A Chat with Sylvia Liu

On February 11, 2017, Saturday, Chinese around the world will be celebrating The Lantern Festival.  Families will be appreciating the bright full moon and family reunion, also wrapping up the 15-day-celebration of Lunar Chinese New Year. I thought to myself, what would be better than sharing my interview with Ms. Sylvia Liu, some of her beautiful illustrations, and her lovely children’s book – A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, which won 2013 NEW VOICES Award from Lee and Low, to celebrate the Lantern Festival with all of you.  “A MORNING WITH GRANDPA is a lovely story about special bond between grandparent and grandchild and the joy of learning new things together.”

Image result for sylvia liuMs. Sylvia Liu is an amazing and inspirational author and illustrator! She is also the co-founder of KidLit411 (a resource website for kid lit authors and illustrators) and is named by Writers Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers. Before she became a children’s book author/illustrator, she was a lawyer working at the U.S. Department of Justice and the non-profit group Oceana to protecting the oceans.

J.J. Gow:  Congratulations on winning the 2013 NEW VOICES Award from Lee and Low for A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, and it is your debut picture book. What does this award mean to you?  What is the most valuable lesson you learn during the process of publishing your book? How did you come up with the book idea?


Sylvia Liu:  It’s been a thrill from the time I learned I won (December 2013) until publication (May 2016) and up until now. I was inspired by my dad teaching my daughters qi gong (another Chinese mind-body practice). I’ve learned how collaborative the creation of a book truly is – from the comments I received from my critique group to my editor’s insightful suggestions to Christina Forshay’s delightful illustrations to the publisher’s hard-working marketing team.

J.J. Gow:  How did you make the career switch from a lawyer to a Children’s book author and illustrator? Do you still practice law?  If not, do you miss being a lawyer? 

Sylvia Liu:  It was a gradual process. I had always written and made art growing up and in college. While working as a public interest environmental lawyer, I took evening art classes. When my girls were 3 and 1, I decided to stay at home and focus on illustrating. Switching from an established career to a creative field at age 35 turned out to be less of a shock than parenting toddlers full-time. It wasn’t until they went to school about 7 years ago that I seriously pursued both writing and illustrating.

I don’t miss the law itself, but I sometimes miss the excitement and sense of purpose of working with really amazing colleagues on important environmental issues.

J.J. Gow:  How do you find balance in pursuing writing/illustrating, running Kidlit411, and being a mom?

Sylvia Liu:  I’ve learned not to expect to do it all. I let housework slide, I don’t make dinner most nights (you can go a long way with takeout, leftovers, frozen Trader Joe’s food, and breakfast for dinner), and my career has taken longer to get off the ground than if I had no other commitments. I don’t miss my daughters’ games if I can help it, but I will be the mom reading a book or sketching on the sidelines. I spend several hours a week on Kidlit411, so it’s not a huge time commitment. (it helps to have a wonderful Kidlit411 partner, Elaine Kiely Kearns).


J.J. Gow:  Your kid lit resource website Kidlit411 is full of valuable information and knowledge and it was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2016 and 2015. Congratulations! How did you co-found KidLit411 and what are your goals for KidLit411 in 2017?

Sylvia Liu:  My critique buddy Elaine Kiely Kearns came up with the idea of pulling together resource links in an easily accessible format. I joined her to make the site visually oriented, and together we added elements such as the weekly updates, the author and illustrator interviews, and a Facebook group that has turned into a vibrant community. We also run two other Facebook groups for writers and illustrators to find critique partners (Kidlit411 Manuscript Swap and Kidlit411 Portfolio Critique Swap).

Our goal for 2017 is to continue to bring great content and resources to the kid lit community.

J.J. Gow:  Do you attend writers’ or illustrators’ conferences?  Which is your favorite and why?penguin-flyer

Sylvia Liu:  Yes. It took me awhile to realize how valuable conferences are, for both craft and networking. I’ve been an SCBWI member since 2004, but only started going to the New York and Mid-Atlantic conferences and other workshops in the last five or six years.

