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Just Passing Through: Eva Chen

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Instagram’s head of fashion Eva Chen stops at Book People to promote her new book, Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure. 

By Courtney Runn, Photo by Leo Faria

Instagram’s queen of fashion is stopping in town on Halloween to promote her latest children’s book. Released today, Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure follows the series’ heroine, Juno Valentine, through time as she meets historical female figures and solves her dilemma of what to wear to school picture day. Currently the head of fashion partnerships at Instagram and previously Lucky’s editor-in-chief, Eva Chen added children’s author to her resume last November and has since written three books. 

Austin Woman talked to Chen ahead of her Book People appearance about her favorite books growing up and how she’s using her books to introduce young readers to strong female role models. 

Austin Woman: Congratulations on your new book! That’s so exciting. 

Eva Chen: Thank you so much! It’s kind of crazy to me because it’s been this lifelong dream of mine to write children’s books and I went from writing zero about a year and a half ago and now I have three so far. It’s zero to 60 in no time at all but I really love it. It makes me so happy and I love Book People. I’ve been there maybe five or six times in my life which isn’t a lot, but it is because I don’t live in Austin. I love that bookstore and I remember last year when I was on book tour, I kept saying, ‘Are we going to Austin? Are we going to Austin? I love Book People.’ But we weren’t able to swing it on the last book tour but this year, it’s one of the key stops. We’re doing a Halloween party; I’m going to be dressed up. My illustrator and I [are] going to be dressed up as characters, no big deal. My illustrator is like ‘Wait I’m going to be wearing overalls and yellow rain boots?’ and I’m like ‘You sure are.’ 

AW: How was the process of writing this book different than your process with the previous two? 

EC: Two weeks before the book released last year, I just had so much anxiety and jitters and I was up every night at 4 a.m. I just kept waking up and I was like ‘Oh my gosh what’s happening? Am I getting sick? What’s going on?’ Then a bunch of author friends of mine said this is totally normal, it happens with every book. This time, it feels a little bit more relaxed. I work at Instagram and I’m also on Instagram pretty actively and people have been DMing me about the book and they send me pictures of their kids reading the book, so I know the affection for the character is there. With my first book, the first time you do anything, [like] make a pancake, the first pancake is always bad, not bad but it needs work. This time around, I knew the process of writing a book and there was so much I didn’t know like the formatting of a book or the number of pages, everything, the way to structure it, the page-turn momentum. I knew what I was doing more so then I felt more secure in the process definitely this time around.  

AW: Did you feel more pressure returning to an established, beloved character? 

EC: It was more fun this time because I had her voice in my head and I know her voice. It was more fun to play with it and experiment with it. The hardest part about writing the second book was…there’s just so many things I want to do with Juno. I would love to take her to—I mean my publisher hasn’t heard this yet—I would love for her to go to Paris for instance or do a European tour from London to Paris and meet historical female characters in those countries. I would love to explore her big sister who we haven’t met yet…I would love to share those things but if a children’s picture book is only 32 pages, it’s just hard to get it all in there. 

AW: How do you narrow down the historical figures included in your books?

EC: The first book I think we were able to get 12 or 14 historical characters and there were certain things I wanted to accomplish. I wanted to have a mix of women in science, women in art, pop culture figures like Lady Gaga. I actually had so many women from the first book that weren’t able to make it in that I created a companion book called A is for Awesome so there are women like Malala in there, there are women like Emily Pankhurst who was a really important suffragette, many many different kinds of women. Lucille Ball who was the first woman to be the head of a studio, which if we think about now it’s like of course there should be women running studios in Hollywood but decades ago that was not the norm.. … There are few people in the world that I’m literally like bucket list, I love you, let’s hang out and maybe have a matcha latte together. Oprah being one of them which I think everyone knows I’m obsessed with Oprah. And then the second person is Michelle Obama. … I met her once at the White House. I was so fortunate to be able to meet her [and experience] her presence and her grace and her no-nonsense wisdom. I love her so I knew I wanted Michelle Obama in there and she’s in that iconic Balenciaga chartreuse dress and glitter boots. …There’s a pirate named Grace O’Malley that a lot of people haven’t heard of who is one of the few women who ever successfully negotiated with Queen Elizabeth. I was reading about pirates randomly because my daughter was asking me about pirates and whether there were girl pirates and I was like, ‘Of course there were girl pirates!’ and then I was like let me back that up and do some research so I learned about Grace O’Malley and she is this amazing woman who…was almost captured twice and was just amazing.

AW: Have you heard feedback from parents about the conversations they’re having after reading your books? 

