All posts by The Shenners

[Blog Tour] Review for Death by Society by Sierra Elmore

Somehow, it’s September again, which means the fall semester, which means I’m drowning in schoolwork. But in the midst of my busy schedule, I made time, as I always do, for a blog tour post (as soulless as it may seem from an outsider perspective, signing up for these blog tours is the most effective way of ensuring that I’m still regularly reading and reviewing books that aren’t required reading for school throughout the year). Thanks to Paola at Noveltindie for hosting and inviting me to the tour, and congratulations to Sierra for self-publishing her debut! You can find more information about the tour at the launch post.

Book Information

  • Title: Death by Society
  • Author: Sierra Elmore
  • Release Date: September 13th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis:

MEAN GIRLS meets IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY when two teenage girls’ worlds collide when one attempts suicide to avoid toxic popularity.

Carter Harper may have created an award-winning app and have a 3.93 GPA, but her successes are overshadowed by brutal bullying, depression, and loneliness. Tired of being treated as the popular girls’ plaything, Carter thinks her only choice is to die by suicide.

Abby Wallace is one of the most popular girls in school, subordinate only to Kelsey, her best friend with benefits. The ambitious poet destroys reputations without care to prove how cool, cruel, and strong she is, all while pushing down her past trauma and secret guilt.

Carter and Abby’s tumultuous relationship comes to a boiling point when Abby stops Carter from attempting suicide. But what happens when they have to protect one another from Kelsey’s harmful antics? If Carter and Abby can stand each other for more than three minutes, they can stop Kelsey from hurting more girls—and maybe become friends in the process.

In the tradition of Courtney Summers and Laurie Halse Anderson, DEATH BY SOCIETY questions how far we’ll go to gain power over our lives—and what happens when we use our voices for both good and to harm others.

Review

Trigger/content warnings: Death by Society and my review of the book discuss and mention bullying, anxiety, depression, suicide, and sexual assault.

Death by Society is one of those books that hits super close to home for me because it addresses bullying and suicide, which are both things that I have personal experience with. Although Carter’s specific experience of bullying is pretty different in nature from my own, the depiction of her social anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression really resonated with me. In particular, the guilt over how her severe depressive episodes affected her mother and the tendency to hide what she was going through were a little too real.

Additionally, there’s a part of the book where Carter freaks out over the fact that she’s recovering because the change, despite being a positive one, leads her to question her entire existence, having attached so much of her sense of self to the depression. Death by Society is one of the few fictional books on mental health and depression I’ve read that has depicted that angst and fear of getting better and captured it so well. Because as much as it sounds bizarre to anyone who hasn’t been there before, wanting to live after wanting to die is fucking scary! You’re not running away from your problems anymore, and you have to confront them and deal with them in a constructive way. You have to change your shitty coping mechanisms, and it’s hard to do that when you’ve been this way so long that you don’t know how to be otherwise. I learned in therapy that even positive change is stressful, and Carter’s life post-suicide attempt reflects that in many ways.

One of the things that felt refreshingly honest about Death by Society is how it makes room for the complex and messy aspects of humanity by giving a voice and narrative POV to Abby, who is both a victim of sexual violence and a bully to Carter for much of the story. As tempting as it can be to view violence and harm as things done exclusively by people who are fundamentally horrible in every conceivable way, by people who are simply unfeeling monsters beyond redemption, the reality is that so much harm is enacted by everyday people playing into toxic social systems (whether they realize it/intend to, or not), and even victims of violence (past or present) can also perpetuate violence toward others when they have the power to do so. Abby’s character exemplifies that truth, and it was interesting to watch her come to terms with the harm she inflicted and choose a different path.

Another way this book felt Super Real was the overall incompetence of most of the adults in Carter’s life at doing a damn thing about the bullying: the lip service paid to cultivating a welcoming environment at school, the reactionary and performative measures from administrators meant to convince themselves that they’ve done something when they don’t meaningfully addressing the root issues… It’s been a little over 10 years since I’ve graduated high school (holy shit I’m old), but it still feels like society is stuck in the same bullshit when it comes to [failing to address] bullying. Rather than making her feel better, Carter’s interactions with the school administrators mostly just re-traumatizes her because they aren’t actually putting her needs first, they’re protecting themselves and coddling the parents of the other girls. Reading this book really made me contemplate the question of what actually helps? What is proven to be effective in preventing bullying and addressing the harm after the bullying has occurred? Because suspension and a lukewarm assembly with PowerPoint slides certainly are not.

While my commentary on this book so far may make Death by Society seem like a supremely SeriousTM book (which it is, in a lot of great ways!), it’s also actually ridiculously funny as well. I lost count of the number of times I laughed out loud while reading my ARC. There’s some morbid humor (because it is about heavy topics) but also some irreverent jokes. Not only do individual characters get dragged, our broader social institutions and norms get roasted and indicted as well. Death by Society is one of those gems that skillfully blends humor and social commentary and can make readers laugh without making light of the important issues involved, which is why I found it so cathartic of an experience to read.


Book Links

Add Death by Society on Goodreads!

Purchase a copy of Death by Society.

About the Author

Sierra Elmore writes YA contemporary and thriller novels about girls wreaking havoc while fighting trauma. Her work has won the YoungArts merit award and was selected for the Author Mentor Match program.

Elmore earned a BA in Sociology from Arcadia University. She’s conducted research on the representation of mentally ill women in media, as well as relational aggression amongst adolescent girls.

Elmore lives in New York City, where she explores independent bookstores, volunteers for the Crisis Text Line, and goes to as many concerts as possible.

Visit Sierra’s website at https://sierraelmore.com.

[Blog Tour] Review for Dauntless by Elisa A. Bonnin

Hello again, everyone! Last time I posted I had just finished up my spring semester, and now suddenly here I am having finished my summer term as well (more or less, with the exception of a final paper…). While recovering from an amazing but exhausting 2-day weekend conference on children’s literature, I had the chance to dive into the soon-to-be-released Dauntless for this blog tour hosted by Kate at Your Tita Kate.

Book Information

  • Title: Dauntless
  • Author: Elisa A. Bonnin
  • Publisher: Swoon Reads, an imprint of Macmillan
  • Release Date: August 2nd, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, Adventure

Synopsis:

“Be dauntless, for the hopes of the People rest in you.” 

Seri’s world is defined by very clear rules: The beasts prowl the forest paths and hunt the People. The valiant explore the unknown world, kill the beasts, and gain strength from the armor they make from them. As an assistant to Eshai Unbroken, a young valor commander with a near-mythical reputation, Seri has seen first-hand the struggle to keep the beasts at bay and ensure the safety of the spreading trees where the People make their homes. That was how it always had been, and how it always would be. Until the day Seri encounters Tsana. 

Tsana is, impossibly, a stranger from the unknown world who can communicate with the beasts – a fact that makes Seri begin to doubt everything she’s ever been taught. As Seri and Tsana grow closer, their worlds begin to collide, with deadly consequences. Somehow, with the world on the brink of war, Seri will have to find a way to make peace.

Review

Dauntless is a book that really made me go, “wow, what a ride” after I turned the last [digital] page. As the bold title and cover illustration suggest, it is a story packed with action and adventure, but it holds much more than that.

