Michele Wong McSween
As a former fashion designer, can you walk us through your journey of how you pivoted careers into becoming a published author?
I left my career in fashion design to start a family. When we had our first two sons, I felt responsible for teaching them about my heritage. Growing up as a fourth-generation Chinese-American, I never learned to speak Chinese, so making sure my children were confident with the language and culture became a priority for me. I looked for first word Mandarin books that were playful and modern but couldn’t find any that appealed to me. This inspired me to create them myself.
In 2008, I self-published Gordon & Li Li: Words for Everyday and walked into every bookstore in NYC, LA, and San Francisco to pitch my story and get G&L on their shelves. Ten years later — after countless book events, two more self-published books, and an iPad app — I approached Scholastic. They acquired all three titles and released, My First Mandarin Words with Gordon & Li Li in 2018.
Tell us about the inspiration and creative process behind your children’s book My First Mandarin Words with Gordon & Li Li.
I created Gordon & Li Li to introduce my boys to the Mandarin language. I knew my books would have to be easy to read, engaging for all ages, and relatable to modern culture. Most importantly, they would have to be books we’d want to cuddle up with at bedtime.
My sons were the inspiration for every word, theme, and illustration for Gordon & Li Li. My first three books celebrated their first words, their passion for animals, and gave them an interactive way to count in Mandarin. My latest title, Celebrate Chinese New Year, is a beautifully illustrated book that teaches children about the customs, traditions, and cultural significance of the New Year.
My creative process is very similar to the way I used to design a clothing line. I’d start with a theme for the book, choose my layout and color palette, and then translate the words into the Chinese characters. After working with my illustrator on the artwork, my sons would give their final approval for each page.
2020 has been quite a ride thus far, with all the time we now have at home how have you been keeping yourself occupied?
Ironically, I’m busier now than when my three kids were in school! We bake a lot, go to the park for exercise, have weekly Zoom playdates with my niece in California, take day trips to the beach, and every night we rotate who gets to decide what we do as a family. That might mean we’ll watch a virtual performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center, have game night, go on a walk after dinner, or watch a movie. The best part of this quarantine is not having to run around to three different schools, which means I have more time to devote to Gordon & Li Li.
With five children’s books under your wing, have you ever thought of bringing your previous fashion experience back into the fold? If so, how would that look for you?
I’ve always thought of Gordon & Li Li as more than just a book series. People who come to my events often ask if I have any t-shirts, onesies or other G&L merchandise for sale. I do envision a range of products from clothing and sneakers, to games and toys for my brand. When Demy invited me to be part of her Curated By series, I thought, this could be the perfect time for a DEMYLEE x Gordon & Li Li collaboration.
You’re originally from California, can you tell us about your personal style?
How would you say it differs between CA & NY?
The running joke with my friends is that I arrived in New York wearing Birkenstocks and pearls. The reality is, I still wear Birkenstocks and pearls — just not together. I’ve always had a classic style but with a hint of tomboy. Growing up with three brothers and now raising three sons, I’ve always been influenced by the clean and simple ease of menswear. It helps that sneakers can go with anything! However, when I feel the need to be girly, I love pulling out my pink ruffled DemyLee Nora sweater. Living in NYC, for the past 23 years, has upped my style game a few notches which now includes my favorite bright red Birkenstocks!
As the summer is coming to an end, what are you most looking forward to despite all the obstacles this year has brought us?
The end of summer is always exciting for me. After countless beach days, BBQ’s, and family road trips, I’m ready to dive back into my creative projects. This fall is especially exciting because I’m creating two new book concepts for Gordon & Li Li.