by Elaine Lau
Malaysian lawyer-turned-children’s books author Kimberly Lee was just trying her luck. In late 2020, she submitted her picture book in a Twitter pitch contest called PitMad in hopes of attracting the attention of US book agents and editors.
But the mother of two boys wasn’t expecting much “save for learning from the whole experience”, she recalls over an email interview with Lit Books. Lee had written a picture book set in a Peranakan household about a boy named Jin who volunteers to be a kitchen hand for his grandmother who’s cooking a big Lunar New Year’s eve dinner. His aunts dismiss him because the kitchen is no place for boys, but his grandmother thinks otherwise.
“My pitch suddenly took off and the retweets and positive comments started flooding in,” says Lee, who is managing editor of parenting platform makchic.com. “This then led me to connect with my agent, who submitted my book to several publishing houses for consideration in early 2021. Very soon after, Boys Don’t Fry attracted attention and wound up being sold at auction to my wonderful editor at Macmillan’s FSG. It was a bit of a whirlwind, to be honest.”
Boys Don’t Fry came out in December 2023. The story, beautifully illustrated by Singaporean artist Charlene Chua, challenges gender norms and celebrates intergenerational relationships. The author tells us how this all came about in our Q&A.
Can you share with us your background, and how you got into writing children’s books?
Writing has always been my first love. As an only child (with an overly-active imagination), stories became my first friends — along with my wonderful mother, who brought me up on a steady diet of magical, made-up tales throughout my childhood.
My love for storytelling ultimately led me down the path as a lawyer, where I remained in litigation practice for several years and placed my dreams of becoming an author on the backburner. After starting my young family, I took a step back from practice. Somehow, I stumbled back into my love for writing amidst motherhood, endless pandemic-induced lockdowns and finding new purpose in this new season of my life.
Children’s books serve as such powerful mirrors and windows for our young. To play a part, however small, in shaping young minds and guiding them through their understanding of the world, is the greatest privilege.
What was the impetus to write Boys Don’t Fry?
I’ve always had a deep love and respect for the wonderful food and family I grew up with and Boys Don’t Fry is the culmination of this. This book serves as a fond love letter to my Peranakan/Nyonya upbringing and was born from a desire to share and showcase this culture, its colours and its magnificent cuisine to a greater audience.
More importantly, at the heart of this story is a message about honouring the desire in every child’s heart to feel seen, valued and included.
Admittedly, great chefs run in my family — I was brought up on tales of how my great-grandmother’s dishes would practically bring grown men to rapturous tears — and my mum, aunts and other family members are continuing this same tradition. I love cooking as well, though there’s such a specific art and painstaking detail to Nyonya dishes… I still have much to learn!
Boys Don’t Fry is your second children’s book after What If?, which introduces children to the concepts of body boundaries and personal safety. Was it easier or more challenging to write a story versus a nonfiction book?
Both mediums present their own unique sets of strengths and challenges. Boys Don’t Fry was a story that contained some elements of my own personal experiences, so in a sense, that made it easier to communicate. That being said, my challenge was to present this subculture and the story’s intended message in a way that was universally understood.
As for What If?, this book is unique in that it contains both fictional and non-fictional elements. While it is rooted in non-fiction, there are still fictional and even, fantastical elements in the scenarios posed, which allow a young reader to think about their possible reaction to events that range from the silly to the more serious.
With the book’s discussion guide, my co-author Liyana Taff and I had to carefully ensure that the information contained was reflective of the research we undertook (our content was guided and informed by the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child, the Protective Behaviour Framework for personal safety and The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s (UK) PANTS rule), as well as the extensive consultations we had with experts such as Child Protection Officers, child psychiatrists, teachers and NGOs. So it was the research process, more than anything else, that was the most time-consuming (although ultimately, rewarding).
Tell us about the illustrator Charlene Chua and how she came to be on this project. What was the process like working with her to bring your story to life?
Charlene was a delight to work with — there was honestly no one else I could have imagined serving as the illustrator for Boys Don’t Fry. Charlene had left a comment in a tweet expressing her excitement about there being a book centred on Peranakan/Nyonya culture, and once I sold this manuscript, I knew immediately that I wanted her on board as the illustrator! Being from Singapore herself (and with a great-grandmother who was adopted into a Peranakan/Nyonya family), Charlene was familiar with the nuances of our Southeast Asian way of life and brought the book’s characters and setting to life in such a vivid and authentic way.
It was also such a fun process working with her on ensuring accuracy in the book’s illustrations — from finding references from old personal family photos, to taking videos from my visit to Melaka’s Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum to give her a “feel” of the space as inspiration for the book.
Are you working on your next children’s book? If yes, could you share what it would be about?
Yes! I’ve just announced my upcoming book, 100 Days, which will be released by Macmillan in Spring 2025. It’s a story that centres on the traditional 100-day celebration observed by many Asian cultures (including the Malaysian-Chinese community), and follows the journey of a newly minted big sister as she grapples with the arrival of her baby sister. As the days go by, she slowly discovers a love that deepens with time and learns to embrace sisterhood through the changing seasons.
Locally, with the wonderful team at makchic and the brilliant Delia Razak as illustrator, we’re currently working on a book on internet safety for kids (featuring several characters from the same universe as What If? and serving as a follow-up in an ongoing picture book series) and aimed at a 2025 release.
Boys Don’t Fry is available in-store and online.