Connected \\ January 22, 2020

Piece by Piece

Author Susan Tan first wanted to become a children’s book writer in the eighth grade. Today, she says her childhood experiences shape the questions, challenges and joy found in her award-winning stories, including her popular Cilla Lee-Jenkins series. Tan recently teamed up with illustrator Justine Wong to create PEM’s first children’s book, Piece by Piece, on sale in the Museum Shop and bookstores nationwide.

She introduces us to a character, Emmy, on her first visit to PEM. Exploring the Chinese house, Yin Yu Tang, in search of her beloved blanket, she finds a place reminiscent of her grandmother and their special bond. In their uplifting journey, Emmy and her dad grow closer together in realizing the love they share for art and family.


Apron making activity, Piece by Piece


As PEM’s in-house book editor, I was privileged to work with Tan on this project and talk with her about her experiences writing in the museum, telling immigrant stories and nurturing creative possibility.

Susan Tan in Yin Yu Tang

Photo by Bob Packert/PEM.


Rebecca Bednarz: When we decided to make our first children's book, we were delighted to learn about your writing and all the more excited when you told us you visited Yin Yu Tang as a girl.

Susan Tan: I have such vivid memories of visiting the house for the first time and seeing history in a new way through it. If only I’d known then that years later, I’d get to write for and in Yin Yu Tang. When I was writing the book, I got to bring a stool into the house and sit there for as long as I wanted. It really brought back all those feelings from when I first visited and was such a magical experience in itself.

A spread from the book Piece by Piece with illustrations by Justine Wong

A spread from the book Piece by Piece with illustrations by Justine Wong.


R: Writers, like curators, do a lot of looking. What was it like for you to tell the story of Emmy’s grandmother, her Nainai, in their “special place” at the museum?

S: The idea of looking was an important one for my grandmother and me. She used to take me to museums and simply ask, “What do you see?” From a very young age, I learned to take my time with art, to trust my eyes and to ask myself how what I saw translated into emotion. Telling the story of Emmy and her Nainai drew right on these memories and was a lovely, emotional revisiting of my early art experiences. As a child, museums were such a haven for me. It was incredibly special to be able to return to these memories and bring them to the story of Piece by Piece.

R: What was your collaboration with illustrator Justine Wong like?

S: Collaborating with Justine was wonderful. We had the chance to be together in the house and create together — just us, within the space. First, we each took some time on our own: I wandered around and wrote little story fragments and she walked around and sketched. We then came back and compared our notes. Looking at the house through Justine’s eyes helped me to be more playful with the space. I imagined Emmy within the house and artwork in a more visual, magical way.


The author read to children in Boston’s at the Pao Arts Center

The author read to children in Boston’s at the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


R: Piece by Piece is also a story of a father-daughter relationship. What does it mean to tell this story of Emmy and her dad connecting over their cultural heritage and his feelings as an immigrant?

S: I know from my own experiences that sometimes stories of immigration can get lost in families. My dad is an immigrant and really wanted to be “American.” He never spoke Chinese to us when we were growing up and rarely spoke about his memories of coming to America. It wasn’t until I was older and I began asking questions that we really spoke about his childhood and what it felt like learning English and adjusting to a new culture and place. I think about this a lot as an adult. In Piece by Piece, I wanted Emmy to connect with her father in this way. It was important to me that art became a way to facilitate this connection: Through looking around the museum, both Emmy and her father reveal important parts of themselves and learn new things about each other. This moment of connection shows them how similar they are and how much they share.


The author in Yin Yu Tang holding the book


R: Having written several books, what have you come to understand about children and their capacity for growth?

S: I think children possess the same incredibly nuanced capacity for growth as adults. And of course, sometimes, children can far surpass adults in their abilities to learn, change, grow and be flexible. One idea I’m committed to in my writing is that children do see the adult world, picking up on the larger social complexities, as well as the complexities and nuances that arise in personal relationships. I believe that rather than shielding kids from hard feelings or ideas, we should give them spaces to feel and explore their emotions. In Piece by Piece, I loved the idea that a museum could provide this kind of safe, transformational space.


The author with a child at the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown

The author with a child at the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

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