January 19, 2022

Birth Stories for Books: Just Like Flowers, by Jenny Jiang

Hello readers! It's time for our first Birth Stories for Books interview of the new year. Today's guest, Jenny Jiang, shares her experience self-publishing her debut picture book, JUST LIKE FLOWERS, which came out in September of 2021.

Image Credit: Jenny Jiang

Dawn Prochovnic: I’m so glad to have you on the blog, Jenny, and I’m really looking forward to learning more about your debut picture book, JUST LIKE FLOWERS. 

Jenny Jiang: Thank you so much for having me! I’m really excited to share the Birth Story for "Just Like Flowers."

DP: I’d love to hear how the idea for this story came to be. Reading your bio on Amazon, I understand that you noticed the lack of representation in children’s literature and wanted to embark on a book-making project as a way to do something about it. Can you share more details about what motivated you to move the idea forward to fruition?

JJ: Of course! I embarked on this project my junior year of high school in December 2020, when I organized a winter-themed Zoom event with elementary schoolers in the Portland area. Before the event, I explored a LOT of children’s books for the storytelling station. When I flipped through the pages, my artist’s eye noticed the lack of diversity in the characters. After the event, I went to the School Library Journal, which confirmed the invisibility of children of color in children's literature: only 25% of picture books include children of color. 

Infographic Source: School Library Journal

This realization triggered my favorite picture books as a child: Pinkalicious, Fancy Nancy, Knuffle Bunny. As an Asian American, my younger self didn’t feel a connection to any of the white-illustrated characters in these books. When children of color view literature without characters that look like them, they internalize this omission as a devaluation of their importance. The underlying cause of the underrepresentation is the lack of authors of color.

When I saw the smiles of the children of color I read to, my heart urged me to step in and make my own children’s book with children of color. This is how “Just Like Flowers” started. This picture book features an Asian American girl as the main character with different races as side characters. The book is perfect for children of color to read to see themselves in a picture book and also helps white children embrace multiculturalism.

Image Credit: Jenny Jiang

DP: What an inspiring back story! How impressive that you took such deliberate and prompt action to address a problem in the world! (As I mentioned in one of our email conversations, for folks who are likewise interested in working to address the lack of representation in children's literature, We Need Diverse Books is a great place to get started: Web, IG, and Twitter.)

I’m curious how you came to the idea of exploring "the value of human differences through the unique metaphor of flowers.” I’ve written in previous blog posts about how this metaphor likewise played a role in the inspiration for my picture book, LUCY’S BLOOMS. Was there a distinct interaction or experience that inspired you in the direction of this particular metaphor for human diversity?

JJ: Lucy’s Blooms is such an adorable picture book! 

DP: Thank you!

JJ: For "Just Like Flowers," I heard a really beautiful quote in a movie: “the next time that you see a flower, just remember that part of what makes it beautiful is how long it took to grow.”

I wanted to center my picture book around appreciating human differences, ranging from race, height, and body shape. My goal for the book was to combat beauty standards and spread the message that every feature is beautiful.

I knew that books teaching this already existed out there, so I wanted my book to teach this message in a unique way. As I looked at picture books online, I figured the best way to uniquely teach this lesson is to develop a metaphor that I create. I remembered the quote in the movie, and my mind started making root connections.

I connected the beauty in flowers, a concept kids intuitively understand, to the beauty in humans. I looked at all the types of flowers as if they were people. Flowers have different colored petals and take on different shapes and heights, just like humans. As I started the brainstorming process, the metaphor kept blossoming.

Image Credit: Jenny Jiang

The metaphor took a long time to grow, but I think it blossomed perfectly as it approaches appreciating human diversity in a new way.

DP: Wow, Jenny! That's a fantastic example of how the seed of an idea can germinate and take root! Thank you so much for sharing that. 

When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

JJ: In “Just Like Flowers,” Julia paints herself in her art class, and when she discovers no one has purple paint, she becomes upset about her unusual purple hair. When I first conducted character study on Julia, she actually had brown hair, like most Asian American girls!

Image Credit: Jenny Jiang

After peer feedback, I implemented an amazing idea to give her an unusual yet memorable feature: purple hair. This unnatural color for her hair helps draw attention to kids.

After Julia becomes frustrated with the lack of purple paint, her teacher explains the flower metaphor. Originally, I planned for the narrative to end after the metaphor, but then I wanted to tie the story back to the original painting scene. I developed the idea of mixing her friends’ paint bottles together to make purple paint.

Image Credit: Jenny Jiang

This end scene helped tie the entire book together. When I asked one kid her favorite part of the book, she said it was when Julia got purple paint to paint her hair. When I do storytimes, I ask the kids to guess how Julia finishes her painting, and I get super excited when they guess it correctly!

DP: What a great example of how peer feedback and incremental revision can really bring out the heart of a story.

Were there any specific resources you utilized (for example, software, reference books, online classes or tools, etc.) that were most helpful to you along the way?

JJ: I looked at many examples of published children’s books to understand their plot structure, sentence phrasing, and illustrations. This process helped immensely. I learned that there’s no right way to make a picture book after I saw a lot of the books varied in text and story complexity. This experience was transformative because I approached all these children’s books with a more mature, nuanced, and artistic perspective than when I was younger, and I found that whenever I go to bookstores now, I look at picture books differently than before I became a children’s book author.

As for the actual creation process, I used Procreate on my iPad with my Apple Pencil to illustrate. Procreate is really intuitive to use, and it helped me produce amazing artwork! I used Adobe inDesign to add the book’s typography.

