"Where's Tuotuo?" Cover Reveal and Interview with Danni Pi and Sammy Yuen
Updated: Apr 16
I was honored when, a few weeks ago, Sammy Yuen (@sammynycart) reached out to me on Instagram asking if I’d do the cover reveal for a bilingual board book he is working on with Danni Pi (@thedanpie). I also had the opportunity to interview both Sammy and Danni about their background, the book, and the imprint they’re developing. Initially, I was nervous as I’ve not interviewed anyone since elementary school, but Sammy and Danni made it really fun. I want to thank them both for taking the time to answer my questions and for allowing me to be a part of their book launch!
You’re self-publishing a book, “Where’s Tuotuo?” together. What were each of your roles in the creation of the book?
I would say that we were collaborators on the book. And of course, Sammy is also the illustrator extraordinaire!
Danni approached Sammy a few months back after running into a lot of trouble trying to find something bilingual, fun, culturally relevant, that she could read to her young child. Nothing existed like this out on the market and so I say collaborators because it was really a collaboration on every detail and decision made to create the character and the approach here!
What is the main theme of “Where’s Tuotuo?” and what do you want readers to take away from reading it?
The main theme is that there is so much richness in the modern Chinese/Asian American life. We are more than just Chinese New Year or the harvest moon festival. It seemed like every other book I picked up was about that. Which is amazing from an educational perspective, but we’re more than these holidays. Most Chinese American families have spaghetti for dinner sometimes, and dumplings for dinner other times. It’s important to recognize this instead of trying to fit ourselves into one category or the other. Specifically, I wanted my child to grow up seeing these small details early on, and seeing good representation of our household in media.
Another important note is that I was getting a lot of Chinese-Pinyin children books from China. And I just found them to have a different set of lessons than I wanted for my child. Kids are kids and just because we are trying to get them to learn a language doesn’t mean the moral lessons have to be so serious. That’s why Toby is the way he is, he’s a real boy! He spills, he gets things dirty, and that’s ok!
For those who aren’t fluent in Chinese, what does the “Tuotuo” mean?
Tuotuo is a nickname we created for Toby’s best friend, which happens to be a house slipper (in Chinese, Tuo Xie). Two things are often true:
1. Our kids have the weirdest ‘favorite’ toy. For example, my Burt was obsessed with the vacuum and demanded to be with it 24/7.
2. Almost all Asian households have slippers.
And so, we thought it would be fun and whimsical to combine these and pair up this baby, Toby with Tuotuo as his best friend.
What inspired you to create “Where’s Tuotuo?”? Who is your intended audience?
My baby! The main intention was for children like my own, whose parents are trying to teach them Chinese and pinyin, but struggled to find fun books that have meaningful illustrations. But truly, the book can be for any family interested in learning Chinese and seeing what it could be like inside a modern Chinese household.
You’re self-publishing “Where’s Tuotuo?” under a new imprint, Little Phoenix Press. What is your vision for Little Phoenix Press?
So much! This series is just the start. The overarching goal is to give a voice to Asian Americans in the media. The reason it’s called Little Phoenix is tied heavily to a lot of anti-Asian sentiment we saw come out of COVID-19. Through the ashes and anti-Asian hate we were created to build a better and stronger voice for Asian Americans and be another source of representation in the media (books and beyond).
Can you describe the journey to creating “Where’s Tuotuo?” and Little Phoenix Press and something you learned in the process that surprised you?
That the way I felt about what was in the market was an incredibly common theme among Chinese American parents! There is so much demand. While there are close to no books in this category represented by large publishers to date, that underlying demand is there!
Danni, you identified a market gap where there weren’t a lot of Chinese books that had Pinyin and also taught values you wanted to pass onto your son. What values do you both want Little Phoenix Press books to depict?
Very simply that you, my child, are perfect the way you are. I wanted my child to see and feel culturally represented but also represented in terms of movements and activities. It’s ok to get things a little messy. You’re good inside and you need to know that because I know that.
The market gap wasn’t just for a lack of Chinese books that had pinyin because there are a number of them from China. But a lot of the values were misaligned from what I wanted my child to take away with.
Which illustration in “Where’s Tuotuo?” is your favorite? Why?
Is it ok if I cheat and pick 2? I love the vacuum one because for me, it’s such an accurate depiction of the messes our kids make sometimes, it’s just comical!
I also love the kitchen illustration. For me, a big part of experiencing culture is just food. But nothing crazy or fancy. It’s small things like throwing mayo and sriracha on all our BLT sandwiches. But it just makes it better and more fun. This spread does a great job of exemplifying that.
“Where’s Tuotuo?” will be part of a bilingual book series. Can you give us a teaser for the series?
