Today we welcome Natasha Yim, author of Cixi, The Dragon Empress.
Natasha Yim is a children's book author and freelance writer. Her first book, Otto's Rainy Day was published by Charlesbridge Publishing in 2000. It was selected as a Kids' Pick of the Lists. She has written for Highlights for Children, Appleseeds and Faces magazines, and her new picture book biography, Cixi, The Dragon Empress was released by Goosebottom Books in October 2011.
About the book: The last empress of China, Cixi fought ruthlessly to isolate her country from the West, while cloistered inside her lavish Forbidden City, ignoring the needs of her people. But was the Dragon Empress evil or just out-of-touch?
Gorgeous illustrations and an intelligent, evocative story bring to life a real dastardly dame whose ignorance brought a centuries-old dynasty crashing down, ending the imperial system that had ruled China for millennia.
Kai: What age range is your book for?
A: 9 –13 year olds.
Kai: Can you share a memory of yours or a story from when you were that age?
A: My family lived in Singapore and Hong Kong at that time. I was about 10 and a half years old when we moved to Hong Kong. We lived in a neighborhood where there were few kids mine and my sister’s age (she’s 4 years younger than me), so as the older sister, I made up a lot of games to entertain ourselves. I was really into reading Enid Blyton’s kid mystery books like The Famous Five and The Secret Seven series, so at one point I formed a “detective” agency where we’d pretend to solve mysteries. We had code names from animated shows like “Scooby Doo” and “Muttley” and would sneak up and spy on people like my great-grandfather’s chauffeur who would spend much of his time when he wasn’t driving, washing the car or reading the newspaper, so it wasn’t very interesting. And we weren’t very good at the sneaking up part so he always knew we were there. I think he thought we were weird kids, peeking out from behind other cars and watching him. The biggest thrill for us was sneaking into the empty construction site next door. There was a guard house there and we thought we were so clandestine sneaking past it so the guard wouldn’t see us, until one day, he did and shouted at us and scared us half to death!
Kai: What a charming story! Sisters are the best, aren’t they? Natasha, how has life changed for children today from when you were that age?
A: I think that it’s a much less simple and innocent time for kids than what it was 30/40 years ago. Kids are exposed to a lot more unpleasant things at an earlier age through easier and increased access to media, parents have to work more to make ends meet and are home a lot less, and kids are a lot busier with activities, so family time has been curtailed or limited. As a parent, myself, it’s hard sometimes to carve out time we can all spend together as a family. Even sitting down to a meal together can be challenging at times with sports schedules and music lessons etc. I think kids (and parents) also have more to worry about. When I was growing up, we could play outside, ride bikes to the store or stay out of the house for hours at a time and our parents didn’t really worry too much. Nowadays, there is such a concern about sexual predators that it’s stolen the innocence of childhood from our kids.
Kai: How is life still the same?
A: I think that you can still create some of that family “togetherness”, but it’s a lot more challenging, and as a parent, it takes more work and creativity. I live on 5 acres in a nice, quiet neighborhood, and I know all my neighbors, so I’m lucky that my kids can still run outside and play without my having to worry too much as long as they’re still on our property. I love the summer months when it stays light till late and they get to be outside longer. I love poking my head out the door and calling them in to dinner. It has that whole Ma and Pa feel of Laura Ingalls’ time. Also, my kids aren’t allowed to watch T.V. or play video games on school nights so if homework is all done and there are no other activities going on, we can still get in a board game or read together.
Kai: What was your favorite toy or activity when you were that age?
A: I remember loving my rubbery Gumby and Pokey toys because I can move their arms and legs and take them into the bath with me. I also had this memory game that had the world flags on it, and we had fun learning the flags of the different countries. There was also a board game called Uncle Wiggily that I loved to play with my mom and sister.
Kai: What inspired this book and how did you decide on this age range for your book?
A: Cixi, The Dragon Empress is one of six books in Goosebottom Books’ second series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Their first series was The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, aimed for kids, particularly girls, 9 – 13. So, the target age range and theme for the series was decided upon by the publisher, Shirin Yim Bridges, who is also the author of Agrippina one of the “dames” in the series. She was looking for history books for this age group about princesses who were the antitheses of the Disney princesses who sit around looking pretty and waiting for their prince to rescue them, but couldn’t find any, so she decided to write that series herself. It was very well received by parents, librarians, and teachers, and she wanted to put out a different kind of series about real women, but this time those who have gained more wicked reputations, but were also women who wielded great power at a time when women had very little say at all. The writers chosen for the project (through a national call for submissions) were asked to give their first and second choice of dames. I picked Cixi because in the last few years, I have been more interested in getting in touch with my cultural roots and heritage and I wanted to know more about Chinese history.
Kai: Finally, I have four kids. Over the years, they’ve attended a lot of birthday parties. I love the idea of building a theme gift around a book. If you were to give a gift basket to a child based on your book, what else would be in the basket besides (your book’s title)? Feel free to include pictures of the gift basket if you want to get really industrious. If you do, I need them sent in jpg format as separate attachments, please. But, a picture is not required.
A: This is such a great idea! I think I would include things like a Chinese almond cookie (individually wrapped), some rose or chrysanthemum tea bags (Cixi loved tea infused with flowers), a Chinese fan, some pretty nail stickers or nail polish, if the basket is for a girl (Cixi grew six inch long fingernails as it was a fashion statement for women of high rank. There’s even a story in the book where she flew into a rage and gouged a manservant with her nails), a paper Emperor or Empress crown, and maybe a strand of fake pearls.