Wendy Wan-Long Shang Talks with Roger

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I’m guessing the cadence of the title tells you just what tune you need to sing this picture book to. Try it with me now: “The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round. / Round and round, / round and round,” as one Chinese American family enjoys everybody’s favorite dishes as well as each other’s company.

Roger Sutton: I’m hoping you can answer a burning question I’ve had for years. Is it okay to eat noodles and rice in the same meal?

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: I would say no. I’m strictly a one-starch-per-meal person, much to the chagrin of my husband, who would happily have potatoes and bread at the same meal.

RS: Me too. Your book seems to think it’s okay — we have bread, stuffing, mashed potatoes — so I was hoping for validation, Wendy!

WWLS: It’s not just any meal, though. They’re having a celebration with some pretty nice food. Think of Thanksgiving.

RS: Right: rolls, stuffing and potatoes. Yum.

WWLS: It’s so funny to me what people notice in the book. My brother noticed that some of the people are left-handed, which is rare among Chinese people.

RS: Why is it rare? Is it trained out of people?

WWLS: Pretty much, yes. Just like it was in the U.S.

RS: For years. Yeah, I’m a proud left-hander myself.

WWLS: Oh, so you know.

RS: What kind of food did you grow up with?

WWLS: It was a mix. I had my mom’s home cooking, and we’d go out to some Chinese restaurants.

RS: And how do you consider yourself as a cook?

WWLS: I have a couple of special dishes that I know how to make, but I would never, ever try to present myself as anything but a passable home cook.

RS: It’s the chopping that would get to me.

WWLS: I don’t mind the chopping. I find it sort of zen — just relaxing and prepping everything. How about you? What kind of chef do you consider yourself to be?

RS: I think I can cook some things okay, but when it comes to chopping, I’m too nervous about losing a finger. There’s a lot of chopping in Chinese food.

WWLS: There is. You just have to pay attention.

RS: And it seems, because of cooking in a wok, you have to be more scientific about it. Whereas if you’re making a stew — who really cares how big the pieces are? Just chop everything up and throw them in. But they won’t cook properly in a wok if they’re too big, right?

WWLS: Right, they have to be more uniform.

RS: You’re my expert, Wendy.

WWLS: Oh, dear.

RS: What do you remember of your childhood dinners, just your regular everyday dinners?

WWLS: I remember not being terribly grateful for a lot of the food that my mom cooked until I went away to college. Then I’d come home and be like, “Oh my gosh, I miss all this food. It’s delicious and wonderful, and I will never take it for granted again.” Some of the things are the most simple. There’s a dish — I include it in my first book, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu — the steamed egg and pork. My mom would make it when I was sick. That’s like a comfort food to me.

RS: What was the constellation around your dinner table? Who was there?

WWLS: My mom, my dad, and my brother, Bill, who is older than me by seven years.

RS: That could have been interesting.

WWLS: It was. He was born around the time my parents were just starting out and — this wasn’t uncommon — my parents sent him back to Taiwan to be raised by my grandparents so they could get their feet under them. He came back a little bit later when he was two-and-a-half or three. Then they wanted to give him some time to just have their attention. And then I came along some years later. There’s a great book by Andrea Cheng called Only One Year where something very similar happens.

RS: Did you read Ha Jin’s A Free Life? It’s about a man who grows up in China and then comes with his wife to the United States. They leave their one child in China for a while, to be raised by his grandparents while the parents get settled. It’s great. There’s a lot in there about food.

WWLS: I totally need to read this.

RS: It’s really long, so make sure you have the time for it.

WWLS: Thank you. I love a good book recommendation.

RS: And you yourself have three children, right? How old are they?

WWLS: Matthew is twenty-one and about to start his senior year at Kenyon. Jason is eighteen; we dropped him off a month ago at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. They take away their phones, so the kids have to resort to mail. Which is fun for me — I love writing letters — but for him it was like, “Here’s how you address an envelope. Here’s where the stamp goes.” And I have a daughter, Kate, who is fifteen.

RS: When whoever is serving dinner in your house to the family, do you see echoes from your own childhood meals? I don’t even just mean the food, but the whole ambience.

WWLS: That’s a really good question. I don’t actually think so, Roger. The point of view is so radically different. Here’s what I remember as a kid: my mom asking me to do stuff, and I would do the thing, and then I would go away. And she’d be like, “No, come back, you need to stay here. I need you to be available to do the things I ask you to do.” Now I do really understand that part, when I’m the person in charge of making the meal and getting it on the table and yelling at my family — "You need to come help me!" I didn’t then appreciate the fact that my mom had to think about what to cook, how to prepare it, how to put it on the table...And so my memory is sort of colored by that. And because my brother and I have such a big age difference, by the time I was old enough to have a lot of those memories, he was already out of the house. I remember being kind of fussy. I remember once not wanting to eat bean sprouts. I decided to be stubborn, and my parents decided to be stubborn. Normally we avoided those conflicts by one of us managing to give in before going to a full head-to-head. But my mom dug her heels in, and I dug my heels in, and I got those bean sprouts cold for breakfast.