It’s going to be just as fun and messy and there is another book coming that takes Toby and Tuotuo through different types of Chinese art!
Sammy, you’re an artist, illustrator, designer, and animator. What sparked your interest in art and when did you know you wanted to make it a career?
I always loved to draw, and have very vivid memories of my mother taking me to the art store and buying Mr. Sketch markers when I was a child. If I close my eyes now, I can still smell the black licorice scent. My sister and I would also stand in front of the TV, paint happy trees and use our fan brush to make happy clouds with Bob Ross.
My Mother really supported my creativity when I was eight, she brought home an Apple 2E and told me that one that would be my primary tool to create art. I looked at her like she was from Mars but fast forward 40 years and here we are. I continued to draw all through middle school and high school. I didn’t realize it could be a career till I went to the RISD summer program in-between my junior and senior year of high school. I was really struggling academically and my parents and I met with our guidance counselor to talk about college. She saw all my doodles in my notebook and recommended I go to the RISD summer program. There I got to meet different disciplines of professional artists and was inspired to apply to art school. I ended up studying illustration at Syracuse University.
Sammy, you worked for several major publishers, Houghton Mifflin, Addison-Wesley (an imprint of Penguin Random House), and Simon & Schuster, before becoming a freelancer. What’s the biggest difference between working for a big publisher compared to freelance? What’s your favorite part about being a freelancer?
I loved working for the major publishers, I learned so much about the industry and made some life-long friends. A lot of them attended the opening to my gallery show Drawn Together at Pearl River Mart. I also always had an entrepreneurial spirit which led me to try freelancing. As a freelancer I’m responsible for my own schedule which includes everything from administrative work, tech support, self-promotion and research and development. What I enjoy most about freelancing is the ability to follow through on any ideas that I have. For example, this year I totally switched gears from client driven work and spent this year concentrating on drawing for my gallery show, and illustrating our first bilingual book “Where’s Tuotuo?”.
Sammy, how would you describe your creative process and art style?
My art work is divided into two different categories. 1, my client-based work and 2, my personal work.
When working with clients my approach is to carefully listen to the goals for the project and then translate the client’s words and vision into aesthetics. I always start by doing research, finding the appropriate motivation, and then creating a concept. I always enjoy this part because it leads to so many different ideas. Once the ideas are filtered, I work on a concept. Concepts consist of mood boards, sketches, and detailed notes. I often present three concepts. Two of the concepts will revolve around the client’s idea and the last idea will be an original idea I want to try. One of my strengths is I can work in many different styles from 3D modeling to line drawings.
My personal work is the work I want to contribute to the world. It’s the gallery show and our book “Where’s Tuotuo?”. In my personal work I love to experiment and see what kinds of tools and technology I can use to push my art. I’m not afraid of taking chances even if it means I might have to start over. I believe my role as an artist is to create atmosphere, engage an audience, start conversation. In the end I want my work to spark emotions from the viewer.
Danni, you have degrees in economics and business from Columbia University and Harvard Business School, respectively and you currently work in the startup space. How did you become interested in writing a children’s book?
I would say quite serendipitous! I never would have thought I would start writing a children’s book. But I’m generally someone who, if I see something missing or wrong, I jump in to try and address the problem instead of waiting for it to be addressed for me. And when I had my first baby, Burt, who was the inspiration for all of this, it just made so much sense.
Danni, how have the skills you’ve learned in working with startups transferred to self-publishing a book?
I think my experience with startups have really helped me think about all of the different ways to quickly test and pivot. I think there are some who step into this world and believe they have to follow all of the traditional publishing rules. But the number one rule with start ups is to care less about what has been done before and more about what you’re delivering that’s going to be better, and get to market faster.
Danni, it seems like you’ve traveled a lot! Where was your favorite place to travel? How has seeing more of the world influenced your worldview?
Yes! It started with my own parents’ love of traveling and showing me and my brother new things. When we moved to the US, we would just get into the car and drive.
My husband and I love traveling to experience new cultures, meet people, and taste the local food. There’s also something so ‘uncontrolled’ about traveling - you can plan but the best experiences come out of the blue. And I love that idea of ‘messiness’. I don’t think there is anything that compares to the feeling of sitting out on a street corner, eating a bowl of mohinga from a street vendor at 7AM while listening to the traffic buzz around you. To date, our favorite place that we’ve been has been Myanmar.
And we aim to continue and share this love of traveling with our children. My view is that it doesn't have to stop when you have kids, in fact, it becomes more important so they get a world perspective.
Sammy, you have been very active against Anti-Asian Hate, both through your work as a self-defense instructor and through art activism.
How did you learn martial arts? Can you tell us about the free self-defense classes you help teach through the Jason and Alicia Lee Foundation and University Settlement in New York City’s Chinatown? What is your primary goal in teaching self-defense?
