Interview #74 — Sasha Beekman
By Leah Jing
Sasha Beekman is a Thai-born writer who grew up in Darwin. She moved to Melbourne to study writing and editing at RMIT University. When You’re Going to the Moon is her first picture book.
How did you first decide to write a children’s picture book?
I was in my final year of university and it came time to choose an elective. I think the choice for the time-slot that I wanted was between a non-fiction class and a children’s writing class. Children’s writing seemed like it would be a pretty fun and pretty easy-breezy. I was wrong about that second part, in the end. My teacher for the picture book class, Sue deGennaro, is amazing and has the most wondrous collection of picture books that are so well curated. We read a lot of amazing books that semester and there was one in particular, If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Erin E Stead, that really had an impact on me. It was so simple in its beauty and it made me think, ‘that’s something I’d like to be able to do’. So when it came to our major assessment for the subject, where we had to write a picture book we’d hope to be able to publish, I wrote When You’re Going to the Moon and I hoped that someone would say the same thing about this book one day.
Tell us about When You’re Going to the Moon. What inspired you?
I quickly realised that of the books we were reading in that class, a lot of them were very heavily ‘issues-based’. So a lot talking about grief, divorce, an illness in the family, anxiety. And while I do strongly believe that these books need to exist, I felt a little weighed down reading story after story that felt so heavy, so I wanted to pick a topic for my book that was slightly more uplifting.
The true inspiration for the story itself however, comes from my mother. She was born and raised in Thailand, and we only moved to Australia when I was five years old. My mum was never able to attend high school because at the time, your family had to pay for you to have education after primary school and mum’s family couldn’t afford that, so she couldn’t continue and had to work on the family farm. Because of this, as we were growing up here in Australia, mum always stressed the point that all she ever wanted from my brother and I was for us to finish high school. She’d say that whatever we did after that was entirely up to us, we could do anything we wanted to do as long as we worked hard at it and did the best we could.
Growing up, I never wanted to be anything that was considered typically ‘useful’ in comparison to all of the friends around me who aspired to be doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants. I wanted to be an artist, an actor, a florist, then an author. And always, always my mum encouraged me. She really made me believe that I could do whatever it was that I set my mind to, and this is something I wanted to stress to any child reading this. Especially as children typically have these dreams that seem so far-fetched and when you look back at them as an adult, you kind of laugh at how you used to think you could do whatever outrageous thing that it was. The death of a dream is a very sad idea to me, so I wanted to encourage dreaming and imagination and the cultivation of ideas, before you get too big to believe in any of that.
As a debut author, how did you find the road to publication?
The road to publication is something I’m pretty sheepish to talk about because I’m scared people will be so annoyed hearing it – it seems like it was a lot easier and more straight-forward for me than for most people. I know we’ve all heard about authors who had been rejected by ten different publishing houses before someone finally agreed to publish their work. But that definitely wasn’t the case for me. I interned with Affirm Press during my last year of university and it was at the exact right time because they were just starting to build their children’s publishing list, so everything was fresh and new. I basically told them ‘hey, I wrote a book that you might like’ and at the end of my internship I sent the commissioning editor the manuscript for When You’re Going to the Moon and it turns out it was something that they did really like and they wanted to publish it. And this is why I’m absolutely terrified that I’m peaking early because it all seemed to go so smoothly for me.
When You’re Going To The Moon is illustrated by Vivienne To, who has captured so many beautiful details - I noticed a little rice cooker that looks suspiciously like my own! Can you tell us about the collaborative process? What was it like to work with an illustrator to embody your vision?
Having Vivienne as the illustrator of this book has been an absolute dream scenario. I can’t even fathom how lucky I am that she loved my words enough to want to turn them into this compact book of art. The rice-cooker spread is honestly my favourite spread in the whole book because it was a complete surprise for me.
Traditionally in picture books, there’s pretty much no contact between the illustrator and author, and we were told at uni that the illustrator, illustrations and cover were all subject to the editor and publisher’s discretion, so as an author you shouldn’t expect to get much say on anything after you’re done with your words. However, I was given a list of possible illustrators and asked who I thought would best represent my words, and I fell in love with Vivienne’s work!
Vivienne drew up different character roughs and my editor sent them to me asking me to choose which one I wanted to be the hero of the story, and we’d go through all the rough illustrations together and I’d give feedback and was allowed to ask for changes.
During the whole process from signature to publication, I never directly talked to Vivienne, it was all through the editor. We’ve only ever spoke through Instagram actually – commenting on each other’s posts and things like that. So when I saw the spread with the rice cooker, I was so excited because it was just there, no fuss or anything, but it’s amazing how moved I was to see a situation that reflected my own experience. And that was all Vivienne. She just really knows what she’s doing and the little details in every spread that kids and adults alike can spend hours poring over is just amazing—I am in awe.
… it’s amazing how moved I was to see a situation that reflected my own experience.
Why is it important to you to write a story with this kind of representation—in such a subtle way?
