Writer and visual storyteller Maureen Tai won the WriteMentor Picture Book Award 2022. She shares her experience and writing advice.
How did you feel when you watched the winner announcement?
It was 2:30 a.m. in Hong Kong at the time, so I felt a little light-headed because of that, but I was mostly nervous. For weeks, I’d been telling myself I wouldn’t win, deliberately dampening my expectations so I wouldn’t be disappointed if things didn’t work out. After hearing the other amazing shortlisters read from their works, I honestly didn’t think it was possible, so when I heard my manuscript’s name read out as the winner, I was shocked beyond words (which probably isn’t a good admission to make as a writer!).
How did you celebrate?
My husband had kindly left a bottle of prosecco on the dining table for me to celebrate with (he was obviously more optimistic than I was) but since everyone in my time zone was asleep, I put it back in the fridge and went back to bed. I admit, I did spend about an hour grinning in the dark before falling into blissful slumber. I celebrated the next day with a nice dinner with my family and a long-coveted bottle of fountain pen ink.
Tell us a bit about your writing journey to date.
I’ve journaled all my life, but I’m a latecomer to the writing party. My writing journey began in earnest in 2019, when my prose poem for teens was published by an online literary journal. Since then, it’s been both heartening and heart-breaking: my newly-discovered kidlit community in Hong Kong is an incredibly supportive and inspiring one, but rejections sting like the dickens (even after a punishing 20+ years career in law and finance where I’ve had my fair share of disappointments). Finding time, and the head space, to write while caring for my aging parents and growing children – like a candle lit at both ends – is a daily challenge. The only thought that keeps me going is that one young person out there is waiting for my words and my stories, fulfilling a need that neither she/he nor I are even aware of, and so I have a responsibility to that one person to keep moving forward, one word at a time.
Tell us more about the winning book and what inspired the idea.
When my son was younger, he’d sit right at the back of the school bus, next to the window, and during the bus ride to and from school, he’d wave to anyone outside. It was his way of being cheeky. To him, it was a silly game that he’d invented. One day, I saw the reaction of a passerby who was surprised by his wave, yet waved back, laughing in delight. As the bus pulled away, the smile lingered on her face. My son’s seemingly simple wave had the power to bring joy to a complete stranger. This was the inspiration for my story about Ming, a Malaysian Chinese boy who yearns to be able to do magical things with his hands like his father (who is a baker), his mother (who is a seamstress) and his grandmother (who is a cook). After an afternoon with his grandfather (whose Parkinson’s is gently alluded to), Ming discovers the hidden magic in his own hands. If my story – which, despite its authentic Asian setting, is universal – ever gets published, my greatest wish is for readers to come away thinking that even the smallest hands can wield great power, and that what matters most is the people we love, and how we love them.
What was the WriteMentor Novel Award experience like for you, as an entrant?
I can attest to how nerve-racking competitions can be, having entered – and failed to place or win – lots of them. The way Stuart and his team at WriteMentor handled the results announcements in particular – longlist, shortlist, and finals – with such thought, consideration and humanity was a real eye-opener and so very welcome. It was a brilliant experience, from start to finish.
What advice would you give other writers when entering writing awards in the future?
Only enter work that you’re completely, one hundred per cent. happy with: that has been peer-reviewed by trusted critique partners or in writing groups, and polished to as shiny a state as you can make it. It’s trite but also true that once you’ve submitted your entry, give yourself a pat on the back, forget about the contest completely and throw yourself into another writing project. Don’t diarise the results announcement dates either! That’ll just make you antsy as the date looms.
Any general writing advice for writers of children’s fiction?
Seek out good books to learn from, and read, read, read, as many books as possible of the genre that you’re writing. There are so many great resources online these days as well as thoughtful, dedicated book reviewers who can help you keep your TBR list manageable. If you have small children you can read aloud to, read a variety of picture books with them – perhaps even a dummy version of your own picture book manuscript – to get a feel for what really appeals to, and works with, younger audiences. Lastly, don’t forget to play with your writing as well. Have fun, and try experimenting with different forms to keep things fresh and interesting. I dabble in flash fiction, short stories, poetry, etc. for both children and adults and I love the variety.
What’s next for your writing? Any new projects on the horizon?
Earlier this year, I won a year-long mentorship with We Need Diverse Books, a US non-profit, so I’m working with my mentor, the lovely author, Cindy Baldwin, on my middle grade novel that’s set in my home country of Malaysia. I’m passionate about Asian representation in children’s literature, and have a few other middle grade novel ideas that I’d love to progress, but only after I get one under my belt first, who knows, maybe even published? (fingers and toes crossed). In the meantime, I’ll continue learning, giving writer talks, and reviewing books through my blog, and my YouTube channel, A Bookish Minute. I believe that every child needs to read books, even if they aren’t my books, and I’ll try my hardest to help make that happen!