I was born in the Flushing district of Queens, NY to my Chinese American dad and my Japanese American mom. They gave me two middle names: Shao-Chu, meaning “bamboo” in Chinese; and Sachiko, meaning “happiness” in Japanese.
My dad worked as a civil engineer and my mom as a physical therapist. They also worked hard at home raising my four brothers and me (plus one dog, two cats, two hamsters, various fish and turtles). It was one hoppin’ household!
In light of my parents’ childhood experiences during WWII — my dad moved repeatedly around China to avoid the Japanese invaders, and my mom lived in a Japanese American internment camp — they tried their best to craft a happy childhood for us kids.
One way was through picture books. I absorbed the books’ collective message: good things can happen in life. After all, Ferdinand and his mom respect his quiet ways; Corduroy finds a friend (and a button); and The Little Engine That Could climbs up the mountain.
By the time I was five years old, my family had lived in the Rego Park district of Queens and the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan, and moved to the planned development of Village Greens on Staten Island.
How I adored Village Greens, brimming with kids! It was there in the 1970’s that I spent the bulk of my childhood years in a remarkably inclusive world. With such a big cast of characters at home, in the neighborhood, and at school, playmates were everywhere.
Oh, the stories I could tell! Playing in the water drainage pipes of our developing neighborhood. Climbing the nearby Fresh Kills Landfill (a nice word for garbage dump). Calling up a radio station with my friends and singing our song “Disco Fire.” What were we thinking? What a riot we had!
When I needed a break from the masses, I sought the sweet solitude of my room. I played with the wooden dollhouse my dad had built for me, listened to the little red transistor radio my grandma had sent from San Francisco, and of course, I read and wrote.
I lay on my bed and read classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And lesser known yet equally important books such as Journey to Topaz about the Japanese American internment. What did my favorite books have in common? Characters and relationships I cared about. I wanted things to work out for them!
I also sat at my desk and wrote in my diary, a daily practice I maintained for ten consecutive years as a child and teenager. Thousands of entries! Just as in books, I wanted things to work out in real life.
From my childhood, I gained not only a treasure trove of magical memories, but also a belief that the world is basically a good place — gifts that I’ve held on to tightly during life’s inevitable twists and turns.
Between seventh and eighth grades, my parents separated; and I learned that sometimes things don’t work out in real life. My dad moved back to Flushing, Queens while my mom moved us kids to her home city, San Francisco, where we spent our remaining grade school years.
I arrived with a thick New Yawk accent, but managed to blend in and adjust to my new life: made new friends, grew to love another city, and continued to do well in school where I served as a reporter and editor on the newspaper at Lowell High School.
Yet the move and imminent divorce brought challenges and changes to a stage of life inherently filled with them. This was adolescence, after all! What did I turn to for comfort and connection? Diaries and letters. Phew! Writing to the rescue.
Life went on, as it does. Even though they were on separate coasts, my mom and dad still did their best as parents. I still hung out with my brothers and friends, and caught moments of solitude. I still read. I still wrote. I still believed that the world was basically a good place.
When I moved away to college, I left my childhood books on my mom’s shelves. I never thought I’d choose, ever again, to read children’s books. Why would I? I wasn’t a kid anymore!
I attended Tufts University near Boston where I majored in Psychology. Yet my favorite course was Asian American Literature taught by Ruth Hsiao (with whom I’ve remained in-touch all of these years). In college I turned to writing the occasional poem or short story — in most cases, for my eyes only.
After graduation, I moved to Flushing, Queens. Back where I was born! I worked as a Human Resource Management Specialist at a social service agency for individuals with developmental disabilities. It was through this job that my passion for literacy education took root and grew.
I applied to several masters programs. I figured, “Why not Harvard?” and what do you know, I got it in. My take-away: if you try something, you just may make it; if you don’t, you definitely won’t. I need to remind myself of this advice all the time. All the time!
An additional take-away: it was there that I met my future husband, Robert Tai, who has always supported my dreams, both personal and professional.
I worked as a Reading Specialist with elementary and middle school students in Boston, Brooklyn, and Charlottesville, VA. After years of dry textbooks, children’s books surrounded me once again! There was a heart and soul about them that pulled me back to that wondrous childhood time. I fell in love with them again, this time as teaching tools.
When I became a mom, I fell even more in love with children’s books — for the reasons I had as a child and as a teacher, and also for the bonds they built between my daughters and me.
When the opportunity came along to write A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, you bet I grabbed it! In the years that followed, my dream evolved from writing additional picture books to building a career in children’s writing.
What finally convinced me of my undying love for picture books? When my girls started checking out middle grade books from the library, I continued to check out picture books. Stacks and stacks of them!
I organized a local group for children’s writers. We meet regularly to critique each other’s manuscripts and to support each other through the fun yet hard work of writing (and revising and revising and revising).
I still live in Charlottesville with my family including our sweet, spunky cats. I’m a city girl at heart, but am happy to call this kid-loving, book-loving college town: home.
My brothers and I live in five different states from Hawaii to New York. At least we’ve chosen wonderful places to visit!
When not writing, I love to:
- Read just about anything, especially kids’ books and The New York Times (for the human stories, no matter the section).
- Hang out with family and friends.
- Meet new people.
- Attend plays, musicals, and concerts.
- Make jewelry.
- Take walks in the city or in the country.
- Visit familiar places and explore new ones.
- Drink piping hot dark coffee…I’ll take a refill now!
I still believe that the world is basically a good place (and feel lucky to be able to say that). I’ve come to believe that even when things don’t work out, they usually…eventually…still do…just in another way. It is in this spirit, with a hopeful heart, that I write for children.
To join me on the journey, please visit my blog: Writing with the Heart in Mind.