Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Mike Jung, Author of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities

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This week, the amazing children’s author visiting the blog is Mike Jung, author of the middle grade novel Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities. Here are Mike’s answers to my three burning questions:

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1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Mike Jung: Vincent Wu [main character of Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities], without a doubt, mostly because he’s the character who’s most informed by my own childhood experiences. Vincent isn’t based on me – he’s very different from the 12 year old Mike Jung in several important ways – but his insecurities about friendship, girls, social standing, and self-worth were (and are) very familiar to me.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

MJ: I don’t know that I can limit it to one piece of advice, but here goes: when I was a kid reader, I devalued my own identity as an Asian American. I lived in an overwhelmingly white community, I wanted very badly to fit in, and looking back now it’s easy to see all the little ways in which I accepted the idea that being Asian American was some kind of stain on my identity that needed to be removed or at least hidden. I hope my book, and all of my future books, will be helpful and positive to you in resisting that kind of impulse, and those pressures. Remember that your identity counts; remember that YOU count. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

MJ: Lisa Yee is a serious contender for my current favorite children’s author, period, regardless of race or ethnicity. I consider MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS the gold standard for middle-grade fiction, and studying the arc of Lisa’s career has been hugely inspirational to me as I’ve worked to get my own career off the ground. Gene Leun Yang is utterly masterful – AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is a work of genius – and I’m also a big fan of Ellen Oh, Cindy Pon, Kazu Kibuishi, and Debbie Ohi.

Thank you, Mike, for taking the time to answer my questions!

 

About the Author:

Mike Jung is an active blogger, parent, and SCBWI member, and lives in Oakland, California. Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic in 2012, was his first novel.

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: David Yoo, Author of The Detention Club

David Yoo

This week’s Asian American children’s author is David Yoo. His most recent book for kids is the middle grade novel, The Detention Club.

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

David Yoo: A lot of my fiction has an autobiographical base, at least emotionally. By that I mean while most of the things that happen to my characters didn’t happen to me in “real life,” I always write about things that I fully relate to/identify with, emotionally. So Nick Park in GIRLS FOR BREAKFAST and Albert Kim in STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE BEFORE are basically me, in different settings. Even Peter Lee in my middle grade novel THE DETENTION CLUB is loosely based on things I was feeling growing up. My most recent book, THE CHOKE ARTIST, was a collection of personal essays for adults, so of course I relate especially so to it because it actually was about me.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

DY: Hard to say–whenever an adult figure told the teen me not to sweat the small stuff, I’d always scoff/roll my eyes at them (behind their backs). That they considered the issues in my life small stuff I interpreted as proof that they were utterly clueless about what it’s like to be a teen. I’m old enough at this point to know that they were right, but I still remember how pointless it was to tell a teenager to trust that things get better–no offense to the whole “It gets better” movement! Frankly, a kid doesn’t have the patience to feel happy knowing that, decades from now, things will turn around. That there will come a time when you look back on this sad or lonely or depressing moment and find humor in it, even. The only reason you appreciate things when you’re older is because you have more perspective on life, which you simply don’t have when you’re younger. So I hesitate to tell AA kid readers, hey, it’ll be all right, even though it’s true. That’s like telling a kid in September, hey, Christmas will be here before you know it. So basically I’m offering the very same pitiful advice I ignored when I was a kid, that today as an adult, looking back on my sometimes miserable childhood, I now appreciate the bad parts almost more than I do the good times, because it’s all part of the journey blah blah blah.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

DY: Gene Luen Yang, seven days a week, twice on Sundays. A genius.

4) Were you a reader growing up? Why or why not?

I loved to read, but depending on who you compare me to I was either a voracious reader or merely an adequate one. Either way, my focus on books went in spurts. The more I got into sports and obsessing over things that I could care less about now (although I do still play my original NES on a weekly basis…sigh), I read less. I also loved movies growing up–not so much TV shows, but movies, and truth be told I watched far more movies than I read books growing up. But I had phases where I devoured books–a horror phase, a fantasy phase, etc. Favorite books growing up: DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD, by Roald Dahl (for that matter, everything else by Dahl, as well). THEN AGAIN, MAYBE I WON’T, by Judy Blume. The Chronicles of Prydain series. Every book by Paul Zindel, and I probably read and re-read WATERSHIP DOWN more often than I should have.

