[tasty talk] Melissa Iwai on Dumplings for Lili

Wrap me in joy, I’m filled with excitement: Brooklyn-based author/illustrator Melissa Iwai is here to tempt us with her scrumptious new picture book, Dumplings for Lili (Norton Young Readers, 2021) which officially hits shelves today!

You may remember when Melissa last visited several years ago to celebrate the release of Pizza Day, her tasty companion book to the perennial favorite Soup Day. You may also know that in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books, Melissa loves to cook, bake and develop her own recipes, making her the ideal person to spread the dumpling love.

In this deliciously heartwarming story, young Lili is ecstatic when her grandmother (Nai Nai) asks her to help make baos, Lili’s “favorite food in the whole world.” But Nai Nai discovers she’s out of cabbage, which they need to line the bamboo steamer basket. She sends Lili to see whether Babcia, who lives on the 6th floor of their apartment building, has any cabbage.

Since the elevator is down, Lili and her trusty canine companion Kiki skip up the five flights of stairs. After Babcia gives Lili a head of cabbage, she discovers she needs potatoes for her pierogi. 

No problem. Lili and Kiki hop down four flights of stairs to see whether Granma has any. Of course she does, but she needs some fresh garlic to make her meat patties.

Lili and Kiki end up racing upstairs and down, from apartment to apartment, dropping off and then borrowing more missing ingredients for several more grandmothers, who happen to be making tamales, ravioli and fatayer. 

After Lili and Nai Nai finally finish steaming their baos, they join all their neighbors for a special dumpling party in the garden, where they welcome the best dumpling treasure of all. 🙂

Melissa has lovingly blended just the right ingredients for this fun, flavorful tale that celebrates food, family, friendship, diversity and community.
Kids will enjoy tagging along with Lili and Kiki while learning about the different kinds of dumplings being prepared by Nai Nai, Babcia, Granma, Abuela, Nonna, and Teta. Six grandmas with six different dumplings — what could be better?

I love how Melissa wove the Eight Secrets Nai Nai taught Lili for “happy and delicious baos” right into the story (did you know bao dough enjoys catnaps and being hummed to?). Adorable! And of course she included a recipe for Nai Nai’s Baos at the end (after drooling through this story, readers will surely want to try making their own). 🙂

The mixed media illustrations really capture the warmth and personalities of all the characters, and hungry munchkins will want to linger over every spread as they study the delectable details. They’ll love following Kiki’s visual narrative and repeating the grandmothers’ multilingual exclamations in the speech bubbles.

With an engaging storyline that’s part relay, part cooking lesson, Melissa celebrates the humble dumpling as a universally beloved comfort food that joyously brings people together.

Now, let’s hear how Melissa cooked up her new book!



What made you want to write a story about dumplings? 

The basis of the story actually came from my editor at Norton Young Readers, Simon Boughton. He was fascinated by the realization that there are some form of dumplings in just about every culture in the world. He sensed that there was a need for a book about dumplings … and something that included grandmas! He brought this idea to me and asked me if I would like to write a story having these two components in it. 

I had never worked this way before, but once Simon mentioned dumplings and grandmas, all sorts of emotions, ideas, and inspirations bubbled up in me, so I said, “Yes!”

Early baos study in gouache.

So what are dumplings exactly? Loosely defined, they are some sort of dough-usually flour based, covering delicious fillings inside. I loved the idea of the humble dumpling being a tasty little package of goodness. I knew early on that I wanted a new baby in the story, because isn’t a baby just like a human dumpling? I have thought that ever since I was a new mom of our son–he was like a little bundle of yumminess wrapped up and swaddled in his baby blanket when we brought him home! 

Melissa’s son Jamie modeling with bao steamer for cover illustration.

From all the delicious dumplings of the world, how did you decide on featuring these particular six? Did you do any tasty research for the project? 🙂

Yes! I wanted each dumpling to be distinct in shape and taste. I also wanted diverse cultures to be represented. Although there are so many different types of dumplings in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines alone! But I wanted diverse races and cultures represented, so I chose only one Asian dumpling. 

In the beginning, I had Abuela making empanadas, but I realized it was too close in shape to the Jamaican Beef Patty, so I later changed it to tamales. I wanted the dumpling potluck table to be as different as possible in shape, color, taste, and cooking method. 

Early dumpling studies.

Did you make dumplings with your family when you were growing up? If so, what stands out in your mind about the experience? 

Yes! Whenever it was a special occasion, I would help my mom make wontons. My parents are both from Hawaii and on New Year’s Eve, we would gather with the other Hawaiian transplants in our town and have a big potluck celebration. Everyone would bring their special dishes. One of ours would be the crab fried wontons. 🙂 

What’s your favorite kind of dumpling? Please share a happy memory associated with it.

