Mike Yam on Celebrating Multicultural Families

Growing up, Mike Yam saw very few characters in books or on TV that looked like him—half Chinese and half Italian. That underrepresentation impacted his life in many ways, particularly in the career options he felt were available to him. It wasn’t until his young adulthood that he realized he could forge his own path, one that didn’t force him to “pick a side” between his two cultures, but rather celebrated and embraced his multiethnic background.

Today, Mike Yam is a news anchor for the NFL Network, and is the author of one of our newest titles, Fried Rice and Marinara. We spoke with him about what inspired him to bring this story to life, the importance of representing all cultures in children’s literature, and the surprising thing that makes him nervous.

Young Mike Yam, center, flanked by his older twin cousins, Melissa (left) and Melanie (right)

What were you like as a child? Did you always know you wanted to be on TV?

I’d like to think I was a good kid! My mom can tell you for sure. As a kid, I loved sports. Most of my childhood memories involve some type of sports activity. I really enjoyed playing baseball, throwing the football in the street outside my house, swim meets in the summer, and hoops after school.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a pediatrician and that was something I pursued when I attended Fordham University. I clearly found a different path, but that was my original goal. One of the first books I can remember having was a Snoopy book about cells. My dad is a cytologist and he used to let me look through his microscope while he explained what I was looking at. My mom was a nurse and transitioned to academia when I was born. I think the science seed was planted at an early age. I never really knew a career in TV was an option for me until I was in college. 

What’s something that people often find surprising or unexpected about what you do for a living?

I won’t sugarcoat it—my job is fun! I still remind myself that I’m paid to talk about sports. It’s a dream job. This isn’t directly related to my job, but because I’m on air people think I’m super comfortable speaking in public. I’ve been lucky enough to be a best man three times, but I was so nervous to give those speeches. When I would tell people about my nerves, they couldn’t understand it because of my job. I always explain to them that when I’m doing a TV show, there are only a few people on the set with us and even fewer when I’m on radio. I think it’s actually seeing an audience that changes the dynamic for me. 

What made you want to create a children’s book?

My friend Lamar Hurd told me about Vooks a few years ago. I absolutely loved the concept, and then I met Joey Jenkins [Vooks CEO] and Shannon Bex [Vooks co-founder]. Every time I talked to the team, I could feel the passion they had for empowering young readers through stories. I flashed back to the two books I would have my mom read to me over and over again as a kid. I also struggled with reading when I was young, so there is definitely a part of me that wishes I had this reading tool when I was a child. 

Tell us a little bit about your cultural background and why it inspired you to create Fried Rice and Marinara

My dad is Chinese and was born in Hong Kong and my mom is Italian and grew up in the Bronx. As a kid, I didn’t think anything of the different cultures. I always knew I was Chinese and Italian, but as I got older I realized that my friends didn’t have to think about or balance multiple cultural experiences that were very different. I also realized that many stories available for children didn’t always feature diverse characters, although that’s changing now, which is really wonderful to see. I felt like there were very few stories focused on multicultural families.

Earlier, you asked about knowing if I wanted to be on TV. I don’t think it clicked in my head that it was a viable path for me because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on TV doing sports. I do think for my generation not seeing much diversity in characters playing a leading role alters your thinking about a career path. Part of the reason why I wanted to write Fried Rice and Marinara was to have young readers see a multiethnic character in a lead role. I also wanted to spark thought that families with diverse backgrounds are normal. At times in my childhood I thought I had to “pick a side,” which is weird to think about now. I really want young kids to be able to embrace their heritage and be proud of their background. I know for my family, food was a backdrop to everything we did. I wanted to use cuisine as a vehicle to bring the story to life.

Left: Baby Mike with his parents and maternal grandparents; Right: Mike with his twin cousins and paternal grandmother (Baboo)

Your story feels especially poignant right now, as we live in a world where it’s increasingly common for children to have parents from vastly different backgrounds. What do you want kids to know about celebrating the coming together of seemingly disparate cultures?

While I think interracial marriages are generally accepted in most communities, I hope that seeing a character that comes from two different backgrounds helps normalize the experience for those children and their friends. I really want every child to be able to see themselves represented in a story. 

Fried Rice and Marinara was created exclusively for Vooks, so it does not exist in hard copy form. What was the most surprising part of the animated storybook creation process?

The animation process was amazing to see unfold. I worked on the words in black and white on my computer. I’m so thankful to Jonathan Sundy, who was instrumental in helping with the editing, and Allison Wolfe for the support and feedback. This was my first experience writing a children’s book and their guidance and advice was invaluable. Laura Dong is based in Europe and we were able to connect on the phone multiple times. The first time I saw her illustrations I was floored. I think I told her 100 times that her work is making the story credible. To say I was impressed by the details is an understatement. She had asked for pictures of my family and even my childhood house. The illustration of the front door of the house stopped me dead in my tracks. Laura wanted to keep the illustrations authentic, so she worked off the photos of my actual family and our old house. It’s amazing how the visualizations not only bring the story to life, but triggered thoughts and memories for me. 

What has it been like seeing your personal story come to life with animation?

This whole process has been one of the coolest things I’ve done in my career. It’s also one of the most gratifying. I really hope the story sparks questions and conversations for families. 

Do you have a favorite teacher from your school days? What makes them stand out in your mind to this day?

I mentioned struggling with reading when I was a kid. I’m really grateful to all my teachers, but the extra work my mom did with me was monumental. I didn’t want to read when I was kid because I wasn’t good at it. The amount of hours on the couch that my mom spent with me sounding out words and getting through paragraphs is amazing to think back on. I’m sure I wasn’t the easiest student for her. She has the patience of a saint. I know there are so many parents doing the same for their kids today. Those parents might not feel appreciated in the moment, but they should know that when their kids look back they will have an overwhelming amount of gratitude. 

What was the best piece of advice your parents or grandparents ever gave you?

I don’t know if I can narrow down their advice to just one or two things—they were always so supportive and available. I think that might be what I remember most. My mom told me a story about when I was young and I asked her what a best man was and she explained it to me. I immediately said “I pick Pop!”—I loved spending time with my grandparents and cherish the time I had with them. I also don’t think I could have been given a better example of work ethic. My parents are easily the hardest working people I know. I’m so proud of their professional accomplishments, but it really pales in comparison to the things they have done on a personal level for me. I’m very, very lucky to have them. 

Lastly, what is your favorite way to enjoy a good book?

With my role at NFL Network, I’m new to living in Southern California, but I don’t think there’s a better place to read than on the beach. I feel like every time I’m near the water I come up with five new ideas for the next story. I hope the team at Vooks is ready for those drafts. Laura Dong should be on speed dial—we’re coming in hot!