One of the things that stood out to me as I was reading is the thoughtfulness of the worldbuilding. Sure, there are aesthetically and conceptually cool aspects, such as the magical armor made from slain beasts that literally molds itself to the owner, the large human settlements built on giant trees, and so on, but what I found most compelling was the thematic messages embedded in the worldbuilding decisions. Seri’s and Tsana’s respective cultures have very different ways of viewing not only human-beast relations but also intra-human relationships, and I like that both have strengths and flaws that are addressed by the narrative through the experiences of the major characters. I also liked the commentary on history and historiography and the ways those shape a person’s worldview for better or for worse. I can’t say too much more without spoiling parts of the story, but I definitely enjoyed learning more about the world and watching the different pieces come together.

One aspect of the book that surprised me at first but I appreciated later is the alternating narrative viewpoints, split three ways between the primary protagonist Seri, who is a reluctant fighter for various reasons; Seri’s love interest Tsana, who feels torn between competing loyalties; and Seri’s mentor, Eshai, who is only a few years older than Seri but is already a seasoned warrior and has been hailed as a hero by their society for an incredible feat she accomplished at a young age. Seri, as the protagonist, has a lot of learning and growing to do over the course of the story, and it was satisfying to see her gradually clarify her values and commit to fighting for what she believes in despite her initial reluctance to be a fighter at all. Tsana’s point of view helps heighten some of the romantic tension and overall narrative conflict while also offering insight into the culture of a different people from Seri’s. I found Eshai’s perspective (which is the one I wasn’t expecting to find in the story) fruitful for exploring the concept of heroism and how being placed on a pedestal as a symbol of hope for an entire society at a young age can affect the person in question. Her perspective also serves as an interesting foil to Seri’s because unlike Seri, she has established her identity and is used to taking on the mantle of leadership. I also loved that the platonic bond between Seri and Eshai was emphasized and given similar weight to the romantic bond between Seri and Tsana.

As mentioned earlier, Dauntless is an action-packed story, and frankly I spent a lot of the time Very StressedTM because I wasn’t sure how various fights/battles would play out and be resolved. While certain characters (e.g. the protagonist) tend to have a bit of plot armor ensuring their survival (especially in YA), that wasn’t a guarantee for everyone, and there are potentially devastating outcomes that don’t involve death. I felt the weight of those possible outcomes in each fight/battle scene. Great for the storytelling, not great for my blood pressure!

Conclusion: Dauntless, at its core, is a story about three flawed but fierce young women who are forced to make tough decisions and fight against seemingly impossible odds, and how they are able to find the strength to carry on in the face of everything. Come for the epic fight scenes, stay for the character growth arcs, sweet sapphic romance, and thematic food for thought!


Book Links

Add Dauntless on Goodreads!

Purchase a copy of Dauntless:

About the Author

Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. Dauntless is her first novel.

Author Links:

[Blog Tour] Review for Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster by Andrea Mosqueda

Happy Pride Month! I regret that I am a bit late to the party for this book tour, but it almost feels appropriate that I’m late to post about a book featuring a bisexual disaster as a blogger who is a disaster bi, lol. Anyway, I’m happy to present my review for the newly released Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster! Thanks to Paola for hosting this tour. You can find the tour launch post on Paola’s blog.

Book Information

  • Title: Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster
  • Author: Andrea Mosqueda
  • Cover Artist: Zeke Peña
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
  • Release date: May 24th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis

In this voice-driven young adult debut by Andrea Mosqueda, Maggie Gonzalez needs a date to her sister’s quinceañera – and fast. 

Growing up in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Maggie Gonzalez has always been a little messy, but she’s okay with that. After all, she has a great family, a goofy group of friends, a rocky romantic history, and dreams of being a music photographer. Tasked with picking an escort for her little sister’s quinceañera, Maggie has to face the truth: that her feelings about her friends—and her future—aren’t as simple as she’d once believed.

As Maggie’s search for the perfect escort continues, she’s forced to confront new (and old) feelings for three of her friends: Amanda, her best friend and first-ever crush; Matthew, her ex-boyfriend twice-over who refuses to stop flirting with her, and Dani, the new girl who has romantic baggage of her own. On top of this romantic disaster, she can’t stop thinking about the uncertainty of her own plans for the future and what that means for the people she loves.

As the weeks wind down and the boundaries between friendship and love become hazy, Maggie finds herself more and more confused with each photo. When her tried-and-true medium causes more chaos than calm, Maggie needs to figure out how to avoid certain disaster—or be brave enough to dive right into it, in Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster.

Review

In many ways, Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster feels like it was written for me. It’s set in Texas, features a middle child with 2 sisters and a single surviving parent, and, of course, the main character Maggie is a bisexual disaster. There were lots of little moments and details that made me feel seen in various ways, whether it was shopping at HEB and the feeling of walking into a store from the Texas heat and humidity, or being extremely sentimental and documenting one’s feelings in a creative project to process them. Though I’m not a photographer, as a writer and someone who draws, I appreciated the way Maggie’s eye for detail and beauty suffused her narration.

Veronica, Maggie’s older sister, reminded me of my own older sister as the Eldest Daughter of an Immigrant Family who Made Sacrifices and Became a Second ParentTM. Similarly, Alyssa, Maggie’s younger sister, felt similar to my own younger sister in being the social butterfly sibling with a sassy streak who gets the most freedom as the youngest child. The Gonzalez family dynamic as a whole felt familiar, with the teasing and roasting alongside the care and support. Maggie’s grief from having a parent gone too soon and the awkwardness of having to explain their absence resonated with my experience of losing my mother as well.

Parallels to my own life aside, Maggie’s voice really drew me into her story. Her struggles with indecision, confusing feelings, and the desperate desire to avoid disappointing her family were all portrayed with nuance and realism. True to the title of the book, Maggie is messy because good intentions don’t always pan out, and as humans, we can get so caught up in our own problems that we fail to notice the struggles and feelings of those around us.

This book felt like a big hug because of how central family and friendship are to the story. Although romance is an important part of the book because of the three different love interests, Maggie’s devotion to her family and her determination to do right by her friends when she ends up hurting them are just as important. The story is a love letter to every queer teen who needs reassurance that it’s okay to not know what you’re doing and to make mistakes and that you deserve people who love you and support you through your messiness.

Purchase a copy of Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster:

About the Author

Andrea Mosqueda is a Chicana writer. She was born and raised in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her partner and works in the publishing industry as an assistant editor. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found doing her makeup, drinking too much coffee, and angsting over children’s media. Just Your Local Bisexual Disaster is her first book.

Find Andrea Mosqueda on social media:

Author Interview: Emily X.R. Pan

Welcome to my eighth and final interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: An Arrow to the Moon
  • Author: Emily X.R. Pan
  • Cover Artist: David Curtis
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: April 12th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Romeo and Juliet meets Chinese mythology in this magical novel by the New York Times bestselling author of The Astonishing Color of After.

Hunter Yee has perfect aim with a bow and arrow, but all else in his life veers wrong. He’s sick of being haunted by his family’s past mistakes. The only things keeping him from running away are his little brother, a supernatural wind, and the bewitching girl at his new high school.

Luna Chang dreads the future. Graduation looms ahead, and her parents’ expectations are stifling. When she begins to break the rules, she finds her life upended by the strange new boy in her class, the arrival of unearthly fireflies, and an ominous crack spreading across the town of Fairbridge.

As Hunter and Luna navigate their families’ enmity and secrets, everything around them begins to fall apart. All they can depend on is their love…but time is running out, and fate will have its way.