EC: As a parent what you want to do is have conversations with your kids. … To read an entire history of someone is tough for a 4-year-old to digest or a 6-year-old to digest but what you want is to start the conversations with the parents. So if the daughter says, ‘Mommy, who is Yayoi Kusama?” maybe you go to the library and look at the art books that Yayoi is in and start the conversation about color and modernism and what the dots might represent or the tentacles in her art pieces represent. Or in the new book there is the architect Maya Lin who is an Asian American architect who at the age of 22 submitted her design for the Vietnam Memorial. She is the youngest woman—one of the youngest people—to design a national monument like that. But the goal would be for a little girl or a little boy to be like, ‘Who is this?’ then you can show them the physical representation to start the conversation because I think so much of parenting is planting the seed. You sprinkle the seeds in there and then hope the child has a curiosity or fan the flames of curiosity so that they can eventually learn it themselves and be a part of that conversation. … You internalize everything and that’s why also why the message of the books is ‘Listen little girls, little boys you want to try a lot of different things.’ Don’t feel like just because someone says ‘Oh, you’re cute,’ ‘Oh, you’re so tough,’ or ‘You’re so sporty, you’re good at sports,’ that [means] you have to assume that persona forever. You should explore the arts, explore things that interest you. If it doesn’t work out, listen, try it again. I think that’s one of the funnest things about fashion is that you’re trying something on and then you take it off at the end of the day. I come from a background in magazines…I wrote about beauty. So much of what I wrote about was experimentation and trying things and not feeling chained to something and I think the same is true for young people. 

AW: Do you remember your favorite outfit from when you were Juno’s age?

EC: I really was into dresses. There was one dress in particular. It was pink, it was very floofy, it had lots of layers, a matching floppy hat. It looked like something a Southern belle would wear. I loved that dress. My mom always tells me when I was about 5, we were traveling in Asia somewhere and I found a little pair of Mary Jane’s but that had a heel. Roughly a 2-inch heel. Maybe that’s why my feet are so messed up now …But it’s been interesting with my daughter right now, she’s almost 5 and I never really pushed her to wear dresses or dress in stereotypically feminine colors. When she was younger, I used to dress her in little black motorcycle jacket and black jeggings with cool Stan Smith sneakers, more that street style kind of vibe. Right now, she’s a very creative dresser. She’ll wear a pink tulle tutu with a blue and purple striped, green polka-dot shirt. And when I ask her, she’s like, ‘Yeah I like to dress myself.’ and I’m like ‘Ok, go for it.’ I don’t want her to feel self-conscious at all about choices. … My goal as a parent really is to help preserve that sense of confidence in her identity now even at the age of 5 because I think there will be a lot of external factors telling her she needs to change. That might come from so many different places, but I want her to have a strong sense of herself. That’s my ultimate goal as a parent. 

AW: How do you survive book tours?

EC: A lot of hand sanitizer because especially [at] kids’ book tours I’m not just shaking the parents’ hands but I’m holding babies. I’ve had babies cough on me, spit up on me. I love hugging people’s babies especially since my babies are real kids now. A lot of hand sanitizer. I try to eat local food just because it makes me happy. So, in Chicago I’ll be doing deep dish pizza, in St. Louis I think fried ravioli is a thing. In Austin, obviously I’ll be eating a lot of tacos and Tex-Mex. Torchy’s Tacos I’ve been to many, many times. 

AW: You’ve talked a lot about the children’s books that impacted you. What books shaped your 20s and 30s? 

EC: I think Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In had a lot of impact on me. … Michelle Obama’s book Becoming is gorgeous. It’s a kids’ book but it’s one of the books that’s been my favorite since I was a teenager is this book called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this beautiful coming-of-age story. I try to reread it every year in my first copy. I think any kind of book that expresses the human experience, especially how hard it is to go from the teen years to 20s to 30s. There is that sense of not belonging [that]I think is important to reidentify with. I mean this is going to sound bad, but I read a lot of YA even as a grownup, so I don’t know if it’s the most important book in terms of what made me me but truly the books that made me me are kids’ books. That sounds weird but I’d say A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I would say The Baby-Sitters Club; it’s boring because I always talk about it but the entrepreneurial spirit of all the Baby-Sitters Club girls really inspired something in me and just how they talked about real life things. I think Stacey’s parents are divorced and I’d never seen it written about in a children’s book before in such an honest, frank way. … There’s a book called The Westing Game which is kind of like puzzle. There’s a book called From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I loved that book. I actually reread it a few months ago. I bought a new copy [and]  it. I think sometimes when you reread the books you grew up with and loved as a kid it brings you back to when you were a child and you can see how you’re the same but also ways you’ve changed by rereading the same words. 

AW: What’s your go-to power outfit right now?

EC: Probably a blazer, a white T-shirt, mom jeans and a pair of flats. It’s deeply boring but that’s literally on a day-to-day basis what I’m wearing. I’ll be turning it up a little for book tour. 

See Eva Chen at Book People on Oct. 31 at 6 p.m. 

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