About the Author:

David Yoo is the author of the YA novels Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before (Hyperion), a Chicago Best of the Best selection, and Girls For Breakfast (Delacorte), an NYPL Books For the Teen Age selection and a Reading Rants Top Ten Books for Teens choice, along with a middle grade novel, The Detention Club (Balzer + Bray), published in 2011.

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Preschooler Favorites: Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke

Zita the Spacegirl is a graphic novel for younger readers about a young girl named Zita who discovers an asteroid with a big red button. Despite her friend Jonah’s warnings, Zita pushes the big red button (as one does, right?) and it opens some kind of teleport gateway through which tentacles reach out and grab Joseph right before the gateway disappears. Determined to rescue her friend, Zita pushes the button again and leaps through the portal, launching herself into an adventure on an alien planet filled with funny creatures, mysterious gadgets, and a doomsday prophecy.

I love graphic novels and I love scifi. But somehow the first time I read this, a year ago maybe, I didn’t connect with it. I can’t explain why. Maybe because I’m working on my own space adventure novel and was nitpicking things that reminded me of my work-in-progress? Anyway, lately my 4 yo (formerly known as Preschooler Monkey, now Pre-K Monkey) has been into graphic novels too (she loved Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale), so I’ve been looking for more to share with her. I happened to see this one again on the library shelf and picked it up because Pre-K monkey is really into Star Wars these days.

Pre-K monkey LOVES this book. She LOVE LOVE LOVES this book. We had to read it every night for a week. We talked about it. Zita showed up in her drawings from school. Like really, she loved this book.

And now that I’ve seen the book through her eyes, I love it too!

Some picture books for Star Wars fans: I also bought these little picture books by Jeffrey Brown for my Star Wars fanatic husband. They’re fun to look at with kids but are filled with Star Wars jokes that adult fans will enjoy: Darth Vader and Son, Vader’s Little Princess, and Goodnight Darth Vader.


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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Grace Lin, Author of Starry River of the Sky

On the blog this week, I am very excited to have one of my favorite Asian American children’s authors, Newbery Honor receiving author and illustrator Grace Lin!  (See my review of her adorable book Dumpling Days.)

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Grace Lin: Well, I guess that would have to be Pacy from the Year of the Dog, Year of the Rat, and Dumpling Days, since those are almost autobiographies! Those books are fictionalized, but most the events that happened as well as the characters are pretty true-to-life. So true that even the names are real. My Chinese or middle name is Pacy and my sisters are Lissy and Ki-Ki, just like in the book. I took quite a bit of inspiration from classics like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and Little Women, books where the stories are straight from the author’s real life.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

GL: Well, this would be for their parents as well as for the kids…you will never be Asian and you will never be American. You will always be Asian-American. Don’t try to choose a side, because it is not a dividing line.  And while there will definitely be points in your life where that hyphen between the two identities seem like it is subtracting from the other, in the end you’ll find it’s actually a wonderful bridge. Life with a hyphenated-identity is actually doubly richer. My hope is my books show people a glimpse of that richness.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

GL: I admit I am behind on the newer Asian-American authors–I’ve heard great things about Wendy Shang and Kat Yeh, though I haven’t had the opportunity to read their books yet (I have a two-year old toddler!). But my “old” stand by favorites are Lenore Look (LOVE the Ruby Lu books), Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese is a really a masterpiece), Linda Sue Park (A Single Shard…sigh), Lisa Yee (Asian American girl? Yes!)  and I could go on and on. I think there are so many great Asian-American authors out there with amazing books,  the difficult part is making sure their books are read more widely.

About the Author:

Grace Lin is the author and illustrator of picture books, early readers and middle grade novels. Grace’s 2010 Newbery Honor book WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON was chosen for Al Roker’s Today Show Kid’s Book Club and was a NY Times Bestseller. LING & TING, Grace’s first early reader, was honored with the Theodor Geisel Honor in 2011. An Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award nominee for the US, most of Grace’s books are about the Asian-American experience because she believes, “Books erase bias, they make the uncommon everyday, and the mundane exotic. A book makes all cultures universal.” Her next book, LING & TING: TWICE AS SILLY will be out this fall and she is hard at work on another novel. See more about Grace and her work at www.gracelin.com or her blog http://www.gracelinblog.com

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MG Novel: Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

Nest by Esther Ehrlich is a literary upper middle grade to lower YA novel (read: “tween novel”) about a young girl named Naomi, or “Chirp,” living in 1970s Cape Cod and what happens to her family when her mother, Hannah, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Chirp is obsessed with birds and copes with her family situation by birdwatching and through her growing friendship with Joey, a boy living across the street who also wants to escape his own trouble family life.