When I was growing up in Darwin, all of my friends were Asian. To be honest, I didn’t really have any close white friends until my final year of high school. I think we all kind of gravitated towards each other because there was a sort of kinship or a sense of a shared experience. Darwin is such a melting pot of different cultures and people and looking back on it now, it’s amazing to think that these different cultures and people weren’t being represented in the literature we were reading or being read to as children.
Most of the books that have stuck in my mind from childhood are The Magic Faraway Tree series by Enid Blighton, Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd and The Complete Book of Flower Fairies by Cicely Mary Barker. So we’ve got a bunch of white kids climbing through trees, a dog, and some imaginary creatures—what a time it was for representation! But don’t get me wrong, I loved and still love these stories and it’s more than likely that many of my friends loved these books as well. It’s all we had access to. You do what you can with what you have. But I think that if I had seen myself or someone who looked like me in any of these stories, it would have made such a difference in what I believed was out there for me. If someone can’t even imagine you onto a page, what are the chances for you out there in the real world? That’s why, with a story as aspirational as this one, I wanted little Sasha to see that this is her story and no one can stop her. I’ve actually had people open the book up recently and immediately say ‘hey, she looks like you!’ and that really does make my heart swell.
In terms of the single mother, I really wanted to have that level of representation as well because again, that was my personal experience. And it turns out that this was Vivienne’s experience as well, so she was stoked to be drawing it. My dad died when I was fourteen and Mum was our sole carer after that and as I’m sure anyone will attest, those years from fourteen onwards through high school are a really impressionable time, and a particularly tough period of parenting as well. I wanted people to see the hard work that my mum had gone through raising us herself after that happened. I had not seen single mothers represented very much in picture books, so when I was in the privileged position of deciding on who would be represented, I wanted to include this. B
But having the mother just there by herself—that can mean anything to anyone. One person reading it might not think of her as a single mother—mum could just be home first preparing dinner, it could be someone’s guardian or carer. But single mother is how it reads to me and I think if that’s your experience as well, you’ll see it and identify with it. I prefer to be subtle about representation because to have these characters just there on the page without making a fuss creates a normalcy that I think we need more of.
You do what you can with what you have. But I think that if I had seen myself or someone who looked like me in any of these stories, it would have made such a difference in what I believed was out there for me.
You also work at Hardie Grant Egmont as a publishing assistant. How has this shaped your vision of the children’s book industry?
It’s actually given me a very optimistic outlook on where we’re headed in terms of representation and diversity in children’s literature. I see people making a concerted effort to foster Own Voices stories and ensure that the stories that previously never had a platform are being heard. It’s really nice to see that kind of positive change going on.
I mean, we publish books for children and they’re going to go on and run the world one day so you want to be setting them up with the best and most accurate view of the world that you possibly can.
Do you have any advice for emerging artists?
It’s going to sound lame and naff and so obviously the advice of a children’s book author, but please do not ever stop dreaming. We all need your wild, crazy, outrageous ideas in this world. If it doesn’t happen now it will happen soon. I am also coming to terms with this myself – but it doesn’t have to happen quickly, either. There’s time, so much time. Just don’t let go of what you’re working towards.
Who are you inspired by?
My mother, who is constantly learning and encouraging me to learn. And two of my biggest creative crushes, Alice Pung and Michelle Law. Just please keep on doing whatever you are doing and I will continue to aspire to be seated somewhere near you—be it on a panel or a tram.
What can we expect next from Sasha Beekman?
It’s very early days but since my first book was for my mum, hopefully the next one will be for my little brother. To my editor, if you’re reading this please publish my second book.
What are 5 picture books you’d recommend?
If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano & Erin E Stead
Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett & John Klassen
The Girls by Lauren Ace & Jenny Lovlie
I Hate Everyone by Naomi Danis & Cinta Arribas
Teacup by Rebecca Young & Matt Ottley
What are you currently listening to?
Harbour’s self-titled album, HARBOUR. Absolute non-stop bangers on that one. There’s a little acoustic ditty called Under the Moon which furthers my obsession with that particular celestial body.
What are you currently reading?
Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett. It’s a fictionalised account of the lives of the followers of Jim Jones, leader of the People’s Temple. It is both disconcerting and enthralling.
How do you practice self-care?
Copious amounts of green tea and Oreos. And knowing when I really need to lay down under some comfy blankets and switch off.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means unabashedly loving pad thai, teriyaki chicken sushi rolls, and sriracha in my mi goreng. It means wandering in limbo where I don’t exactly feel a sense of belonging here or in the country I was born. It means having more than one home. It means being the child of the older white man and the young Thai wife. It means refusing to be just a tick on the diversity box. It means ‘your English is so good’, ‘enjoy your travels around Australia’ and ‘are you a mixed blood?’. And most of all, it means being a change maker – a person with a story to tell.
To win a signed copy of When You’re Going to the Moon, send your name, address,
and what you would bring with you to the moon, to firstname.lastname@example.org.