author chat: alan woo on maggie’s chopsticks

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Vancouver-based author, poet, champion noodle slurper and chopstick twirler Alan Woo to Alphabet Soup today!

Alan’s debut picture book, Maggie’s Chopsticks, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant and published by Kids Can Press, has been receiving glowing reviews and well deserved blog love ever since its release in August.

In this charming, lyrically told story of self discovery, young Maggie learns how to use her new chopsticks as family members scold, laugh, and offer conflicting advice. She watches as each demonstrates the “right” way: Grandma’s “click-clack-clicketing” scrabble and shovel; Mother’s quick, sharp, flip, flop; Brother’s strong, sure grip; Sister’s graceful dancing sticks. Maggie tries and tries — twirling, circling, holding closer to the top, nearer the bottom, but they still say she’s doing it wrong. It’s only with Father’s gentle reassurance that Maggie finally finds her right way and is reminded that since each person is unique, it shouldn’t matter what other people think.

Hungry young readers will easily identify with Maggie’s struggle to master a new skill, enjoy meeting her colorful family, and cheer her victory. And yes, like me, they’ll likely drool at how Isabelle Malenfant, with her warm palette of vibrant reds and oranges, has set the family table with tantalizing Chinese food (cha siu bao! ha gau!), and love the winsome cat who licks its chops while waiting patiently for a piece of shrimp.

Naturally I was curious to learn more about Alan’s eating writing, the genesis of Maggie’s Chopsticks, and his favorite food-related children’s books. Of course I had to run out for dim sum right after reading his answers. Just as I suspected, food tastes a hundred times better when eaten with chopsticks. 🙂

Welcome to Alphabet Soup, Alan! How old were you when you first learned to use chopsticks? Did you struggle like Maggie did? How often do you use chopsticks now?

I can’t remember how old I was! I think I was probably 4 or 5, I’m guessing? Yes I remember relatives yelling at me that I was doing it wrong, and I would compare with cousins my age who all believed they were doing it the right way. I just never felt like I was doing it right, even though I was able to use them to eat! I didn’t understand why I had to be just like everybody else, and I noticed that not everybody held their chopsticks exactly the same way. Eventually I learned to just embrace the way I was holding my chopsticks because it worked for me and if other people had a problem with it, that was their own problem and not mine! I use chopsticks every day!

Please describe in mouthwatering detail the last memorable meal you ate using chopsticks.  🙂

Well, it was a cold crisp November evening here in Vancouver. It had been raining for weeks on end, and it still is, except now the chill of winter was just around the corner. On this particular night, we were getting a bit of a reprieve from the wet rain and instead had to deal with the cool temperatures that made us shiver and layer up underneath coats and sweaters. We stopped in at a Japanese restaurant for a late night dinner and I thought it was the perfect night for a bowl of hot steaming soup with noodles.

Chicken Udon at Ichiro Japanese Restaurant in Vancouver

I ordered a chicken udon and it came with its broth all spicy and full of flavour. In the bowl swam long thick udon noodles, entangling one another like wild vines. I would pull them up with my chopsticks and let them dangle in front of me like intertwined snakes, sweating with beads of soup. I curled them up nicely in my soup spoon and brought them to my lips, where I sucked them right into my mouth, slurping and smacking away. The bowl was full of soup, noodles, vegetables, spices, and pieces of chicken and I would use my chopsticks to mix everything up like a witch at her cauldron, the aroma just floating up right into my face. A perfect bowl of comfort on a cold late Autumn night.

Art © 2012 Isabelle Malenfont

*Jama swoons and fans self*

Who or what inspired you to write this story and how did you go about getting it published?

I guess I was inspired by my experiences using chopsticks and how food is so central to culture, especially Asian culture. Eating is a very social thing, and if you’re eating Asian food, chances are you’ll be using chopsticks at some point. The story actually began as a poem that I had written, which got published in RicePaper magazine and went on to be taught at the University of British Columbia by one of my late professors. I’ve since found out that the poem is still being taught at a high school here in Vancouver, so that’s very flattering!