An Arrow to the Moon, Emily X.R. Pan’s brilliant and ethereal follow-up to The Astonishing Color of After, is a story about family, love, and the magic and mystery of the moon that connects us all.


Interview with Emily X.R. Pan

Q: Welcome back to my blog! It’s been 5 years since I last interviewed you. At the time, your debut, The Astonishing Color of After hadn’t come out quite yet, and now you’ve published your second novel. What lessons have you learned since then that you wish you could send to your past self?

A: This question always gets me all philosophical and turned around—like if I could share some of my current wisdom with my past self, would it really have changed the path I took? Would I actually be worse off in other ways? But it is certainly interesting to think back on how I’ve grown. I had no idea back then that it would feel harder to write after I was a published author. There was much less pressure when I was just writing for myself—much of the time I was full of despair, of course, as it took multiple books for me to sign with an agent and finally sell something. But that’s nothing like the feeling of writing up on a stage, with people watching to see what I’ll produce next.

I learned that I have to trust my creative instincts. I have to trust myself. It took me so long to pull the right iteration of An Arrow to the Moon out of my brain because I was drowning in the noise of everything that followed my debut. I was worrying about what readers would think, whether they would be disappointed, the comparisons they might make.

I remember this conversation I was having with Laurie Halse Anderson at one point—she warned me that no matter what, everyone would compare my second book to my debut. And as soon as she said it, I knew she was right and I had to quit worrying about it. I wanted to write something very specific, and I knew it was going to be quite different from Astonishing—because I would be bored out of my mind if I just wrote the same type of book again and again—and I had to just get out of my way and let myself do it.

Q: An Arrow to the Moon is set in the past in the year 1991. What about this time period interested you, and why did you choose this time as the setting?

A: Two specific reasons. I wanted to bastardize a bit of history from 1974, so that timeline put my characters in 1991. And I wanted to capture the isolation that I felt when I was growing up in a predominantly white town: How my parents would seek out community, but in a way that often made me feel more separate from other Asian Americans my age. How connecting deeply with a single person was enough of a lifeline to get me through the choppiest of times. As an ode to the way I grew up, I wanted this story to be before cell phones, before everyone was on the internet 24/7, to really underscore what that isolation was like.

Q: You mentioned in another interview that you read many different versions of Chang’e and Houyi’s tale while doing research for the book. Do you have a favorite among those different versions you looked at? What version of the tale did you hear growing up?

A: The version I heard the most growing up had Chang’e being so unable to resist her curiosity that she decides to try just a little bit of the elixir that was meant to be shared—she ends up consuming all of it by accident.

My favorite version I came across while researching had a third key character—a villain—who tries to steal the elixir from Houyi. In that one, Chang’e consumes the elixir only to prevent this bad actor from getting his hands on it.

Q: Whereas The Astonishing Color of After is written in first-person from a single narrative viewpoint, An Arrow to the Moon jumps around quite a bit between third-person perspectives of multiple characters. Did you decide to do this from the beginning, or was it something you incorporated after you began drafting?

A: I started out just jumping back and forth between Hunter and Luna, my two main characters. The other perspectives came in because I knew I wanted all the family relationships to be much more complicated, and that I needed to show elements and secrets that Hunter and Luna would not be aware of. I started journaling and freewriting to figure out more about all the parents, and it became clear that I had to give them their own POV chapters.

Q: You mentioned that this book took many years to complete, and you almost thought you wouldn’t finish. Since everyone in the publishing industry seems to be going through burnout and fatigue right now due to the pandemic, I’d like to ask: what kinds of things have you done to take care of your mental health while working on this book, and what kinds of supports from people around you have helped?

A: This is such a wonderful question—thank you for asking it. I am a strong believer in taking all the help I can possibly get for my mental wellbeing. I’m lucky to be privileged enough to afford a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a mindfulness coach, all of whom were absolutely instrumental in helping me care for myself throughout the process of writing this book. They all emphasized the importance of being gentle with myself, and I have to credit my mindfulness coach with patiently teaching me how to do that.

I am also lucky to have the most incredible friends who sent me little gifts or baked me delicious treats when they knew I was having a hard time, or called to check in on me, or made a point of not talking about publishing and getting my mind off things with a board game or some D&D. And on the publishing side, I have the most incredible agent, who really prioritizes my mental health, and who is always helping me find the best way to balance this job with my health. Having his support in that regard really means everything.

I have found that the best things I can do for myself are to get off social media (in fact get off the internet and strictly enforce screen-free time), make some other kind of art (maybe painting, maybe crocheting, or playing the mandolin), reconnect with friends outside publishing, spend some quality time playing with my dog somewhere with grass and trees and fresh air blowing on my face. I recommend everyone try any of these.

Q: I know you have other projects in the works that you can’t really share details on, so I’ll ask a more general question about the future: what kinds of new challenges do you want to tackle with your next books?

A: I have an idea for something that is meant to be commentary on sociopolitical dynamics, that I don’t know if it’s ever going to become what I envision it being—that one feels really hard. But I’m hopeful. I’m also eager to play with form and try something really wacky. And I have some other bits of history that I very much want to bastardize and play around with, and those will be a real challenge with the amount of research I still have ahead of me.

I have too many projects in the works, and not enough time. But what I’ve found is that it’s the stories that feel the most challenging and ambitious for me, craft-wise, that I am most interested in pursuing.


Add An Arrow to the Moon on Goodreads.

Order a signed copy of An Arrow to the Moon from Books of Wonder.

Purchase An Arrow to the Moon from another seller:

You can also read my review of An Arrow to the Moon on Medium.

About the Author

Emily X.R. Pan (she/her) is the New York Times and National Indie bestselling author of THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, which won the APALA Honor Award and the Walter Honor Award, and received six starred reviews. It was also an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist, longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and named by TIME Magazine as one of the 100 Best YA Books of All Time. Emily co-created the FORESHADOW YA platform and anthology, and is a passionate teacher of creative writing. She has taught fiction workshops, literature seminars, craft bootcamps at various institutions, including New York University, The New School, The Center for Fiction, 92nd Street Y, Tin House. Emily has mostly recently joined the Vermont College of Fine Arts as MFA faculty in their Writing for Children’s and Young Adults program. Originally born in the Midwestern United States to immigrant parents from Taiwan, Emily now lives on Lenape land in Brooklyn, New York. She received her MFA in fiction from the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she was a Goldwater Fellow and editor-in-chief of Washington Square Review. She was also the founding editor-in-chief of Bodega Magazine. These days she spends her free time playing the mandolin, making art, and training her furry dog-beast to balance on strange objects. Her latest novel, AN ARROW TO THE MOON, was an instant national bestseller. Visit Emily online at exrpan.com, and find her on Instagram: @exrpan.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Judy I. Lin

Welcome to my seventh interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series! (Note: Judy is not American but rather Canadian, but I want to highlight the Taiwanese diaspora outside of the U.S. as well during TAHW.)

About the Book

  • Title: A Magic Steeped in Poison
  • Author: Judy I. Lin
  • Cover Artist: Sija Hong
  • Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (an Imprint of Macmillan)
  • Release Date: March 29th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Synopsis

I used to look at my hands with pride. Now all I can think is, “These are the hands that buried my mother.”

For Ning, the only thing worse than losing her mother is knowing that it’s her own fault. She was the one who unknowingly brewed the poison tea that killed her—the poison tea that now threatens to also take her sister, Shu.

