For Writers

Interview with Celeste Lim, author of The Crystal Ribbon

In a story set in medieval China, Celeste Lim brings a young girl of exceptional heart together with the animal spirits of ancient myth to overcome a dark fate. Wed at age eleven to a three-year-old,  Jing’s life seems like a dismal sentence, and yet it is full of surprise and adventure.  In the interest of full disclosure, Celeste began weaving her tale while in my class at Manhattanville College’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. From the first evening she read aloud, her writing voice captivated  me and I felt certain that her tale was destined for publication. And now that it’s here, I get to interview her!

Would you tell us a little about your writing background and early writing experience?

Growing up in Malaysia exposed me to a myriad of languages at a young age. We learned Bahasa Malaysia, our national language, in class; English was a compulsory subject as well because we were colonized by the British; and I went to a Chinese school because of my heritage. Therefore, what I has been exposed to growing up taught me that English books were written for and about Western people; Chinese books were written for and about Chinese people; Malay books for and about Malay people, and so on. So naturally, when I attempted to write my first English novel at age seventeen, I wrote a story about three fair-skinned, red-haired sisters who live in New York City, a place I’d only ever read about in books and saw on TV. That manuscript has been sitting in a hidden folder on my computer ever since.

How did you come to write Jing’s story?

Your first class focused on writing from our unique reservoir of seminal experience. I remember how groundbreaking it felt to me to realize that I was actually allowed to write about what I knew in a language that was supposedly foreign to my culture. That was a huge turning point in my writing journey and was also how Jing’s story was conceived.

The Crystal Ribbon’s magical creatures or jing, are important elements in the story. Could you explain more about them here? Did the jing characters spark your imaginyation as a child? Do you have a favorite jing?

This is one of my favorite things to talk about! Just like beings such as fairies and mermaids, jing are mythical creatures that sprung from the lips of storytellers, and since then have consistently appeared in ancient and medieval Chinese literature. The existence of jing came from the Taoist idea that through enough spiritual training, anything is able to attain a higher level of existence. Jing are non-human creatures that, after a hundred years of spiritual training, have attained the ability to speak, and a human level of consciousness and intelligence.

Because these ideas are so much a part of our mainstream religion, as a child I took them for granted, being more intrigued by gnomes and fairies. But now I do actually have a favorite jing–the huli jing, or fox jing! Other than being a very handsome creature, it feels like a very complex character, having the potential to be equal parts good and evil, which is why I chose it to be my character Jing’s unlikely friend.

Although Jing’s world contains magical helpmates, she couldn’t escape being sold into marriage at age eleven. At the hands of her three-year-old husband’s family, she suffers many cruelties. Were these scenes difficult to write? Explain how you approached them.

The novel actually started out as a third-person narrative. As a person living almost a thousand years later, I found it difficult to write in a way that helped me connect intimately to those experiences. But when my editor suggested I switch to first person, the barrier seemed to disappear. First person is not my writing strength, but in this point of view, I was forced to experience everything as Jing.  I found that the words in these scenes came easier and sounded more authentic, raw, and immediate.

Although The Crystal Ribbon is set in medieval China, Jing could be a role model for girls today. What qualities do you think serve her best?

I’ll name two of the traits that I admire in Jing, resilience and introspection. I believe her resilience stems from hope, something that she carefully preserved and did not let her hardships extinguish. Initially, her hope might be that things will eventually change for the better on their own, but I think it is her introspection, her constant self-examination, that allowed Jing to discover the strength to change the course of her life.

Having a first book published can be both thrilling and daunting. Since this is your first experience with having a book published, what surprised you about the process?

It was surprisingly less stressful than I anticipated! I am admittedly a bit of a Hermione Granger when it comes to things I’m unfamiliar with. I remember researching and reading up tons about the publishing process and hearing many anecdotes of bad publishing experiences from fellow authors. But fortunately, I have a good working relationship with my editor. I believe that is a huge reason why I feel safe and reassured in her hands.

Animal-Human Connection: Creating Compelling Animal Characters

Over the last twelve years, my husband and I adopted and raised three rescue dogs.

After spending more than two decades of my life in India without pets, it began to occur to me that animals could become our family, teachers and healers when we were thousands of miles from our dear ones.

My reason for writing a thesis on this topic for my MFA program at VCFA was because of my growing desire to understand their emotions and incorporate them into my own fiction.

Let’s take a look at some books that show us these things:

  1. Can animal characters in novels lead rich emotional lives?
  2. How do authors draw a line between imagination and reality?
  3. What makes readers care?

Animal stories fall into at least three different categories –

1. Where animals act just like humans like E.B. White’s Stuart           Little.




2. The second category is where animals are secondary characters and behave more like themselves like because of        Winn-Dixie.


3. The third category is where animal characters stretch                   believability, and the reader feels the inner life without               turning the character into a human like Charlotte’s Web.


In these three categories of books, the animal characters make a connection with the readers and show us their behaviors in the environment they evolve in.

Now, we will look at three contemporary middle-grade novels –


The gorilla in The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate



The pig in The Adventures of A South Pole Pig by Chris Kurtz



The hound dog in The Underneath by Kathi Appelt



I will focus on some of the tools these authors use to draw the reader into the emotional core of the animal characters.