If I had to pick my favorites, for writing it would be the Better Books Marin Conference, a three-day craft workshop (limited to 25 MG or YA writers) with a stellar faculty. Small groups were paired with an agent or editor and we shared 25 pages of our manuscripts in advance. We critiqued each other’s works and had a full day and a half with our faculty member (in my case, agent Susan Hawk). The other day and a half was craft-based presentations from all of the faculty.

polar-bears-in-city-2016My favorite illustration experience was a six-month mentorship with David Diaz through the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program, open to all SCBWI members. It pairs a mentor with a few writers or illustrators. It begins and ends with in person conferences in Nevada, with an online mentorship in between. A close second was the Mid-South SCBWI Best Dummy workshop where we worked on a picture book dummy for six months prior to the workshop, got feedback from Scholastic editor Orli Zuravicky, and spent a weekend of critiques and art exercises with Grosset + Dunlap Art Director Giuseppe Castellano.

J.J. Gow:  Which was your favorite book when you were a child?  What memory do you have associating with it?

Sylvia Liu:  My favorite series was Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three series that I read over and over again. It sparked my lifelong love of fantasy and it reminds me of lazy summer days sitting on our apartment’s balcony porch reading.

J.J. Gow:  Thank you very much Sylvia to give me the honor to interview you! 

For more information about Ms. Sylvia Liu’s book and illustrations, please visit her websites at: http://www.enjoyingplanetearth.com/


Part VI:  The Mabinogion – Tales from Middle Ages

map-of-walesThe Mabinogion is one of the masterworks of world literature, and a must-read for anyone who wants to have an understanding of Celtic traditions. Lady Charlotte Guest translated eleven of these medieval Welsh folk tales under the title The Mabinogion in 19th century. ‘Mabinogi’, derived from the word ‘mab’, meant ‘boyhood’ originally. It then gradually came to mean ‘tale of a hero’s boyhood’ or simply, ‘a tale’. The title was created by Lady Charlotte Guest. The word ‘mabinogion’, which she assumed was the plural form of ‘mabinogi’. The term only appears once in the manuscripts she translated and it was dismissed as a transcription error.

The stories in Mabinogion were based on historical characters and incidents from the dark ages in Wales and its vicinity, embroidered with elements of supernatural and folklore. The tales have the themes of fall and redemption, loyalty, love, and  fidelity, etc.  The Mabinogion is divided into three categories: 1) Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi”), 2) Independent Tales from Welsh tradition and legend, and 3) Welsh Romances.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi consists of four heroic tales of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. A single character, Pryderi links all four ‘tales’. In the first tale, Pryderi was born and fostered, inherited a kingdom and married. In the second tale, he was hardly mentioned.  In the third tale, Pyderi was imprisoned by enchantment and then set free. In the fourth tale, Pryderi fell in battle.

Some portions of the stories were written as early as the second half of the 11th century, and some stories are much older. These older stories were the oral tradition of storytelling of many fantastic and supernatural tales came from. The White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425), a manuscript which is in the library of Oxford University, preserved all these stories. red-book-of-hergest

The everlasting  figures of Arthur and Merlin influenced by the Mabinogion. Moreover, it also provides the basis of abundant European and world literature, the fantasy fiction genre.


  1. The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (1877) first translation text
  2. The Mabinogion, Translated by Sioned Davies, Oxford World’s Classics
  3. BBC Society and Culture – The Mabinogion


Part V:  The Naked True Story of Lady Godiva


     Lady Godiva (also known as Countess Godiva) was wife to Leofric (Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry). Leofric was a man of great power and importance. They were parents to the famous English hero, Hereward the Wake.

There were various versions of the story of Lady Godiva’s ride, naked, through the streets of Coventry and the story has grown over the 900 years.

According to history, in 1043 Leofric and Lady Godiva founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St. Osburg’s Nunnery.  It was previously by the Danes in 1016. The monastery was dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Osburg and All Saints by Edsi, Archbishop of Canterbury. Leofric died in 1057 and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church. Lady Godiva survived another ten years and is also said to be buried in the church.

Lady Godiva donated the monastery with many gifts in honor of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that she melted down all her gold and silver to make them into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace her favored house of God.

So what is the naked truth behind the story of Lady Godiva’s ride naked through Coventry? Why would a lady of great standing do such a thing?

The legend has been handed down hundreds of years so the facts were smudged with fiction as people were romanticized by their love for Lady Godiva.

