Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We welcome YA author Cara Chow today

ReaderGirls welcomes Cara Chow, author of the YA novel, Bitter Melon.

Here's the summary: What would you do if your mother planned every step in your life...and demanded you follow?

Frances has one job in life. To get into Berkeley and become a doctor so that her mother's ambitions for her will be realized. And Frances doesn't think there's anything wrong with that - until the day she accidentally steps into a speech class.

Frances turns out to be a natural at debate and public speaking. But to win in competition, Frances needs to say things she really believes - and to hide what she's doing from her mother. And once Frances steps out beyond her narrowly prescribed life, she begins to question many things about the way she is raised. Frances knows she must be obedient to her mother, who has sacrificed so much for her education. But how much is Frances living out the life her mother wants her to have, instead of the life that's right for Frances?

We welcome Cara Chow. 

What inspired you to write Bitter Melon?

Though my relationship with my mother is very positive today, it was not so positive when I was a teen. My mom wanted me to be the best, and her way of motivating me was by being very hard on me. Unfortunately, her parenting strategy did not have the effect on me that she had intended. I was a pretty sensitive kid, so I was tormented by the belief that I was a disappointment to her.

During that time, I also had an English teacher and speech coach that I looked up to. She gave me the positive attention that I was missing at home. During my sophomore year, she organized a trip to Europe for a small group of students, and she managed to persuade my mom to let me go. I really credit Mrs. Willson for the writing, public speaking, and travelling that I’ve done as an adult because she was the one who showed me that all these things were possible.

When writing Bitter Melon, I created a parallel reality for Frances that had the polarizing influences of Gracie at home and Ms. Taylor at school. Because of these opposite influences, Frances develops two identities: she feels dumb and powerless at home but smart and empowered at school. Bitter Melon is not only about a power struggle between mother and daughter; it is also about the struggle between Frances’s two identities.

What would you like your readers to come away with after reading your novel?

For readers who identify with Frances, I hope that Bitter Melon gives them validation, solace, and inspiration. I hope it gives them a voice in society. I also want readers to understand and appreciate the cultural and economic factors that influenced Gracie’s and Frances’s attitudes and behaviors. At the same time, I want people to understand that mother-daughter issues and achievement issues are universal. And of course, I want readers to have fun reading. I want them to get engrossed in the book and not be able to put it down!

How has your success influenced the way you write? Considering your “Waffles” picture book, do you think you will revisit that story or write another picture book?

I really enjoyed writing Waffles, and I would love to write another picture book someday. I’m not a very good artist, though, so if that manuscript were to be accepted, the publisher would probably hire another artist to do the illustrations.

What are your thoughts considering the argument that there is a lack of multicultural characters in children’s books?

There definitely could be more multicultural children’s and YA stories, but this is slowly changing. I am optimistic that we will see a lot more diverse talent coming out in the next decade or so.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I like a lot of authors, so this question is difficult to answer! I’ve already said in other interviews that I admire the works of Robert Cormier and Amy Tan, so I’ll add some new ones here: I also love Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon and Ji-Li Jiang’s Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. But if you ask me in another month, I may come up with a different list!

As a newly published author, what was your publishing experience like? A nightmare, a dream come true or somewhere in between? And what would you say to aspiring writers or anyone readying a query letter?

Overall, my publishing experience has been phenomenal. I am so fortunate to have an agent and a publisher who are willing to invest so much time and energy in a debut author. Not only have they supported me as a writer, but they have also been supportive of me as a person. Being a newly published author is a great joy, but it can also be a bit stressful at times because the experience is new and brings with it some unexpected challenges. Also, in my case, I am a new parent, so I’m pretty much raising two babies! Everyone has been very understanding, as well as generous with enthusiasm and guidance. I couldn’t ask for a better team.

My advice to aspiring writers is to be patient and persistent. It took me eleven years and thirteen drafts get Bitter Melon to where it is today. Initially, I was embarrassed about taking so long, but the feedback I’ve gotten from both my agent and editor is that they respected that I was willing to take the time to get things right. They also respected my willingness to listen to feedback and incorporate it into my revisions. Of course, I’m not implying that it should take everyone that long to finish a book. In fact, if you can accomplish the same goal in less time, then I encourage you to look at me and gloat!

We thank Ms. Chow for spending time with us today.

About the author: I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in the Richmond District of San Francisco, where Bitter Melon is set.

Also, I was a PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and currently live in the Los Angeles area with my husband and son. For more on Ms. Chow, please visit her website.

Here's one more summary: Frances, a student at an academically competitive school in San Francisco, has always had it drilled into her to be obedient to her mother and to be a straight-A student so that she can get into Berkeley to become a doctor. It has never even occurred to Frances to question her own feelings and desires until she accidentally winds up in speech class and finds herself with a hidden talent. Bitter Melon (published by EgmontUSA, hardcover, 224 pages, $16.99, Ages 12 up) is available now.


  1. *sigh* I really want to get to reading this book. I will always support ethnic (though, I guess I can't call it ethnic since I'm also Chinese...) reads and I think this book will inspire and comfort teens. Can't say much more since I haven't read it.

  2. Hi,

    I'm Kate Evangelista, author of Taste, and I just wanted to take this time to introduce myself. If you have the time, please stop by The Coffee Bar by using the link below:


    I hope to see you there.