Best-selling picture book author Joanna Ho is back with the follow-up to her critically acclaimed debut, Eyes that kiss in the corners (2021). Of Eyes that speak to the stars (Harper, Feb. 15), Ho continues with her trademark “poetic celebration of body diversity, family and Chinese culture,” as our review puts it. Ho spoke to us via Zoom from her office in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a high school vice principal. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to write a sequel to Eyes that kiss in the corners

My editor introduced the idea. I hesitated for a moment because I don’t want to intentionally gender books. It really bothers me when people say “girls’ books” and “boys’ books.” What about non-binary people? I hope people can find universality in all books. But when I thought about it, I realized that my son would like to have a book in which he can see himself as well. If there was an opportunity to increase representation in books, why push it away? I thought about Asian guys, Asian men and the stereotypes that have been so dominant and paint such a limited and inaccurate picture of who we all are. I hope that young boys and men – fathers, uncles, grandparents – can see themselves in the story too.

Eyes that speak to the stars begins with a painful incident at school for your young boy’s main character, in which a friend takes an offensive photo depicting him with slits for his eyes. Why did you choose to open there?

Being bullied and fooled is a journey many of us go on, so I tried to put it in the first book, but it didn’t work. In this second book, I wanted to make it clear that this is happening and has a profound impact. There’s a fine line of “Maybe” [the friend] didn’t mean it. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be hurtful.” I hope [the book] can open up a conversation for young people, with families and in schools, about why this kind of micro-aggression is hurtful and racist and how we can talk about it and prevent it in the future.

Who do you see as your ideal reader?

I write because I hope young Asian children see themselves in stories. On the one hand, realizing the Asian community’s thirst for stories that represent us has been life-changing. Eyes that kiss in the corners changed me as an educator and as a person. Back in the day as a writer, I would have said, “I hope everyone can see themselves in my stories.” I hope that, and I also hope that people like me, who have never seen themselves [in stories] as we grow up, that we see ourselves in these stories. There is a third Eyes book about adoptees. While I am not an adoptee, I hope this resonates truthfully. [Another book in progress,] Say my name is about the beauty of our names and pronouncing them correctly. It is not specific to Asian readers only, [and] I hope it appeals to many people. I believe that picture books are for everyone, including high school students, college students, parents and teachers.

So now, with three picture books ready (including those from 2021 Playing at the Border: A Story of Yo-Yo Ma), what do you hear from your readers, both children and adults?

My three favorite things that I will hear as a patron are, first of all, young children or adults refer to their own eyes as “eyes kissing in the corners.” I love that, to think that we can change the vocabulary. We are not “slit eyes”; our eyes are not “slanted” or “almond shaped”. I also hear from adults who tell me they bought [the previous Eyes book] for their children, who said, ‘That’s you, Mama. That’s me, Mom.” They literally see themselves in the book. I’ll also get a version of, “I don’t even have kids, but I bought it for myself and all my sisters and my mom, and we all cried when we read it. I wish I had this when I was a kid.”

Speaking of word choice, how do you find such precision in your writing?

I always think of What is my ultimate goal? and plan from there. I knew I wanted to follow a theme of looking up and how our eyes tilt up and play with language. For the theme of the book I didn’t want gender [the message] and say that boys are strong and girls are beautiful. That’s not the message. In the first book, I hope the powerful message gets through, and in the second, I went back and forth with my editor and wondered if I should just say, “Guys should be pretty too.” Ultimately, it was this idea that we are powerful, we are visionary, we can see a future that we can change to make it better than the past.

Hannah Bae is a Korean-American author, journalist and illustrator and winner of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award