The earliest surviving source for the legend is the Chronica of Roger of Wendover for the year of 1057. Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to relieve the heavy taxes he imposed on the people of Coventry. Tired of her persistence, Leofric said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the town. Although the rest of the story was not documented, but it is said that so great was her compassion for the people of Coventry that Godiva overcame her fear of doing this. She ordered the people to remain indoors with their windows and doors barred. She loosened her long hair to cover her as a cloak, she mounted her waiting horse and she rode through the silent streets unseen by the people, who had obeyed her command because of their respect for her. Only one man, called Tom, was unable to resist the temptation to peep at beautiful Lady Godiva (hence the term ‘Peeping Tom’). He unbarred his window, but before he could gaze upon the lovely Lady Godiva, he was struck blind.

With completion of her ordeal, Godiva returned to her husband and the Earl fulfilled his promise to abolish the heavy taxes.


Part IV:  A Forgotten English Hero, Hereward the Wake (circa 1035 – c.1072)

hrwd1Hereward the Wake was known as Fenland’s most famous hero, a leader who led a revolt against Duke William the Bastard of Normandy or also known as William the Conqueror, who had seized the English throne after defeating the English army at the Battle of Hastings, and killing the last king of the English, Harold Godwinson, and the flower of the English nobility in the process. The real Hereward held lands in Warwickshire andWilliam the Conqueror Lincolnshire at the time of Edward the Confessor, left England sometime after 1062, and later reappeared to plunder the Abbey of Peterborough around 1070.

So where is Feland?  Feland locates in Cambridgeshire, England; however, the origin of the name Hereward was Danish. The word ‘Wake’ means Wary or Watchful. Hereward the Wake was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire to an Anglo-Saxon lord named Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva. And yes, his mother was the famous Lady Godiva who rode through Conventry naked and you can read about her legendary story in my other post.

Hereward the Wake Map

According to history, Hereward the Wake was wild in his youth and eventually, his father persuaded King Edward to make him an outlaw. He came back to England because of the news of the Normans had seized his father’s estates. Upon his return, he found not only the land was taken by the new Norman owners, his brother was murdered by them. With rage, he avenged for his brother and killed all fourteen Normans and later became a leader of a mixed band of English and Danish warriors.  Many joined him at his new base at the great Abbey of Ely.  William the Conqueror led his army to Ely, then an island in the Fens, and was stopped three times by Hereward in the attempt to build a causeway across the marshes. But the monks of Ely grew tired of the siege and let the Normans in by a secret path. Hereward rode his horse, a noble beast called Swallow, escaped with a handful of men and was soon leading a new resistance. Legend has it whilst mounting an attack on Stamford, Hereward the Wake and his followers got lost in the Rockingham Forest. St. Peter sent a wolf (a St. Peter animal) to show them the way out.  In addition, as darkness fell, lighted candles appeared on every tree and on every man’s shield as darkness fell.  The candles burned steadily without disturbed regardless how the wind blew. This was a token of the apostle’s gratitude for Hereward the Wake in sparing the abbot and returning part of the treasure to the saint’s own abbey of Peterborough.

Eventually William and Hereward made peace.  However, various versions of how Hereward the Wake story ended.  One version from Doomsday Book stated that Hereward the Wake lived as outlaws in the forests of the Fens for some time and held out against the Normans until King William was persuaded to make peace with him. Hereward the Wake was given his lands back.   Another version of the story was less happy that stated Hereward was betrayed by a chaplain, whom he had asked to keep watch while he slept. He let sixteen Normans broke into the house. Though Hereward killed fifteen of his attackers with his lance, a famous sword Brainbiter, and sixteenth with his shield, he was stabbed in the back by spears of four more knights entered his house.

No matter what was Hereward the Wake’s true fate in history.  He was greatly admired because he was a symbol of resistance to oppression and an English hero. Songs were sung and stories were told about him in taverns even a hundred years after his death.  Many people still visited his ruined wooden castle in the fens, known as the Hereward’s Castle during the 13th century.  However, he was ousted by another outlaw hero, Robin Hood, an English hero also resisted the oppression.



Part III:  Ulferht Swords

Vikings were fierce warriors, highly skilled navigators and traders.  The Viking warriors’ ultimate goal is to go a special place called Valhalla. In Valhalla, they would feasted and fighting in a warrior paradise.  The only way to go to Valhalla is to become a warrior and die in a battle with your sword in your hand.

Ulfberht_croppedA select few elite Viking warriors carried the ultimate weapon, a sword nearly a thousand years ahead of its time. The sword was inscribed with a mysterious word “Ulferht”.  Hence it was known as the Ulfberht Sword.  Strength, flexibility, weight, and shape determine how well a blade meets the combat challenges and its superiority.  Ulfberht Sword was consider the prize weapon in medieval time.   The sword was constructed by crucible steel which required melting iron in high temperature.  The swords were unusually flexible and not brittle as their counterpart, the medieval swords.  However, the technology was not available in Europe that time not until 18th century. The history of its creation has been lost. So how did the Vikings have the raw material for these superior swords?

