April 2, 2023

The Organization of Chinese Americans, as part of its National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month Children’s Book Tour, is presenting weekly interviews with participating authors on their experience as an APA children’s book author. This week OCA is featuring Milly Lee, author of Landed and Nim and the War Effort.

Milly Lee grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown as Mildred Chan in a household where grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived under one roof.  She attended Chinese school after the regular school day and spoke Cantonese at home and in the neighborhood. Milly has received many awards including CSLA Honorary Life Member, USF Reading the World Award, CA Commonwealth Club Book Award, and 2010 Friends of Children & Literature Book Award (FOCAL). She received her BA at UC Berkeley and worked as a School librarian at Lincoln Elementary School, Sonoma Valley High School, and Sonoma County Librarian.

OCA: Who or what inspired you to write your first book?

Milly Lee: I was recovering from heart surgery when a friend, the writer Mavis Jukes, said it was
time to write that story I  told her about  years ago. Nim and the War Effort is based on my childhood experience during World War II.

OCA: How did you come up with the plot and title for the book you’re reading for the book tour?

ML: Landed is based on my father-in-law’s story of coming to America as a young boy. I was recording his stories for the family. “ Landed,” is what the guard would shout out to the men and boys when they were cleared to go ashore.  It meant that they had passed their tests and would be allowed to leave the barracks to go to San Francisco.

OCA: Are the characters/plot based on your own experiences?

ML: All three books are historical fiction picture books. The first is based on my childhood, the second was my mother’s story during the 1906 SF Earthquake & Fire, and the third was my father-in-law’s story of coming to America.

OCA: Have you always wanted to be a children’s book author?

ML: No, I never thought it was something I could aspire to do.  My dreams were very limited while I was growing up in  San Francisco’s Chinatown.  I have been an avid reader, and a school librarian so I have much experience with children’s books. I thought I might have a story that was different from any other I knew, that of a Chinese girl during World War II in SF Chinatown.

OCA: What were your favorite children’s books growing up?

ML: I read everything in the Children’s Room at my local library, but my favorites were the fairy tales, folk tales, biographies, and books by Louisa May Alcott.  When I was 14, my favorite book was Lin Yu Tang’s Moment in Peking.

OCA: How does being an APA affect your writing style?

ML: I don’t believe being an APA has anything to do with my writing style, which I believe is rather straight forward storytelling.  In two books, an Authors Note was added to provide more information to explain the circumstances of each story.  I’ve added information about my family and culture to enrich the experience of readers.  The illustrations add to the authenticity of the experience.

OCA: Where did you grow up and has that influenced your writing?

ML: I grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, which was within the boundaries of twelve square blocks. It has influenced my writing to the extent that I consider ed those boundaries confining and unfair.  I grew up with such limited hopes.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would grow up and be able to write a book. This is why I go out to schools with Asian students because I want them to know it was possible for me, and it will be possible for them if they want to write as well.

OCA: Do you have a favorite APA author?

ML: Yes, I admire the work of Maxine Hong Kingston.  I shared the experience of growing up in a world full of ghosts.  She is so eloquent, such an important writer. I enjoy all the books Larry Yep has written for young people.

What challenges do you face when writing your books?

At my age (77), it is a challenge to just sit down to write.  I have so many books I want to read, so many places to see, and so many things to do, that writing is not my most important activity.  I procrastinate, I agonize … it’s all angst.

OCA: Can you share any projects in the works with us?

ML: Children have asked me for another Nim story, I don’t know if there is another story.

OCA: What do you like to do in your free time outside of writing?

ML: My husband and I grew up not thinking we would be able to much because we lived in Chinatown.  Now, we are privileged to be able to travel all over the world to see things we never even dared to dream about.  We have been  on a trek in Nepal,  hiked to Machu Picchu, traversed the Suez Canal, stood in wonder in front of the Sphinx in Egypt, walked on the Great Wall of China, rounded the Horn in South America, and saw the polar bears in Churchill, as well as many other travels.  

We moved back to San Francisco after many years in the suburbs, we have reconnected with friends of our childhood.  We are enjoying all that the city offers: diverse neighborhoods, museums, theater, the SF Symphony, the SF Opera, the SF Ballet, and a plethora of restaurants.

Our 3 children and our 6 grandchildren are grown, and they have the opportunities to be what they want and be what they want.  They have opportunities we didn’t have growing up.

OCA: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

ML: Yes, I believe you do important work. I am delighted to be able to be part of your Book Tour.

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