This novel does not hold anything back. Prepare to cry your heart out as I did when I read this. While it does end on a hopeful note, there are some terribly sad moments. Part of me was completely shattered for poor Chirp (and my gut reaction is always NOOOO!!!), but the realism of her situation and the author’s research into Hannah’s condition (mental and physical) made these events feel very authentic and necessary.

An additional layer to this is that Chirp and her family are Jewish. At the beginning of the novel, the Jewish information and moments felt added in–it felt like we were being told that Chirp was Jewish rather than being shown (the editor’s note at the start including Yiddish words also adds to this feeling). However, as the novel progressed and there are a few spot-on and humorous moments, her heritage begins to feel more organic. For example, Chirp isn’t sure if she’s allowed to say the word “Jesus” and feels strange seeing a bible in a motel room, things I could totally relate to having grown up Hindu in Arkansas.

However, the one issue for me in this book was the pacing. While this is a literary, character-driven novel and an action-packed plot would have been completely wrong for this book, I still felt there were times when I wasn’t quite sure where the story was going or what type of story I was reading. I loved the bird information and images (especially loved the Cape Cod setting), but these tidbits weren’t tied as closely as I’d expected to the storyline.

All in all, this is a heartfelt, thoughtful book that will speak to kids looking for a more serious read or are going through tougher issues in their own lives, but aren’t quite ready for the mature romances in many young adult novels.

Disclosure: Review of free ARC I received through NetGalley.

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Sheela Chari, Author of Vanished

This week’s Asian American children’s author is Sheela Chari, author of the middle grade mystery novel Vanished. (BTW I love this cover! So mysterious.)

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Sheela Chari: Vanished was first written as a gift for my niece, so the main character, Neela, bears her name. In the beginning, I assumed the main character would be her, too. But over time I found myself slowly creeping away from the person in real life I knew, to someone fictional on paper. Eventually Neela turned into someone different. As I kept writing, I found that there was a lot of me in this unfolding character – that I finally had a chance to write about a part of myself I had never articulated before.

Aside from being on a hunt for her missing instrument, Neela is afraid of playing in public. She has stage fright. Well, so did I. It took me years to realize there was a name for it. When I was in college, I felt a vague, nameless shame when auditioning and performing on my violin in front of others. But as I wrote about Neela and her fear of performing on her veena, I realized it was one of the most natural and fundamental fears that many artists face. It’s all about other people’s perception of you, and whether you can rise to the impossible standards you imagine out there.

By the end of Vanished, Neela comes to terms with performing, by arriving at the idea that creating music is done first and foremost for yourself. This was an idea that took me years to embrace. It might sound a little corny – putting yourself first when it comes to music – but I think it’s so important to convey to young people, who face the pressures of being musicians at an age where music can be all about performance and competition, and less about the pleasure and satisfaction of playing.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

SC: This is a great question. Last year I began teaching a writing workshop for Indian-American kids, and at the end of every class, I held a drawing for a free book. At first I just wanted the kids to be excited about getting a brand-new book, so I tried really hard to offer crowd-pleasers – popular books that would be safe bets. But there was also a part of me that really wanted to use this opportunity to introduce books with multi-ethnic characters – especially Indian-American ones – that my students might otherwise not know about. I found that over the year, I could offer a mixture of both, and by doing a short reading at the beginning, I could pique their interests as long as the book was interesting.