First of all, how does a black smith harden the iron?  He would use charcoal on the raw iron and hardened the iron into steel. In addition, the black smith would add extra carbon by burning bones.  Historians assume the Vikings used burnt bones came from their ancestors or the bears. They believe that the Vikings’ belief by using these bones, they hammered in the power of the animals or their ancestors into the weapon, together with charcoal, they made a perfect steep blade.  Thus, some of these swords had names connected to a bear or a wolf because they were incorporated the strength of these animals into the swords.

The trade with the East, traders might travel through the Volga trade route from Lake Malaren in Sweden to northern Iran.  The route was open from early 800s to mid-1000s and historian found that the blades were dated around the same period.

During that period of time, warriors in central Asia had been fighting with swords made of crucible steel, known as Damascus steel blades, another class of Ulfberht.  They had the same composition but the crucible steel was cooled very slowly and iron formed large crystal.

When the Volga trade route closed in 11 century, the manufacture of the Ulfberht stopped.  So it is very possible the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran or they used the raw materials imported from central Asia.


Medieval Time Fun Facts (Part I)

Part I:  Medieval Time Daily Values and Practices (#medieval #KingArthur #knights)

As a child, I was fascinated with the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.  King Arthur had gone through different stages as a warlord of the forgotten period to warrior-king status. Then later, he played as a passive ruler while his knights swore into the fellowship of the Round Table.  The knights overcame monsters and enemies in his name. Their stories inspired people to think of the Age of Chivalry, where the tall, impenetrable castle overlooked the field of combats. People romanticize armored knights who embarked on a dangerous journey to prove their prowess and worth.

My current work is a fantasy novel of the adventures of three siblings that set in the Medieval Time of Umatia (a made up place that resembled England in its Middle Age).  The story is inspired by the values and virtues of the King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The medieval era stretched from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 to the start of the Renaissance nearly 1,000 years later. Many common practices or beliefs in the Medial Time seem to be oddities in our modern time.  Here are ten examples from the daily practice during that time:

  1. Medieval farm animals were smaller than they are today. Bulls were a little larger than a modern-day calf and sheep were about its one  third size today. Pigs were the main source of meat because they were plentiful and cheap.
  2. King Edward II banned an early version of football played with a pig’s bladder in 1314 because it deemed to be too violent and destructive.
  3. To prove ones innocence, people of accused were often subject to trial by ordeal.  Trial Trial ordeal, such as being burnt by a hot iron was common. This type of practice was often used until it was forbidden by the Catholic Church later on.
  4. People in the middle Ages had no forks. They used spoons and knives.
  5. To keep their teeth clean, people brushed their teeth by putting burnt rosemary on a cloth and scrubbed their teeth with it. Tooth extraction was extremely painful during that period of time when there was no anesthetic at all.
  6. It was high fashion to shave off one’s eyebrows in Florence during the Renaissance. This is can be seen by many famous paintings during that period of time, such as Michelangelo’s Mona Lisa, she has no eyebrows.
  7. Another mark of beauty was to have one’s veins show through on their face. It was a sign of translucent skin.
  8. Many women put a false “beauty mark” on their face. This mark was made of a circular patch of black fabric. When one applied it to the corner of one’s eye it indicated passion, if it was above the lip, it indicated a quality of flirtation; and on the forehead indicated magnificence.
  9. A peasant’s diet mostly consisted of pottage and dark breads. They seldom ate meat.
  10. Water was an unreliable and often cause spreading of diseases, so ale was the common beverage.

To read more about King Arthur and his Round Table Knights:

Medieval Time Fun Facts (Part II)

Part II:  Medieval Time Medicine (#medieval #medicine)

Have you wonder what happened during the medieval time when people got sick?  Did they go to a doctor and took medicine like us?  Our recent discoveries in science help us to understand origin of diseases, how they are being spread, and how doctors use modern medicine to cure or prevent the diseases.  But in Medieval Time, people did not have such knowledge.  Worst, the doctors treated the diseases in a way that did more harm than good to patients.