RS: Ick. We had five in my family growing up, and my mother did all the cooking, except Friday nights when my dad would do it. I don’t know how a person does that. She had a job, and then she had to come home and cook for seven people. How do you do it?

WWLS: It is a skill, a mental skill. I bet you had a rotation, right? Your mom probably had a dozen meals that she could make.

RS: Pretty much, yup.

WWLS: And you’d have those in rotation. You learn how to shop for those things. When my kids were younger, it seemed like this impossible struggle to figure out what to have for dinner. Now it’s not that painful, because I have that roster of meals I can depend on.

RS: You know every single step that goes into it.

WWLS: Exactly. You’re not surprised by any of the ingredients. I know how to do it. I’m not going to burn anything. I know everyone’s going to eat it. That’s the other thing — you don’t want the frustration of someone being grumpy about dinner.

RS: Right.

WWLS: So out of five kids, which one were you?

RS: I was fourth. And then I think they thought they were done, but I had a younger brother come along about four years later. And my next-oldest brother — we were “Irish twins.” There were two weeks of the year when we were the same age, and it drove him crazy that I was as old as he was for those two weeks.

WWLS: And you just really ran with that?

RS: Oh, absolutely.

WWLS: “We’re the same age. We’re the same age.” I love how siblings know exactly which buttons to push, no matter how small that button is. You just know.

RS: Yeah, why wasn’t there a food fight in your book? Or a picky eater? Where’s the drama, Wendy?

WWLS: This is a happy book. Everyone’s going to get along for this book. Maybe I should have a follow-up.

RS: My mother used to tell us this story. She was one of eight kids during the Depression. On the rare occasions when they would get dessert, one of her brothers would very unobtrusively hide his until everyone else had eaten theirs, and then he’d pull his out very quietly. Isn’t that a master move?

WWLS: Oh my gosh. Like, “Watch me enjoy this, now that you have nothing to enjoy.” Wow.

RS: How do you see people reading your book? What’s your fantasy about it?

WWLS: I can tell you my fantasy, easy. I used to do storytimes through the public library. They had a wonderful program where they would send volunteers to preschools and daycare centers to do storytime, and we’d bring books for the kids to take home. That’s kind of the origin of The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round. My experience with picture books most recently has been with large groups of children, and in my fantasy, I would love to have them sing the book together. Everyone comes up with their own stanza, so the book just keeps going and going and going. You have a favorite person, or maybe it’s yourself; you have a favorite food; and you come up with a sound. I would love to read the book to a classroom full of children, and they all get to sing their version of the song. You go on and on, and you can hear about other people’s food and other people’s families. That’s my fantasy version.

RS: Have you sung this book?

WWLS: Oh, yes. I sang it on public radio.

RS: Wow. It’s tricky. It works, but it’s tricky.

WWLS: I didn’t really think about that when I was doing it. I was thinking of other people singing it. And then the interviewer asked me to read the book. That would be like reciting the “Happy Birthday” song — you actually have to sing the book. I’m used to singing in front of small children, not adults, but everyone’s been pretty kind about it.

RS: This text is ideal for singing aloud with children. We’ve seen a lot of picture books of songs, particularly in the 1990s, when there was a lot of money — there was a picture book, for example, of “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. I mean, how? But this one would bounce along just fine.

WWLS: Aw, thank you. I think so. I have a friend who’s a preschool teacher, and she read it to her class. She said they were focused on the roundness of the table, so they had a whole discussion about what shapes their tables were. They all drew pictures of themselves and their families around the table. I love seeing how these wonderful teachers and librarians can take an idea and add their own twist about how to make it personal for the reader.

RS: You’ve chosen these two tropes of childhood, food and family. There are so many places a person can go from there. Everybody eats, and everybody has a family.

WWLS: This is true.

RS: Both can be horrible, but we do have them. For my last question, I want you to tell me what you’re going to have for dinner tonight.

WWLS: We’re actually having leftovers. We’re having something called ants climbing trees. It’s ground pork and vermicelli noodles.

RS: Yum.

WWLS: I have to make a little vegetable to go on the side.

RS: Dessert?

WWLS: Desserts are for weekends.

RS: Oh, honey. You’re almost a free woman. You only have one child at home. Live a little!

WWLS: My daughter is a swimmer; she’s spent the summer swimming two to two-and-a-half hours a day. She can have anything she wants. The person who spends most of her time in a chair, in front of a computer, needs to be a little more careful.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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