Martial Arts is such a huge part of my life, it's where I feel most free and in the moment. When you are sparring you have to clear your mind and focus on the task at hand. My boxing instructor, Jenaro Diaz, told me sometimes you are calm in the eye of the storm, sometimes you are the storm.
When teaching self-defense, we emphasize being comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We let people know they are working in a safe space and it’s ok to make mistakes cause most people aren’t used to dodging punches. We teach techniques that maximize efficiency with minimal effort. Most of the classes have only been introductory ones, but we hope the more they practice the more comfortable they will get.
I have been practicing martial arts since I was 9. My father taught me Tai Chi in our kitchen. I started wrestling when I was in high school and was all state twice. I walked on to the Syracuse University team and continued to wrestle there for four more years. After college I started Tae Kwon Do and earned a rank of second-degree black belt. As a black belt I won 4 state titles and have competed national and internationally. When MMA took off, I switched to Boxing, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
My current focus is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and my instructor, Mike Jeramillo, talks about how you always need to imagine yourself against someone bigger or stronger, so you really need to focus on technique and awareness to come out on top. The same can be said about self-defense, your attacker will always have some sort of advantage on you whether its size, strength or element of surprise. If they wanted a fair fight they would sign up for a competition. So, our classes mainly focus on Awareness. Being mindful of your situation and environment can prevent the majority of attacks.
I run the program with my friend and long-time training partner Kit Yeung. When The Jason and Alicia Lee Foundation originally approached me to teach, they said one of the caveats is that the classes be taught in Chinese. I can’t speak fluently and when I asked Kit to help, he immediately jumped on board. Working on “Where’s Tuotuo?” is helping me improve my Chinese.
We started teaching classes for senior citizens at University Settlement last October. Through government grants we were able to expand our program and teach all over NYC from Flushing Queens to Washington Heights. We are about to start a 6-week program in Sunset Park. Please contact AMPHS for details. We wish these classes weren’t necessary but will continue teaching them wherever they are needed.
Sammy, you’ve partnered with Pearl River Mart Gallery (@pearlrivermart), Mott Street Girls (@mottstreegirls), and the Asian American Arts Alliance (@aaartsalliance) to create an art exhibit called Drawn Together: Stories of Resilience and Renewal in NYC Chinatown. What was the catalyst for this art series? Tell us about the theme of the series and the exhibit itself.
The show Drawn Together was inspired by a drawing I donated to Lucy Yu and Yu and Me Books. Lucy wanted to open a bookstore that featured diverse voices from the BIPOC, Latinx and AAPI community. Voices that she felt were under represented. She spent a year collecting books from thrift shops while holding down a full time job in chemistry. When she opened in December of 2022, right in the middle of the pandemic I wanted to do something to support her because I believed in her mission. So I drew a line drawing of her store and told her she could use it however she wanted too. I thought she could sell prints or create an NFT. She ended up putting it on tote bags and on Instagram (side note: I believe this is how Danni first saw my artwork) .
The drawing was so popular I thought I could do drawings for other businesses and landmarks in Chinatown and create a gallery show. While I was visiting Lucy I picked up a business card for the Mott St Girls. I saw they gave walking tours of Chinatown and their goal was also to revitalize the community. So I reached out to them and asked if they would partner with me. They agreed immediately and helped me begin finding locations to draw. They also were instrumental in finding the location of the show, Pearl River Mart. Pearl River Mart was the only gallery not to charge us and even offer us a stipend. That was huge because we wanted to donate the proceeds back to the community and could not afford to pay for the space and donate money. I also applied for a micro-grant through Asian American Arts Alliance. The funding I received through them was instrumental in helping me pay for the materials for the show.
The show itself is about bringing people together and about collaboration. I could not have made the show happen without Mott Street Girls, Pearl River Mart and A4. Each piece has personal meaning to every one. For example the drawing of Chattam Square is deeply personal to me. It's where my father met his uncle the day he immigrated to America. Author Alvin Eng bought that piece because of the statue of Lin Ze Xu. Lin Ze Xu led the first war on drugs in China. Alvin hosted a panel discussion on Hong Kong and asked me to speak on that piece. At the panel we discussed how important art is, because it can be a vessel for communication and storytelling.
At the opening I met other business owners and activists which I plan to collaborate with as well. “Where’s Tuotuo?” contains a lot of easter eggs about Asian American culture which I hope creates conversation between parents and children. I want to continue to use art to open dialogue and create opportunities to make the world a better place.
Note: DRAWN TOGETHER: STORIES OF RESILIENCE AND RENEWAL IN NYC CHINATOWN is on view in the Pearl River Mart SoHo gallery from September 10 - December 28, 2022. Free and open to the public every day between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Danni, how did becoming a mom in 2020 change your perspective about being bilingual and sharing your cultural heritage?
