Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eva. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Eva Chen: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I am super in awe of your rainbow stacks behind you.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you. They’re all over. This is my pride and joy. They go all the way up.

Eva: You have the dream-state of a library.

Zibby: Yes. On Instagram the other day, I posted, I was like, I don’t buy shoes, I buy books. You’re all about fashion. I am not. That’s not my strong suit. Books is my addiction.

Eva: The only thing you need to make that library even more perfect is a ladder like in Beauty and the Beast when Belle swings with her arm. You know the scene I’m talking about?

Zibby: Actually, growing up and still in my mother’s apartment, she has a library that’s a maroon-y color, and she has a ladder. In fact, it actually does this weird thing where it folds up. It’s an antique. I don’t know if I could go there.

Eva: I think you should just embrace the Beauty and the Beast life and get a library ladder. I truly dream of having a floor-to-ceiling library with a ladder. With two very young children, three and five, not good to have ladders just hanging out.

Zibby: I have four children. My youngest is five. He likes to climb up this chair and try to grab books all the way at the top when I’m on Zoom.

Eva: My son does that too. I’ll turn around and he would literally somehow be at the top of the bookshelf, but there’s no climbing surfaces. He literally, like Spiderman, scales the bookshelves. It’s constantly stressful. I’m always like, where is he? What’s going on? One of the characters in my first book series, Juno Valentine, is named Finn Valentine. He’s always getting into trouble. He was a little bit inspired by my three-year-old son, Tao.

Zibby: There’s no lack of material when you have little kids. I feel like every day, I’m like, this could be a book. That could be a book.

Eva: It’s really like a zoo. It’s a constantly circus, zoo, anything chaotic. It’s 2020, chaos.

Zibby: Chaos squared or something. So you have had this whole fashion career. You were the editor-in-chief of Lucky, which is so cool. I loved that bag. In fact, I went to some event once a while ago, and they gave out these free Lucky totes. I used it all the time. It had pink letters on a white tote. This is ages ago.

Eva: It was probably the event Lucky Shops.

Zibby: I don’t know what it was. You know how sometimes a tote just makes it into your rotation for whatever reason? It’s the perfect length or weight or something. Anyway, that was my bag for a long time.

Eva: Wonderful. I was at Lucky for two years. I was a magazine called Teen Vogue before that, which is the woke little sister version of Vogue. I was there about seven years. I was at Elle magazine before that. Now I’m at Instagram working on the fashion team there. Really, it’s this been weird path from — I’m a first-generation American. My mom was always very fashionable. I never thought I would end up working in fashion. Now to work in the tech world, it’s all been this crazy adventure that I never would’ve predicted. It’s a very windy path to where I am now. Now I’m writing children’s books, which is a dream in life. It’s come to true.

Zibby: I saw on one of your Instagram posts that you said that’s really what you wanted to do. People were surprised by that. All you really want to do is write children’s books.

Eva: I remember when I left, I think it was Teen Vogue that I left. That probably was about seven years ago. Amy Astley was the editor-in-chief then. She’s now the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest. It was Amy Astley I did an interview with, and Anna Wintour who was the editorial director of Teen Vogue, being the editor-in-chief of Vogue. I remember both of them were like, “Tell us about your experience. Where do you see yourself? What is your goal? What is the dream?” Most people say something like, I want to be a stylist or I want to be a designer or I really want to be an artist or whatever it is. I was like, “I just really want to write children’s books. It’s my dream.” They were both like, “Oh, we have not heard that one before.” I think it’s because I grew up kind of feeling — as a child of immigrants in this in-between state of, I’m living in America, I’m very proud to be an American, but I speak Chinese purely at home. English was not my first language and still is not my parent’s primary language. There was this sense of feeling like, I don’t know where I fit in. I don’t know where I belong.

