Kids' books with Anita Cheung: "I always feel seen with any brainy female lead."

Hi friends,

When I sent an email a few weeks ago subtitled “a miniature edition,” my friend Erin replied, “I thought by mini-edition you meant you’d be writing about kids books.” That was an irresistible idea since I spend at least an hour each day reading with Maeve, who is a total book fiend. (I guess it’s genetic.) Next week, grown-up BOOK PERSON will return, but this weekend we’re talking about books for babies and kids with Anita Cheung.

Anita is unreasonably talented at many creative endeavours— design, branding, photography, doodling, reviewing chips on Instagram Stories— and she just illustrated her first kids’ book, Alma’s Art, inspired by the expressionist painter Alma Thomas. I’m so excited to read it (you can pre-order it on Amazon). If you have a tiny human or new parent in your life, Anita has some wonderful suggestions for books to share with them.

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

Uneventfully, I was born, raised, and still reside in Vancouver (traditional territories of Musqueam, Squamish, & Tsleil-Waututh Nations).

What's your favourite bookstore in the whole wide world?

The first one that comes to mind is The Last Bookstore in LA— possibly because it was the last bookstore I visited/ spent time in before COVID became a part of our lives. For kids’ books locally, I love Collage Collage and their thoughtful selection. It's the shop I wish I had as a child! I often find myself leaving with an armload of books, art supplies, and stickers whenever I stop by.

What is the first book you remember loving as a child?

There was a Chinese translation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves I loved as a kid, mostly because it allowed my mom to read me a bedtime story. (My parents weren't illiterate, but they weren't confident English readers.) I also remember borrowing a book about horses from the school library and never returning it because I was obsessed with the idea of keeping a pony in my tiny East Van backyard. A girl can dream!

Which book character do you most strongly identify with?

I would always feel seen with any brainy female lead. Think: Matilda, Hermione Granger, etc.

Name five great kids' books and tell me why you love them:

These days, when I think of kids books, I’m often thinking of picture books (2-8 years old range). While I know there are some great kid lit chapter books, I’m not as familiar with the genre so will stick to what I know!

Story Boat. It’s a beautiful, poetic story about immigration, imagination, and home. The author’s words and the illustrator’s images are thoughtful and woven together just perfectly. I also love when children’s books approach heavier topics— but delicately— to leave room for a child’s interpretation, questions, and conversation.

The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade. Another poetic storybook— this one illustrated by Christian Robinson who is a huge inspiration and one of the shining stars of modern children’s book illustration (IMO). I love the poetry and the topic of this book but I mostly love the little “yellow” girl who is the main character. As someone who’s been 5’0 since I was 12, I feel this!

The Fate of Fausto. A wonderfully dark-humoured book about capitalism disguised as a foolish man. What’s not to love?

from The Fate of Fausto

Hug Me. This is a classic light-hearted children’s book about a little cactus that just wants to cuddle. What stands out about it are the end pages: The front end pages depict a “gallery wall” of cactus family members whereas the end pages depict a gallery wall of the little cactus with (spoiler alert) its new BFF and their many misadventures. It’s the little touches like this for me that really make a book feel so magical and special.

When Green Becomes Tomatoes. Another poetry book, this one following the rhythm of the seasons. It’s a fun “a poem a day” kind of book although you could totally read it in one sitting as well. I appreciated how the poetry wasn’t a classic Shel Silverstein ABCB rhyme (though nothing wrong with that!) and picked this as it feels like a good intro to poetry for little ones. The illustrator, Julie Morstad, is also a local, which is a nice bonus!

Who are your favourite illustrators?

So many! I have a lot of books from: Christian Robinson, Marianna Coppo, Isabelle Arsenault, Simona Ciraolo, Charlotte Ager, Chelsea O’Byrne (who's a pal and so inspiring), and Katie Harnett.

Who are the authors you love and why?

I have to admit, as a visual person, I'm often drawn to the images before the story. With that said, taking a look at my bookshelf, I have a lot of books by Julie Fogliano so that must mean something. I also have a lot of books authored by the illustrator.

What's a fun (or funny) book to read together?

Potty by Leslie Patricelli. It's a sturdy board book that is both educational and hilarious to kids. Both my nieces, aged 4 and almost 2, love it and howl with laughter at its silliness.

What's a book you never get tired of reading?

Too Many Mangos by Tammy Paikai. I got it in a gift shop in Hawaii two years ago on a whim and it's become one of my older niece's favourite books.

What do you look for in a book for little kids?

I love when the illustrations tell a secondary story, whether it's finding a character that appears on all of the pages in the background, or literally telling a second visual story, I think it's such a nice surprise and delight for adult and young readers. Other details like styled inside title pages and end pages are fun as well!

What's a book you think people should stop giving parents? (For me it's Love You Forever— too many tears!)

Love you Forever is brutal! My niece wanted my partner to read it to her last year (when his mum was going through illness) and while I ended up taking over, we could both barely make it through without full on sobbing. She must have thought it was the strangest thing.

I don't think there is one book that comes to mind but I would urge folks to maybe flip through the book before giving it to a young family. The books that drive me nuts currently are the multi-pack board books that feature Frozen characters but really have no real plot or narrative arc. I just think children deserve better! They deserve storylines! Complex characters! With that said, I also grew up on a diet of Mickey Mouse books so who am I to judge.

Who is your favourite animal in children's literature?

Charlotte from Charlotte's Web made me feel things for a spider that I had never felt before.

What book has the best cover art?

Most of the Better Natural Things in the World, by Dave Eggers and illustrated by Angel Chang. The art in this book in general is stunning so I think it affects my remembrance of the cover art.

from Most of the Better Natural Things in the World

I'm convinced everyone has at least one kids' book idea in them. What's yours?

So many ideas! I'm actually working on fleshing out an idea right now that will touch on multi-generational family relationships (being raised by grandparents) currently titled A Tree for Tomorrow. So far, it's looking like it'll be a tear-jerker. Sorry!

Speed round! Best books about…

… family? I Really Want to See You Grandma by Tarō Gomi.

…loss and change? When Sadness Comes to Call by Eva Eland. Another book that's on my list (but haven't read it yet) is Life and I: A Story about Death by Elisabeth Helland Larsen.

… history? A bit biased (because she's the author of the book I illustrated) but I and my nieces enjoyed Mae Amongst the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington.

… gender or identity? Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

… any other themes you love? Interactive books! When I was teaching kids yoga years ago, the kids loved Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson.

Reader’s choice:

Do you have a favourite kids’ book? If it’s especially ideal for almost-two-year-olds, I would love to hear it. Much as I love them, I really need a break from reading Baby Feminists and Today.

Next week we’ll be back with an adult edition, but there are more kids’ book editions ahead!