Author Cheng remembered for talent, grace

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 29, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-29 07:00:52-05

Andrea Cheng, a local author and teacher, passed away recently after losing her battle with cancer.

The 58-year-old published nearly two dozen books for children and young adults and had completed two manuscripts that will be published in 2017. She also was a teacher at Cincinnati State, was a sought-after speaker and had won critical acclaim for her picture books and chapter books.

The daughter of Hungarian immigrants, she was born in El Paso, Texas, and raised in Avondale, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, giving her an appreciation for diversity, minority and civil rights issues. Her bilingual household consisted of an extended family spanning three generations.

Cheng wrote books for children and young adults, using her rich linguistic skills in English, Hungarian, French, Spanish and Chinese to highlight the cultural differences and similarities that unify and divide the worlds of children and young adults.

The North Avondale resident and her husband Jim Cheng, the son of Chinese immigrants, have three children: Nicholas, 30, Jane 28, and Ann, 26.

Many of her books won praise. In 2003, for example, “Marika,” about a Jewish family, was chosen for the “On the Same Page” citywide reading program launched by the city of Cincinnati.

Cheng’s books explored the experiences she, her parents and grandparents had as immigrants and some of the issues her biracial children dealt with. She has said she wrote stories from as early as elementary school and was encouraged by teachers and her father, John Kartal, who would have her read her stories to him as an after-dinner routine.

But she was in her 40s when she was finally published. Cheng also taught English as a second language at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

Jim Cheng met his wife – whom he called his soul mate, best friend and the only love of his life – in New York while she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English at Cornell University 39 years ago. After graduation, she lived in Switzerland, learning French and becoming a bookbinder’s apprentice. She returned to Cornell to earn a master’s degree in linguistics.

They had been married 34 years when Cheng passed away on Dec. 26.

“Andrea never said ‘I love you.’ It’s not something I heard her say to her parents,” said Jim Cheng, 57, principal, Emersion Design in downtown Cincinnati.

But when the couple were expecting their first child, she requested that they move back to Cincinnati to be close to her family.

“We've never said ‘I love you’ to our three kids. But she made up so many nicknames for the kids that her mom had to keep a chart on her refrigerator. When told of her breast cancer diagnosis in 2004, still drowsy from anesthesia, she just said, ‘What about the kids?’" he said.

Actions spoke louder than words for this family.

“When Andrea was diagnosed with terminal cancer last July, the kids and 3-week-old grandchild relocated their lives from Sacramento, Boston and Zurich to Cincinnati for the duration within 48 hours. Ten days later, our youngest daughter married her longtime partner so that Andrea could be secure that all three kids had found and married great people,” he said.

Jim Cheng said he admired and respected his wife for the way she cared for their families and community, and he called her “unbelievably brave” in coping with cancer.

“After her double mastectomy, she elected not to have reconstruction. She told me she was scared to go out in public flat-chested and bald from chemo. But she did, as an instructor at Cincinnati State, as a speaker at conferences or as an author speaking to children,” he said.

“She wanted our kids to see that what matters is not your hairstyle or body shape, but how you treat others. She felt apprehensive each time she went somewhere new, but she went.”

“Andrea and I never said ‘I love you’ to each other. We never said goodbye or had any kind of final conversation. I've learned from her that for us, the final conversation started 39 years ago when we met. I'm so grateful and sad. It is, simply and profoundly, what it is,” he said.

Andrea Cheng’s mother, Mary Kartal, 87, said her daughter wanted to be a writer her whole life and was the family’s keeper of stories.

“Even as a child, she was a careful, positive person who always saw the good in people, and that stayed with her forever. She was a positive influence on all the people she met,” said Kartal.

Her family says she drew from her own life to write her books. In her first book, “Grandfather Counts” in 2000, she wrote and illustrated a story about a Chinese-American girl who must give up her room when her grandfather comes from China to live with the family.

Her books “The Lace Dowry” and “Bear Makers” were set in Budapest in the 30s and postwar Hungary in the 40s, respectively. And her most intensely personal one is “Brushing Mom’s Hair,” which deals with her treatment for breast cancer and how it affected her teen daughter.

Andrea Cheng’s siblings said she impacted many lives through her writing and daily life.

“The beauty of Andrea’s life was that while she brought the awareness of humanity and diversity to the table, she made a difference by impacting individual lives,” said Annette DiGirolamo, 60, a retired teacher.

Toward the end of her younger-but-wiser sister’s life, DiGirolamo said, she found joy and sadness in the presence of her first grandchild, Lena, now seven months old.

Andrew Kartal, 63, a local beekeeper, said, “My sister did not stand on a podium and tell people what to do. She showed them by example. She helped people and she spoke up for them in her sensitive, caring way.”

Lee Pastura, 64, a retired teacher who had invited Cheng to speak to her students at Sycamore Elementary about her books a decade ago, recalled the interactions between the author and the children in a Facebook post.

“She was interested in helping these kids find their own unique ‘inner author,’ which was an approach that I had never seen, so I never forget her,” Pastura said.

Colleagues at Cincinnati State said Cheng helped international students so much, there is a scholarship in her name at the college.

“Andrea was strong, she was vivacious and she was passionate about justice. She had a strong sense of history, and she knew how to tell a story,” said Robert White, a photographer and editor who is a media relations/communications coordinator for Cincinnati State.

Cheng’s literary agent, Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown Ltd., said, “Andrea was deeply committed to writing about diverse characters and a wide range of experiences, something that was rooted in her own cultural identity as the child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants and as the mother to her three children with her Chinese-American husband.”

Ann Rider, her editor, said, “Thank you, Andrea Cheng, for giving Asian-American children a series they can see themselves in.”