I think that I always turned to books as a place that — they didn’t know my background. I just could fit into these worlds. I read books, probably like a lot of young ladies and now gentlemen read. The Ramona books, Beverly Cleary, they really informed a lot of my personality. Now as a mother, I remember reading those books and thinking this is the perfect little girl. I see those traits in my daughter where I’m like, I love her spunkiness and quirkiness. I think back, it’s like, oh, my gosh, I wished this. I wished for this. I wished for a girl like Ramona Quimby. I read books like The Babysitter’s Club. I got a signed copy of Baby-Sitter’s Club, Kristy’s Great Idea, from Ann Martin around the time Netflix launched their series. I think they sent out first editions because that would be just way too much for me. My brain would explode. Then when I got it, I was like, oh, my god, I can’t believe Ann Martin touched this. I’ve always been a book nerd. It’s truly so exciting. It’s truly a dream come true to be writing children’s books. Sorry, Zibby, I literally talk in run-on sentences. I talk a lot.

Zibby: I love it. That’s the whole point, is getting to know you. If you weren’t talking, this would be a very awkward conversation. I am interested in what you’re saying, so don’t worry about it. This is great. I just want to hear. So Roxy the Last Unisaurus — is that what it’s called? So amazing.

Eva: Yes, Roxy the Last Unisaurus Rex. It’s my new baby. I’m very excited about Roxy.

Zibby: It’s adorable. I love it. I love the message and the illustrations and the whole thing. It’s just so cute. It does come, again, from this place of feeling alone a little bit, like an outsider of sorts. Do you feel like that came from what you were just referring to, your first generation-ness?

Eva: It was interesting. I wrote Roxy when my daughter who is now five, almost six — she’s always loved dinosaurs, always gravitated towards dinosaurs, would see dinosaurs on a onesie and would be happy, plays with t-rexes and stegosauruses, always running into my room asking me, “Have you seen the triceratops?” I’m like, “I just stepped on it.” Those three horns, not so comfortable on the feet. I really wrote Roxy because she had an incident with a friend who was like, “Don’t you know that girls don’t like dinosaurs? Girls like princesses and unicorns.” She was kind of crestfallen. It was a cool, older friend who was probably seven at the time. She was like, “Is it true? Am I not supposed to like dinosaurs? Am I only supposed to like unicorns?” She likes unicorns too, but not like the passion she has for dinosaurs. That’s how the idea of Roxy really came about. You can like dinosaurs. You can like unicorns. You can like both. Why not make a dino-corn like a unisaurus rex? It’s interesting because when I announced the book, it must have been in March that I announced it, a lot of people found different meanings that resonated with them.

I had some followers reach out. They were like, “Is this an allegory for being biracial?” I was like, could be. Then I had other followers say, “I’m the parent to a non-gendered child. Is Roxy about that?” I’m like, honestly, okay. That’s the magic of children’s books. People read children’s books and they’ll find what they need from it. In Harry Potter, the Room of Requirement, where Harry and his friends can only find this room when they need it and it gives you what you need at the time, I think that’s the thing with children’s books. They should allow kids to see themselves in a myriad of ways. Roxy is trying to figure out where she fits in. She doesn’t fit in with the regular triceratops. The stegosauruses and triceratops don’t want to hang with her. The velociraptors just run away from her. It’s about finding her place in the school. Yes, dinosaurs go to school. It’s, I hope, a story that a lot of little kids will take some comfort from. It’s also funny and weird. There are lots of pop culture references. Of course, there’s a Mean Girls reference. Of course, there’s a Royal Tenenbaums reference because you got to have those easter eggs for the parents so that they’re not bored out of their minds reading the same book for the six thousandth time.

Zibby: Thank you for that on behalf of all parents. Tell me about the publication of your first children’s book. How did the whole journey begin? I know you wanted to do it. When you sat down and did it the first time, tell me about that.