I would have to say gyoza are my favorite dumplings. I didn’t grow up with them, but I had them when I first lived in Japan as an exchange student. I grew to love all kinds of food I hadn’t grown up with while living there, like gyoza and Indian curries. Whenever I eat these foods, I think about that time when I was at that magical age right before you become a grown up, when I was broadening my mind and meeting people from all over the world. 

Early grandma character studies.

Please tell us a little about both your grandmothers. What’s the most important thing you learned from each of them?

Sadly, I didn’t know my grandmothers. My father was the youngest of eight and my mother was the second youngest of six kids. There is a span of 17 years between the eldest siblings and my parents in both families! I was born when my mom was 37, so when I was a young child, both of my grandmas and one grandpa had already passed away.  

I do know that both grandmas were such hard workers! They immigrated to a strange land at the turn of the century, (my maternal grandmother was a “picture bride”), and they both worked ceaselessly to create a better future for their children than the one they had left behind. 

What did you enjoy most about working on this story, and how do you think it stretched you as an author and artist?

There was so much I loved about doing this project! I spent a great deal of time doing research and sketching. I took several tours at the amazing Tenement Museum in NYC and learned more about the immigration experience in our city from the turn of the century to present day. 

I also loved that wonderful process of creating my own little world in the book — the building, which is a character itself, and all of the human characters in the story. I even had little backstories I came up with centered on when each grandma came to the US and what their childhoods were like. 

Building in Queens reference photo.
Courtyard in Melissa’s neighborhood reference photo.

In terms of stretching me as an author, the process of collaborating with Simon and coming up with a story in this way was something I had never done before. It was a different challenge to take an idea and turn it into my own vision with a fully fleshed out story having many characters of different ages and backgrounds.

And the fact that I created all the artwork for this book in a way I never had before definitely stretched me as an artist! It was a combination of my previous illustration work and my watercolors for Thirty Minutes Over Oregon, which was illustrated in a completely different style. I really enjoy changing things up and my method of art making is continually evolving. 

Friend’s stairwell reference photo.

I love all the different kitchens in the story and imagine you had fun decorating them. How did you go about creating distinctive spaces to characterize the grandmothers?

It was so much fun to create these! I had a great time going to the Picture Library at the NY Public Library and looking through different photos of kitchens. I did on site sketching of kitchens while on my multiple Tenement Museum tours, and of course I did research online. 

Picture Library kitchen reference photo.

I wanted each kitchen to be warm and cozy in a different way. Every kitchen has design elements from their respective cultures. For example, Babcia, the Polish grandma, has Polish furniture and dishes with Polish folk inspired designs. Nonna, the Italian grandma, has Italian inspired tiles and an espresso maker on her stove.

Were any of the characters in the story based on real people? Did your dog Nikki advise you on how to draw Kiki? 🙂

I did many sketches of real people I saw in my neighborhood and in the city, and combined them with memories of grandma figures from my past. For example, Abuela is a younger grandma, and is loosely based on my home-stay mother I had in Guadalajara when I lived there during college. She constantly wanted to feed me, and I ate so well there! 

Jamie with Nikki in their yard.

Of course, Nikki has many opinions. She has actually chewed up a paint brush and a sketchbook in the past! I do enjoy drawing and painting her. At the time of creating the illustrations for this book, she was our new puppy, so I wanted to include her in this special book. 

Please describe how you made the illustrations, using your favorite spread as an example.

The spread towards the end of the book when Lili is telling Nai Nai about all of her adventures getting cabbage was one of the most challenging ones but it is my favorite. It combines my love of art, food, and doing logic puzzles. Early on when I was writing the story, I had to constantly draw thumbnails of a “map” for myself showing me the timeline of Lili’s travels to help me keep everything logical in terms of the items she collects from whom and when.

Melissa’s map

In an earlier version, this tale was told on a single spread in a simplified version.

Single spread rough sketch.

We decided to elaborate on it and I made it into a double page spread. I was inspired by the iconic fold out spread in Eloise, by Kay Thompson, and wonderfully illustrated by Hilary Knight. It shows Eloise’s journey going up and down in the elevator and stairs of the Plaza Hotel, creating havoc and aggravating the elevator man. 

Because the timeline is fairly complex, I thought it would help to show the structure of this “map” using the structure of the tall building the characters live in. On the left side I show Lili running up the stairs in the stairwell with each floor labeled. Then on the right side, there are all the grandmas and which floors they live on and what they were making. I also have an arrow and dotted lines showing Lili’s path.

Map final sketch.

