recipe for a picture book

Happy 15th Birthday, Dumpling Soup!!

Wonders never cease — my little picture book is still in print after all these years!

To spice up my Hawai’i celebration this month, I’m giving away three signed hardcover copies! These are original trade editions from my personal stash (currently, only paperback and library editions are still in print). This seems like the right time to part with them, as a way of thanking you for all your support and interest in my books and this blog.

All you have to do is comment on any post between now and January 31, and I’ll toss your name into my big red soup pot. Enter as many times as you like. Each comment = one entry. On Monday, February 2, the most well-behaved teddy bear in the kitchen will ladle out the winners! (Note: This giveaway is open to everyone, with or without a blog. Please include your first name and last initial if you’re logging in as “Anonymous.” Non U.S. residents also welcome to enter.)

And now, for your nibbling pleasure, HOW I COOKED DUMPLING SOUP (which is a story about celebrating the New Year in Hawai’i):

Well, you know me. It all began with hunger pangs.

I lived in Virginia, but my favorite dumplings lived far away in Hawai’i. No, I couldn’t make them myself. It just wouldn’t be the same. But I could write about them.

So, I started pre-cooking, with a few notes:

which became an essay published here:

Good for an appetizer, but didn’t satisfy me for long. I wanted a bigger serving!

Could I turn the essay into a children’s book? I stirred a few ideas around via webbing and clustering,

until I came up with a draft, which I chewed on for awhile. Since it was my first picture book, I didn’t see the parts that were raw or half-baked.

But I sent it out anyway. Form rejections blackened my mailbox, but I kept sending it out. Then, one day, I received my first little nibble; what a delicious crumb!

(Macmillan, I still don’t know what you mean by “too special.”)

I read the letter carefully, added a few new ingredients to my story, then received an encouraging response from another editor:

Houghton Mifflin wanted more detail, but wasn’t it kind and generous of the editor to enclose that SLJ article? Turns out, they bought my second book.

Back to my antique computer (no mouse, no internet!) for more tweaking. Plot (still my weakest area), definitely needed reworking. All the writing books I read back then never mentioned “story arc.” These days, that’s all I hear about.

The next time I submitted it, I got the best feedback of all:

Thank you, HarperCollins!

All this time, along with my disappointment, I’m thinking, they’ve all found something good to say, and they’ve all taken the time to tell me why they rejected it. It must be worth pursuing. So I worked on my characters and focused on establishing a stronger emotional core.

When it was ready to go out again, I heard that Little, Brown was sponsoring a New Voices, New World Multicultural Fiction Contest. Why not? I had nothing to lose by trying.

Months later, on the day the U.S. entered the Gulf War, a tired editor called me at 4:30 in the afternoon. “We’ve selected your story,” she said. “Congratulations on winning our first New World, New Voices contest!” I babbled my thanks, hands shaking. Then we talked about the war and watching CNN all night.

It had taken me five years to revise the book, resubmit, revise, resubmit, again and again. I couldn’t have done it without all the suggestions those editors gave me along the way. I didn’t belong to a critique group back then; there was no internet, no message boards, no blogs. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to get editor feedback. Even a small gesture of kindness or encouragement makes a huge difference to a writer working in isolation. I had written this story in silence, and after I received the news and hung up the phone, I sat there in silence. I simply couldn’t believe it.

Once the contract was signed, I revised even more, with the help of three very cool editors: Melanie Kroupa, Ann Rider, and Megan Tingley. Lillian Hsu-Flanders did an awesome job with the illustrations! Loved all her details — those little dumplings all lined up! those vegetables! those charming facial expressions! She brought my story to life in ways I never could have imagined. There is a warmth in her pictures that still shines through, even though I have seen them a million times. To this day, I remain in awe of artists and illustrators. How do they do it?

Grandma really did have a big metal mixing bowl.

My mother never wore bows in her hair, though :).

