March 16, 2022

Birth Stories for Books: EMET'S BOX, by Jeni Chen

Hello readers! Settle in for an encouraging and inspiring path to publication story in today's edition of Birth Stories for Books. My guest is Jeni Chen, author and illustrator of EMET'S BOX (Little Press, April, 2022). 

Written and Illustrated by Jeni Chen

Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, Jeni. I’ve enjoyed reading about your publishing journey for your debut picture book, EMET’S BOX, on your blog, and I’m delighted to be able ask some specific questions about your experience here. 

You’ve mentioned that you wrote EMET’S BOX because as a mom and school visitor you’ve witnessed that kids are naturally creative but sometimes they “try to hide themselves to conform to what the adults want.” Can you share more details about any specific interactions with / observations of kids and/or experiences in your own life that sparked the idea for EMET’S BOX and motivated you to move the idea forward to fruition?

Jeni Chen: I love working with children because they always surprise and delight me with their awesome creations. In my workshops, I try to give them some directions but not too much so they can find their own creative expressions. It is so much fun to see kids making art that were totally outside of my expectations. But sometimes, I see parents telling their kids how to draw something “correctly.” I once saw a lively boy just clammed up when his artwork was being compared to that of his older sibling’s. I am not saying that I am a perfect parent. Maybe Emet’s Box is a reminder to myself that kids are so brilliant that if we encourage them to be themselves, to try different things and not afraid of making mistakes, that there are more possibilities than what we could’ve imagined for them.

DP: That's a really beautiful perspective. 

Can you share with us the process and timeframe between your initial idea for the book and the manuscript and/or picture book dummy that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor?  

JC: I first had the idea for Emet’s Box in 2016 when my son was 5-year-old. It started out as a little message to my son when I realized that kids have this magical light radiating from them and if I allow this creative curiosity in my son to grow without smothering it, it is going to become something amazing. A few months later, I woke up around 4am in the morning with this story in my head and I couldn’t fall back asleep. I wrote down the idea in the dark on pieces of scrap papers and kept it in my bedside table. Two years later, in 2018, I took a picture book illustration class and decided to work on the story. I joined SCBWI and went to my first SCBWI conference in 2019, found my publisher through #PBPitch in 2020 and finished the illustrations in 2021. The book will be released on April 1st, 2022.

DP:  Wow! That's quite a journey! 

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?

JC: In my mind, I consider the notes that I scribbled at 4am in the morning my first draft. But I had a version zero that was more like notes to myself and a message to my son. The first draft went through many critique groups and I had many versions after that but in the end, I came back to this original flash of inspiration at the break of dawn. There’s a quote by Rumi that says, “The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep!” It made me believe that there’s something greater out there guiding us and that children instinctively know how to listen to it (if the adults were not trying to shout over this voice). I just realized that the story of Emet’s Box came from the breezes at dawn and that the main message of Emet’s Box is to listen to this breeze at dawn and your name is Dawn!

DP: And this Dawn loves Rumi's work, too! (and I absolutely agree with the sentiment of that quote.) 

You are the author and the illustrator of this book. Do you have an equal affinity for both aspects of the picture book making process, or is there one side of the equation that you prefer/lean into more naturally? 

JC: Sometimes I ask myself this question: Am I an artist or a writer?

I think I am more of an artist because I’ve always love to draw since I was a little girl. When I got older, I started writing and making up stories to entertain my friends. English is my second language so I know I have to work on it. On the other hand, I thought illustrating would be easy. I thought I could make the dummy book for Emet’s Box in a few weeks but it took me half a year. And I learned that it is A LOT OF WORK to illustrate a picture book!

Interior Image from Emet's Box by Jeni Chen

DP: Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication? 

JC: Can I list a few? 

DP: Absolutely! 

JC: I would have to say taking a picture book illustrating class helped me understand the basics and that led me to joining SCBWI and meeting all the wonderful kid lit creators who helped me and encouraged me along the way. One of my kidlit critique groups suggested #PBPitch where I connected with my publisher. 

DP: Another #PBPitch success story. Whoo-hoo! 

EMET’S BOX portrays Asian characters and customs while taking readers on Emet’s journey of self-exploration. Can you share some of what it means to you (as an artist, as a parent, as a human being), to be able to bring an authentic, #OwnVoices story into the marketplace? 

JC: I have to thank my publisher Michele McAvoy of The Little Press for bringing up the topic of representation. At first, I just wanted to use all sorts of colors for my characters’ hair (and clothes) but incorporating elements of my culture into the illustrations has made the story even more meaningful to me. Actually, when I was working on my draft, Emet was wearing shoes inside the house. When my son saw that he told me no shoes were allowed inside the house and asked me to change it. I think kids do pick up on the details like that and I appreciate the opportunity to bring forth a story with Asian characters that were not just about Asian cultures.

DP: I suspect you will be telling that story about your son at author visits for many years to come! 

In addition to writing and illustrating picture books, you engage in a practice called Art Journaling (a term I’d not heard before), and you have a webcomic series about family life with your school-aged son. Are there ways in which these different creative practices/outlets contribute to your work as a picture book author/illustrator? 

JC: Art journaling combines drawing and writing, kind of like a picture book. It also reminds me of what Michael Crichton mentioned in his biography Travels that if you usually write, try drawing; if you usually draw, try writing. I think it’s a way to stimulate our brains and to try different things. Emet’s Box is also about encouraging kids to try different things and to find what makes you feel alive. I used to draw comics when I was a kid but stopped for a long time. Drawing comics again about my son makes me feel happy and alive. I hope kids can remember what made them happy when they were young. Even if they forgot (like me) that’s ok, as long as we look for it again. 

DP: That's an encouraging reminder.  

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?

JC: I would not tell my pre-published self anything. I think making this #OwnVoice picture book made me look back at my life. I may have wondered what if I had made different choices at different points in my life. But I realized that whatever happened, they happened for a reason and all those choices made me who I am today. I would not tell my pre-published self anything because she can learn and forge her own way. I love what Joseph Campbell said about the Knights in search of the Holy Grail that “Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure.”

DP: That's such a freeing perspective, Jeni. Thanks. 

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

JC: I want to share that just before Emet’s Box was picked up for publication, it was the beginning of the pandemic and we were in lock down. I remember very clearly that I was sitting on the sofa, reading a book, with my son and my husband sitting nearby. Somehow, at that moment, I felt this genuine contentment and that there was nothing more I could ask for. Somehow, I think this feeling of contentment has something to do with me getting the publishing contract. So I try to remind myself to appreciate whatever I have in my life right now.

DP: Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

JC: I am working on some public art projects, visiting schools to teach the kids about the immune system through art. I am looking forward to doing school visits for Emet’s Box. I do have an idea for my next picture book but it is still in the marinating-in-my-brain stage. I am listening to my breezes at dawn for that flash of inspiration.

Image Source: Jeni Chen

DP: May the breezes be seasoned with sweet inspiration, indeed!

Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for EMET’S BOX with us, Jeni!

Friends, the best way to thank an author whose insights have been helpful and/or intriguing to you is to support their work. Buy their books. Request them from your library. Read and share them with others.  EMET'S BOX is available everywhere books are sold. Here are some pre-order links:


Jeni Chen was born in Taiwan and moved to Canada with her family when she was a teenager. As a kid, Jeni loved to draw but stopped when she decided to pursue a more “practical” career in science. After the birth of her son, Jeni started drawing comics about the funny things her son said or did. Jeni returned to school and obtained a Fine Art Certificate from Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Since then, Jeni has been selected for numerous public art projects and has been invited to lead various art workshops in her community. 


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 BloomsWhere 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  

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