I kept tweaking the design, using my hand lettering, color, and spot illustration to create the final illustration. It is a sort of a fun infographic which also gives it a “game” feel. When I was a kid I loved maps, puzzles, and little details in illustrations. I wanted to create something I would have loved as a kid — something I would spend a long time looking at and going back through the story to verify. The title page also features the tall building with all the characters so you can see their spatial relationship to each other from the outside. Here is the final piece:

Final spread

For all of the illustrations, I hand painted each scene in watercolor traditionally but in parts. I scanned these pieces of art into the computer, and then collaged them together and added some details in Photoshop. 

Here are some of the elements of the “map” illustration:

Watercolor paintings of characters for this piece.
Hand painted watercolor dumplings for spread.

I did the hand lettering and other elements in Procreate and imported them into Photoshop to use as a separate type layer. 

Hand lettering for spread.

Talk about how you developed the bao recipe included in the book. Any especially fun, interesting, or frustrating things happen during the process?

I’ve lost count of how many batches of baos were made during the making of this book! I tried many, many recipes with varying amounts of flour, water, yeast, oil. The recipe is an amalgam of different recipes and tweakings over the many tests I did, much like my pizza dough recipe in Pizza Day

Melissa’s bao

In the beginning, Jamie was eager to help me, but that got old for him real fast. Shaping baos is hard! It would have been easier to have a recipe of jiao zi which is similar to the Japanese gyoza I mentioned before and easier to make like the wontons I grew up making. But because I felt the fluffy white bao symbolized a baby better, I wanted Lili and her Nai Nai to be making this type of dumpling. Luckily Denis, my husband, and Jamie were game for eating all the many dumplings during this process!

Taste testing the bao.

Anything else you’d like us to know about the book?

One of the cool things about the book is that it also incorporates some fun usage of different languages. I discussed with native speakers, about what they called their grandmas and what they’d say in their languages that is the equivalent of “Darn!”

I had thought in Spanish, it might be “¡Ay caramba!” which isn’t incorrect, but my friend, Norma, with whom I studied Linguistics in grad school, advised me to use, “¡O cielos!” which is more natural and less “stereotypical”. I thought it’d be fun for kids to learn these sayings, so I chose to highlight them using the speech bubbles.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I am unable to announce titles publicly, but I have six books coming up that will be published in 2022 and 2023! 

Currently, I am finishing up a HUGE project I’ve been working on for over three years with my wonderful editor, Christy Ottaviano, who has her imprint at Little Brown. This book is a huge undertaking — it’s over 250 pages long! It’s not a picture book -it’s a fully illustrated DIY book, called Let’s Party! A DIY Illustrated Guide to 10 Fantastic Kid-Friendly Birthday Parties

It’s filled with different birthday themed crafts and recipes kids can do with their parents. This book comes out in Fall 2022 and I’m really excited about it! I hope it inspires families to do crafts and cooking together. My fondest memories from childhood are doing these activities with my family. 

Thank you, Jama for having me on your amazing blog and featuring Dumplings for Lili!!


🎉 Happy Book Birthday, Melissa! 🎈


written and illustrated by Melissa Iwai
published by Norton Young Readers, June 1, 2021
Picture Book for ages 6-8, 48 pp.
*Includes Bao Recipe

**Starred Reviews** from Publishers Weekly and Booklist

♥️ Signed copies may be ordered via Books are Magic or Greenlight Bookstore

♥️ Check out Melissa at these upcoming events:

July 17 at 11:30 a.m. – Greenlight Bookstore Virtual Storytime

October 9, 11-4 p.m. – Warwick Children’s Book Festival (in person)

November 3, 12-4 p.m. – Brooklyn Museum’s Children’s Book Fair

♥️ Cooking video and other book-related activities available at Norton Young Readers website.

♥️ More Melissa online: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram


*Interior spreads text and illustrations copyright © 2021 Melissa Iwai, published by Norton Young Readers. All rights reserved.

**Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “[tasty talk] Melissa Iwai on Dumplings for Lili

  1. Jama! I love what you have shared here. What a gorgeous idea for a book and final book! Thank you. Many congratulations to Melissa…you make the world better with this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Melissa did a beautiful job with this book — hope you get to see it soon. Only problem, you will definitely crave dumplings!


  2. I loved Melissa’s earlier food books, Jama, & my library has this one, will be there soon! What a wonderful post-review & interview! I love the sweet look of the pages you shared & that Melissa has included so many cultures & their ‘dumplings’. Readings in classes should love this & have so much to share from their own lives. Thanks much & Happy June!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fun to read this one in class and then have the students make their own dumplings — or bring their favorite dumplings from home to share with their classmates.


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