POW! BAM! WOW! Jackie Chan has been making movies and amazing audiences with his original and comedic stunts for decades.
POW! BAM! OW! But before he was an international star, Jackie grew up in relative poverty in China, studied martial arts at the grueling China Drama Academy, and worked for years trying to find his way in film.
POW! BAM! HOW? Twist, tumble, and train alongside Jackie Chan in this picture book biography from lauded author Kristen Mai Giang and illustrator and Hong Kong native Alina Chau. Discover how Jackie used his goofball acrobatics to make a name and a style all his own.
Andrea: Welcome, Kristen and Alina! Thank you both so much for chatting with me about your newest book, THE RISE (AND FALLS) OF JACKIE CHAN! After my father got a VCR, it was nonstop martial arts movies in my house, so your book brings back lots of childhood memories. Kristen, this is your first foray into nonfiction picture book biographies. Was this a genre that you wanted to try, or was it more of a happy detour? What was it about Jackie Chan’s story that you found so compelling?
Kristen: A little bit of both. I had attended a couple of wonderful nonfiction picture book workshops that got me excited about telling the real story behind a true story, beyond the historical facts and dates. But I had also heard that the market for PB bios might be saturated. So I wasn’t inspired to dive in until I stumbled across a fascinating fact about Jackie Chan – that he was classically trained in Chinese Opera, and that was in fact how he got his start in performing arts. This seemed so contrary to my idea of Jackie Chan as a martial arts action star known for his stunts and kung fu comedy, that I had to learn more. The more I read, the more I was inspired to tell his story, which is so much more multidimensional than you might imagine. And the more multidimensional stories there are about people (even famous people) of color, in my opinion, the better. Beyond the single story of Jackie Chan as a martial artist, his is a story of hard work, failure, determination, and ultimately being true to yourself, which I think any child (or grown-up!) could relate to. You might also be surprised by who some of his influences were.
Andrea: Yes, that’s so important to show how people of color have many facets, and to not limit stories about them to the single one that everyone expects. Alina, is this is your first picture book biography, too? Was your process any different from illustrating a fictional picture book story? Did you and Kristen collaborate at all?
Alina: The Rise and (Falls) of Jackie Chan is the third nonfiction picture book that I have worked on. In The Spirit Of A Dream, which I developed, and another of my upcoming picture books related to Apollo 11, Bonnie’s Rocket, which I illustrated, are also nonfiction or biographical books.
The drafting and illustration process for nonfiction or biography is the same as for fiction. But when working on nonfiction, book research becomes a crucial step. I would spend months collecting news and documentary images for references, so I would be able to design the images accurately.
For Jackie Chan’s book, Kristen shared a lot of excellent research images with me, which provided a solid foundation and a clear direction for me to begin the project.
Andrea: That’s great that you were able to collaborate a little with each other! This is a question for both of you — I imagine that finding information about young Jackie may have been difficult, since he was born in Hong Kong and has spent most of his life there. Could you both tell me a little about your research processes? And Kristen, how did you decide what to put in the back matter?
Kristen: Luckily, there are quite a lot of references out there about Jackie Chan, simply due to his fame. I read both memoirs Jackie had cowritten and consumed countless books, articles, and video interviews. Perhaps the best part of my “research” was re-watching Jackie Chan movies with my kids, who were about 6 and 9 at the time. Watching them laugh and jump around and become fans themselves reminded me of the joy that Jackie Chan brought me – and what makes audiences around the world and of all ages connect to him. It was in this spirit that I wrote the book. I hope his action, humor, and heart all come through.
Back matter is a dream for PB bio writers! As you research, you will invariably come across SO MANY fascinating facts, but it is impossible and inadvisable to pack them all into a PB, which should focus on the main idea you want to convey about a person’s life. Back matter allows you to include those interesting facts without muddying up the main story. I chose facts that illuminated even more dimensions to Jackie Chan’s life but that weren’t central to the story – how poor his beginnings were, the impact the China Drama Academy had on Hong Kong cinema, the stuntman culture Jackie embraced in Hong Kong, and even some of his regrets.
Alina: Since I grew up in Hong Kong, I have memories of Jackie’s early career life and the places mentioned in the book. The Hong Kong Film Archive and their Central Library have a lot of resources on Hong Kong film histories and historical images. When I visited my parents during the holiday, I spent many hours in the reference libraries and secretly collected rare photos and images. People are not allowed to photo pages from reference books, so I asked my dad to cover me when I photographed the books. It was a great bonding time with my dad. Seeing old Hong Kong pictures brings back nostalgia and happy childhood memories.
Andrea: Oh my goodness, Alina, I’m glad you and your dad weren’t caught! It also sounds a little like a scene out of a Jackie Chan spy movie. 🙂 Kristen, did you have any reservations about writing a biography of someone who is still alive? Did you try to contact Jackie for an interview or to see if he would endorse your book?
Kristen: I didn’t have reservations writing about Jackie Chan simply because, in my mind, he is a living legend. His fame and persona have made him larger than life in many ways, and I wanted to explore how he got there. The parts of his life that people may not know. His story may not be over, but there is already so much to tell. I wasn’t able to contact Jackie Chan for an interview unfortunately. I based all the research on books, articles and other secondary sources.