Image Provided by Jenny Jiang (taken April, 2021)

DP: Thanks for sharing these helping details.  

Your bio indicates that one of the things you enjoy is working with kids. Based on what you've said above, it sounds like you've had the opportunity to share your book directly with young readers. Can you share more about what that experience has been like for you?

JJ: Of course! I have done author visits to pre-school and elementary school classrooms, and I discovered that doing read-alouds is my favorite part of this entire process. I can feel the contagiousness of the kids’ excitement as their eyes glue to the pages and raise their hands. When I visited my own first grade teacher’s classroom (after 10+ years!), I felt so happy to educate the future generation of society this important message while illuminating children of color. I am eager to continue reading my book to young kids and directly see my book’s impact to foster enthusiasm.

Images Provided by Jenny Jiang

DP: That's great, Jenny. I'll bet your first grade teacher was delighted to welcome you back to their classroom! And I couldn't agree more--reading your own book directly to kids is one of the most fantastic aspects of being an author. 

It’s my understanding that you are currently a senior in high school. Do your future plans include writing/illustrating more children’s books and/or further pursuing your general interests in digital art, creative writing, storytelling, and/or working with kids?

JJ: Yes, I’m a senior in high school! In the future, I would love to continue creating children’s books! I’m more invested in the illustration process, so I’d love to illustrate future children’s books, possibly with traditional publishers.

When I’m in college, I plan to continue volunteering with kids because I love their energy and vitality. After each read aloud session, I always step out of the room happier than how I came in. One child who read my book was super star-struck to learn that the picture book was published by a high schooler. It’s fulfilling how I’m able to serve as a role model to young kids.

Image provided by Jenny Jiang

DP: You are an excellent role model, indeed! 

If you're not already a member of SCBWI, and/or Willamette Writers/Young Willamette Writers, I encourage you to give these organizations a look as you seek to further your goals related to traditional publication (both have networks targeted directly to students.) 

JJ: That's so cool! I'll definitely check those organizations out."

DP: In your Amazon listing you indicate that those who purchase JUST LIKE FLOWERS are "taking one small step to promote diversity in children’s books!” Have you engaged in any book promotion and/or marketing activities that have been especially effective in terms of growing book sales?

JJ: As a self-published children’s book author and illustrator, I’ve handled a lot of the marketing. So far, I’ve sold 150+ copies of the book. I find that marketing on community sites helps a lot, as many members of the community love to support local authors, especially high schoolers. I’ve also reached out to elementary schools, where I read aloud my book to educate multiple kids at once. My book is also in local community libraries for kids to check out. My goal is to make my book well-familiarized with the Portland community, and then I will continue sharing my book to those outside my local area.

DP: Sounds like an excellent strategy!  

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier and/or are there any lessons you've learned along the way that could help others who would likewise like to write, illustrate and self-publish a children’s book?

JJ: This is a really great question! I would tell my past self to continue working, despite the amount of work that the book may seem like it requires at times. Frequently, I had late night sessions where I spent hours illustrating but felt like I didn’t get any work done. My brain also filled with doubt that if some adults weren’t able to self-publish a children’s book, what can a high schooler do? There were many times when I was close to giving up, but I remembered my original mission and the smiles of the children of color, so I kept on illustrating. The work at the end is really worth it, as I get to see all the children enjoying your book! Another lesson I would tell myself and to all potential children’s book authors is to not let anyone get in the way. When I first expressed interest in this project, a few family members weren’t supportive, hesitant that the book would fail to get sales. While their discouragement did make me hesitate for a couple of days, I still decided to embark on the project to help children of color see themselves in books. Now that I’m in the marketing phase of my book, I feel proud that my book proved my original discouragement wrong and has surpassed over 150 sales.

DP: This is such excellent advice, Jenny, for creative folks in all ages and stages of their careers. I'm sure your experience is going to inspire many other prospective authors and illustrators to keep working on their creative projects to bring their goals to fruition. 

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for JUST LIKE FLOWERS that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?

JJ: A fun thing to learn about my book is that some of the illustrations were implicitly illustrated based on REAL elements of my life.

Here is an example of one page where Julia and her friend hug, which is eerily similar to one of my favorite photos of me and my friend hugging. This was unintentional, and I immediately showed my friend after I made this connection.

Images provided by Jenny Jiang

The flower box, which appears in many of the pages’ backgrounds, is inspired by a planter box in my neighborhood!

Images Provided by Jenny Jiang

I love how I was able to integrate little snippets of my life into my children’s book.

DP: I love all the little behind-the-scenes details you've shared! 

And thank you so much for sharing your Birth Story for JUST LIKE FLOWERS with us, Jenny. I wish you much success with this project!

JJ: Thank you so much for giving me this platform to share my story! I hope I was able to inspire future children’s book authors and illustrators!

DP: I have no doubt that you have, indeed! 

Dear readers, if you have been inspired by Jenny's story, please consider adding her book, JUST LIKE FLOWERS to your personal collection. You can find it here. Can't add another book to your own collection? Ask your local library to include it in their collection and/or share this post with a friend. 


Jenny Jiang is a senior at Sunset High School in Portland, Oregon and she loves creative writing, illustrating, storytelling, and spending time with kids! Jenny is passionate about Asian American representation in literature, and her debut children’s book JUST LIKE FLOWERS takes one step to promote diversity in children’s literature. Jenny is looking to study Business Administration during undergrad, specifically concentrating in marketing. Outside of school, Jenny loves to perform in Speech and Debate, where she continues to spread stories advocating for Asian American social issues. 


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms, Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at www.dawnprochovnic.com.