Eva: When I was at Teen Vogue, a mutual friend introduced me to my now book agent, Kate. I was a beauty editor at the time. I was focusing on skin care and beauty tips and self-esteem. I wrote a lot about health issues for younger women. She was like, “I really want you to write a book that’s a biography and then also tips on style and advice.” I was super behind on that. Every year, it’s like she had a calendar invite to remind me to be like, where’s that book? Then finally, one day I emailed her. “I have my book. I wrote it.” She was like, “Oh, my god, thank you.” I was like, “It’s a children’s book.” She was like, “Not what I was expecting.” That book was Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes. It’s about a little girl who loses her favorite pair of shoes. Then she travels through time and space to find her shoes and encounters icons from Gloria Steinem, Anna Wintour, Yayoi Kusama. It’s kind of a fashion feminist fairy tale in a way. We have Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes. The sequel to that is Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure. Then I have two board books. One is called A is for Awesome. The new one is called 3 2 1 Awesome! It’s coming out on the same day as Roxy, which is a little — did not expect to have two books coming out on the same day. I love these books. The board books have become — I’ve seen a lot of teachers add them to their classrooms. I feel like that’s the highest compliment as an author.

The new book has Megan Rapinoe and Rhianna and Greta Thunberg on the cover. There’s a lot of diversity in it from Twyla Tharp and Temple Grandin to Sonia Sotomayor, Zaha Hadid. Spoiler alert, Sonia Sotomayor is in it, and Ada Lovelace. We try to have different women and their accomplishments. A lot of people say it’s a little girls’ book. It’s a great book to give little girls. People should buy it for their sons too. I’m not just saying that because I’m an author and I want you to buy my books. I went to an all-girls school, as did you. I do think there’s this element of the earlier you’re exposed to the accomplishments of women, the better. That shouldn’t just be for girls and empowering girls. You want little boys to grow up knowing, hey, a woman can be an executive. A woman can be a supreme court justice. She can do many things. She can be an activist. She could be a pro soccer player. It’s just about exposure. Kids learn through osmosis. They learn when you expose them to things. I have strong feelings about this.

Zibby: It’s true. Kids should learn that anybody who accomplishes something really cool should be celebrated and used as a role model, man or woman. It’s absolutely true, a hundred percent. It shouldn’t have to be like, look, women can do it too. It should just be natural, like, yeah, look, look at what these awesome women did.

Eva: This year is obviously a really weird, stressful, dramatic, traumatizing, let’s throw in all the alarming adjectives in there. It’s been a really rough year. Normally around this time, I’d be setting off on a book tour. For each of my books, I’ve gone on ten to fifteen city book tours. I go to these events. Really, you feed off the energy of these readings and all these young children, and especially young girls, and seeing that they see themselves in a book. I’m not doing that this year for obvious reasons, COVID. I realize on these book tours, honestly, that not every child hears that message that you should dream big, you should go after what you want, you can achieve great things. That’s a luxury. I’ve been doing a lot of fundraising for public school teachers recently. It’s a cause that’s really close to my heart. I do hope these books send that message to children even if they’re not hearing it in their personal lives and in their own lives.

Zibby: Absolutely. By the way, I actually went to an event of yours for A is for Awesome at Bloomingdale’s with Darcy Miller. I brought my girls to this event because I’ve known Darcy for a long time. In fact, she was also on this podcast. I tried to get your book, but the line was so long. People were around through all the different aisles of Bloomingdale’s to sign up and get your book. I was like, who is that? What on earth? What’s the line?

Eva: I’ll send you a signed book. Come on. I really love signing books and writing messages. I had a lot of books growing up. My parents always were very generous with books. I didn’t really have any signed books growing up. I met the author of — I don’t know if you’ve read the Dory Fantasmagory series. It’s a great early reader chapter book for kids. My daughter loves them. The author’s name is Abby Hanlon. It was at this bookstore called Books of Wonder, which is my local bookstore. It’s this gem of a bookstore in the Flatiron District.

Zibby: I’ve been there. It’s great.