When Ning hears of a competition to find the kingdom’s greatest shénnóng-shī—masters of the ancient and magical art of tea-making—she travels to the imperial city to compete. The winner will receive a favor from the princess, which may be Ning’s only chance to save her sister’s life.

But between the backstabbing competitors, bloody court politics, and a mysterious (and handsome) boy with a shocking secret, Ning might actually be the one in more danger.

Covert illustration by Sija Hong.

A Venom Dark and Sweet, the sequel to A Magic Steeped in Poison, will be published August 23rd, 2022 from Feiwel & Friends!


Interview with Judy I. Lin

Q: It’s been 5 years since I first interviewed you on my blog, and at the time you didn’t have a book deal yet whereas now you have debuted and even become a New York Times bestseller, with a second book releasing this year. What lessons have you learned that you’d like to share with folks who are currently on the path to publication?

A: Wow, that was so long ago! I remember being newly agented and hopeful that my book will sell and of course the crushing disappointment when it did not. When I’ve learned since then is that it is impossible to predict what will sell and what will not. The books that are being published now sold a year or two ago. Even though my YA horror did not find a home, writing it gave me the confidence to eventually work on the project that I was always scared of – the project that became A Magic Steeped in Poison.

Q: If you were to describe the major characters of your book as different kinds of dumplings, what would they be?

A: This is such a creative question and I’m definitely hungry after answering it.

Ning is best represented by the dumpling that appears in the story: the humble zongzi (glutinous rice dumpling). A dumpling with history, associated with remembrance and sacrifice.

Zhen is the soup dumpling (xiaolongbao), known for its delicate folds, with a surprising filing inside. Just like how she keeps her true self hidden.

Kang would be shumai. A combination of pork and shrimp, from a province by the sea, but has traveled all around the world. There are many varieties of shumai, like how he has to put on different personalities in order to survive.

Lian is the potsticker (guotie). A small package of flavor, very similar to her personality, and usually accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce.

Q: Authors of color are often criticized for writing fantasy stories that draw on their culture that are “inauthentic,” but half the fun of fantasy is being able to make stuff up. What parts of the worldbuilding for Dàxī did you have the most fun with?

A: I really loved incorporating elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine into my story, especially the herbal remedies. In my research, I learned about the formulas from some of the compendiums (including Shénnóng Běncǎo Jīng – the herbal medicine classic!) and what sort of ailments those ingredients and tonics would address. This led me to imagine what these ingredients would be used for if they took on magical properties. Most of my worldbuilding, even the fantastical or magical components, was usually built on a kernel of something that existed in the real world.

Q: I appreciate the amount of thought that went into names of places in the story. How did you come up with the place names in Dàxī?

A: It was important to me that names in the story had a corresponding Chinese name that evoked a certain feeling I wanted to convey (whether it is a person’s name or the name of a place), so I had to make sure the names sounded fine in both the pinyin representation (and corresponding sounds in English) and that it wasn’t something offensive in Chinese. It was a lot of back and forth where I might have settled on an English name, but then had to tweak it when I found that another character matched the feel better.

You’ll also notice that a few places I drew on place names from Taiwan. Yěliŭ for one, because I liked the literal translation – Wild Willow, since the academy is in the forest, surrounded by trees. Língyǎ is from the Kaohsiung neighborhood I grew up in, but I changed the first character to “tomb”, which matches its role as the resting place of former emperors. It’s a fun part of the process!

Q: How do you approach drafting? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you overwrite and have to pare down or do you underwrite and then have to fill in details? Do you write everything in order or do you jump around?

A: I am a plotter for sure. I like to have an outline before I start drafting so I know where I am going, but I still leave space for myself to explore and then revise the story as needed. My first drafts are very short, and I have to keep building with each revision – adding details and emotional arcs as needed.

I usually write everything in order. After I’m done, I update my outline, and then I go back and write it all over again! Maybe not the most efficient writing process, but one that works for me.

Q: What strategies and tools do you find most effective for immersing yourself in the mind of a character or a world?

A: During my first draft, I like to free write. Free writing and using stream of consciousness allows me to fully step into the character’s mind, see what they see and feel what they feel. Most of what comes out of it is not useable, but it helps me get into their headspace and I can see the direction the story should take as I embody the character and navigate them through the story.

I also listen to music a lot while I’m writing. I build a playlist that captures the feeling of the book and then every time I turn on the playlist, I’m instantly in that headspace where I am ready to create.

Q: Publishing involves a lot of factors that are out of our control as writers. What personal goals do you have for your writing that aren’t about numbers, ranking on bestseller lists, etc.

A: To be honest, how A Magic Steeped in Poison has been received has surpassed even my wildest dreams. There were so many things I was able to cross off my “author list”.

My personal goal though is just to be able to write more books. I would love to someday sell a book set in Taiwan, because that’s a dream that has yet to be fulfilled. I have a few ideas that I’ve been working on that I hope I will get to write some day! But right now I have two projects already in the works that I am very excited about and I can’t wait to share when I am able to.

Q: On a similar note, how do you keep yourself grounded when faced with rejection, disappointment, setbacks, etc. in the publishing process?

A: I’ve experienced all of those things and more during the first few years when I was trying to sell a book. There were times when I wanted to give up, but I kept going because my goal was always to show my daughter that it was important to keep working to pursue your dreams. My husband was also very supportive and ensured that I had the time to write without distractions.

On the writing side, I was lucky in that along the way I connected with friends who were at different steps of the publishing journey, so we could help each other get through all the highs and the lows. I was able to cheer them on and received their support and that kept me writing as well. Professionally, my agent continued to champion my stories even when it felt like nobody wanted them! Without all of those supports I don’t think I would still be writing today.


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About the Author

Judy I. Lin, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of the Book of Tea duology (A Magic Steeped in Poison and A Venom Dark and Sweet), was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada with her family at a young age. She grew up with her nose in a book and loved to escape to imaginary worlds. She now works as an occupational therapist and still spends her nights dreaming up imaginary worlds of her own. She lives on the Canadian prairies with her husband and daughters.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author-Illustrator Interview: Tracy Subisak

Welcome to my sixth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Books

  • Title: Jenny Mei Is Sad
  • Author & Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Release Date: June 15th, 2021
  • Genre/Format: Picturebook, Juvenile Fiction

Synopsis

With this educational and entertaining picture book, learn how to approach difficult emotions with compassion and understanding—and be the best friend you can be.

My friend Jenny Mei is sad. But you might not be able to tell.

Jenny Mei still smiles a lot. She makes everyone laugh. And she still likes blue Popsicles the best. But, her friend knows that Jenny Mei is sad, and does her best to be there to support her.

This beautifully illustrated book is perfect for introducing kids to the complexity of sadness, and to show them that the best way to be a good friend, especially to someone sad, is by being there for the fun, the not-fun, and everything in between.


  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction

Synopsis

A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.


Interview with Tracy Subisak

Q: I saw that you studied industrial design in school, which I imagine is a pretty different world from children’s literature. Are there any skills or experiences from that time that you’ve found helpful now that you’re working as a children’s book author/illustrator?

A: Industrial design is such a different world! Luckily, there was a lot of drawing and storyboarding in all of my industrial design jobs, so I drew all the time and not only did I learn how to draw any product I could imagine, but I also drew a lot of people using those products in different scenarios. That skillset ended up translating really well into children’s book illustrations, since they’re made up of an entire world, set of characters, and scenarios.

