By Emily Rhodes
Cindy Tong, a Richmond District resident and native of the Sunset District, will publish her debut children’s book “The Mystery of the Missing Dump Truck” this month. The book features two Asian-American protagonists, based on her own sons.
Tong said she hopes to expose younger readers to the mystery genre with this book.
“I believe mysteries get readers to think critically, make predictions and pay attention to details – skills that are important for children to learn,” Tong said. “A lot of children’s mysteries are chapter books for older children (e.g., The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew). I wanted to create a book with beautiful full-color illustrations that have hidden clues and red herrings, allowing younger readers to help solve the mystery by paying attention to the details.”
The book is geared towards readers between 4 and 8 years old.
When protagonists Connor and Owen discover their dump truck has gone missing from the sandbox at Whispering Willows Camp, they go on a hunt, finding clues and asking other campers and adults to uncover the mystery. They learn important lessons along the way, such as the value of asking others in the community for help, as they use their curiosity and detective skills to find their favorite toy.
“I wanted it to be adventurous,” Tong said. “I notice that kids like living vicariously through other characters. They find it fun and exciting to follow Connor and Owen. A lot of kids can relate to losing their favorite toy and they like satisfying endings to stories. This book has both.”
Tong said most children’s mystery books are chapter books for older children and many are overly simplistic. This book is filled with fun plot twists and playfully misleading clues. Kids can spot hints in the illustrations.
She said that another major motivation for developing her book was to increase Asian representation in children’s books. According to a 2019 study, only 8.7% of books have Asian characters.
“I want my kids to see themselves in the books they read,” Tong said. She noted that the film “Crazy Rich Asians” helped open the door for Asian representation in the media and books.
“It’s refreshing to see Asians can be main characters and heroes in everyday stories,” she said.
The book’s protagonists Connor and Owen are also the names of Cindy’s sons. They are Chinese. Tong noted that when she selected her illustrator, one important consideration was that she knew how to draw Asian people.
“I thought she did a great job of illustrating Asian people and people of other ethnicities in the book,” Tong said.
Ever since becoming a mom, Tong said she has been inspired by the books she read with her boys. She wanted to create something that other families would enjoy reading, too. Tong said she hopes children reading her book experience it as an exciting adventure.
“As a kid, I loved creating these worlds,” she said. “The idea of writing a children’s book was always there. When the pandemic hit and everything was at a standstill, I thought, ‘Why not just go for it?’ It made me feel like a kid again.”
She spent a year writing the book and four months collaborating with her illustrator, which she said was her favorite part.
“It’s so interesting seeing your idea come to life,” she said.
The most challenging part of writing the book was coming up with clues so that they were not too obvious but made sense. She also spent weeks debating how she would bring the clues to life in the illustrations.
As a first-time self-publisher, Tong said the learning curve was steep.
“I learned that there are so many things you can do with a book,” she said. “You can be really creative. I ended up working with a professional editor and learning about that world and what makes sense in illustrations.”
Tong built her own website and reached out to schools to spread the word about her book.
Tong plans to write more mysteries as part of “The Hong Brothers” series. She is working on the next mystery now, and it should be out in the next year.
For more information, go to bycindytong.com or follow her on Instagram @bycindytong for updates.