Eva: So great. It’s been open for like forty-five years. It’s only children’s books. I spent a lot of time there when I was researching my books. Also, it’s this magical meeting spot for authors. I bumped into the author of Dory Fantasmagory. I fangirled out so hard. It was so awkward. I was like, “Oh, my god. Wait, I have to come back. I have to bring my daughter.” She was like, “Okay.” I was like, “I love you. You’re such a great writer.” Anyway, she signed all the books. It was very special to have something that the author touched and that has a special message for the child. I think that’s the best gift.

Zibby: Totally. I went to this Brooklyn Book Festival event, Children’s Brooklyn Book Festival last year. All these authors were there. My son had just gone to boarding school. One of his favorite authors who — now I’m blanking on who wrote New Kid who’s super famous. I cannot believe I’m forgetting his name. Anyway, he was there. I was like, “Hey, could you sign a book? You’re my son’s favorite author right now. Maybe even, could I video a message where you’re like, ‘Don’t be homesick. It’s all good.’?” He did.

Eva: That’s so sweet.

Zibby: It was amazing. Vashti Harrison came over and drew a little monkey for son.

Eva: So cool.

Zibby: I know. I love all this stuff. I’m so into it. I have the coolest gig going here, I have to say. If you have a fangirl author syndrome as I do as well, this is the greatest thing.

Eva: I remember going to BookCon or BookExpo. For the people listening, it’s like Comic-Con, but for books. I met Jodi Picoult who has written, as you know, just reems of books. I remember being like, “Oh, my god. How do you do it?” She was so nice. Now we’re Instagram DM friends. It’s always weird because I’ve had these books in my homes, apartments, etc. When you meet the person behind it, it’s almost mythical. I am more starstruck by authors than I am by actors and actresses and models. I’m so used to meeting — this sounds very — I don’t even know what it sounds like, but I’m very used to fashion and models and designers. When I meet an author, I’m like, oh, my god, it’s Roz Chast. I can’t talk to her, no, no. People will be like, “Go talk to her.” I’m like, “I can’t talk to her.” I’m awkward. I don’t know what to say. I am often like that. I met the author of The Day the Crayons Quit, which has literally been on The New York Times since like 1882. It’s been on the New York Times children’s books list forever. Oliver Jeffers is his name. I was super like, oh, my god. He’s this cool guy with tattoos and a beard. He’s Irish. I was like, I did not know these things about you. It’s fun to put a face to a name on a spine.

Zibby: I could not agree more. Actually, I’m interviewing him next week.

Eva: Great. We share a book birthday, which is, not going to lie, slightly daunting. My new book, Roxy, comes out the same day. I was like, “What day does your book come out?” He was like, “October 6th.” I was like, okay, my book is coming out the same day as literally one of the most celebrated children’s book authors of this generation. Not that it’s a competition. Little Roxy has spirit. She has glitter coming out of her unicorn horn. She has a tutu. She has a lot of things going for her.

Zibby: I actually think it’s a good thing because people, if they’re going to go get his book somewhere, your book will be out on the table if people go to a bookstore right there. It will bring them to shopping for children’s books at that moment maybe more than on a random day.

Eva: Listen, your mouth to .

Zibby: We’ll see what happens.

Eva: We’ll see what happens. It would be amazing. I’m excited about this book. She’s very sassy. I think that little kids will really like her.

Zibby: Absolutely. I actually have a two-book deal with Penguin Random House for children’s books also. I have two coming out.

Eva: Wow. So exciting. When?

Zibby: Not forever. Probably sometime 2021/’22. I’ve already written it. It’s a series about a girl named Princess Charming.

Eva: I love that. Children’s books, I did not realize when I was going into the process that it is long and slow. People are like, it’s a thirty-two-page book, why does it take so long? You have no idea. Literally, I’m talking with my editor about 2022. It also depends if it’s a picture book. Yours sounds like a chapter book, maybe.

Zibby: No, it’s a picture book.

Eva: Picture book, okay. It takes longer than you expect. Then all the details — do you have the illustrator already?

Zibby: Yes, but she’s working on something else. It’s a whole thing.