As for getting his endorsement, I would love that!
Andrea: How wonderful that there is so much information about Jackie already out there that you could use to make his story accessible to young readers. Alina, I know that Hong Kong is your hometown, too, and Jackie was a big star there before making it big in Hollywood. What was it like illustrating the story of a fellow Hong Konger?
Alina: It is an honor to share a fellow Hong Konger’s story. It’s an opportunity that I cherish. After all, it’s not often I get to make a book with Hong Kong and her people as the star in the story. I am very excited to share stories from my hometown with readers in the US. On a personal level, the book was illustrated during the pandemic; it gave me a way to “visit” my hometown and share a Hong Konger’s story through art. It has become a psychologically healing project since I have not been able to visit my family since the beginning of the pandemic.
Andrea: I’m so sorry, Alina. I hope you get a chance to visit your family soon! I’d like to dive into the craft a little bit and ask about a couple of your choices. Kristen, how/why did you incorporate the onomatopoeia? Alina, how/why did you include the Chinese calligraphy (i.e. for the title of the movie, as shown above)? I think details like this contribute so much to the atmosphere and energy of the story, and I wonder how you came up with them!
Kristen: Oh, how I love words! They have power to convey meaning in so many ways – not just in their definition, but how and when they’re used. I wanted to convey ACTION! Energy! Which are so integral to who Jackie Chan is. Using shorter sentences in some places and onomatopoeia helped convey that movement. (I want to point out that Alina Chau did a masterful job showing movement in every single spread.) Plus, it’s fun to read aloud! I love hearing kids yell along with me – POW! BAM! OW! CLANG! BANG! THWACK! OW! OW! OW!
Alina: The Hong Kong portrayed in the book is British colonial Hong Kong. It’s the Hong Kong of my childhood. A world of a simpler time, when going to the cinema is a luxury, but weekly comics cost only a few pennies. Little boys would share and fight over the comics to read the latest adventure of their favorite kung fu heroes. And of course, Bruce Lee’s comic is the most popular! Where Chinese families like Jackie’s, living at the affluent Victoria Peak, are usually servants to foreign diplomats and the upper societies. Many children from low-income families had to leave school at a young age and work to support their families. While life could be trying, it is also an exciting and unique time in Hong Kong’s history. The city changed and developed rapidly with new skyscrapers popping up every other month. Eventually, it evolved into modern Hong Kong that we are familiar with today. Like the description in the book – “Poor but happy.” I hope through illustrations, I could share a glimpse of the authentic Hong Kong stories and cultures with the readers.
With that concept in mind, I wanted to share Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and the famous film title in Chinese, which are the names of how people from their hometowns would address them. When we talked about Jackie Chan in Cantonese or Mandarin, we called him by his Chinese stage name, “成龍” and the same with Bruce Lee, we called him “李小龍.” I feel it’s important introducing them in Chinese to capture the authenticity.
Andrea: I love that both the onomatopoeia and the Chinese characters convey Jackie’s authentic self, as well as the setting and culture. What’s next for each of you? Anything you’re working on now that you can talk about?
Alina: I am currently illustrating a cute Valentine’s themed picture book, Love Like Chocolate. I am having fun doing the “research” since it’s a book filled with delicious chocolate desserts, AKA excuses to eat tons of desserts for so-called book research! I am also writing a few new graphic novels, which I am very excited about.
Check out Alina’s book cover painting process video here: https://www.instagram.com/reel/Cbc9O4cDCfq/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
Kristen: My next picture book LAST FLIGHT comes out spring 2023 and tells the true story of my family’s escape from Saigon six days before its fall on the last commercial flight out. It’s a story of bravery – how normal people can help each other in extraordinary ways. And it’s illustrated by the inimitable Dow Phumiruk! After that is another picture book biography that I can’t announce yet, but if you like THE RISE (AND FALLS) OF JACKIE CHAN – you might like this!
Andrea: Wow, all of those books sound amazing! I can’t wait to see them. Also, I’d love to join you on the dessert research, Alina!
Kristen Mai Giang is the author of picture books GINGER AND CHRYSANTHEMUM and THE RISE (AND FALLS) OF JACKIE CHAN, with more on the way. When not writing, Kristen has spent the past two decades creating Emmy Award-winning kids interactive content for Disney, PBS Kids Sprout, and Mattel, among others. She is currently developing a K-5 podcast-based interactive learning platform funded by the National Science Foundation.
@kmgiang on IG and Twitter. https://kristenmaigiang.com/
Alina Chau is an award-winning filmmaker and artist whose credits include the Emmy Award-winning Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, numerous bestselling games, and illustrator of The Nian Monster, which received the 2018 APALA Picture Book Honor. Alina grew up in Hong Kong in an Indonesian Chinese family during the British colonial era, and her cultural heritage strongly influences her artistic and storytelling voice. She currently resides in Los Angeles. http://www.alinachau.com/
Alina is generously offering a giveaway of one copy of THE RISE (AND FALLS) OF JACKIE CHAN. Please comment below by May 2, 2022 to enter. Domestic U.S. addresses only, please.
Congratulations to Penny Klostermann, the winner of a copy of Maria Gianferarri’s BOBCAT PROWLING!