Determined to refute a childhood of media consumption that solely validated “impossibly narrow” Western beauty standards, debut author Joanna Ho told PW she set out to write a picture book that “celebrated not only the physical beauty of Asian eyes, but also the power we have to create change in the world.” After years of writing and revising, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners illustrated by Dung Ho (HarperCollins), released this past January, sold 8,000 print copies in its first week, and has sold more than 21,000 print copies to date, per NPD BookScan. We spoke with Ho and her editor, Clarissa Wong, about the book, its publication process, and the team’s future.
Pregnant with her daughter while penning the initial draft, Ho sought to craft a story inspiring children to embrace their own features, despite societal pressures. “I wanted readers to recognize their own ability to disrupt and dismantle systems that perpetuate oppressive narratives,” she explained. “They have the power to create their own kingdoms of the future.”
Ho continued, “I spent a lot of time trying to think of a way to describe Asian eyes without using the words or phrases that have historically been used to denigrate us.” The titular phrase “came to me one night when I was snuggling my two-year-old son to sleep.” She decided to convey the protagonist’s internal change by eschewing a more traditional narrative arc. “Ultimately, this isn’t just a story about physical appearances, but a story of how appearances are passed down and what they can represent: family, history, culture, relationships, love.”
When asked what drew her to the manuscript, Wong said, “To put it simply, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners is a book I wished I had growing up,” deeming it her “dream picture book.” Identifying Asian eyes as an evident “mark” of “our otherness”—one that subjected her to a “fair share of microaggressions” while growing up Asian American in a mostly white suburb—Wong said that she didn’t reach self-acceptance of her eyes until her early 20s. “But could you imagine if I’d spent that energy elsewhere or grew up knowing that my eyes are beautiful from the very get-go?” She marveled at being able to hand this book to her son: “It means so much to me.”
The book is accessible for all audiences, though, Wong stressed, as it fosters an acceptance of “other definitions of what it means to be beautiful. With the growing number of anti-Asian hate crimes, books like this are more important than ever.”
As for the acquisition process, Wong called the decision an easy one. “After reading it for the first time, I knew I had to be the editor for it,” she said. “Personally, it was one of the books I acquired the quickest, from it hitting my inbox to bringing it to acquisition and making an offer.” Wong also mentioned her gratitude for “books like Hair Love and many more for paving the way,” commending the wave of picture books that celebrate their characters’ ethnic and cultural individualities.
Ho, for her part, said she feels “so incredibly fortunate” that the book landed with Wong. “I knew from her first email that she deeply understood and championed the story and its themes,” she said, praising Wong’s “amazing ability to see the story I was trying to tell and how to revise it to match the vision.”
Wong stated, “While talking to Joanna about why she wrote this book, one of the words that stuck out to me was ‘revolutionary’. It was something about how the simple act of recognizing your own beauty and power, despite not fitting into western ideals, is revolutionary.”
Ho added, “When we talked over revisions, she pushed me to include those ideas in the story. Her feedback inspired the last few pages, and I can’t imagine the book without them now!”
Wong said they made sure to weave the story’s themes into Dung Ho’s “gorgeous art” as well, especially with the phoenix. “The phoenix is an important icon in Chinese culture and is typically female, which felt right given all the strong female characters in the story,” Wong explained. “However, the phoenix also represents rebirth. This book felt like rebirth in so many ways, but especially in us recognizing our eyes are worthy and beautiful—igniting a revolution.”
Fans of Eyes That Kiss in the Corners will be pleased to know that a companion is on the horizon: Eyes That Speak to the Stars, about a boy who looks toward his father, grandfather, and little brother to discover self-love for his own eyes, is scheduled for winter 2022. “It was a true delight to collaborate with Joanna and Dung Ho again,” Wong said, revealing that this book “[takes] on the microaggressions many Asian Americans experience more head-on.”
She concluded by elucidating the book’s imagery: “Since Eyes That Kiss in the Corners had a phoenix, it felt only right to feature a dragon in Eyes That Speak to the Stars. Dragons are also important icons in Chinese culture, usually the phoenix’s companion. These two are truly book siblings in the best possible ways. And the cover! Wait ’til you see the cover.”
Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, illus. by Dung Ho. HarperCollins, $17.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-06-291562-7