Carmel Valley woman breaks into children’s book market
Pam Fong’s publication paves way for more major releases
Pam Fong’s family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when she was 2.
From an early age, Fong spent many hours in libraries. She immersed herself in the vividly-colored, large-print books with easily read narratives catering to young children.
Five decades later, the Carmel Valley resident is reveling in the recent publication of her first children’s book, “Rou and the Great Race,” which she wrote and illustrated.
“Our sanctuary was the library,” she said of her childhood. “It was the one place where no one could talk. Everyone was equal. No one knew we didn’t know the language.
“The only people that do the talking there are the books. I discovered picture books there. I know for a fact that I have always wanted to be a picture book writer.”
After coming from Taiwan to Youngstown, Ohio, Fong’s family eventually moved to Southern California.
She earned her bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego. She went to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she received an arts management degree. That led to a career in museum administration, including a stint as associate curator at the San Diego Museum of Art.
In her off-hours, Fong crafted many “dummies,” in other words rough drafts, of children’s books.
It wasn’t until she showed her work at a conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators last year that she experienced a breakthrough.
Fong’s sketches caught the attention of an editorial director for the publisher of New York-based Reycraft Books.
“He happened to fixate on this character Rou, which I didn’t have the full story for,” Fong said. “I only had a character study of her in the portfolio.”
The director asked Fong to meet with him the next day and inquired about her story line.
“I really had to make it up from the top of my head, because I had not written it down yet,” she said. “It had been stewing in my mind, but I just hadn’t had time to write it down.
“But you fake it till you make it. I told him the story and he said, ‘That sounds great. Can you send me a dummy?’”
Fong said she stayed up two days to create a full-fledged dummy to meet the publisher’s deadline ahead of an acquisition meeting.
When she received an email with a subject line indicating her proposal had been accepted, she was too excited to open up the message.
“I started screaming; I lost my mind,” she said. “I had to have my son open the email and read it. I didn’t even hear what he said. I didn’t know the details. I didn’t know the amount. I just was so over the moon.”
“Rou and the Great Race” is an anomaly in the children’s book world. Fong describes it as a “dystopia.” It is set in a world ruled by a repressive regime.
Rou lives with her grandmother and her pal is a robot. Rou and fellow children endure a trying experience under the circumstances, but she manages to convert it into a positive outcome.
“I wanted to write the story that tells kids like, ‘Ok, you’re not going to win, but then, what are you going to do about it?’” Fong said. “I kept thinking, kids don’t always get a happy ending. Adults don’t always get a happy ending.
“And what are we supposed to do with it? So this story is about what are we to do when we are faced with the ultimate disappointment.”
Whereas the art in most children’s books consists of bright, primary colors, Fong’s book is a contrast red details and flesh tones with a mostly monochromatic background in various shades of gray.
Fong pays homage to her cultural roots by depicting Rou and her grandmother as generically East Asian.
One scene shows the grandma tending a shop with Rou in the back doing homework while the robot looks on.
“My immigrant story also appears in it,” Fong said. “(Rou) is raised by her grandparents. ... So many Asian children that come here and their parents open shops, so they’re raised in the back of the shop. They do their homework there..”
Also, Fong said, there is an environmental aspect to her book’s narrative.
“All picture book stories are meant to help kids navigate their life,” she said. “That is no small responsibility.
The publication of “Rou and the Great Race” has led to other opportunities with major publishers. Fong now is working on a wordless picture book that she said is scheduled to be released by Penguin Random House in February.
“This book too is about the environment. ... I rely on nature to recharge my batteries. So it’s very distressing to see what’s happening. A lot of my stories tend toward highlighting the environment, which kids get instinctively.”
Another project is scheduled for release in the next year or so by Harper-Collins. This book, says Fong, focuses on mental illness.
She also plans to do a chaptered work, which in contrast to the typical 300-word children’s book, would contain about 3,000 words.
In the publishing world, Fong’s acceptance by major New York publishers is rare. Yet, rather than obsessing about marketing and book sales, she views her success as an opportunity to keep on creating. She remains focused on her objective as an artist and her commitment to communicating to children.
“This is my one chance to get it right for those little minds,” Fong said. “That’s critically important.
“If I get it wrong or slightly right, that doesn’t work. You want to get it right because we’re relying on those little minds to solve so many problems. We have to equip them properly.”
More information on Pam Fong and Reycraft can be viewed at pamfong.com and reycraftbooks.com.
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