Children’s book author and educator Andrea Cheng, whose books often focused on intercultural and intergenerational relationships, died on December 26, 2015 following a long illness. She was 58.
Cheng was born in El Paso, Tex. in 1957, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants. The family soon moved to Cincinnati where Cheng and her two siblings grew up in an extended family, which she described on her website as “three generations under one roof.” From her earliest days, Cheng spoke Hungarian and English at home, which would stand her in good stead for her future pursuits.
Inspired by the family stories she heard around the dinner table at home, young Andrea enjoyed writing her own stories throughout her years in elementary and middle school, encouraged by thoughtful teachers, and would read her work aloud to her father as an after-dinner routine. In a Q&A on her website, she pinpointed sixth grade as the timeframe when she decided she wanted to be a writer.
She earned a B.A. in English from Cornell University in 1979, and, upon graduation traveled to Switzerland where she learned French, taught English, and became a bookbinder’s apprentice. By 1982 she had returned to the U.S. and received a M.S. in linguistics/Teaching English a Second Language from Cornell. That same year, she married Jim Cheng, whom she had met during her studies, and who, like her, was also the son of immigrants – his parents hailed from China. Jim and Andrea raised three children in their Cincinnati home.
When her children were young, Cheng began to submit her stories to children’s publishers and has said in her autobiography that she accumulated a thick file of rejection letters in the process. But her efforts paid off in 2000, when Lee & Low published her first title, Grandfather Counts, a picture book about a Chinese-American girl who must give up her room (but gains a lot in the process) when her grandfather comes from China to live with the family. This book, like many of her other titles, was influenced by Cheng’s personal experiences and family life. Drawing on her family’s history, Cheng set the YA novel Marika (Front Street, 2002) and middle-grade story The Lace Dowry (Front Street, 2005) in Budapest in the 1930s, and The Bear Makers in postwar Hungary in 1948. Among her more personal works is the middle-grade novel in verse Brushing Mom’s Hair (Wordsong, 2009), which is based on Cheng’s experience of undergoing breast cancer treatment and how it affected her teen daughter at the time.
More recently, Cheng published Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet (Lee & Low, 2013) and the Year of… chapter book series that kicked off with The Year of the Book (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). A prequel to the four books in the series, The Year of the Garden, will be published in 2017. In addition to her writing, Cheng taught English as a Second Language and Children’s Literature at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
Some of her close publishing colleagues and friends shared recollections of Cheng. Louise May, v-p and editorial director at Lee & Low Books, wrote: “Andrea Cheng was a dear friend and cherished author. Our relationship began in March 1999, when I acquired the manuscript that became her first published children’s book, Grandfather Counts. It was also the first project I acquired at Lee & Low, having joined the company in January of the same year. So, together we both began new chapters in our careers. We went on to collaborate on five books ranging from picture books to a novel in verse. One incident that remains fondly in mind occurred when we were working on our second book, about a Chinese-American family. The main character and her grandmother are preparing dinner. I suggested omitting the word ‘the’ in a sentence that reads, ‘I stood next to her, washing the rice.’ ‘No,’ Andrea pointed out. In Chinese families, it is always ‘the rice.’ And now it always is for me too. Andrea and I bonded over other areas of our lives as well. We found out that we both attended the same university (although 10 years apart!), and we faced personal challenges at the same time in our lives. We visited each other’s homes and shared our family stories. Andrea welcomed everyone she cared about into her own family, and I am honored to have been one of those people. A multitalented writer, caring and loving human being, Andrea – you will be missed.”
Cheng’s literary agent, Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown Ltd., offered this remembrance: “Andrea was the consummate professional. And she was a genuinely terrific human being. She never took lightly her craft or her personal relationships. And I so admired her integrity. Andrea was deeply committed to writing about diverse characters and a wide range of experiences, something that was rooted in her own cultural identity as the child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants and as the mother to her three children with her Chinese-American husband. Each word she wrote was important and meaningful and resonates with her young readers who find glimpses of themselves in her work. I am so proud to have represented her writing.”
Ann Rider, Cheng’s editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, added a reflection in this note: “Few writers can create such unusually thoughtful and sensitive chapter books. Thank you, Andrea Cheng, for giving Asian-American children a series they can see themselves in.”