We were so sorry to hear about the recent passing of beloved children’s book author Andrea Cheng. Andrea passed away on December 26, 2015 at the age of 58 following a long illness. Born in El Paso, Texas to Hungarian immigrants (including a Holocaust survivor), Andrea was the versatile author of over 20 books for young readers as well as the director of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.
In 2000 LEE & LOW had the honor of publishing Andrea’s very first book, Grandfather Counts, a story inspired by her husband’s childhood experience growing up without being able to communicate with his Chinese relatives. The book was chosen as a Reading Rainbow Selection for its sensitive portrayal of a multigenerational immigrant family. Andrea followed Grandfather Counts with the picture book Goldfish and Chrysanthemums, an honest look at a grandmother’s homesickness when she leaves China to live with her children in America.
Through her stories, Andrea explored both the challenges and joys of immigrant families as they navigate multiple cultures–and sometimes make hard decisions. In her chapter book Only One Year, Andrea portrayed the custom of immigrant parents who send their young children to live with family in their home countries for a year or two. In the afterword, she wrote, “The idea behind this story may seem unusual, but it is not as uncommon as you may think. Some parents in the United States might find it hard to imagine being separated from their young children, but attitudes about raising children are sometimes quite different in other countries, especially Asia and Africa.”
Andrea’s books are notable for their honesty and sensitivity; while they do not shy away from the painful aspects of immigration, they are buoyed by the deep love that keeps immigrant families close even in challenging times.
Perhaps nowhere is that honesty and sensitivity more powerful than inAndrea’s book Etched in Clay, a biography in verse of Dave, an enslaved potter and poet who lived in South Carolina in the early 1800s. Etched in Clay, which received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Award for Children’s Poetry, is a masterwork in empathy, featuring poems not just from the perspective of Dave himself but also from his wife, owners, and even a member of the South Carolina General Assembly. “When I worked on this book, I spent a lot of time feeling choked up and I couldn’t talk, or if the phone rang, I choked up,” Andrea told School Library Journal in an interview. “It was the separation, the scenes where people are separated from people they love.”
Our Editorial Director Louise May worked closely with Andrea for many years. Here is how she remembers her:
Andrea Cheng was a dear friend and cherished Lee & Low author. Our relationship began in March 1999, when I acquired the manuscript that became her first published children’s book, Grandfather Counts. It was also the first project I acquired at Lee & Low, having joined the company just two months earlier. So, together we both began new chapters in our careers. We went on to collaborate on five books ranging from picture books to a novel in verse. One incident that remains fondly in mind occurred when we were working on our second book, about a Chinese American family. The main character and her grandmother are preparing dinner. I suggested omitting the word “the” in a sentence that reads, “I stood next to her, washing the rice.” “No,” Andrea pointed out. “In Chinese families, it is always ‘the rice.’” And now it always is for me too. Andrea and I bonded over other areas of our lives as well. We found out that we both attended the same university (although ten years apart!), and we faced personal challenges at the same time in our lives. We visited each others homes and shared our family stories. She welcomed everyone she cared about into her own family, and I am honored to have have been one of those people. Andrea was a multitalented writer deeply committed to building stories around diverse characters and experiences, and a caring and loving human being. I am honored to have known her and worked with her for so many years. She will be missed.
Andrea will be missed by all of us at LEE & LOW who loved working with her–in addition to being a talented author, she was a truly warm person who made answering her phone calls and emails a pleasure. Even business emails from Andrea often ended with phrases like “Hope your summer is going well!” or “Thank you so much for sharing this with me.”
In an interview several years ago, Andrea wrote, “My main hope is that people who read my books are moved by them, affected by them. I hope that they will think about the characters and events long after they have finished reading or listening to the stories.” Here’s an excerpt from one of Andrea’s poems in Etched in Clay that we think says it best:
Someday the world will read
my word etched in clay
on the side of this jar
and know about the shackles
around our legs
and the whips
upon our backs.
I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word
can never be erased.
And if some day
this jar cracks,
my word will stay
etched in shards.
A few of our favorite interviews with Andrea Cheng:
NPR Interview with Andrea Cheng (podcast)
If you knew Andrea or if you loved her books, feel free to share your memories in the comments below.