In her graphic narrative debut, Uprooted: A Memoir About What Happens When Your Family Moves Back (Roaring Brook, Sept.), author-illustrator Ruth Chan (Have You Seen Gordon?) recounts her family’s move from Toronto to Hong Kong in 1993. Chan’s immigrant parents were excited that her father could work in China while her mother reconnected with relatives, but Chan herself was 13, unpracticed as a Cantonese speaker, and bereft of her friends and an older brother who stayed behind to complete his senior year at boarding school. Chan, who now lives in Brooklyn, spoke with PW about the memoir form, culture shock, and getting over teenage insecurities.

What was it like to work in comics versus the picture book format?

I definitely anticipated that it would be more work, but I didn’t anticipate enough. Writing it, outlining it, thumbnailing it, sketching it, and final art took three years. In picture books, if a character has dialogue, you have to choose one facial expression the character is going to have for that spread. In a graphic novel, you can create a character transformation, even in a five-second conversation, by having a different facial expression per panel. I love that about graphic novels.

What got you interested in writing a memoir?

Initially I wanted to make a graphic novel about my father’s birth [during the Sino-Japanese War in 1944], which I’ve included in Uprooted. I pitched that to my agent, Rebecca Sherman, and she said, “What about your story? You were also uprooted, taken from everything you knew and put in someplace new.” That’s how the whole memoir happened. We’re used to seeing stories of kids who were born in other countries coming to the U.S. and having culture shock, but we don’t see many stories of it going the other way.

How did you bring this project to Roaring Brook?

[Roaring Brook executive editor]

Connie Hsu edited my very first picture books, Where’s the Party? and Georgie’s Best Bad Day. Connie loves working on graphic novels—especially graphic memoirs—so coming back to Roaring Brook was a full-circle thing. And Connie, being Asian American, understood a lot of the nuances, which was really important.

In Uprooted, multiple languages are spoken: English, translated Cantonese, and untranslated Chinese. How did you decide to handle that variation?

It’s a big thing among Asian American kids that our parents will speak to us in their native tongue and we’ll reply in English. It was natural to me growing up, so I wanted to make sure we kept that dynamic. I also wanted readers to feel as confused as I did back then, with maybe a slight frustration when they don’t understand. That’s exactly how I felt, and it was a neat way to remind the reader of the mix of languages.

Can you describe your extended family, who welcomed you even when you were anxious about speaking Cantonese?

They’re a very exuberant group. Everything is very festive and loud and exciting. My loneliness at first really was just about my own insecurity. I mean, when you’re 13, you’re going to be insecure. Since that time, my Chinese obviously improved, and I became pretty close with my cousins, especially Angie, the one in the book shepherding me through.

Will Uprooted have a sequel?

I’m working on a second graphic novel. It’s not necessarily a sequel, but it’s a memoir set in Hong Kong. My mom has OCD, so it’s going to be a little bit about having a parent with OCD and what that meant for me, and I’m going to integrate lots of details about Hong Kong and being a teenager. I’m also working on illustrating a picture book sequel to Have You Seen Gordon?, which I did with Adam Jay Epstein.

We’re used to stories of kids born in other countries coming to the U.S.

What has your family’s response been to the finished book?

I didn’t know whether my parents would be comfortable revealing our lives like this, but they ended up being amazing resources. We dug up all these old photos. My mom would remember things I forgot, and my dad told me about his memories of “talk-to-talk” [conversations they had when Chan was young]. I got to bond with my parents in a new way. My mom is like, “You have to make the next book about me! This one is more about your dad.”

Ruth Chan will participate in the evening author reception, June 11, 5–6:30 p.m.

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