EVERYONE LOVES LUNCHTIME BUT ZIA Interview with Author Jenny Liao

Once a day I experience forty minutes of absolute chaos and those forty minutes are called “cafeteria duty.” There are illegal snack trades to crack down on and treacherous linoleum to navigate. Cartoonists, take note: banana peels aren’t that slippery, but boiled green beans are the black ice of the cafeteria floor. I do cafeteria duty for one reason and one reason only (you know, other than contractual obligation). I’m nosy about what everyone’s eating. And I’m always jealous. I’m jealous of the cafeteria French bread pizza, the thermos of matzah ball soup, the plastic container packed with pork dumplings, and every clementine I’ve ever peeled that I could still smell on my hands two periods later. I love lunchtime, and so do most of the 323 kids I spend it with.

When I came across the title Everyone Loves Lunchtime But Zia, written by Jenny Liao and illustrated by Dream Chen, I was immediately intrigued. Who is Zia? And why doesn’t she love lunchtime?

Zia adores the homemade Cantonese food she brings to school, but her classmates don’t share her appreciation. Zia wants her parents to pack her food that looks like everyone else’s. Instead they lovingly prepare her a different Cantonese dish every day, each with a special purpose, such as see yao gai for success and yi mein for a long life. As Zia’s love for her lunches is restored, a new friendship blossoms and a shared birthday treat give her classmates a fresh perspective on Cantonese cuisine. Dream Chen’s colorful, mouthwatering illustrations will leave readers’ stomachs grumbling. The back matter includes a glossary, author’s note, and recipe for Zia’s Lucky Yi Mein.

Speaking of luck, we have the good fortune of having picture book author Jenny Liao here today to talk about Everyone Loves Lunchtime But Zia. Welcome, Jenny, and congratulations on your debut! What sparked the idea for this book?

Everyone Loves Lunchtime But Zia is a story inspired by my love for Cantonese food, and the role it played in helping me embrace my Chinese heritage.

Growing up, as one of the few Asians in my school, I often rejected my Chinese culture because I thought it would help me be accepted by other students. Eating Cantonese food, the same foods found in this story, helped me find my way back to my heritage. It reminded me just how rich my own culture is, and how proud I am to be Chinese American.

Food is such a powerful way to connect to heritage and identity. As a teacher I’ve found that kids love food stories. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope readers of Everyone Loves Lunchtime But Zia will seek out and celebrate the cultural significance of the foods they eat, both in and out of their homes. I hope that Zia’s journey to appreciating her heritage through food inspires readers everywhere to be proud of their own cultural roots while embracing others.

This book provides such a rich opportunity to have those conversations about food and culture. I think Zia’s story will also encourage children to consider how they could have a kinder approach to unfamiliar foods than how we saw Zia’s classmates treat her initially.

Given that you’ve written a book in which lunchtime features so prominently, I have to know, what would your dream lunchbox contain?

My dream lunchbox would be a giant one containing all of Zia’s favorite foods in the book—cha siu bao, see yao gai, cheung fun, yi mein, and tong yun! It would also have ebi omusubi (Japanese riceball with shrimp), gamja salad (Korean potato salad), cha gio (Vietnamese fried spring rolls), pizza rolls, and of course, french fries.

I know I’ve mentioned my habit of lunch jealousy, but I am ESPECIALLY jealous of this enormous, delicious, mythical meal! I hope you got to celebrate your book launch with all of your (and Zia’s) favorites. What’s next for you as a writer?

Zia is returning for a second picture book, out in 2024! I have also been working on two additional picture books, one about travel and one about family, that I can’t wait to share with readers. In the meantime, for my adult readers, I have upcoming pieces in Bon Appetit and The New Yorker that I’m very excited about. Stay tuned! 

I look forward to seeing Zia again next year and I will be on the lookout for your byline in my favorite magazines. Thank you for joining us at Picture Book Builders, Jenny!

Congratulations to Sarah Meade for winning a signed copy of Ice Cream Man: How Augustus Jackson Made a Sweet Treat Better in last month’s giveaway! Thank you again to Kim Freeman and Glenda Armand for this generous offer.

Sara Holly Ackerman

Sara Holly Ackerman is the author of several picture books including THE GABI THAT GIRMA WORE, co-authored with Fasika Adefris and illustrated by Netsanet Tesfay, NOT JUST THE DRIVER! illustrated by Robert Neubecker, and CHALLAH FOR SHABBAT TONIGHT illustrated by Alona Millgram. She is a school librarian who lives in Brooklyn, NY right down the street from the library and she never leaves home without her library card. Visit Sara at www.sarahollyackerman.com and on Instagram at @sarahollyackerman.


  1. Sara and Jenny, thank you for a lovely interview. I relate to Zia so much, bringing strange-smelling food for lunch. It’s funny how the older you get, the less you worry about what others think of you or your food. lol. Your book looks delicious! Congratulations!!!

  2. Congrats on a tasty book! Food is the great connector (or divider) but ultimately, connector!

  3. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    This looks amazing. Can’t wait to read it!

  4. Thank you Sara and Jenny for a delightful interview. Congratulations, Jenny, on your debut. I look forward to reading all about Zia.

  5. This looks lovely and a book that will resonate with lots of children.

  6. What a delicious idea for your new book! Congratulations on your debut, Jenny!

  7. Looks like a book kids will really sink their teeth into!

  8. Zia’s lunches look tasty. EVERYONE LOVES LUNCHTIME BUT ZIA is a book I look forward to reading.

  9. I’m looking forward to reading Zia’s story! Great interview!

  10. I’m glad Zia finally learned to enjoy lunchtime! Food is often a common denominator to bring people together!

  11. What a perfect classroom read aloud!

  12. Thank you so much for having me!! ☺️

  13. This book looks adorable! I can’t wait to to read it.

  14. This looks beautiful. Such an important message, too. Thanks for sharing.

  15. Asian writers have their own way to present the best in picture books through food, music, and art and this one is one of them. Congrats!

  16. Way to go! We love picture books on food. A wonderful story with great illustrations is a winner.

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