People believed that diseases were spread by foul odors and people believed that it was the consequence of sin.  Pilgrimages were more often made to cure ailments than for spiritual fortification.

Barbers doubled as surgeons and dentists. They would hang the bandages stained with blood outside their shops; the sight of these rags twisting in the wind inspired the modern-day red and white barber’s pole.  Although surgeries were commonly performed, many patients died from infected wounds due to the lack of analgesic, disinfectants, and antibiotics.

Influential physicians at that period of time, like Hippocrates and Galen believed that the human body was filled with four basic substances (“humors”): yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. These four substances needed to be kept in balance to maintain good health. Therefore, doctors would simply cut open a vein and drain some of their vital fluids into a receptacle. In some cases, more controllable bleeding used leeches to suck the blood directly from the skin. This type of practice could easily result in accidental death from blood loss.

People used oddities and poisonous materials to cure all sorts of illness. Cowebs were wildly used to cure warts.  And Mercury was used as a common elixir and topical medicine. Some healers even promoted the consumption of this poisonous mercury, sulfur and arsenic.  They believed that substances would help their patients to gain eternal life. One of the most famous victim was the Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who died after ingesting daily mercury pills designed to make him immortal.

The most deadly disease of Medieval times was the Black Death. It killed an estimated of 75 to 200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1346–53.  The Black Death was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships.  The disease spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe.  It was responsible for killing 30–60% of Europe’s total population of the time. Treatments for Black Death during Medieval Time included from bleeding, aromatherapy by carrying flowers or herbs to eating spoonful of crushed emerald mixed with food.


Hot Off the Press: Kayla Wayman, Teen Time Traveler: Lost in the Stream

Kayla WaymanAfter months of hard work from our CBW-LA leaders, Alana Garrigues and Nutschell Ann Windsor, our MG collaborative novella with 23 other children’s book writers, Kayla Wayman, Teen Time Traveler: Lost in the Stream is finally available in Amazon.

Kayla Wayman was created in April 2015 during the annual CBW-LA Story Sprout workshop. It was such an exhausting but crazy fun day of writing.  Although our instructors, Ms. Garrigues and Ms.Windsor kept us very busy in various writing project from 8 am till 6 pm with few short breaks and lunch in between, time flew by unnoticed.

There were 24 of us and when we were presented the picture of Kayla Wayman and a summary of Kayla’s background, I instantly fall in love with this quirky, sassy, energetic, teen time traveler.  Each of the writers was assigned a unique destination to send Kayla to an adventure. These adventures were weaved into chapters and line edited by Ms.Garrigues and Ms. Windsor. I would like to express my deep gratitude to Ms. Garrigues, Ms. Windsor, Ms. Staomle (copy editor) Ms. Magruder (Character Illustration Artist), Mr. Derrick, (typesetter) and Mr. Mallawaarachchi (cover designer), and the last not least, all the other 23 authors who make this book a reality. I cannot wait to read the book as our book launch party will be on Saturday, November 14, 2015.

Here is book synopsis of Kayla Wayman, Teen Time Traveler: Lost in the Stream from Amazon:

“Time travel to Victorian era London, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a Tokyo lab a whole millennium into the future might sound like a fairy tale life. But time traveling teen Kayla Wayman discovers that when the time stream holds her fate in its finicky grasp, it feels more like a nightmare.

Wanting desperately to prove to her mom that she’s grown up, she breaks the rule Time travel to Victorian era London, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and a Tokyo lab a whole millennium into the future might sound like a fairy tale life. But time traveling teen Kayla Wayman discovers that when the time stream holds her fate in its finicky grasp, it feels more like a nightmare.

Wanting desperately to prove to her mom that she’s grown up, she breaks the rules and time jumps alone. But a simple misstep throws her miles and decades away from her intended destination. Now she’s tumbling from city to city, through different time periods, directionless and afraid. Kayla must learn to master time and believe in herself, or she may never find her way home.”

I hope you will have as much fun reading the book as I did in creating the story.

ePublishing Your Children’s Books

boy reads on treetop

My writer friend, Billie shared a link regarding how to e-publish your children’s book on her Facebook page today.  Although I never try e-publishing on my own before, the article has some helpful advices.  I want try to e-publish one of my earlier children’s stories as e-picture book.  Stay tune, cause’ I’ll share my experience.  Meanwhile if you are interested in the article, here is the link:  http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Publish-a-Childrens-Ebook.  Please do share your experience in the comments area.  TTFN!