Eva: It can take a while. Right now, because I’m sure by the time your book publishes, but the COVID delays have been significant. I know for, not this book — the predecessor to 3 2 1 Awesome! is A is for Awesome. A is for Awesome was, and this is everyone’s dream problem, but it was sold out nationally, literally. Even Amazon was like, out of stock. I was like, how does this happen? It took a long time even to get more because of the delays and because of COVID and the factories and what not.

Zibby: Sometimes being sold out makes it just on the top of everyone’s list.

Eva: It’s like a hot handbag that you just want because you can’t get it.

Zibby: Exactly. Black market for A is for Awesome is starting. I know we’re almost out of time, but two more things. One, I wanted to know if you had advice for aspiring authors. I also have to just hear a little bit about what it’s like being head of fashion at Instagram and what that even means. That is such a cool job.

Eva: Advice for aspiring authors, number one, as I was saying earlier, it’s longer and more complex than you think. For children’s book authors, I would try from two point of views. The six-year-old or seven-year-old that’s hearing it or reading it themselves, is the language complex enough that’s it’s not boring but also easy enough that they can read themselves? I remember with my first Juno book I had the word cornucopia in it. It was a cornucopia of shoes. My editor and I tussled over it. I was like, “I love the word cornucopia.” I want Ren, my daughter, to be like, “What’s a cornucopia?” It’s just a funny word. We ended up keeping it in. I love doing the reading. Reading it from the parents’ perspective too, what pages are they going to open and it’s going to be a huge surprise? What moments will have the best emotions? As one should, one should read a book in voices. This spread in Roxy, it’s like, can I tell you a secret? Get a little closer. Closer. Too close. I don’t know if it’s because I have two young kids, but I literally read the books out loud as I’m designing them.

I also approach the children’s book space probably in a little bit of an unconventional way. I work very closely with the art director to design it because I came from a magazine background where I would say, move the caption three millimeters over. I’m not into this type that we have on this cover story. Can we do something that’s a serif? I think that it was an unconventional experience for the good people at Macmillan Kids, at Feiwel & Friends, my publisher, because most authors are a little bit more hands-off. I just couldn’t be. Even down to the color of the sparkle, I looked at glitter swatches because I wanted something that would reflect it a certain way. The number of little glitter stars, sparkles, coming out of Roxy’s horn, I was kind of obsessed with. Aspiring authors, honestly, this is stolen advice. Stephen King has an amazing book called On Writing. I put a Post-it note on one of the pages where he said that the first draft you write for yourself and the second draft you write for the reader. I think that’s true as well. Just get that first draft out. Then you go back and look at it from a different perspective of the editor or the reader.

Then the second question was, what’s it like working at Instagram? It’s great except right now we don’t have an office. I’ve been work-from-home since February because I was in Milan at Fashion Week in closed spaces with people who, now confirmed, are to be COVID super-spreaders. Got to love that. I came back from Milan. I used to go to the shows twice a year to build on the relationships that I have with, whether it’s an editor, whether it’s a model, whether it’s a stylist, a designer, or a creative director. My role is basically to help these people storytell on Instagram and figure out their strategy on Instagram. It’s been five years there. Now a lot of my job is based around a strategy of, what is next for fashion on Instagram? I very much think it’s shopping on Instagram. Actually, there are some authors who are doing, the way people drop the new pair of off-white sneakers or the hot new hoodie from the brand — well, Supreme isn’t doing this yet. The way people drop clothing and do these limited edition launches, people are doing that with books now on Instagram. I remember a few months ago when we rolled out Instagram Live shopping so that you could be live on Instagram and buying a book.

There’s these authors called the Compton Cowboys. It’s literally these guys in Compton who created this horseback riding movement. They just ride around on horseback in Compton. Check it out. They have an amazing Instagram. It’s meant to build community. It builds self-confidence for the young people who are learning how to ride horses. It’s awesome. They did this Instagram Live ride-along where they were horseback riding through Compton talking about their book. I was watching this. I was like, this is brilliant. As an author, imagine doing an Instagram Live and talking through the details of every book where I can say, for this spread, it’s a reference to Mean Girls. In this book, there’s a secret clue that’s related to Juno Valentine. There’s a picture of a shoe that we put in. That is a shoe that we have in Juno Valentine. Imagine being able to do that while someone can just tap a button on Instagram and buy the book at the same time. It will probably be fully rolled out by the time your book comes out.