A sample storyboard illustration by Tracy Subisak.
Another sample storyboard by Tracy Subisak.

Q: I love your illustration style and the use of line, shape and color in a way that feels a bit understated yet so textured and intimate and expressive. Can you share some specific artists or artistic styles or movements that have inspired your work and what about them appeals to you?

A: Oh my, I love Jillian Tamaki and Ping Zhu’s works! Their work shows a technical understanding and connection to the brush/tool that I’ve always looked up to – it gives them the freedom to express beyond their technical understanding. I also read a lot of comics growing up, so I naturally lean on using line a lot… I’ve been challenging myself to use more shapes and textures, and only use line where necessary in the story. Selective use of line is something that I learned from looking at a lot of storyboards for film, where storyboard artists use line (or the lack of) to articulate where the eye should travel in the story! I think I would always love to be a spectacular artist like Tamaki or Zhu – above all, I’d love to always keep the focus on the story.

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad was your first picture book as both author and illustrator. How did taking on the role of author-illustrator differ from the work of illustration in general?

A: Since I’m responsible for both the written and visual story, I’m more invested in making sure the words tell the story that the illustrations aren’t, and vice versa. I can easily change a word or sentence as needed to fit the story better to my illustrations. When I am illustrating someone else’s manuscript, I just focus on how well I can tell a visual story, adding details that might enhance and deepen the story to complement the original manuscript. 

Q: Jenny Mei is Sad tackles the subject of sadness and depression for a young audience that may not have the words to articulate their feelings. What kinds of artistic strategies did you employ to make the emotions and messages of the story accessible to a younger audience?

A: I reckon the main strategy was to show the many ways that sadness can form within us – it can be so confusing, even for adults, to know what one is going through when really sad things are happening. Sadness can sometimes manifest into anger. Sadness can be hard to admit or say out-loud. Sadness can be hard to notice. Those are just some of the ways sadness is felt, and there are people that understand and will still be there for you no matter what.

A page from Jenny Mei Is Sad.

Q: In Amah Faraway, there are lots of Taiwanese places and foods depicted. Did you use reference photos or make a research trip, or was it all drawn from memory/imagination?

A: The places and foods depicted are a culmination of all of my experiences in Taiwan! I was lucky to have lived in Taiwan (and at one point I lived in a night market!), and to have visited my Waipo (that’s Chinese for grandma on my mom’s side), and to have traveled around Taiwan with my mom and my friends and family! From visiting Wulai hot springs for the first time to eating at various banquets to climbing up Elephant Mountain to view Taipei 101, there were a lot of visual memories in my head.

Photo of a bridge in Wulai, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of plates of food at a banquet held beneath a tent in Taiwan, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Photo of Tracy Subisak at Elephant Mountain with a view of Taipei 101 in the background.

I definitely used some photo reference though.

Just a couple of scenes :

I was able to take my dad and brother’s family around Taipei back in 2019. Since we had a few little kiddos with us, we went to Daan Forest Park almost every day. It was such a nice reprieve in the bustling city, and the island of birds was so fun to watch!

Two-page spread from Amah Faraway, illustrated by Tracy Subisak.

One of my first memories of Taipei was, of course, going to the Shilin night market with my mom and dad. My dad was so overwhelmed by the smell of stinky tofu, so mom and I walked around and got as many snacks as we could. I remember being enamored with all the cute plushies and clothes and bags. It was important for me to include some of my favorite snacks like roasted yams and candied hawthorn in the book too.

Photo of yams for sale in front of a clothing rack display at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of a lemonade stand at Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.
Photo of candied hawthorn from Shilin Night Market, taken by Tracy Subisak.

Q: The picturebook as a medium is often described as a melding of and collaboration between word and image, but in the publishing industry, authors and illustrators typically have an editor as a liaison rather than working directly together. How much interaction did you have with Margaret Chiu Greanias for Amah Faraway, and how much creative freedom were you given to add details not explicitly referenced in the text of the story?

A: I had zero interaction with Margaret until after I finished all the final artwork for the book! It’s been super nice to do a bunch of events with her though, and she’s told me that it feels like I was on the journey with her when she looks at the illustrations for Amah Faraway.

I could say the same about how she wrote the book. It was insanely relatable for me, and our editor Sarah Shumway gave me a lot of creative license to bring my own experience into the illustrations, mainly giving input on any areas that affected the flow of the story.


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About the Author

Tracy Subisak studied industrial design in school, subsequently working in the field internationally for seven years, designing computers for the future, before turning her focus to freelance illustration and design.

Tracy’s debut author/illustrated picture book Jenny Mei Is Sad (Little, Brown) was published in June 2021. She is the illustrator of several picture books including Amah Faraway, Grizzly Boy, Cy Makes a Friend, and Shawn Loves Sharks, which received a starred review from Kirkus, was a Junior Library Guild selection, and received a 2018 Washington State Book Award. She also illustrated the nonfiction picture book titled Wood, Wire, Wings by Kirsten Larsonm which is a bio of Emma Lilian Todd, the first woman to successfully design and engineer a working airplane. 

Tracy is the proud daughter of a Taiwanese mother who was a Chinese language instructor and art teacher, and an American father, son of Polish and Slovakian immigrant parents, who is an engineer. She was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, has lived in Taiwan, South Korea, NY, and San Francisco, and now makes her home in the PNW in Portland, OR. She is always eager to go adventuring and is a true believer that experience begets the best stories.

Tracy is also a certified yoga teacher, YTT 200 hours and HIIT yoga certificate, focused on providing a light-hearted space for healing and creating resilience in the body and mind. She currently teaches at Flex & Flow PDX.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Margaret Chiu Greanias

Welcome to my fifth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: Amah Faraway
  • Author: Margaret Chiu Greanias
  • Illustrator: Tracy Subisak
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Children’s Books
  • Release Date: January 25th, 2022
  • Genre: Picturebook, Fiction

Synopsis

A delightful story of a child’s visit to a grandmother and home far away, and of how families connect and love across distance, language, and cultures.

Kylie is nervous about visiting her grandmother-her Amah-who lives SO FAR AWAY.

When she and Mama finally go to Taipei, Kylie is shy with Amah. Even though they have spent time together in video chats, those aren’t the same as real life. And in Taiwan, Kylie is at first uncomfortable with the less-familiar language, customs, culture, and food.

However, after she is invited by Amah-Lái kàn kàn! Come see!-to play and splash in the hot springs (which aren’t that different from the pools at home), Kylie begins to see this place through her grandmother’s eyes and sees a new side of the things that used to scare her.

Soon, Kylie is leading her Amah-Come see! Lái kàn kàn!-back through all her favorite parts of this place and having SO MUCH FUN! And when it is time to go home, the video chats will be extra special until they can visit faraway again.

Backmatter includes author and illustrator notes and a guide to some of the places and foods explored in Taiwan.

Interview with Margaret Chiu Greanias

Q: Your book Amah Faraway features several delicious Taiwanese dishes that made me hungry while reading it. What is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You can pick more than one if narrowing it down is hard.)

A: Fragrant and flaky scallion pancakes are yummy. I had an intense aversion to onions as a kid, but my mom would go easy on the scallions for me.

I also love dumplings–any kind of dumplings! My mom would usually make dumplings on the same days she made scallion pancakes. Pan-fried pork and napa cabbage dumplings with golden, crispy lace on the bottoms–mmm! They are the perfect all in one meal.

