Sunday, July 23, 2023

Q&A with Mike Yam




Mike Yam is the author of the new children's picture book Fried Rice and Marinara. He is a news anchor and host at NFL Network.


Q: Fried Rice and Marinara was inspired by your own family--can you say more about that?


A: Like every kid, I was always excited for my birthday growing up. I have really fond memories of having both Chinese and Italian food at my parties growing up. As I reflect back to my childhood I’m keenly aware of the lack of diversity in storytelling that I was exposed to. While things have changed for this generation, I think there’s a long way to go. 


Part of the reason I wanted to write Fried Rice and Marinara was to have young readers see a multiethnic character in a lead role.


I also wanted to spark the thought that families with diverse backgrounds are normal. At times in my childhood, I thought I had to “pick a side,” which is weird to think about now. I really want young kids to be able to embrace their heritage and be proud of their background.


I know for my family, food was a backdrop to everything we did. I wanted to use cuisine as a vehicle to bring the story to life.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I wish I had some epic story about how the title came about. The truth is, I took Italian class in high school and I remember talking about one of my family parties in class. Some of my classmates were intrigued by the types of food we had at my house and someone asked if I ever mixed the food? I said, well I load my plate up with everything so there’s definitely some cross pollination going on.


One of my classmates asked how does “fried rice and marinara” taste? Even a few decades after I graduated high school that moment still stuck with me. 


Q: What do you think Laura Dong’s illustrations add to the story?


A: Wow, Laura is truly amazing. As a first-time author you don’t know what to expect about the process. I knew for a children’s book the illustrations were going to be so important. 


Jonathan Sundy at Vooks reached out to his network and we were very fortunate to find Laura. I think I told her every single time we spoke that her work gave the story real credibility. She’s worked on some real big time projects for Apple TV and I was floored by her illustrations. 


One of the really cool things about her was she wanted to make the story as authentic as possible. I sent her pictures of family members who are represented in the book and she worked off of them. There’s an illustration outside of my house that Laura put together. There are some really subtle details from my childhood home that she included. I still smile every time I see it. 


Q: This book is a change from your career as a sportscaster--do you see any overlap between the two?


A: I’ve spent my career telling the stories of athletes. I’m comfortable in that realm, but with Fried Rice and Marinara, it’s the first time I tried to connect with a young audience in a medium I’ve never worked in.


I have always loved having fun with my nieces and nephews, telling them crazy stories at home. I tried to imagine telling them this story as if we were in person. No, I can’t rhyme on the fly like in the book, but it’s about the tone.


I always love asking kids questions to see where their mind goes. If you notice at the back of the book, there is a page that gives kids an opportunity to write their own funky food combinations with the ability to draw them, too. It’s really important to me that the experience with the book doesn’t end when they’re finished reading it. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Aside from my duties on NFL Total Access at NFL Network, I have a few manuscripts I’m working on, but I’m trying to really focus on broadening the stories around Asian characters. When I was a child, I absolutely loved watching anything that included martial arts. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really proud that Asian characters were cool because of that skill.


As I’ve gotten older, I still really love watching those types of shows and movies, but I’ve grown frustrated that the stories don’t seem to always evolve into other verticals. I’m really focused on trying to incorporate my personal experiences as a backdrop to stories in which the characters are in more than just “traditional Asian situations.” Honestly, I’m ridiculously excited about two other stories I’m working on. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I really hope diversity in storytelling becomes more common. I never knew being a sportscaster was something I could achieve. If I’m being honest, I didn’t even know it was an option until late in high school/early college.


I can’t help but think if I had more role models at a younger age it would have sparked an interest sooner. I hate knowing kids from diverse families don’t have characters they can associate with it. Everyone should have the ability to feel empowered by seeing positive narratives with people who represent all backgrounds. Exposure through storytelling is a really powerful thing. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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