We are thrilled to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month with a special On Our Minds blog series featuring four of our AAPI authors and illustrators. We asked each one to reflect on how their identity and/or culture influences and is visible in their creative work. The final post in this series of blog posts celebrating AAPI voices is by Christina Soontornvat. Her latest book, Icing on the Snowflake (Diary of an Ice Princess #6), is available now!
Has anyone ever said to you, “Tell me about yourself”?
There is power in knowing how to answer.
There was a long period in my life when I thought my personal story was boring, trivial, and not worth retelling. I grew up in a small Texas town, the daughter of the owners of a Thai-Chinese restaurant. My life seemed average: I went to school, went to the restaurant, and went home, on repeat.
I longed for an epic, magical story, one that was worthy of the types of books I liked to read. I devoured books as a kid, especially fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Madeleine L'Engle. I also loved quirky outsider characters like Ramona Quimby and Anne of Green Gables. Because of the books available to me, I absorbed the message that a “good story” took place in New York, or the Midwest, or even better - the British Isles. A “good story” wasn’t about the children of immigrants, who have to hang out at their parents’ restaurant after school, or spend the weekends being schlepped along to kitchen supply stores.
It would take me decades to realize the truth: I had spent my whole life steeped in the greatest stories ever told. My father’s story of growing up on the shore of the Chao Phraya River in bustling 1950’s Bangkok is cinematic: the lights reflected in the water, the music playing from riverside cafés, the never-ending challenges of trying to keep a family of seven above the poverty line. His tales of immigrating to the U.S. with his brother and friends will have you hanging on every word. They are heartbreaking (ten guys sharing one apartment as they try to eke it out in Los Angeles) and hilarious (that time he put his dirty clothes in the dryer at the laundromat, thinking it was “dry cleaning”).
My mother’s family stories are equally astounding: her grandparents were dryland farmers in West Texas during the Dust Bowl. Her parents moved all throughout the state, following farm work and oil work, and work, work, work. She inherited their work ethic and their storytelling talents. If you want to know the secrets to good yarn spinning, hang out in a restaurant for a little while. Waiters, cooks, and cashiers spend their days perfecting their stories, and collecting juicy ones from their customers. I grew up swimming in a soup of stories with ingredients from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean. My path to becoming an author was laid out for me from the very beginning. I couldn’t see it then, but I see it now.
Whenever I speak to young readers, I tell them that my family shows up in every book I write. For example, Princess Lina, the main character of my Diary of an Ice Princess series, is a girl with magical, snow-creation abilities. But her true power comes from knowing in her heart who she is, and she gets that strength from her loving family. I tell young readers that they, too, are surrounded by incredible stories. They just need to listen, to pay attention.
There is nothing more powerful than realizing your stories are worthy of being told. There is nothing more powerful than finding your voice and making it heard. So the next time someone asks you, “Tell me about yourself,” be ready. You have a story to tell.
Christina Soontornvat is the author of Scholastic’s beloved fantasy series the Diary of an Ice Princess, the picture books The Ramble Shamble Children, The Blunders, and Simon at the Art Museum, as well as All Thirteen, the Newbery Honor- and Sibert Honor-winning middle-grade nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue. Christina holds a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Science Education. She spent a decade working in the science museum field, where she designed programs and exhibits to get kids excited about science and STEM. Christina lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, two young children, and one old cat. You can learn more about her work at soontornvat.com.