And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? So my advice to young Asian-American kid readers is this – there are some really wonderful multicultural/ multi-ethnic charactered books out there. But you have to seek them out. You have to demand them by asking for them from your bookstores and libraries and parents. You don’t always have to read about characters that look different from you. On the same token, you don’t have read only one kind of book about Asian-Americans either – the horizon is opening up to include fantasy, mystery, adventure and even historical fiction. In the end, an interesting book can be about anybody in any circumstance, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

SC: Ah! I don’t have favorite writers.There are so many wonderful ones out there, I couldn’t limit myself to one or two. But I will mention the last Asian-American themed book that delighted me and has stayed with me for a long time. I absolutely loved The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, which won the National Book Award and the APALA Children’s Literature Award, for which I served on the awards committee. Kadohata does a wonderful job of weaving together the lives of an American working class family and their Japanese heritage – of capturing small-town middle-America farming life along with what it means to be a Japanese-American twelve-year old girl growing up in its midst. Best of all, Kadohata goes beyond race and circumstance to write a thoughtful story about the patterns of our lives, the coming and going of seasons, of luck, and of triumphing over setbacks.

About the author:

Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED, a 2012 APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book; an Edgar nominee for best juvenile mystery; and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. Sheela has an MFA in creative writing from New York University, and teaches writing at the Rye Arts Center. She lives in New York with her family.

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Kashmira Sheth, Author of Tiger in My Soup

Kashmira Sheth

The next author in the Asian American Children’s Authors series is award-winning and multi-faceted author Kashmira Sheth.

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Kashmira Sheth: Amitha, thank you for inviting me to participate in your blog!

I identify with Seema Trivedi from Blue Jasmine. Since that was my first novel, like many other first novels, it is semi-autobiographical. Even though Seema is younger (She is 12; I was 17), her emotional journey in the United States is very much based on my personal experience. Like Seema, I had a happy, but fragmented childhood, and I missed the people I left behind. I also identify with the older sister in Tiger in My Soup. Like her, I loved reading and paid no attention to anything else that was going around me.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

KS: Read as much as you can. It may be difficult to find books that reflect your experience of being Asian American but all stories hold deeper truths from which you can learn. Also, listen to the stories your parents and grandparents tell you. Those stories will keep you connected to your past.

3) Were you a reader growing up? Why or why not?

KS: Absolutely, I was a reader. Before I became an independent reader I listened to stories. I come from a family of storytellers and listening to stories from my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts was a big part of my childhood. I read books in my mother tongue of Gujarati. I was also exposed to English, Sanskrit and Hindi literature. Looking back, I believe that my interest in reading was strongly influenced by the fact that many in my family also enjoyed reading.

 

About the author: 

Kashmira Sheth writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult fiction. Her eight books have received many awards and honors, such as the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association Honor Award, the International Reading Association’s Notable Book for a Global Society and the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults. Kashmira was born and raised in India and comes from a family of storytellers. She studied science in college but her enjoyment of reading and sharing stories nudged her into writing. Her latest picture book, Tiger in My Soup, is about the sibling relationship, power of imagination and love of reading. Her next picture book will come out in April of 2015. Visit her at: http://www.kashmirasheth.com

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Quick Recap #2: Asian American Children’s Author Blog Series

The summer is almost over, it’s time for another recap post!

Here’s who I’ve had on the blog so far:

(For Weeks 1-5 click here)

Week 6: Mitali Perkins, editor of Open Mic and author of Bamboo People

Week 7: Livia Blackburne, author of Midnight Thief

Week 8: Varsha Bajaj, author of Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood

Week 9: Uma Krishnaswami, author of The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic

Week 10: Fonda Lee, author of Zeroboxer

There are 5 more great authors coming up next month!

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Fonda Lee, Author of Zeroboxer

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Our next author is Fonda Lee, author of the upcoming book, Zeroboxer. I am so intrigued by that title! (Adding it to my to-read list right now.)

 1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Zeroboxer final cover copy

Fonda Lee: My novel, ZEROBOXER, takes place in a future in which Mars has been settled with the aid of genetic engineering, and tensions between Earth and its more prosperous colony are running high. My main character is a young prizefighter named Carr, who competes in the futuristic zero-gravity combat sport of zeroboxing, and ends up becoming a celebrity figure in the interplanetary conflict.

Carr’s strategist and love interest is a woman named Risha. Of all the characters I’ve written, I identify most strongly with Risha because she reminds me of myself when I was younger. Risha is half-Martian; she was born on Mars but raised on Earth, so while she considers herself Terran, she is also always aware of how she stands out as being Martian—not unlike the experience a lot of Asian Americans and other minorities go through. Risha is an ambitious workaholic with a keen head for business strategy, who masks her inner insecurities behind a cloak of over-preparedness—which is only a minor exaggeration of what I was like when I was working 60 to 80 hours a week as a twenty-two-year old management consultant. She also likes food and combat sports.

