When I was little, I'd often head to Little Saigon in Chicago with my mom and my brother, Britton, to buy groceries and to have lunch at one of the many fantastic Vietnamese restaurants there. All of the restaurants had a number of things in common, including terrible lighting, amazing pho, and Chinese Zodiac menus. Britton and I would pore over the menus, first studying our own signs (I'm a Dragon*, he's a Rat) and then moving on to the signs of other friends and family members.
*I'm not a Dragon. I learned this after many years of thinking I was a Dragon. The bulk of my birth year coincides with the Dragon, but as I was born prior to the Chinese New Year, I'm actually a Rabbit. My mother loved the idea of having a Dragon, so she raised me as such. It took me a while to come to terms with being a Rabbit**, but I've found peace with it.
**In the Vietnamese Zodiac, I'm actually a Cat!
As a teen, I regularly ate and then worked at Luong Loi, a Vietnamese restaurant in Wheaton, Illinois. The restaurant had the same menus, and my little sister, Nicole, and I would study the different signs while eating banh xeo or ga xa ot.
One thing always stood out to me--there is no Cat in the Chinese Zodiac. Isn't that odd? I thought so, and when I decided to try my hand at writing picture book manuscripts, I knew that I wanted to begin with a story that answered the question, "Why is there no Cat in the Chinese Zodiac?"
It turns out there's a hilarious folktale that explains why. Briefly, all of the animals in the kingdom are asked by Jade Emperor to participate in a race. The first twelve who cross the finish line get to be in the Zodiac. Rat and Cat are best friends, and they do most of the race side by side. Then they come upon a river. Neither is a good swimmer, so they enlist the help of Ox. As they're comfortably crossing the river on Ox's back, Rat has the realization that Cat will likely win the race once they reach shore. So he pushes her into the river. HE PUSHES HER INTO THE RIVER! And then he wins the race! Isn't that amazing? (The actual reason? It's postulated that cats weren't introduced into Chinese society until after the Zodiac was developed.)
To make the story palatable for the gentle American readership, I finessed the ending and added a lot of cupcakes.
I hope to be able to tell more Mimi and Shu tales. I already have titles: Mimi and Shu in Horsin' Around!; Mimi and Shu in Rise and Shine!; Mimi and Shu in Monkey Business! I wrote the manuscript shortly after I left Disney Hyperion, where I had worked on a number of Elephant and Piggie books with the great Mo Willems, so I had "series" on the brain. We will see! For now, I'm just really excited to see I'll Race You! come together. And I can't wait to share it with you.