As an adult, I’ve discovered the deliciousness of buttery, tangy pineapple cakes! Unfortunately, I was a picky eater as a kid, so I missed out on enjoying them for 30 years. :-/

Q: I noticed that there were parts of the book in Mandarin that weren’t translated (e.g. the song about the two tigers) while others were. How did you go about deciding what would be explained and translated and what would remain as is?

A: The Mandarin that wasn’t translated was added by Tracy Subisak, the illustrator for Amah Faraway. They are generally side conversations that complement the text and are wonderful Easter Eggs for those who can read Mandarin.

The Mandarin characters that are translated were part of the original story that I wrote. They fit in with the structure of the story–which is a kind of reverse poem. A reverse poem is one where the lines are read regularly from top to bottom but can also be read in reverse from bottom to top. The result is two poems with different meanings and often opposite tones.

In Amah Faraway, the reverse poem structure highlights the transformation the main character Kylie undergoes on her first trip to visit her Amah. The lines reverse at the mid-point of the story. Except for some changes to punctuation, the lines in the second half of the story are exactly the same as the lines in the first half–simply in reverse order. Changes in punctuation, words that have more than one meaning, context, and changes in perspective allow the first half and second half of the book to tell a complete story.

Q: What was your favorite part of writing Amah Faraway?

A: My favorite part of writing Amah Faraway was finding a way to impart different meanings using the same lines and words in the each half of the book and still tell a complete story. It took a lot of scribbling, experimentation, and reading my words aloud over and over again. But I love puzzles, and finding the right fit felt a lot like completing a puzzle. So satisfying!

Q: You mentioned elsewhere that you weren’t particularly good at English in school, but later you found your way to creative writing. What kinds of books and stories inspired you and/or made you feel that you could be an author? (Feel free to name specific titles, authors, and illustrators.)

A: The first book to inspire me was Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. This was the one that made me realize that I could play and have fun with language. As I continue to read and study the craft of writing picture books, I am continually discovering books that inspire me to evolve my writing:

  • Wordplay: Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Jorge and Megan Lacera
  • Lyrical language: Friends Are Friends, Forever by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael Lopez, Eyes That Kiss In The Corners by Joanna Ho and illustrated by Dung Ho
  • Delightful characters: One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail
  • Packs an emotional punch: I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne and illustrated by Julia Kuo

Q: The structure of Amah Faraway is that of a reversible poem. While writing a reversible poem is already difficult, I imagine fitting it into the picture book format was also a challenge due to the page limit and the way picture books are structured with the two-page spreads and page turns affecting the reading experience. How did you go about blending the two forms?

A: It’s critical to account for the constraints of the picture book format when writing any picture book story. Picture books are generally 32 pages. This includes the end, copyright, and title pages. So we really have between 12 to 14-1/2 spreads to tell the whole story.

As part of my writing process, I create a picture book “dummy” where I break up the story by spread (https://taralazar.com/tag/picture-book-template/). Note that picture book authors generally leave illustration decisions including the page turns to the illustrator, editor, and art director. But this helps me determine some things:

  • Whether I’ve used too many words for a page. For reverse poems, because the lines need to be able to be interpreted with new meaning on the reverse read, it turns out that spare is better. So, this actually helped me.
  • Whether there are enough but not too many varied scenes to fill the book. Too many scenes would mean the story wouldn’t fit into the picture book format. Lack of variety in scenes would make the story less visually interesting. For writing the reverse poem, I chunked the story in a predetermined number of scenes to help make the writing process less intimidating. This also helped in fitting the story into the picture book format.

One thing that I never imagined was how the words and the line breaks that are critical to the reverse poem structure would be laid out on the page and how the illustrations would need to accommodate this. Not only did we have to maintain the line breaks, but the lines had to be placed so that the reader would read them in the right order.

I owe my editor at Bloomsbury, Sarah Shumway, a huge debt of gratitude for having the vision for how to fit my story into picture book format and helping to guide me through revisions to make it all possible. She even somehow made room for back matter.

Q: My understanding is that when the author isn’t also the illustrator for a picturebook, the author generally has little say in the final illustrations. Do you write your picturebooks with a rough idea of the pictures in mind? How do you feel about surrendering creative control when it comes to this aspect of the book?

A: I do write with an idea of the pictures. As I wrote in previously, this helps me figure out whether there are enough potential varied illustration possibilities to make up a picture book and to determine the pacing and page breaks of the story. And also, if I envision illustrations, I may be able to omit some text that the illustration would communicate. But my envisioning the illustrations doesn’t mean I tell the illustrator what to actually illustrate.

For Amah Faraway, I saw sketches at two points and was offered the opportunity to give feedback. But as an author, I try and tread lightly when it comes to illustrations. While it can be nerve-wracking to surrender creative control, I believe in the idea that an illustrator executing their own vision can add a lot of richness to the story. It’s like a song with harmony–it adds layers and deepens the song in a beautiful way.

As the illustrator for Amah Faraway, Tracy Subisak contributed so much richness to the book. She added beautiful end papers which can serve as a search and find for young readers as well as a tool for learning some Mandarin. She created a wonderful illustration under the dust jacket which sets up the story. She set the story in real locations around Taipei which hopefully will enable readers who have been to Taipei to connect to the story in a visual way. And as mentioned above, she added the conversations that were solely in Mandarin to complement the storyline and serve as an Easter Egg for Mandarin readers. I could go on and on. Tracy’s contributions helped make Amah Faraway a rich and layered piece with many potential points of connection for readers. Thank you, Tracy! 🙂


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About the Author

Margaret wrote her first terrifically terrible book in fourth grade. From grade school through college, she struggled through her English classes. Then, during her very last quarter of her very last year of college, she took a creative writing class and discovered she loved writing. She is the author of MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS (Running Press Kids, 2018), AMAH FARAWAY (Bloomsbury Kids, 2022), and HOOKED ON BOOKS (Peachtree Publishing, 2023). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, three children, and a fluffle of dust bunnies.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Ren Iris

Welcome to my fourth interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: The Balance Tips
  • Author: Ren Iris
  • Cover Artist: CB Messer
  • Publisher: Interlude Press
  • Release Date: October 5th, 2021
  • Genre: Adult Fiction

Synopsis

Fay Wu Goodson is a 25-year-old queer, multiracial woman who documents the identity journeys of other New Yorkers. She finds her videography work meaningful, but more importantly, it distracts her from investigating the challenges of her own life and keeps relationships at a distance. When the family’s Taiwanese patriarch dies, Fay’s Asian grandmother moves to America; and Fay, her mother, and her aunt learn unsettling truths about their family and each other. They must decide to finally confront themselves, or let their pasts destroy everything each woman has dreamed of and worked for.

An unconventional story of an Asian-American matriarchy, The Balance Tips is a literary exploration of Taiwanese-American female roles in family, sexual identity, racism, and the internal struggles fostered by Confucian patriarchy that would appeal to fans of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Interview with Ren Iris

Q: The Balance Tips plays around with narrative form quite a bit, employing letters, transcripts of orally conducted interviews, screenwriting scripts, etc. How did you decide which form to use for which scenes/chapters?