Zibby: I was like, did I miss that that’s a feature? I want to do that right away.

Eva: You’re with Random House or HarperCollins?

Zibby: For the children’s book, Penguin Random House. I do tons of Instagram Lives with authors. I had a whole Instagram Live series during the pandemic. I would love to have them on and then be able to have them sell their book or I’d link to where you can buy the book.

Eva: It’s a work in progress. That’s the team that I spend a lot of time on right now just dreaming up, how we will — I don’t know about you, but I am often on Instagram; I’m like, oh, my god, I love the tote bag that Zibby’s carrying. Where’s that tote bag from? The current experience is, you tap the tote bag. You’re like, okay, she tagged the brand. It’s the brand, let’s say, there’s a brand called Kule, K-U-L-E. I’m like, ooh, it’s so cute. Then I’ll tap it and then I’ll go to their — it’s just very . I think that what people really want is to see it, tap it, and just buy it. If I see the pillow that you posted on your Instagram in your library, to be like, I love it, and just pick it up and buy it. That’s what we’re working on.

Zibby: That’s so cool.

Eva: That’s a full-time job, obviously. Right now, I’m working from home. If I have a fifteen-minute break between video conferences, I run the two blocks to Books of Wonder. I grab a stack of books. I personalize there literally three times a week. Then I’ll run home with a stack of books. I’m signing these books. Then I run back or I’ll give them to my husband and be like, “Go! Go!” I spend nights doing the book stuff. As a mom, you learn to divide your time very carefully. I think that’s how I’ve been able to write six books, working on a seventh, by now while having an extremely full-time job.

Zibby: Wow. It’s like what you said before. Didn’t you say this before? Give a busy person something to do? No? Somebody else said that. Whatever, it’s an expression, but it’s true.

Eva: You know what? I actually would take that expression to another level and say if you need something done, give it to a mom. It’s not even a busy person. Give it to a mom. Literally, the mom’s going to be like, I don’t have patience for this. Boom, get it done. Or the mom will be like, that’s not important. We’re not going to do that.

Zibby: I love that. It’s so true.

Eva: Do I need to label every folder for my child’s Zoom school? No.

Zibby: Are you kidding? No.

Eva: Someone asked me on my Instagram. Someone was like, “What are your top tips for organization of the child’s work-from-home space?” I’m like, dude, literally, box of crayons, some paper, and the laptop. They were like, “How do you color-code the folders for her different assignments?” I’m like, I’m not doing that. Sorry. As long as we can do the assignments, that’s all we need.

Zibby: Yeah. Maybe one giant binder for everything if we’re lucky and I can find a whole binder.

Eva: My kids are younger. We went to The Container Store. They had these big bins in neon colors. I was like, “You get to choose a bin.” It was like two dollars. I was like, “You can choose some stickers.” She was like, “.” I was like, yes, school’s so exciting on the computer. It’s so great on the computer. You got to drum up that excitement and hype them up. Stickers and a big pink tub will do that.

Zibby: It’ll do it. It’ll do the trick. Amazing. Thank you, Eva. This was so fun. I really hope to meet you. I know we’re both in the city here. Maybe when things get back to normal or something.

Eva: One day we shall meet in person. Maybe we’ll even be four feet apart not six feet apart. So shocking.

Zibby: Dare to dream.

Eva: Dare to dream, exactly. It was so nice to meet you again.

Zibby: You too. Congratulations again on Roxy. Best of luck with the launch. I hope this helps you.

Eva: Anything book-wise as you embark on your own book journey, let me know, I’m happy to help.

Zibby: Thank you. I really appreciate it. Have a great day.

Eva: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Eva: See you later.