What do the three novels have in common?

  1. In many ways, they are a close reflection of Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web.

First, like Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web, Ivan, Flora and Ranger are held captive by their human friends. Second, like Wilbur, Ivan, Flora, and Ranger have minimal or no conversations with human beings. Third, Ivan, Flora and Ranger have best friends outside their species, just like Wilbur trusts Charlotte, the spider. Fourth, all these stories have animals as main characters.

  1. These books have also gotten a strong reception from readers, reviewers, and other critics. They have been nominated for state lists and won prestigious awards, and have received starred reviews from well-acclaimed review journals in children’s literature.

Making readers fall in love with a character isn’t easy, especially if the author is avoiding turning the animal into a substitute human.

So, how do these authors make readers care?

  1. The authors put their animal characters in extreme conditions.

Ivan is forced out of his natural habitat and is kept in a strange, unfriendly enclosure with no access to nature.

Flora is displaced from the security of her barnyard to the extreme living conditions in Antarctica.

Ranger is tied and chained underneath the porch by his cruel human owner.

  1. The authors use metaphors to help the reader feel the inner life of the character.

Through various metaphors, the reader discovers how Ivan might see the world and his sensibilities through his point-of-view, the deeper emotions and struggles of Flora, and the tender emotional core of Ranger.

  1. The authors also show the characters’ feelings using real animal characteristics including these:
    1. Odors
    2. Vocalizations
    3. Body Language

Ivan uses odors to understand the humans around him. He also watches TV, draws pictures and sometimes he throws me-balls at the humans coming to see him. Ivan knuckle-walks and uses his movements, bared teeth expressions and chest-beating to communicate his intentions.

Flora uses odors to form perceptions about her environment. Flora also responds to feelings of surprise and shame with her sounds. Sniffing objects, nosing, massaging, nibbling, scampering, rubbing, stretching and yawning are her common body language signals.

Ranger’s use of smells shows us how he feels around his friends and his abuser. His vocalizations show us his suffering in isolation of living in the underneath. Ranger also exhibits feelings of love towards his kitten through the process of licking.

Applegate, Kurtz, and Appelt had three different animals to work with, and they use methods and tactics that give Ivan, Flora and Ranger their own actual stories.

Ivan’s story is one of empathy, empathy for humans and animals with hope that we can all commit to changing our world.

Flora learns to be the best at being herself. Kids struggle the most when they must be popular and liked by everyone to be successful in school, so they connect with the theme, which is being who you are while stretching for what you long for, and watching out for the help that will come along to help you on the path to your dreams.

The Underneath is also a story of empathy. It is a moving story that brings an unusual family of animals together in unity and danger, and the reader feels huge empathy for these animals and relates with them at a human level.

These novels belong to a beloved category first developed by authors like E.B. White where these craft elements provide opportunities to develop empathy, respect, sympathy, and make the readers care for the animal characters. Most importantly, they intensify the emotional pathways – between animals and humans, between the animal characters and the readers. They help writers create work that is memorable and makes a true animal-human connection. Do you have a favorite book that fits into any of the categories discussed above? Share with us in the comments below.


I had the opportunity to attend the 33rd annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University in early April.  The event is the longest-running event focusing entirely on multicultural literature for children. One of the highlights of the program is the awarding of the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award. This year’s honoree is Pat Mora, author of over forty books for children, teens and young adults.

Pat is also the founder of El día de los niños/El día de los libros, (Children’s Day/Book Day), or simply Dia.

I must admit, that despite being directly involved in children’s literature for nearly twenty years as both children’s book festival founder ( and children’s book author, I knew nothing about Dia.

So, what is Dia? And what can we do as writers of children’s literature to participate and promote the initiative?

Dia’s roots began in 1925 at the first World Conference for the Well Being of Children in Geneva, Switzerland. Children’s Day was established after the conference, intended to bring attention to children’s issues. Many countries, including the Soviet Union, encouraged the publication of children’s books.

The Parade of the Red Army, Soviet Union, 1931.

In 1996, Pat Mora proposed connecting the celebration of children with literacy. The following year her concept was endorsed by REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking. The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) is now the home to Dia.

Dia is intended to be a daily commitment to connecting children and families to diverse books, languages and cultures. April 30th is designated as the culmination of the year-long celebrations.

Libraries across the United States celebrate Dia with book clubs, bilingual story times, and, (yay!) guest appearances by children’s book authors and illustrators.

ALSC has a website, where book suggestions, toolkits and great resources can be downloaded to help with a Dia Celebration. Check it out:

The website has a locator tab to find a Dia event near you:

Pat offered in her comments to the audience at Kent State University that we in Ohio were not doing enough to spread the mission of Dia. There is only one event listed in the national registry in my home state. Pat is right. We can do more.

My hope is to somehow bring together a collaborative effort to celebrate Dia with our partner library system, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, and our Claire’s Day event. Stay Tuned.

What will you do to support this important mission of connecting children with books? Perhaps you could read of one of your works at your local library. Or, maybe volunteer to share multicultural books with children at your nearby school. Or, even just share the Dia website with your local school and/or library.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book Fiesta, written by Pat Mora, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.