2) Were you a reader growing up? Why or why not?

FL: I was a voracious reader. Fantasy and science fiction have been my narrative drugs of choice for a long time. I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, John Christopher’s Tripods Trilogy, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, to name just a few.

My brain has always wanted to work and live in narrative. It loves nothing more than to follow a story, whether it be through books, film, comics, or television. There is something infinitely appealing about organizing our collective experiences, thoughts, fears, and hopes in the form of stories. We’ve been doing it since we were cavemen. I’m grateful that my parents encouraged my love of reading at a young age. I spent countless hours in libraries and bookstores.

3) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

FL: Read a lot, and read both broadly and deeply. Read fiction and non-fiction. Read different genres. This is especially important if you want to be a writer. Scan widely for what you like and when you gravitate toward something, dive deep to really understand it. I shake my head when I hear people say things like, “oh, I don’t read fiction” or “I don’t read YA” or “I don’t read comics.” There is something worthwhile, enlightening, or enjoyable about almost everything that is well done, and if you can appreciate it, it will open your mind to being a better reader and a better writer.

Asian American kids, in particular, I feel, are sometimes steered by well-meaning parents and peers toward the hard, technical fields. There’s a stereotype, often well reinforced, of the Asian quant jock who plays violin and goes on to medical school to become a brain surgeon. Every society has its naturally left-brained scientists, engineers, and doctors, as well as its writers, athletes, and fashion designers. There is, I think, a particular importance that practical-minded Asian American families sometimes place on the former at the expense of the latter. Take it from me: I did the practical finance degree and business career. I don’t regret it, but I wish I’d accepted earlier what my true calling was, even if making a living at it was still a ways away. Be true to yourself.

Thank you, Fonda!

————–

About the author:

Fonda Lee is an author and recovering corporate strategist who was born and raised in Calgary, Canada (land of hockey, rodeo, and oil reserves) and now lives with her family in Portland, Oregon (land of rain, hipsters, and Powell’s Books). When she is not writing she can be found training in kung fu or searching out tasty breakfasts. Her debut upper YA science fiction novel, ZEROBOXER, will be published by Flux in April 2015. You can find Fonda at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

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Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Uma Krishnaswami, Author of The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic

Next up in this series is Uma Krishnaswami, the author of numerous books for all age ranges. Her newest book, The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, is the sequel to critically acclaimed novel The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?

Uma Krishnaswami: I don’t think of myself as identifying with any of my characters. When I’m writing I’m simultaneously in their skins and at their sides, taking turns almost, dancing around inside the story and trying to bring it all to the page one or two layers at a time. Sometimes I’m close to a scene. At other times I may be hovering above the story trying to see its bigger picture. I have no time to stop and think about who I love most in that story. That’s not the way I see my job. I’m looking in many mirrors at once, playing with the story’s light and shadow and trying to figure out the lives of the fictional people I’m following. That said, it’s a treat for me when readers tell me they can identify with any of the people in my stories. Dini often gets mentioned this way, the main character in The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic. I love getting those notes from kids because it means that the work I did in creating this illusion that we call story–that work has succeeded.

2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?

UK: Read generously. Read everything you can lay your hands on. Many viewpoints, many kinds of fiction and nonfiction. Question it all, and then make your own meaning for stories and for life.

3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?

Most recently, I’ve enjoyed reading Padma Venkatraman’s books. I’ve long admired Grace Lin’s work, and of course Linda Sue Park and Cynthia Kadohata. And the writer who led us all years ago with his groundbreaking books, Laurence Yep. Then there’s my colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, YA novelist An Na, who has some amazing new work due out in the next year or two.

Uma also answered my alternate question!

4) Were you a reader growing up? Why or why not?

UK: I was. I was a voracious reader. We moved a lot when I was a child, and books were sometimes my friends. I think they also allowed me a place where I could dream and inhabit worlds very different from my own life, which seemed quite humdrum in comparison.

About the author:

Uma Krishnaswami was born in India and now lives in the United States. She teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

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