Liu received the 2016 Oklahoma Book Award for her picture book Bike on, Bear! She will also be visiting schools and public libraries in Tuttle, Miami, Tahlequah and Tonkawa. Copies of Bike on, Bear! will be available for purchase at all of her presentations.
ODL: Hi, Cynthea. You lived in Oklahoma for a time. Would you start off by telling us about your Oklahoma years and your connection to the state?
Liu: My family of five moved to Oklahoma in 1977 when I was just a baby. My father, Raymond Liu, was a construction manager, assigned to work on the Westin Hotel at the Williams Center in downtown Tulsa. My mother attended Tulsa Community College and ultimately became a computer programmer for American Airlines. After living in Tulsa, my parents decided they liked it so much they’d stay. My father ultimately started a business designing and building custom homes in the 1980s, so I have distinct memories of helping out as a kid, from painting walls to pulling weeds. I lived in at least six of those homes in Tulsa and the surrounding areas from kindergarten through the 9th grade, and my book Paris Pan Takes the Dare draws from my experiences of my childhood living in Oklahoma. When the recession made it really difficult for my father to build in Tulsa, he went overseas to take on projects in Asia and eventually my mother had to relocate to the Dallas area for work. Moving away from Tulsa to Texas as a high-schooler was hard, so when I come back to Tulsa, where my mom now resides, living in a home that my dad had designed and built, I am reminded of my childhood and all the things I love about this great state.
ODL: Looking at the list of your presentations for different age groups, could we call you an educator who just happens to write books? Talk about your interaction with young people, and what you and the young people learn during your programs.
Liu: I believe my main role as an author is to tell a great story a child or teen will love, but I find it difficult to separate storytelling from teaching and learning. You can call me an educator who happens to write books, or the other way around! 🙂 I think our world’s greatest stories expose something about what we know and what we do not know that will help us live better or become better as people. From Paris Pan, to Bear, to Disney characters, theme drives everything for me as a writer. What is the “So What?” in what I write? That’s a question I push myself to answer every time I create something new or edit someone else’s work, and when I guide young people in their writing—from fiction to nonfiction—I strive to help them understand that their voices are the “so-what” first. Too often, young people feel they have nothing to contribute when they write. I think that’s plain wrong, and I want children to understand that their voices can be the most powerful of all. Also, when I work with students, I find they have a lot to teach me about how to be a better person and mentor for them, which is a role I take seriously as a writer. Finally, I recognize that my love of teaching is entwined with who I am as a writer; I am pursuing my M.F.A. as well so I can teach at the college level.
ODL: Your book Pan Paris Takes the Dare (an Oklahoma Book Award finalist) inspired you to create both a social experiment and a writing contest for young people. You then edited a book of their true stories, I Took the Dare. This is fascinating stuff! Tell us about it.
Liu: I am so excited about the I Took the Dare anthology. I Took the Dare was a social experiment to take a dare for a week, but that dare had to be something that you thought you could do better in your everyday life that you were skirting around or avoiding for one reason or another. In the book Paris Pan, Paris makes a number of choices that could have been better, but because of peer pressure, force of habit, or whatever it might have been, she wasn’t the perfect person, and who is? I received wonderful essays about being a better sibling, standing up for a friend, even trying not to eat dessert for a week! The range of essays was incredible, and I was delighted to read what these young writers wrote, and I worked with them to edit their essays into publication-shape. I am so happy that this year, I am working on another volume of I Took The Dare with a teacher and his students in Illinois, the state where I live now, and this upcoming fall, I’ll be working with another school in … you guessed it … Oklahoma! My hope is that I, alongside teachers and parents, can continue to publish the writing of young people in a way that is constructive and inspirational for them. So look out for new volumes of the anthology. Finally, I want to add that I’m also re-releasing a new edition of Paris Pan Takes the Dare in memory of my father, who passed this year. (He was also the basis for the father character Frank Pan in that book.) In real life, Daddy always encouraged me to do good work, not just for myself, but for others, as he did in this life. This year could have shaped up to be a pretty sad one for me, but I believe his good work continues to live on in me, and that good work is the magic sauce that makes being a children’s book author so great.
ODL: In addition to encouraging young people to write, you also offer a crash course for adults on writing Children’s/YA books. What kind of advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Liu: The crash course, which is free, is founded upon one basic principle: I believe that you can write and get published if you have the will and the dedication that it takes to become an author. My course hopefully fast-tracks you through some often misunderstood or unknown practices in the publishing industry, and I love it when I meet someone randomly or work with someone who has told me they have benefited from the no nonsense advice I offer there. So actually I have two pieces of advice: 1) believe you can do it, and 2) read that crash course so you can avoid common pitfalls in pursuit of your dreams!
ODL: Finally, you’re a spelling bee champ. Do you use spell check?
Liu: Ha, that’s a great question. It’s always on because the software defaults that way, but I use it (and ignore it too) because I never learned how to type. Yes, writers who can’t type exist, and I’m one of them. I use spellcheck (and don’t use spellcheck) because I am prone to typos, not because I can’t spell. Another tip: use it to flag the typos (or if you can’t spell), but also don’t use it and read your work aloud so you can catch the weird stuff that spellchecker does when it tries to predict what your typos mean. Little known fact, one such typing mistake appears at the end of the published volume of Paris Pan Takes the Dare and no one caught it—not me, not my editor, not the copy editor, and not the proofreader. See if you can find it! (Spellchecker won’t!)
ODL: Ha! We’ll take the dare and try to find it! Thanks, Cynthea. We’re looking forward to your tour this September!