Shining A Light Cover Reveal: A Talk with Author Veeda Bybee About the Trick With Collected Biographies
There is an art to a collected biography. I mean it truly! Not everyone can pull off a collection of famous folks with some connecting thread in common. Too often I see collected biographies where people appear to have just been thrown in there willy-nilly without much thought or consideration made to either the inclusion or the writing of the biographical information. It’s collective biographies like these that give the genre a bad name. All the more reason to highlight the books that are doing a good job of it.
Shining A Light: Celebrating 40 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Changed the World, written by Veeda Bybee and illustrated by Victo Ngai, is a nonfiction collected biography slated for publication on February 28, 2023 with Versify/HarperCollins. This marks Bybee’s debut, and when she reached out to me about possibly doing a cover reveal she wrote, “I also heard your Fuse 8 n’ Kate episode discussing Taro Yashima. I thought you might be pleased to know he is also featured in Shining A Light.”
Instantly I was hooked.
I am delighted to invite Veeda onto the blog today:
Betsy Bird: Veeda! Thank you so much for joining me to discuss SHINING A LIGHT. You yourself brought together forty different individuals of Asian American and Pacific Islander descent. So just to kick us off, how did you come up with the project in the first place?
Veeda Bybee: It’s a great honor to be here, Betsy! This project took roots in March 2020, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was balancing remote learning for my children and hunting down toilet paper, when my agent, Ann Leslie Tuttle, messaged me. She wanted to know if I had any nonfiction ideas. The agency was in search of positive projects during this time of uncertainty.
I immediately started thinking of possibilities. With the pandemic on my mind, I spent a good chunk of my day researching the history of toilet paper. I wanted to explore the possibility of turning this nationwide shortage into something educational and funny for kids. While I will never get back those five hours I spent looking into bathroom tissue, that time wasn’t a complete flush (ha!). Almost as an afterthought, I also sent in a pitch for a biography collection featuring Asian Americans.
Behind the stress of my new pandemic normal, was the true desire of my heart: to shine a light on the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. With the increase of anti-Asian hate crimes, this project was especially meaningful. It’s interesting how great ideas can follow the maybe not-so-good ones.
I’m grateful that the team at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret and Versify quickly found excitement for this project. Writing in collaboration with so many talented people has been a great experience.
BB: I’m still delighted that this all began with a toilet paper misfire. Of course, collected biographies for kids are still having a heyday, in spite of the fact that they’ve been coming out for a number of years. What do you think is their appeal in our current day and age?
VB: I think children gravitate towards real stories. As they read about real people, kids see themselves in the shoes of those who walked before them. They may ask themselves, “If I was sent to an incarceration camp in World War II, like so many Japanese Americans, would I be like a young George Takei, finding a glimmer of beauty during a movie night?”
While watching The Hunchback of Norte Dame, not only did George relate to the outcast Quasimodo, but he found himself whisked away to Paris. Far away from the swamps of Arkansas where he lived behind barbed wire fences with his family. In Shining A Light, kids learn how these movies impacted George during this difficult time. He would one day become an actor and use the power of film to create transformative experiences for others.
With sparse text and detailed illustrations, these biographies can pack a lot in one collection. Short paragraphs with pictures. What kid doesn’t like that?
BB: Let’s talk process. Do you have a rough sense of how many people you had to choose from? Did you start from a large number and work yourself down or did you start with your favorites and then research more people to add?
VB: I worked with Margaret Raymo at Versify for the majority of this project. It’s been wonderful to also have the editorial direction of Monica Perez as well. We started with 50 people and, through many revisions, added some and subtracted others. Finally, we narrowed the final number down to 40. It was hard to be so selective, but I loved getting to know each one of these remarkable individuals. Even those that didn’t make it on to the pages.
While working as a print journalist, I found that I really liked to do interviews. It has been a joy to discover the story behind each person’s journey. I think everyone has a spark about them. It has been an honor to share the light of these Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
BB: In the course of your research, did you encounter facts about anyone that surprised you?
VB: Betsy, you covered children’s book author Taro Yashima in your Fuse 8 n’ Kate podcast. I think you’ll appreciate the fact that Taro’s son Mako grew up to be an Academy Award-nominated film and voice actor. I was thrilled to discover that Mako was the voice actor for Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender. This is one of my most favorite characters from one of my most favorite shows of all time. I think children will like this connection to Uncle Iroh as well.
BB: YES! Uncle Iroh is my favorite as well! Hot leaf juice for the win! And speaking of surprises, I was floored to learn that the illustrator of your book is none other than the remarkable Victo Ngai. Were you aware of Victo’s work before being paired on the project?
VB: Victo’s work is gorgeous. Her work has such exquisite detail and I feel so incredibly lucky to have worked with her. I’ve mentioned this to Victo before, but when Margaret sent me the first sketches of these profiles, I cried in front of strangers at the airport. True, I was a bit bleary from a red-eye flight, but even the simple black-and-white sketches moved me.
Seeing your work with accompanying illustrations is always thrilling, but Victo’s vision hit differently. Over these past couple of years, I’ve spent so much time with these 40 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Each one of them have become important figures for me and Victo gives life to their portraits in the most beautiful way. I’m excited for readers to see these full color illustrations for themselves.
BB: Was there anyone you couldn’t include in the book for any reason?
VB: Fred Korematsu. I’m so sorry, Fred. Like I said, I had to make a lot of hard decisions to narrow down the list of subjects. Fred’s story has a special place in my heart but it has also enjoyed more visibility than most so I chose to focus on a few others whose stories needed to be heard.
BB: He has some fine children’s books out about himself already too. Finally, what are you working on next?
VB: I have my hand in so many things. I have a couple of middle grade fiction projects I’m working on and a cookbook proposal. I’m also part of Calling the Moon: 16 Period Stories from BIPOC Authors (Candlewick, 2023).
Writing is wild. One day, you’re a journalist. Years later, you’re a children’s books author, thinking of a humorous nonfiction project about toilet paper. Instead, you wind up with one of the most meaningful projects of your life – with a cover reveal featured by one of your favorite librarians. I look forward to seeing where this path takes me.
It’s such a delight to now reveal this truly extraordinary cover of Veeda and Victo’s latest. Behold:
A ton of thanks to Veeda Bybee for so patiently answering my questions. As I mentioned before, Shining A Light: Celebrating 40 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Who Changed the World comes out February 28, 2023 with Versify/HarperCollins. Look for it then!!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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