This pot of soup has been on the burner a long while, and I will continue to season it with gratitude. Just the other day I received these wonderful photos from my sis, Sylvia, who invites her kids and grandkids to her home in Bend, Oregon, each year for dumpling soup. Their tradition is to read the book aloud and make the dumplings together. For a writer, this is what it’s all about!

So, my pretties, if you’ve read the book, shared it, purchased it, borrowed it, or passed it on — thank you veddy veddy much!  Why not feast on some dumplings, so it will bring you good luck in 2009!!

*All interior spreads copyright © 1993, Lillian Hsu-Flanders, published by Little, Brown. All rights reserved.


61 thoughts on “recipe for a picture book

  1. These are my FAVORITE kinds of posts — the nuts and bolts behind the book. Isn’t it amazing to look at, in retrospect??? The amount of work. Oi.

    Happy book birthday, and have some soup to celebrate!!!


  2. THANK YOU for this post, Jama. It is really interesting, helpful, enlightening, and encouraging to read the story behind Dumpling Soup. And, wow, you even shared your old notes and letters! This is all very inspiring.

    Thank you also for the giveaway. I REALLY, REALLY want to read Dumpling Soup, so sign me up! 😀

    Into the Wardrobe


  3. Hi Sis, How fascinating it was to see the different incarnations of Dumpling Soup! In addition to my admiration of your talent for words, I now have so much respect for your perseverance and patience. Your ability to use the editors’ comments to tweak and fashion your story until it was just right is quite special. I am saving this particular blog entry for the children to read as I think it is quit instructive not only for those that might pursue writing, but actually for any other career. So far, Jordi, Keenan, and Melia are the three grandchildren who show interest in writing and I will encourage it as much as I can. Love, Syl


  4. I’m so glad you found this post helpful, Tarie. Just goes to show the importance of patience and perseverance. Of course, it helps if you plan on living past 100, since the whole process takes loads of time 😉 . . .


  5. Will do, when I see them. I will be trying to hang out with them this afternoon, but they are starting to get quiet. Probably means that Jane’s reading to sweep them off for a while. Or that the sooper sekrit project is going to claim more of my time for a bit. But we shall see.


  6. Glad you found this interesting. I used to use some of the material for school visits, to show kids the process. I’m pleased you’ll be sharing this with your grandkids. And thanks again so much for the fabulous photos!!


  7. Congratulations on the anniversary, Jama! I have to echo everyone’s statements on how interesting and helpful it is to hear about the journey you took with this story.

    May you have some awesome times in 2009!



    DUMPLING SOUP looks delicious! And congrats on its 15th birthday! Hooray! That is a triumph! I’m going to get a copy of my nephews. Hooray and Happy 2009!



  9. I’m a Dumpling Soup fan!

    Congratulations on 15 years of delighting readers with this outstanding story! I loved every morsel!

    Mimi(another Blueboarder)



  10. Oh, I loved to hear about how it became a book! And three cheers to the publishers who took the time to offer constructive suggestions so you could fine-tune it and create such a charming finished product. And it’s fantastic how it has inspired the next generation to keep it up. The idea of making my own dumplings (at least, without an experienced guide!) is intimidating, but look at all those young’uns just whipping them up! I’m delighted, all around. (And definitely want to enter your contest!)


  11. Happy New Year and Happy 15th Anniversary too, Jama! It was so much fun to see your notes and read all the letters, and I love the pictures. Thanks for sharing and for having the contest too 🙂


  12. Congrats on 15 years!! Love the story! I have started collecting my own rejection letters. I have a handful of form letters, and 2 personal rejection letters! Thanks for sharing. Heather


  13. wow, what a story! Now I REALLY want dumplings. One of my resolutions was to make dumplings this year–I’m going to try out a couple different recipes–I’m making yours tomorrow (going out to buy the wonton wrappers today).
    Best, Grace (Lin)


  14. Amazing


    What a refreshing and hopeful post. Being a children’s writer myself and coming from a different culture altogether( I am a Muslim from Pakistan) I am keen to find a niche in the western market Being troubled by the way in which the world is heading, and believing in children completely, I feel that books still have the power to create connections and bring people and cultures closer.