I like to see the silver linings in things. 2020 was certainly a hard time to step into this new role of ‘mom’. It was deeply unsettling, I felt very alone, and had a bit of anxiety over whether or not this country was still safe for people like me, and more important to me, my child.
I think this time made me realize how important it was for my child to learn about his culture and see himself represented. It also made me realize how important it was for others, who are not so close to Asian American culture, to understand what it means to be a modern Asian American child. I didn’t want to write another book where the focus was on Chinese New Year or the Dragon Boat Festival because I didn’t feel like that represented my family’s day to day. Instead, I wanted to show people that we are unique and different, but there are also so many commonalities we can all connect on. Education and understanding needs to go both ways for us to land in a better future state.
What is your experience with Anti-Asian Hate and how do you think we can make our country a place where people of every ethnic and racial background can feel safe going about their daily lives?
Unfortunately, I have had two personal experiences with Anti-Asian hate. In both instances the perpetrator approached me and began verbally assaulting me. The first instance was on my daughter's 7th birthday. I was walking home from the grocery store when I heard someone saying these random anti-Asian remarks. At first, I didn’t know who he was talking to, then I turned around and he made eye contact with and directed more profanities towards me. My first reaction was, get ready to fight. But as I listened to what he had to say I felt his anger was coming from a position of insecurity. I thought about his motivation for singling me out and I knew it wasn’t personal and for him to want to fight a random person he had to be in a dark place. I thought about all the things I had to look forward to on that particular day including celebrating my daughter's birthday. The last thing I wanted to do was go to the police station to fill out a police report. So, I uncliched my fist, gave him a look of empathy and walked away.
The language used the second time was very similar. This time I was near Central Park in NYC and I had just passed two police officers working a detour at the 86st transverse. I was able to keep a safe distance from the assailant and walked back to the transverse to let the police handle it.
One of the emphases of our self-defense class is the last thing you want is a physical confrontation. Anything can happen when things turn physical, it’s always best to de-escalate and look for ways out, including giving your attacker a chance to leave. Violence only begets violence. I feel if we want real lasting change we need empathy and understanding, we need to find common ground and we need to make the laws work for everyone. We need to give everyone something to look forward to.
The role of allies can be anything from purchasing a book written by an AAPI author to donating to an AAPI charity. Really anything counts. We are trying to build community, share stories and create conversations. Stories about our history, one thing that could help is to support and raise awareness for the development of an Asian American Pacific Islander History Museum.
In May, President Biden signed a bill (H.R.3525) to create a commission to study the feasibility of a museum dedicated to the AAPI community. The commission was to be appointed nine weeks after President Biden signed the bill; however only two of the eight members of the commission have been chosen by Senate majority leader Charles Schumer. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader of the House have not made their picks.
Again, anything helps. When people ask who Team Self-Defense is I tell them it’s anyone who takes our classes, posts pictures of seminars online, offers us space to teach, interview us, etc.
Sammy, last year, you worked with One Book, One World to donate 1,200 AAPI books to schools. How did you get connected with One Book, One World? Why do you both think AAPI representation in children’s literature is important?
When I was first getting started with activism I volunteered to teach Tae Kwon Do to my childrens’ classmates. Instead of taking payment I asked the parents to donate money to an AAPI charity. While vetting charities I came across One Book One World. They buy and donate books by AAPI authors/creators to schools in libraries. They started their organization because AAPI history is only mandated as part of the curriculum in 4 states in the United States. Therefore most schools don't have the budget to buy books that are not part of their curriculum. I reached out to them initially to see if I could help them with marketing/social media graphics. I ended up being their liaison to the publishing industry. This year Kelly Yang donated 250 copies of her book about famous Asian Americans to One Book One World.
It’s important to not only have books about AAPI history but also books with AAPI protagonists. Books can act like a window or a mirror. Books about Asian American history can shed light on how vastly different the immigration experience was for Asians vs. Eastern Europeans. Eastern Europeans who immigrated through Ellis Island waited in line for a few hours before they got citizenship and full rights. Immigrants at Angel Island were treated vastly differently. Many of the Chinese immigrants waited months to be released into America with few rights. Books like “Where’s Tuotuo?” paint a picture of Asian American culture and offer a mirror for Asian American children so they can see themselves in the diverse fabric of American life.
Is there anything else you’d like to share that I didn’t ask about?
In January of 2023 I’ll be leading a children's MMA program at Kits Williamsburg Gym. I’m really excited about joining the community and helping the kids grow on and off the mats.
When will “Where’s Tuotuo?” be released and where can it be purchased?
"Where’s Tuotuo?" is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and will be shipping in late November or early December!