It was Jim Wong-Chu, of RicePaper magazine and pioneer for the Asian Canadian literature community, who approached me about submitting an entry for a Bedtime Story contest that the magazine was having. So I took my poem and re-worked it into more of a story and geared it towards children. The contest never really went anywhere, so I was left with this story I had just written. I decided to shop it around to different publishers and fortunately, Kids Can Press liked what they saw and accepted it! I was very happy and I’m very grateful!

How does it feel to have your first book out in the world?

It feels awesome! I still can’t believe it at times! I love going to the book store and finding it on the shelf and seeing it displayed there! Is that lame? I’m just really excited about it! I also go to libraries to see if they have it in or if someone has it checked out! I am basically behaving like someone who has always wanted to write and become a published author and has finally had that dream realized! It’s very exciting and I couldn’t be happier with the illustrations that Isabelle Malenfant did. I think it’s a gorgeous book and I hope other people think so too.

Being as it is a children’s book, there isn’t much publicity I need to do, which is somewhat surprising and a bit of a relief! I would love to do more readings, don’t get me wrong! But there’s no book tour or big book launch or anything like that, which is fine. I don’t know if other types of books have that all the time either, but I guess it just depends on the situation and the book. It’s still fairly new, so I’m not sure what else to expect out of all this. I’m just enjoying having it out there in the world and am grateful for everyone’s support (including yours!) and hope that people like the book and its message.

Are any of the characters in the story based on real people?

Yes, definitely. The characters are all based on different people’s personalities that I know and that I grew up with. I remember being young and having adults in my life who were sometimes stern, strict, and grumpy. Then there were those that were helpful and friendly and genuinely caring.

As for Maggie, I think she’s an embodiment of myself in my younger years when I was learning about identity and trying to fit into the moulds that people created for me, whether that has to do with something as simple as holding a pair of chopsticks or something more broader like what job I would have when I grew up or what kind of person I was to become. I still struggle with my identity but am more comfortable now in my own skin, and ultimately that’s Maggie’s lesson in the end — that despite all these voices around her pulling her into different directions and telling her what to do and how to do it and who to be, she is just fine the way she is. I think that’s a universal lesson that many of us who suffer from low self-esteem could benefit from learning.

Alan reads at the Word on the Street Festival in Vancouver.

What skill have you mastered recently?

I’d have to say I’ve gotten more comfortable with public speaking recently. I’ve done it before, but I’m a lot less nervous about it now, which I think will help if I ever have to do any future readings! I did one reading this past Fall at the Word on the Street festival here in Vancouver and most of the audience were friends and their kids. For some reason, that was more nerve-wracking than if they were a bunch of strangers!

What was your reaction when you first saw Isabelle’s illustrations? What’s your favorite spread from the book and why?

Oh I loved them immediately. She has done a fantastic job, and if you visit her website, you can see all sorts of other illustrations she has done. Her illustrations are like art, and I couldn’t be more blessed to have had her illustrate Maggie’s Chopsticks! My favourite part of the illustrations has to be the cat! I’m a huge cat lover and I didn’t ask her to do this, but she put that cat on every other page and I was absolutely delighted by that!

Please tell us more about your writing background and influences.

I have written mainly for magazines and newspapers. I have had some poetry published. I am currently working on a short story collection, but I’ve been saying that for a long time now so I really need to buckle down and get that going! I never imagined that I would one day ever write a children’s story, actually! I am influenced a lot by Canadian literature. I love Canadian authors and hope one day to see my name among them!

Favorite food-related children’s books and/or favorite scene from a children’s book.

I think I have a thing for tea parties. First of all, I drink tea on a daily basis. And being born in England, I was raised with the concept of having “afternoon tea” or “tea time” as my mom would call it. So I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but one of my favourite children’s books is called Miss Spider’s Tea Party. I think the book is beautifully illustrated, the story is told in very smart rhyme, and there’s a wonderful message in it for kids about accepting others and not judging people, which is somewhat similar to what Maggie’s Chopsticks is all about. I also love the tea party scene in Alice In Wonderland, because really, who doesn’t want to have cake and tea and a giant party everyday?

Favorite childhood food memory.

My parents used to own a Fish and Chips shop, so I would be there with them on the weekends, peeling potatoes and watching my dad submerge the battered fish into the deep fryer full of oil. Afterwards, if there were fried scraps of batter left over at the end of the night, I would be so excited to be able to eat those!