    I write for this purpose so will remain steadfast and keep pursuing the writing.

    I am in Austin these days and have been invited by Shana Burg to attend the meeting at Book People tomorrow. Looking forward to hearing you speak.

    Best regards,

    Basarat Kazim


  15. Re: Amazing

    Thanks for your comment! Books do indeed play a huge role in promoting understanding among different cultures. Good luck with your writing!

    Note: I think you may have confused me with someone else, as I’m not speaking tomorrow at Book People, but do enjoy the meeting!!


  16. Great Post

    What a great post chronicling your (the book) journey. I love it that you include the letters and the drafts/manuscript from the book creation, and – since I work at Children Lit research center here in Central California where a lot of children author donates their papers, I always intrigued by the behind-the-scene stuff that goes before (or after) the book is published.

    Mila R.


  17. Wow! I loved reading through the whole post. The notes to yourself about story ideas and structure, the letters from the editors and your amazing persistence and then those wonderful photos of your family treasuring this book and participating in the tradition of making dumpling soup. Wow! Now I have to go find a copy of the book! And yes, sign me up for the giveaway!

    Jenny Schwartzberg


  18. Jama, Happy DS 15th Anniversary! Wonderful reminiscing, great insight for us, super pics. Loved it! ~ Lois B.


  19. Jama, I loved reading this. I love the way you kept believing in your story and assimilated every step in the 5-year process. So inspiring!

    Janet @ across the page (Janet G.)


  20. What an absolutely fun and educational post! It was so cool to hear the story behind the book. It gives me a new appreciation for authors and what they go through to present us with new books and fun stories to read!

    I would love to win a copy of your creation and thank you for sharing all that you did! Extremely enlightening!

    – Carrie, Reading to Know
    readingtoknow (at) gmail (dot) com


  21. Congratulations on fifteen years in print! That is so awesome. I remember reading it with my now college student daughter, and expect she’ll read it to her children one day.

    And I loved your photo essay of how it came to be. And remember typing — and whiting out, and making carbon copies! — manuscripts, too. That is one thing I do not miss.


  22. Thanks, Jeannine. I do remember typing on my trusty electric typewriter in college. For DS, I had a Leading Edge word processor. It served me well, and perhaps because it wasn’t connected to the internet, there were fewer distractions. Hmmmm . . .


  23. I love this post and seeing the process you went through to get Dumpling Soup published. Happy Birthday to Dumpling Soup!



  24. Thank you!

    Thank you so much for sharing Dumpling Soup and its history! What a great lesson in perseverance. I loved seeing and learning how it became what it did from your notes, the magazine article/essay, and the feedback from editors! Thank you also for the opportunity of receiving a copy! I read it to my now grown children, and recognized the cover as soon as I clicked on your blog. Now I’ll have to find a copy again for my younger children. I love your story and I love the warm and detailed illustrations.

    I found you via Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog. Thought you should know.
    K. Pelky


  25. Re: Thank you!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s always so gratifying to hear from someone who’s read the book to his/her children. I’m also grateful to Cyn for mentioning the giveaway on her blog. It brought you here!! I’ll toss your name into the hat :).


  26. Picture book in my head

    Hi there! I so much enjoyed reading the process of your writing. I have not read your book, but I’m putting it on hold at the library right now.

    I have a picture book in my head right now and haven’t known what to do about it. I’ve often wondered about how a person finds a publisher and how a person finds an illustrator.

    I guess my first step is just to write it out to me which has been on my mind to do for a while here. It was great to see that was one of your steps as well!


  27. Re: Picture book in my head

    Thanks for stopping by to read this post! Everyone has their own way of writing books, so I’m glad you’ve found this information useful. Good luck with your project!


Comments are closed.