was lucky enough to get a chance to chat with Cherry Mo about her debut picture book Home in a Lunchbox! I'm sharing our chat here with you all today, enjoy a peek inside this extra special book!

About the book:
When Jun moves from Hong Kong to America, the only words she knows are hello, thank you, I don't know, and toilet. Her new school feels foreign and terrifying.

But when she opens her lunchbox to find her favorite meal––like bao, dumplings, and bok choy––she realizes home isn't so far away after all.

Peek underneath the dust jacket:

And check out the endpapers:

Let's talk Cherry Mo!

LTPB: Congratulations on your debut! Where did the idea for Home in a Lunchbox come from? How long did you work on it before it was ready to publish?

CM: Thank you so much! It’s been quite a journey, and I am so grateful that my book finally hit the shelves! Home in a Lunchbox is inspired by my personal experience of moving from Hong Kong to the US at age 10. Adapting to a brand-new culture and environment, learning a new language, and making new friends was an overwhelming experience for me at the time. On top of that, I was quite shy, so it was a really great challenge for me to find a way to connect with my new peers. This book reflects my experience and is a story that I’ve always wanted to tell, so creating this book has been so meaningful and rewarding! Since signing the book deal, it’s been 2 years in the making, but if we add on the time it took from ideation, creating the book dummy, to querying agents, it was about 3 years. If we also add on the number of years that this story has been brewing inside me, it’s been a total of 20 years in the making!

LTPB: Did you always envision the book as being nearly wordless? Why did you make this decision, and how did it inform the illustrations and what they had to convey?

CM: That’s a great question! Initially, this book had many, many words! However, after countless revisions, I realized that having the book being nearly wordless would best communicate Jun’s experience and allow the reader to emotionally connect and empathize with Jun. It reminds us that no matter where we come from, we all go through the universal experience of loneliness and a search for a sense of belonging. If we can understand Jun without words, that means we can also connect with others without words. We can be that hand to extend warmth to others and help them feel that they belong!

It can be very easy to judge or label someone, but do we really understand their side of the story? I hope that this book will encourage empathy in children and help them see that some people are unable to express themselves through words, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a rich story to tell!

It has been such a meaningful experience learning to tell this story through the characters’ expressions, body language, colors, and composition. There was a lot of problem-solving to be done with telling the story without words, but it was all so worth it in the end!

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

CM: The most difficult part of creating this book was not in the writing itself, but my own personal journey of writing this book! I learned to overcome my self-doubt and trust in the process and in myself. Throughout the book creation process, I realized that I still carried that shy and quiet “Jun” within me who had the tendency to withdraw from others and the world. Writing this book helped me understand myself and gave me an opportunity to break through my own shell and step forward into the possibilities of the future. So, Jun’s journey is also my own, even in writing this book! The process of growing and breaking through my shell has been the most rewarding!

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

CM: I illustrated the book digitally, and it is my preferred medium! I am currently working on my second book and am exploring different styles to see what best suits the story. While the work that I show has a consistent style, I like to play with and vary my style quite a bit when I sketch. I think having flexibility and versatility is important, as different kinds of stories may need different ways of telling it.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

CM: I am currently working on my second book, and while I’m not able to show yet, it is another story inspired by my own personal experience… It dives even deeper into a universal, internal experience that we undergo daily and is a story very close to my heart. I hope that this story will assist and inspire kids who are going through challenges in their mental health!

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

CM: Oh, I would love Shaun Tan to illustrate my autobiography! Not only because I am a huge fan of his, but because I find that his illustrations have the power to take readers into another world. There is something so intriguing about his art and how they seem to be able to reflect our inner world. For a large part of my life, I lived in my own little world inside my head. This little world was filled with crazy thoughts and wild imagination! Shaun Tan’s style would be perfect for capturing that imaginative aspect of my childhood as well as the introspective journey I’ve been on until now.

A major thank you to Cherry for talking to me about her debut! Home in a Lunchbox publishes TODAY from Penguin Workshop!

Special thanks to Cherry and Penguin for use of these images!

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