Do you like to cook?

I wish I knew how to cook, but I am not that good at it and I am trying to learn recipes from my mom. However, it’s hard because she is a great cook and doesn’t really work off recipes. She kind of just does her own thing and I have to follow along, taking notes, in order to remember all the steps!

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Reading. Eating cheese. Petting cats.

What are you working on now?

A short story collection.

Anything else you’d like to add about Maggie’s Chopsticks?

Thank you and everyone else for your support!!

* * * * *

Shrimp dumplings!

Okay, how much do I love that Alan was born in England, likes tea parties, and that his parents used to own a fish and chips shop?!

Even if these things were not so, I would recommend your checking out Maggie’s Chopsticks right away. It reminded me of a long ago school visit, where I tried to teach several classes of first graders how to use chopsticks. With Cheerios and M&M’s as an incentive, many caught on quickly, some mimicking my method, others improvising, a few whimpering in frustration. Later, I was tickled to see some of the students in the cafeteria trying to eat their lunches with the chopsticks I had given them. Lots of chicken nuggets got stabbed that day.

I predict tasty classroom fun when Maggie’s Chopsticks is shared with good discussions about the ups and downs of learning new skills and the importance of simply being yourself.

Thanks so much for visiting today, Alan!

* * * * *

written by Alan Woo
illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant
published by Kids Can Press, August 2012
Picture Book for ages 3-7
Cool themes: Asian Americans, social situations, families, self esteem, identity, food, self reliance, cultures, new experiences, skill mastery, self discovery.

* * * * *


Alan Woo’s Facebook Page — Join the fun by sending in bookstore shelf shots or any photos of  you and/or your kids with copies of Maggie’s Chopsticks.

Isabelle Malenfant’s Official Website and Facebook Page

♥ Recent Reviews:


*Spreads from Maggie’s Chopsticks posted with permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2012 Alan Woo, illustrations © 2012 Isabelle Malenfant. All rights reserved.

**Chicken Udon via The Laboratory of Edibles.

**Cha Siu Bao via whatsjoeuptonext.

***Ha Gau via The Delicious Life.

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


23 thoughts on “author chat: alan woo on maggie’s chopsticks

  1. I definitely need this one – I can’t get the hang of chopsticks but my husband is very good at them – I need to pick up some confidence from Maggie! The illustrations look wonderful (as do YOUR (food) illustrations – LOL)


    1. I can’t remember exactly when I learned how to use chopsticks — just that it seems I always could, and don’t remember struggling at all. 🙂


  2. I do pretty good with chopsticks–my way–but always wondered if I was doing it “right”. Thanks for this really lovely way of letting me know I’m okay. Excellent interview, Jama. Sweet book!


  3. Great interview! I agree with Alan that I would love searching out the cat in his book. The photo of Cornelius with the book and all the chopsticks is great. I think eating with chopsticks is fun, but my kids haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. Maybe eventually something clicks?


    1. Kids will enjoy following the cat’s antics as they turn the pages. I enjoyed checking out all the details Isabelle included in each spread. Her colors are gorgeous!

      Sounds like your kids need a little more practice and incentive. Noodles noodles noodles!


  4. I think I can’t wait to get a copy of this book and some chopsticks. I nearly fell off my chair reading his description of the Chicken Udon he ate. I learn something new every time I come to this blog, Jama. Thanks so much for this interview and for giving me a new title to enjoy.


    1. Yeah, that chicken udon description had me on the floor! Haven’t had udon in a long time and I really like it :). But I have a lot of chopsticks . . .


  5. Must. Get. This. BOOK! Love it! And it makes me miss all the Asian noodle soups I used to slurp regularly while in CA. Sigh! Btw – I use my chopsticks incorrectly! Plus – I’m left-handed! GASP! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!


    1. Oh, a left-handed chopsticks user — calls for extra special skills. I’m sure you have no problem slurping up those noodles, though. And now you know there’s no such thing as holding chopsticks incorrectly :). Hope you find a good noodle place in your area soon.


  6. Love the artwork and sounds like a great story. I think I only learned how to use chopsticks properly when I lived in Japan in my 20s. ha ha.

    Thanks for such a mouthwatering post, Jama!


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