Rebecca Evans worked as an artist and designer before going into children’s book illustration. She has written and/or illustrated 19 picture books and nine middle grade novels. Her latest picture book, Alone Like Me, follows a lonely Chinese girl who moves to a big city in China and must spend her days with her parents instead of going to school due to a Chinese law called the hùkŏu system, a complex household registration system that can limit the ability to obtain jobs, buy food, and have access to government services, including the school system. But she soon spots another girl and a friendship between the two slowly blossoms. PW spoke with Evans about how seeing a little girl on a bike sparked the beginnings of her story, her journey from illustrator to author, and what readers can expect next.
Your author’s note talks about how you saw a girl on a bicycle during a trip to China. Could you tell me more about the catalyst behind your book?
I have a unique family. There are four kids—two are biological and two are adopted from different countries. They came to [our family] in unique ways, one as an infant and one as a nine-year-old adopted from China. When we went to get him in China, we spent almost two weeks traveling around the country. We did a lot of sight-seeing, visiting government offices, and seeing beautiful old buildings and marketplaces. That was something we really enjoyed because it’s so different than where I live [in the U.S.]. I thought it was cool that there were just as many bicycles—if not more bicycles—on the street than cars. There were literally thousands and thousands of bicycles all the time, all day and all night. The cyclists would strap their little kids to the back of the bicycles. I remember one day we were in the city with all these bicycles going by and there was a little girl strapped to the back seat, but she was sitting sideways and facing backwards, and she just looked so sad. I don’t know where they were going or what they were doing, but her dad was pedaling and she just flashed by. That image stuck with me. Being an illustrator, months later I painted that memory. I put it up on my website and everyone who saw it said: “What’s her story?” “Why is she sad?” “What’s she doing there?” “Why is she all alone?” That was how the journey started, to figure out what was this little girl’s story?
What kind of research did you do in order to write about it?
So much research because obviously I didn’t grow up in China and I wanted to be true to my son’s culture, to Chinese people in general and to understand the [hùkŏu] system that underlays the book. The book isn’t about the system, but the system is what causes some of the issues. I didn’t want to misrepresent that system because it is continually changing and it has gotten much better over the years. [I looked at] hundreds of websites, hundreds of articles, I had at least seven sensitivity readers. I hired a Mandarin professor to evaluate all the Mandarin and make sure I had all of the accent marks in the right place. The tricky part is that you do a lot of research while you’re writing the book. And then while you are submitting the book, if you get feedback, you do more research and changes. And then if it gets purchased, you do more research and changes. With the sensitivity readers, even if they’ve read it once and are giving you feedback, if they read it again, sometimes they have different feedback. I think I worked on this book for close to two and a half years.
I guess the beginning was when people started asking “what’s this little girl’s story,” I started looking up things like “where do kids in China spend their days,” “do they have systems where the parents go to work and the kids all go to preschool,” “government daycare systems,” or “how come I hadn’t seen many children out and about.” The only time we saw kids was when we went to temples—we saw a bunch of kids’ school groups. That was the only place I really saw kids other than at the orphanage, and that’s where I discovered the hùkŏu system and how a lot of kids get left behind and can’t come to the city with their parents. But I thought, “How do I tell that story?”
Then I read an article about some factories that were trying to make it possible for parents to bring their children and I thought, “What if I told that story and the story of a little girl who didn’t quite fit?” At the same time, we were going through a lot of things with my son [such as] how did he fit in our family and in American society in general. He felt very torn because he missed his friends and food in China, but he was so happy to have a family and wanted to be here. He was so excited but he still didn’t feel like he belonged. It was this interesting combination of the research I was doing, but also watching my son struggle with “how do I fit here?”
You started as an illustrator for children’s books. How has the journey been different from illustrating to writing one of your own?
My agent would tell you that when I started, I would say “I’m not really a writer.” And she would tell me, “Yes you are, don’t say that.” But the more I drew, and the more I learned [from] working with editors, authors, and art directors about stories in general and how they fit together, I started to realize that I had stories to tell. This past year I had my first book come out that I authored and didn’t illustrate, which was a completely different kind of book. It was so funny because I wrote this super sweet, quiet friendship book and then this crazy Halloween skeleton book with potty jokes in it.
It’s been a longer journey for the writing part because I felt like I had a lot to learn and I wasn’t as competent in that area. My agent had to give me a couple of “you can do it” [pep talks]. [For me] it takes a lot more revision in the early stages of the writing process in order to feel like I’ve solidified that [confidence]. But now I can finally [think] “OK, I’m a writer too.”
What do you hope readers will take away from Alone Like Me? And what can we expect from you next?
The book was really about hope, that even when things don’t seem to be working out and even when you’re struggling and feel so alone there might be opportunity right around the corner that you just haven’t seen yet. And it might not be what you originally dreamed of. [The little girls] have a unique friendship in this story because they don’t have a lot of time to spend together. So they become pen pals [in a way] even though they live in buildings right next to each other. They become friends in a unique way and that’s part of my story with my unique family in a unique situation.
I have lists and lists of ideas for books. I’m playing with YA now. When I go to schools I tell [the students], “During the day I draw cute babies and penguins sliding down hills and at night I write dark YA.” We’ll see if that ever reaches the world but for now, it’s fun. I’m trying something new; I like reinventing myself. I love post-apocalyptic, fantasy fiction so I’m having a lot of fun playing with that. It’s a lot harder than picture book writing. I do have a middle grade book idea for some very shy girls, the opposite of the Ramona Quimby kind of girl, but that’s way down the line. And there’s a book I’m working on now that’s about older child adoption, because most of the adoption books out there are about little babies. There are very few about older children and the process of becoming a family. It’s not our [family’s] story, but there are pieces of our story in it. We struggled with these concepts and the family in the story struggles with those concepts in a different way.
Alone Like Me by Rebecca Evans. Random House/Schwartz, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-593-18192-8