A: I’m a lover of documentaries, scripts and correspondence in their many forms, and oral histories/traditions. I knew I wanted to write a documentarian character into being, so before, during, and after my first draft, I consumed a lot of content in these various forms. When deciding which form to use for a given scene/chapter, I put myself into the persona of the character of focus. What are they thinking about? What do they want to avoid thinking about? What makes them feel defensive, powerful, and/or confused? How do they vacillate between celebrating/facing their vulnerabilities and repressing/avoiding said vulnerabilities? I used these questions to drive my selection for each form.

Q: The Balance Tips jumps between multiple narrative viewpoints as well as timelines. How did you create order out of chaos when drafting and revising?

A: I used to conform to a restrictive outlining structure (for my first book, I outlined each chapter in detail). But for The Balance Tips, I knew I wanted to write in a manner that felt natural to me, based on how I think—and I think heuristically. So, I embrace chaos, iteration, and revision. I revise as I go; when I make a decision that will potentially have a ripple effect, I note whatever I’ll need later to conduct a helpful control + find search. I revise each draft with the critical eye of a developmental/copy editor. I aim for intentional chaos, for writing that captures how unmoored a character feels.

Q: Language can be used to hurt or to heal, to divide or to connect, among many other things. What would you say is the role of language in mediating the relationships between the women of the Wu family?

A: There are points where the Wu women try to soothe each other and repair their intrafamilial relationships with shared language. The language they use with each other is rooted in memory, in nativity, and Fay is usually the hinge person. They use Mandarin and/or Taiwanese to remind one another to return home—often metaphorically, but sometimes literally. For the Wu women, English is the colder language, one that can be the language of legality, of alienation, of negotiation from a distance.

Q: Do you have a particular literary or rhetorical device that you favor in your writing? If so, what about it appeals to you?

A: Subtext, subtext, subtext. Idiom. Metaphor. Conceit. Synecdoche. Metonym. What I find appealing about all of these devices is the inherent homage to symbolism and implication. We as humans make and take so much meaning from the unsaid, the half-said, the communication intent that exists between and behind the lines.

Q: I think most writers would agree that they learn something with every work they write. What has writing and publishing The Balance Tips taught you, about writing, about the world, and/or about yourself?

A: When I began my first draft of The Balance Tips in 2015, I wasn’t out, not even to myself. I was continually brushing off what I’ve known in one capacity or another since at least the third grade—I’ve always been queer and genderqueer, even if I didn’t know how to phrase or claim it. I think there was a subconscious element to my writing about queerness in this novel. With each draft, I created clearer characters, a clearer fictional world, and as I was changing my fiction, it was inevitably changing me. There’s so much pain in the world—pain we create for ourselves, pain we experience from others, pain we give others, and/or pain we exchange. While that pain is true, it’s not the only truth, and it’s not the lead truth, either. Yes, we hold great power to hurt ourselves and each other, but so too, do we hold great power to help ourselves and each other. There is always a mix. Always many nuances. And, too, there is always possibility, capacity for self-led change. There is no need for shame or shaming. We can learn from kind, revitalizing teachers. We can, as activist and professor Loretta J. Ross has urged, hold ourselves accountable and call each other in instead of out. When we learn to love and accept ourselves, we can at least learn to mutually accept and support one another; we can lead with the Confucian value of ren—with humaneness.

Q: Do you view The Balance Tips as in conversation with any particular works of fiction (of any medium)? If so, what are they, and what aspects of those works does it speak to?

A: Definitely. I have many more than reasonable to list, so I’ll just list 10.

Porcelain and a Language of Their Own: Two Plays by Chay Yew; Água Viva by Clarice Lispector; Edinburgh by Alexander Chee; The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston; Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson; Aliens in America by Sandra Tsing Loh; Rolling the R’s by R. Zamora Linmark; The Red Letter Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks; The America Play, and Other Works by Suzan-Lori Parks; Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays by Young Jean Lee

All of these works queer concepts, form, and content. By queer here, I sometimes mean the queer in LGBTQIA+, but also, I’m referring to an expanded application of Merriam-Webster’s verb definition, use 1a: “to consider or interpret (something) from a perspective that rejects traditional categories of gender and sexuality: to apply ideas from queer theory to (something).” As I aimed to do in The Balance Tips, these works reject assumed, traditional notions of a variety of foundational topics and societal constructs. They offer alternative, expansive styles of being, and encourage a self-exploration that imagines identity as a continuous, fluid journey. They underscore the existence of at least a pocket of hope. And they celebrate our capacity for connection and resilience.


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About the Author

Ren Iris* (pronouns they/them; 鳶仁 Yuān Rén) was raised in New Jersey by a Taiwanese mother and a white father. They hold a BA in English from Rutgers University and an MA in Creative Writing from Newcastle University in England. Whasian (Harken Media, 2015) was their debut novel. Iris’s second novel, The Balance Tips, was released in October 2021 (Interlude Press). Their writing has been featured in The Shanghai Literary Review, The Black Scholar, and Side B Magazine.

*The Balance Tips, was published under the author’s deadname. They have since legally and professionally changed their names. They are solely Ren Iris and solely use they/them/their pronouns—including in historical references.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Anna Gracia

Welcome to my third interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: Boys I Know
  • Author: Anna Gracia
  • Cover Artist: Fevik
  • Publisher: Peachtree Teen
  • Release Date: July 5th, 2022
  • Genre: Young Adult Contemporary

Synopsis

A high school senior navigates messy boys and messier relationships in this bitingly funny and much-needed look into the overlap of Asian American identity and teen sexuality.  

June Chu is the “just good enough” girl. Good enough to line the shelves with a slew of third-place trophies and steal secret kisses from her AP Bio partner, Rhys. But not good enough to meet literally any of her Taiwanese mother’s unrelenting expectations or to get Rhys to commit to anything beyond a well-timed joke. 

While June’s mother insists she follow in her (perfect) sister’s footsteps and get a (full-ride) violin scholarship to Northwestern (to study pre-med), June doesn’t see the point in trying too hard if she’s destined to fall short anyway. Instead, she focuses her efforts on making her relationship with Rhys “official.” But after her methodically-planned, tipsily-executed scheme explodes on the level of a nuclear disaster, she flings herself into a new relationship with a guy who’s not allergic to the word “girlfriend.” 

But as the line blurs between sex and love, and the pressure to map out her entire future threatens to burst, June will have to decide on whose terms she’s going to live her life—even if it means fraying her relationship with her mother beyond repair. 

Interview with Anna Gracia

Q: Throughout the course of Boys I Know, June Chu makes a lot of mistakes and questionable-to-poor choices before getting someplace better. In my experience, the process of writing a book is pretty similar. What kinds of false starts did you make while writing Boys I Know, and how did you move past them?

A: Boys I Know was the first novel I’d ever written, so naturally I had no idea what I was doing. I wrote it in chunks, over the course of a year, not totally knowing what was going to happen to June or how it would come together as a coherent story. I flailed around for a while, tweaking and making (what I thought were) major changes until I was fortunate enough to sign with an agent who had a much more sweeping idea of how edits should go. In short, I deleted the entire book and started over with a blank page shortly after signing, giving me permission to let go of what wasn’t working and start fresh. In that way, I think it parallels June’s options to either continue on her same path with minor alterations or to simply start over, despite that choice seeming much more daunting.

I feel like there’s so much about publishing that’s like “you don’t know until you know” and being lucky enough to take Boys from hot mess first draft to publication has really helped clarify what I need to do going forward and has made me less afraid of, well, everything, because I know I’m capable of doing it.

