Internationally acclaimed children’s author Jaimal Yogis tells us about writing kids’ novels that tackle mental health, his connections to Hong Kong and his exciting workshops at this year’s Young Readers Festival.
What does someone who dreams of being a marine biologist, professional surfer, anthropologist and artist do? Jaimal Yogi combines all of his life’s passions into one. A renowned author and a self-proclaimed surfing addict, Jaimal has written several award-winning books including his memoir Saltwater Buddha, The Fear Project and All Our Waves Are Water. He dove into the world of children’s literature when his wife Amy was pregnant with their first child. His first children’s books Mop Rides The Waves Of Life and Mop Rides the Waves Of Change are based on his own experiences and follow a curly-haired surfer boy who learns to use mindfulness meditation to overcome his greatest challenges.
His tween book series City Of Dragons, which he wrote in collaboration with illustrator Vivian Truong, is set in Hong Kong and follows the character Grace, a kid who is determined to protect a dragon from mysterious evil forces and save the city. Through fascinating characters and storylines, Jaimal Yogi flawlessly conveys all the important values that parents want to instil in their children – creativity, courage and the power of mindfulness. Making his way to Hong Kong this month, he lets us in on his journey from writing adult novels to children’s books, his milestones and challenges, tackling kids’ mental health, plus what he has planned for the 2023 Hong Kong Young Reader’s festival.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what connections do you have with Hong Kong?
Like Grace, the main character in our graphic novel series City Of Dragons, I’m a military brat who moved a lot as a kid from New York to the Azores, California and France. While I dreamed of being many different things, I finally stumbled upon journalism in college and was lucky to get into magazine writing, a job that let me keep exploring all my passing whims and also gave me a flexible schedule to feed my love of surfing. I soon realized I could merge my all passions so I published some books on travelling and surfing with some salty musings on the meaning of life.
When my wife Amy and I went on our first date I was just about to go on a months-long surf trip in Indonesia. I liked her a lot, and I didn’t want her to meet someone else while I was away. It just so happened that she was headed to Hong Kong for a business trip, so we decided to meet here. We both fell in love with the city (and each other). So Hong Kong has always felt magical to me, which is probably why I decided to set City of Dragons here.
What inspired you to make the switch to children’s books?
When Amy and I had our first son, Kai, I wrote him a children’s book while we were waiting for him to be born. Maybe it was the excitement about becoming a dad, but I’d never had so much fun writing. I wanted to do more of it. As our family grew to five, I kept pitching ideas, and I am happy to say I’m now a kids’ book author with two series, but my primary job is definitely Dad.
“Everyone who worked in publishing warned me that it would be almost impossible to switch to kids’ books, but I think that only motivated me to try and prove them wrong!”
Is your main character Mop based on anyone?
I liked doodling this stick figure surfer with a big afro in my journal and named him Mop; these doodles organically turned into a kids’ book. But I probably subconsciously based him on my childhood self and my kids. I have big, curly hair and I was teased about that when I was a kid, just like Mop is in the books. When my boys were younger they had big curly, messy hair too, and like any kids, they were often colliding head-on with big emotions like Mop does. So I’m definitely drawing from my own experiences with Mop – as a kid and as a dad.
“My friend used to scream, “don’t look at his hair!” when I was driving down the soccer field because my hair waving all over the place could distract defenders from stealing the ball.”
Your books tackle kids’ mental health – is this something you see getting better or worse for kids these days?
The pandemic undoubtedly took a toll on children, and you hear a lot of doom and gloom data on youth depression and anxiety. But I will say that whenever I visit classrooms I always leave very positive and optimistic. Kids these days think so globally; on the whole I think they have far more social-emotional tools than generations passed. I’m optimistic that we’re removing the stigma of talking about mental health more and more, and I think we’re beginning to see that it’s just as crucial to guiding kids on how to take care of their mental health as it is to teach math or science. All this is going to help future generations but obviously, mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The health of our environment and communities reflects directly on kids’ emotional wellness, and we have a lot of work to do to make sure they get the healing benefits of clean air, water, and the restorative benefits of nature.
“My advice to kids in Hong Kong would be to get out in nature every day, even if it’s just the corner park. The magic of trees, beaches and mountains is that they heal us without us having to do anything, and the science behind this is clear.”
Playing outside in the green and blue spaces helps our brains reset and destress so we can learn more and just feel better.
What has been your biggest milestone to date? And on the flip side, what has been your biggest challenge?
Professionally, my biggest milestone has been selling the first four books of the City of Dragons series to Scholastic. When the idea for City of Dragons hit me, I knew I wouldn’t be happy with myself if I didn’t go all-in and try, but I had so many voices of doubt in my head, and a lot of people told me it was next to impossible to break into the middle-grade fantasy genre (this is the realm of Harry Potter after all!). I’m fortunate that my wife and family encouraged me to trust my intuition and keep at the dream through quite a few years of uncertainty and screaming doubt.
As for my biggest challenge, in my junior year of high school, I hit a rocky emotional patch. I was rebelling in typical high school ways and getting into trouble with drinking and drugs. Looking back, I’ve realized I was angry at my parents, especially my dad, for their divorce. Long story short, I ran away from home to Maui in hopes of starting fresh, but I had no money or plan and it was far from a relaxing adventure in a tropical paradise. I had some low nights crying myself to sleep, but it was the lows on that trip that forced me to look for help. I learned mindfulness meditation, which also helped me heal my relationship with my dad when he came to look for me. It was a reckless thing to do (praying that I won’t have to experience my parents’ side as a dad) but, with my family’s support and understanding, it thankfully got me on a much more positive track.
What can parents do to help get their kids involved in literature?
I think it’s really important to have books around your house. Have books in multiple rooms, as many as possible. Studies have shown that just having books in the home improves literacy, and I know that was important for me growing up. Books just felt like part of the landscape. We have to read to our kids when they’re young, but it’s also important for kids to see their parents reading and talking about the books we’re enjoying. Remember more is caught than taught. Lastly, I think it’s important to let kids choose their books whenever they can. Even if the books they choose seem totally inane, if they’re enjoying reading that’s setting up a positive association, and it’s empowering.
Tell us about your involvement at the Hong Kong Young Readers festival this year.
This is my first time at the Hong Kong Young Readers Festival so I’m very excited to go. Vivian Truong and I have just been so giddy because we both adore Hong Kong and the festival is bringing us to schools and classrooms. We will be giving a class on the history of dragons that ties into our own City of Dragons series. We’ll also weave in the steps of making a graphic novel and Vivian will guide the students through drawing their own dragons. I’ll also be giving a workshop on Mop where I’ll combine an interactive reading of the first Mop book with an introduction to mindful breathing and drawing our own emotional waves to surf.
Getting to chat with kids about dragons and books is one of our favourite things to do, but so far we have had to do our presentations with one of us on zoom because Vivian lives in Europe and I’m in the States. To get to both be in the classroom in person is going to be really special.