Scientist-turned-artist Jeni Chen just published her first-ever children’s book, and it’s a story that people from different cultural backgrounds seem to relate to.
Chen believes everyone is born creative, and she wants to challenge the idea that “responsible” pursuits like academics are more important than art, music and other things we might be passionate about.
“One of my favourite authors is Joseph Campbell. He said something like, ‘We’re not looking for the meaning or purpose of life, but the experience of feeling alive.’ That’s what I was looking for,” said Chen.
“My picture book is about following your heart and finding the thing that makes you feel the most alive,” she added.
Chen originally worked as a research scientist, but had to leave that job due to a chemical allergy.
After she became a mother, she was inspired her to pick up her childhood hobby of drawing comics to document her son’s daily life.
Six years ago, she decided to go back to school to study art, and inspiration for a children’s book struck her.
“I’ve been doing school visits and sharing my book with little kids, and some of them are only six years old. And I told them, ‘You know how long I’ve been working on this book? Basically your entire life!’ And they were like,’ Ah!’ They couldn’t believe it,” said Chen.
From Chinese characters to noodles and chopsticks, Chen’s Taiwanese-Canadian heritage can be seen throughout her book.
But one thing stood out to her son – shoes.
In earlier drafts of her book, the protagonist Emet and his parents wore outdoor shoes in the house, but Chen’s son protested.
“My son’s my art director,” Chen joked.
Emet’s parents now wear indoor slippers, and Emet is barefoot at home, just like Chen’s son.
And it’s not just Asian-Canadian kids who see themselves in Chen’s book.
“I got a message on Instagram [from] a university kid, who said, ‘Ah I saw a Sikh kid!’ He was so happy and he was almost 20! I think it’s important to reflect our world to include everyone,” said Chen.
Special signed editions of Chen’s books can be found at Village Books & Coffee in Steveston. Chen’s art can also be seen around Richmond, including her mural at the Capstan station construction site.