Shirin Yim Bridges listened with special interest when her grandmother started to tell her how she dreamed of going to university in an era when most Chinese girls looked forward only to marriage. Bridges was already writing children's books, and she felt her grandmother's tale was full of possibilities. The story of the girl who loved to learn became Ruby's Wish (Chronicle).
Bridges was brought up in a Chinese-speaking family in California, but she has lived in many countries. Most of her career has been spent in advertising, but she has always written and painted on her own as well. In 1997, she and her husband sold their house, quit their jobs and embarked on a year-and-a-half "walkabout" around the world. Bridges was able to devote more time to her own creative work, and she developed several ideas for picture books.
When she and her husband stopped to see her parents in Malaysia, the whole family assembled for a reunion. During the celebration, her grandmother told her stories about growing up in a traditional city compound along with the other children of her grandfather's many wives. She was expected to tire of schooling and get married like the other girls, but she scorned the idea of an arranged marriage, and struggled to continue her education. She wrote a poem about wanting to be treated the same way her brothers were; the poem brought her to her grandfather's attention, and convinced him to make arrangements for her admission to university as one of China's first female students.
Seventy years after writing that poem, Bridges's grandmother recited it word for word for her granddaughter. After the reunion, Bridges added her grandmother's story to the list of picture book projects she was working on, and began to make preliminary sketches.
When Bridges and her husband returned from their trip, she went to work as a creative director for an agency in the Bay Area. She assembled a list of publishers interested in multicultural themes from Writer's Market, and made contact with Amy Novesky, an editor at Chronicle Books. She pitched a few ideas that weren't right for Chronicle. When Novesky asked her, "Do you have anything else?" Bridges presented her with Ruby's Wish.
She submitted the story with her own sketches, but Novesky told her that first-time authors often benefited from working with experienced illustrators. Eventually, Chronicle signed Sophie Blackall, an Australian artist now based in Brooklyn. "The story had been living in my mind for so long," says Bridges, "fully illustrated by me, of course! But it was so rewarding to see someone else's pictures. In so many spreads and layouts, the way she visualized the scenes was exactly the same as what I had been thinking."
Novesky also urged her to emphasize the struggle Ruby had gone through before she reached her goal, and Bridges went back and rewrote sections about Ruby's having to do housework before she could study. When Novesky left the company, the book stalled, then Victoria Rock, publisher of children's books at Chronicle, took charge of the project. "She was the one who would say, 'There are 150 words on this page, and we need to lose 20, and here are the 20 I think we should lose.' " Bridges's background in advertising made it easier to accept edits--"you have to write to fit [the space] a lot of the time--and she found Rock's willingness to consider her suggestions a happy contrast to the rough-and-tumble process of editing advertising copy.
Bridges managed to keep the book a secret from her grandmother until Ruby's Wish was actually printed and bound. Instead of asking her grandmother for help herself, she got her mother to ask for the photograph of her grandmother that appears on the final page, and had her transcribe the poem her grandmother wrote as a girl. After the book's publication, Bridges met her grandmother for dinner and put a copy of the book into her hands. "She was absolutely thrilled. But my uncle teased me about it. 'Now you've done it!' he said. 'She's the biggest storyteller in the family,' he said, 'and you've just given her license to tell even more outrageous stories!'"