In debut children's book, Instagram's Eva Chen mixes magical shoes and iconic women

"When my daughter first saw the book, she kept asking me, 'Is that me, Mommy? Is that me?'"
"Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes," a book by Eva Chen.
"Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes" is Eva Chen's debut children's book.Courtesy of Macmillan Publishers

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By Saleah Blancaflor

After previously serving as the editor-in-chief for Lucky Magazine and health and beauty director at Teen Vogue, Eva Chen can now add "published children's book author" to her bio.

"My whole life I wanted to write children’s books for as long as I can remember," Chen, the current director of fashion partnerships at Instagram, said. "Around my daughter’s age — she’s 4 — I would walk around with a notebook. I couldn’t read or write, but I would pretend to be writing."

Her debut children’s book “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes, illustrated by Derek Desierto, is scheduled to be released on Nov. 6 and has already reached the top of Amazon's Children's Girls & Women Books new releases chart. The book follows the story of Juno Valentine, who goes on a journey through time and space while stepping into the shoes of female icons throughout history. With each pair of shoes, she gets one step closer to understanding what it means to be in her own shoes.

Before revealing her tips on how to take the perfect Instagram selfie, Chen spoke with NBC Asian America about what her inspired "Juno Valentine," the women who inspired the book, and what it means for her children to grow up in a world where they can be heard and seen.

What was your main inspiration behind writing “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes”?

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Juno Valentine is a fairytale — a fashion fairytale — and it is a girl’s guide to empowerment as well. I wrote it because I think in this juncture in time, history, and politics, with everything going on, girls cannot be told enough that 1) they matter; and 2) they have to have a voice and to be themselves. I wrote this book to encapsulate all those messages, which are heavy messages, and even at the age of 3, 4, or 5, it’s good to start hearing that and having that in your life.

This book features a lot of iconic women from the present including Lady Gaga to Serena Williams and women from the past as well, such as Frida Kahlo and Cleopatra. How did you go about choosing which women to include in this book? Were they ones you felt made an impact in your life in some way?

Lady Gaga, I wish I could say she is my life coach! While I was approaching the book, which is basically about a little girl who loses her pair of shoes and goes on a caper and this adventure of time and space to find a new pair of shoes...she ends up trying the shoes of all these iconic women. When I was choosing the women, it was a mix of a lot of factors. Of course, someone like Frida Kahlo, when you read her story and how she was such a trailblazer and had her own voice so long ago, to Cleopatra, who is iconic and has a very strong fashion point-of-view, I really wanted it to be a mix of women. Yayoi Kusama, the artist, is in the book as well and is incredibly inspiring and a trailblazer in her own way. Really, I was just looking for that: female trailblazers that, as a 3-year-old, you won’t be like, "Oh, I know exactly who Gloria Steinem is!" But it’s subliminal messaging that hopefully seeps into the subconscious and helps them set the stage to appreciate these women.

I wanted to make a book that was fun for parents to read too. If you’re a fashion fan, you’ll recognize the Vivienne Westwood heel that Naomi Campbell wore and tripped on famously over a decade ago. You’ll see shoutouts to Gigi Hadid and the blogger Chiara Ferragni, you’ll see famous pairs of shoes from Chanel, and accelerant to pop culture moments — like the Lady Gaga and Alexander McQueen hologram and the armadillo heel. So, that’s for parents, and kids will like it too because it’s fun and sparkly.

As you said, the book is fun and sparkly and the pictures are very colorful and vibrant. How did you go about collaborating with illustrator Derek Desierto to create the vision you wanted for the drawings in this book?

It’s funny, because I work at Instagram and that’s my day job and the whole book came together on Instagram. I had written this book, and at first I didn’t have a book deal. My book agent started going to all these different publishing houses and I’m a huge bookworm. I love to read and always have loved to read. Every time you go to a book publishing house, the first thing you see is a huge bookshelf. You know that scene in “Beauty and the Beast” — and of course I’m referencing a vintage Disney movie — and Belle is on the ladder and she’s swinging and totally enraptured? That’s me anytime I’m around a stack of books and I was just really excited. I was going to these book publishing houses and hugging the book shelves and a woman who I worked with named Allison — we were Instagram friends and I used to work with her when I was a magazine editor — she DMed me and she was like, "What’s going on? Are you just hanging out at book publishing houses? Are you selling a book? Tell me!" And I was like, "I’m selling a book! But I think you guys might’ve passed on the book." And she said, "Hold, please." So if it wasn’t for that fateful DM at the right moment, that’s how my book deal came about.

Derek, actually, he’s amazingly talented and he tagged me in a photo illustration he did two years before I started writing the book, and I saved that Instagram post because I loved his style since it was so quirky and fun. I remember thinking, "If I ever write a children’s book...maybe I should talk to Derek." Two years later, when I finished the book, I DMed him out of the blue and asked him if he wanted to do a children’s book together. We did the book over the course of seven or eight weeks and we did it all through DM, FaceTime, texting. We actually didn’t meet in person until quite recently so it’s kind of this Instagram fairytale and has helped me get closer to these people.

How important is it that your own daughter and son, and other children as well, have a book like this — one with an Asian-American child as the main character — growing up?

It’s so important. I think representation and diversity begins at a very young age. You might not be conscious of it completely until you see more people that look like you. When my daughter first saw the book, she kept asking me, "Is that me, Mommy? Is that me?" Juno is meant to be mixed race so it was definitely inspired by my daughter all around. I think Asian American representation still has a long way to go, and I’m not talking just about children’s books and book publishing, but we’re at this place right now with “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before." When the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” happened, I didn’t know a lot of the cast members, but literally me clapping my hands and screaming and being excited about it matters. Having a voice, being open, and talking about it is the first step.

For me growing up, I remember the ideals of beauty and they all didn’t look like us. It was more like blonde hair, blue eyes, "all-American." It’s almost 2019 and the realization that there’s billions of people on the planet and everyone looks different, but finding your own beauty is the most important thing you can do — and it’s one of the messages in the book: that being yourself is the most important thing, and knowing that it might take time for you to accept that. For me, it’s taken me until my mid-30s and it’s taken some time for me to own who I am, and because of books like “Juno Valentine and the Magical Shoes” and because of platforms like Instagram, people can reach those goals faster of becoming more comfortable in their own skin.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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