Interview with Sylvia Chen, Author of Tricky Chopsticks

By: Michele Kirichanskaya
Jul 5, 2024

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Sylvia Chen has also lived and worked in Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Paris, and Tokyo. She is an Asian American children’s book author and recently celebrated her debut picture book TRICKY CHOPSTICKS (illustrated by Fanny Liem and published by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster). She is the creator of #PBStudyBuddy, which features amazing picture books on social media for fellow creators, teachers, and librarians. Sylvia loves crafting picture books that spark kids’ interest in STEAM and creative thinking. To connect with Sylvia, visit her at or follow her @SylviaiChen.

I had the opportunity to interview Sylvia, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

Thank you so much for inviting me to interview with Geeks OUT! I grew up in Queens, NY, have always loved anything math- and science-related since I was a kid, worked in various places for software consulting and market research, and just recently celebrated the release of my debut picture book Tricky Chopsticks (published by Atheneum/Simon & Schuster and illustrated by Fanny Liem). I’m a forever night owl, love coffee, and usually have a fun DIY crafting idea in the works.

What can you tell us about your project, Tricky Chopsticks? What was it like to work on this book?

Tricky Chopsticks is a picture book about a young girl named Jenny Chow who has the hardest time getting the hang of chopsticks. The title popped into my mind around 2am in the morning in late November 2020, which was such a memorable moment! I had been working on writing picture books since 2015, and this was one of the fastest first drafts I’d experienced from idea-to-typing-it-down. With the diligent support of my two critique groups, this manuscript helped me to gain representation from my literary agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, who worked closely with me to strategically revise this story for submission through to a publication offer from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. It’s been an absolute dream to collaborate with my main editor Kristie Choi, and I love the hilarious illustrations by Fanny Liem throughout the book. Every stage of creating this book—from writing that very first draft, revising many times, peeking at character and spread sketches, reviewing copyedit suggestions, viewing the jacket design and F&Gs (folded and gathered) pre-publication, promoting on my social media, signing pre-ordered copies, through to launching Tricky Chopsticks with dear friends, family, and amazing community supporters at my local bookstore… I could go on and on—it’s all been such a thrill!

As a writer, what drew you to storytelling, specifically to picture books?

Looking back, I always loved reading so much. I remember going to the library a lot as a kid, borrowing the maximum number of books allowed, and reading so many books in my classroom at school to the point where I would start organizing them since I’d read them all. I’m not sure if they do this anymore, but I even have storytelling contest trophies from my elementary school years! Back then in 1988 and 1990, I was also the recipient of the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition Memorial Award. After elementary school, I somewhat meandered a path where I didn’t quite identify as a writer. In hindsight now, I can see how my writing evolved from those earlier years and my various jobs to have more of an informative-yet-creative style. Then it came back full circle when my oldest son inspired me to try my hand at crafting STEAM-based picture books when he was 5 years old.

What were some of your favorite picture books growing up? What are some of your favorite now?

I loved pretty much everything I read as a kid, so I don’t have specific favorites from back then. I have the same answer for now, since there are really too many incredible picture books to pick just one or a few! Each year, I read hundreds of picture books as mentor texts, and I regularly feature top picks with my #PBStudyBuddy reviews on social media. I’d say that’s the closest I’ll come to answering what my latest favorite picture books are—check out my #PBStudyBuddy posts!

Growing up, were there any books/stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

This is a really interesting question! When I started crafting picture books, I at first didn’t quite realize why efforts to promote more diverse characters were so important—I thought kids could identify with characters of any type, whether human or not, regardless of how similar that main character’s look was to them as young readers. However, after a *lot* of introspection, I realized that this “flexible” perspective stemmed from my own upbringing and non-diversified experience where I was the only (and later one of just two) child with Asian heritage in kindergarten, and I don’t remember any of the many books I read as a kid featuring someone who looked like me. It’s extremely heartwarming to see more books coming out now which center on kids from all types of cultural backgrounds, including mine!

How would you describe your general creative process?

I am very much a pantser (versus plotter) for how I create, whether for writing or DIY crafting. If there’s an idea or goal I’m trying to achieve, I like to brainstorm all the various possibilities and choose what feels most exciting or strongest to carry out the concept. Then I love tweaking and revising until it seems like I can’t make any more improvements. I find it very helpful to step away from a project and do something rote like getting ready for bed or driving to a usual spot. New ideas or solutions will often occur to me during those routine movements—it’s like magic!

As a creative, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general?

This is so tough for me to answer! I find inspiration from so many different sources, including from fellow creators, and from fun visuals too. I also find research very helpful to open up different creative paths and ideas.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or challenging? 

I love revising and finding fun ways to add more hooks and meaningful layers. I also really enjoy using literary devices like alliteration, assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia in my writing and including subtle puns or references too. What I find more challenging is the pace of the traditional publishing industry. If I take a step back though, I think part of the reason why it can feel so slow at times is because of all the behind-the-scenes efforts and care which help transform these beloved books into true works of art.

Aside from your work, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I love trying out new places for food and coffee, hanging out if there’s time, and chatting about random but fun ideas.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What was the title of the first picture book you tried to write? HI, I’M PI!

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring picture book writers?

Write what brings you total joy!

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I’m working on revising various manuscripts, and also recently announced my next picture book which is planned for Fall 2025 publication—SPARKLES FOR SUNNY: A Lunar New Year Story (illustrated by Thai My Phuong, published by Flamingo Books / Penguin Random House). It’s about a girl who is tired of wearing a same-old, hand-me-down qípáo (she has two older sisters) to the Lunar New Year parade year after year after year… It has a humorous and creative style, so I hope fans of TRICKY CHOPSTICKS enjoy SPARKLES FOR SUNNY too when it comes out!

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

Looking at my #PBStudyBuddy features over the past year, here are some that I especially love, in random order:

KADOOBOO! (written by Shruthi Rao, illustrated by Darshika Varma)

RA PU ZEL AND THE STINKY TOFU (written by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by Crystal Kung)

HOW THIS BOOK GOT RED (written by Margaret Chiu Greanias, illustrated by Melissa Iwai)

FRIENDS BEYOND MEASURE (written and illustrated by Lalena Fisher)

THE MANY COLORS OF HARPREET SINGH (written by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Alea Marley)

WEPA (written and illustrated by J de laVega)

ANNI DREAMS OF BIRYANI (written by Namita Moolani Mehra, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat)

THE PERFECT SUSHI (written by Emily Satoko Seo, illustrated by Mique Moriuchi)

CHLOE’S LUNAR NEW YEAR (written by Lily LaMotte, illustrated by Michelle Lee)

THIS IS NOT MY HOME (by Eugenia Yoh and Vivienne Chang)

But please check out my featured #PBStudyBuddy reviews, since there are really so many more amazing picture books and creators beyond those listed here!

Thank you so much again, I’ve loved this opportunity to interview with Geeks OUT!

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