Q: I really love the use of chengyu/Chinese idioms in this book because of how well they illustrate the relationship dynamic between June and her mother, encapsulating both the pressures these words often put on her but also the influences she picks up from her mother as a result. How did you go about incorporating these into the text in a way that felt authentic to the story you were trying to tell?

A: I’m so glad you asked this! (Mostly because I spent so much time making sure the Chinese was correct and finding the right phrase to go with each situation.) For me, I grew up hearing these left and right, spouted in Chinese with the English translation immediately after, just like June’s mom does, so it felt natural to have her incorporate them into her speech regularly, especially when she’s trying to make a point to her daughter. I wanted Mrs. Chu to encapsulate that passive-aggressive style of parenting where she is somehow both overbearing but also weirdly hands off about things, expecting that simply dictating wisdom is enough to set her kids on the right path. So when June references a particular proverb or phrase in other contexts, I wanted it to be a subtle reminder of how even her own thoughts had been affected by her mom, her upbringing, and her culture.

I think it’s pretty common for multi-lingual people to think in more than one language and I wanted to show how even someone as “Americanized” as June still has the Taiwanese side of her baked into her identity, inseparable from the very way she exists.

Q: When developing their characters, some authors create elaborate profiles and aesthetic collages and playlists while others stick to what is necessary for the story and don’t spend too much time on the rest. Where would you say you fall in the range between these two approaches? And if you have any fun details about June that didn’t make it into the final story, please share a few!

A: Originally, June was a piano player. But that created logistical concerns I didn’t want to have to deal with (like having privacy while she practiced, for one), so I switched her over to the other Asian parent-approved instrument of choice, the violin.

Other than that, June has remained more or less consistent throughout all the versions and edits of this story, which is surprising considering I don’t create any kind of character profile or aesthetic or anything upfront. My lack of structure and overall vision upfront I’m sure makes the process much longer and more frustrating than it probably needs to be, but I’m pretty adamant that writing the story itself is what lets me better explore my characters and keeps them from remaining too tidy.

Q: Do you have a narrative point of view or tense that you default to when you write, or does it vary depending on the story?

A: I personally default to writing in first person past tense because it makes me feel like I’m telling a story, but I did see someone say they DNFed the book because of it so maybe I need to explore writing in present tense because that seems to be more popular in YA!

Q: A lot of writers I know approach a first draft with the mentality that you’re just getting words down no matter how terrible, and editing is on the backburner. However, I’m the type who makes some edits even as I draft. How do you approach the editing/revision process, and how do you deal with situations where you feel like you are ramming your head against a brick wall trying to figure out how to continue improving on the draft you have?

A: Honestly I probably do not have good advice for this because my process is completely chaotic and inefficient. I draft out of order and refuse to outline or use beat sheets, and instead of tackling edits in several passes I try to do everything all at once.

The only thing I can say is that when it all becomes too overwhelming (and trust me, I do a fair bit of head ramming against brick walls as well), I just focus on one paragraph at a time, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, reminding myself that if I keep hacking away at it, I’ll eventually finish.

It’s not poignant or strategic in any way–I mostly finish projects because of an innate desire to “win” against the part of myself that wants to give up.

Q: Debut year is both an exciting and stressful experience even without the added stress created by the pandemic. What tools and strategies have you been using to manage your mental health?

A: I just keep repeating to myself that most everything outside of the book content itself is out of my control and spend my time on doing things I do enjoy for it, like making unhinged posts about it on social media. I also spend a lot of time burying myself in other people’s books, which helps me remember that there are a lot of stories out there and that mine is just one of many. It’s easy to get swept into thinking that your book is all that matters but it’s also a very good way to burn out and I would very much like to keep publishing. Also, cake. I strongly recommend cake as a solution to everything.


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About the Author

Anna grew up biracial in the Midwest, spending her formative years repeatedly answering the question “What are you?” Before finding her way as a young adult author, she was a CPA, a public school teacher, a tennis coach, and for one glorious summer, a waitress at a pie shop. She now lives on the West Coast, raising three kids and writing stories about girls navigating a world full of double standards.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!

Author Interview: Jane Kuo

Welcome to my second interview for my [belated] Taiwanese American Heritage Week series!

About the Book

  • Title: In the Beautiful Country
  • Author: Jane Kuo
  • Cover Artist: Julia Kuo
  • Publisher: Quill Tree Books (an Imprint of HarperCollins)
  • Release Date: June 14th, 2022
  • Genre/Format: Middle Grade Historical Fiction, Novel-in-Verse

Synopsis

For fans of Jasmine Warga and Thanhhà Lại, this is a stunning novel in verse about a young Taiwanese immigrant to America who is confronted by the stark difference between dreams and reality.

Anna can’t wait to move to the beautiful country—the Chinese name for America. Although she’s only ever known life in Taiwan, she can’t help but brag about the move to her family and friends.

But the beautiful country isn’t anything like Anna pictured. Her family can only afford a cramped apartment, she’s bullied at school, and she struggles to understand a new language. On top of that, the restaurant that her parents poured their savings into is barely staying afloat. The version of America that Anna is experiencing is nothing like her dreams. How will she be able to make the beautiful country her home?

This lyrical and heartfelt story, inspired by the author’s own experiences, is about resilience, courage, and the struggle to make a place for yourself in the world.

Interview with Jane Kuo

Q: What is your favorite Taiwanese food, and what foods feel like home (however you define home for yourself) to you?

A: I really love ba wan, a dish made up of meat, mushrooms and bamboo shoots encased in a layer of sticky chewiness. I love the pinkish sweet and sour sauce that’s poured on top too.

Food that feels like “home” is a little more difficult to answer—I like food so much.  I would say the flavor that’s most nostalgic for me is soy sauce. Give me anything cooked in soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and sugar and I’m good.

Q: What drew you to writing a middle grade book?

A: I didn’t start out writing a middle grade book. I knew I wanted to write about my family’s immigration experience, particularly our first year in America. I tried a bunch of different genres– memoir, adult fiction and even essay. Then, I stumbled upon telling the story from the vantage point of the girl, my proxy. I built the entire story around her voice.

Q: What made you decide to write In the Beautiful Country as a novel-in-verse?

A: I think it goes back to the whole idea of voice. It’s not so much I decided on novel-in-verse, it’s that the story—and really the voice—presented itself to me in this way.  The verse form allowed me to distill experiences into their most essential form. I didn’t have to write a bunch of exposition and because of the brevity of verse, I didn’t have to explain so much. I could just plop the reader into “moments”. It was very freeing to write with such little constraints.

Q: In children’s literature, there is a lot of emphasis on the child reader as the audience. Would you say this audience influenced your approach to writing In the Beautiful Country, and if so, how?

A: I am writing for a middle grade audience, but I was very careful not to “dumb down” the story in any way. I think kids go through a lot more than we give them credit for and I wanted to capture that on the page. But I’m not writing just for children. I think a good story is a good story for all.

Q: Immigrants and diaspora are often said to occupy a liminal, in-between space in society. What would you say is the power of exploring liminality in literature?

A: I’m particularly interested in immigrant and diaspora literature because of my own experience, and I guess the simple way of saying it is that I like seeing myself reflected on the page. Literature is such a powerful medium through which to explore not just liminality, but any human experience really. I know that when I read a good book, I feel as if my understanding of “the other” has widened. And I think that’s the beauty and irony of literature, that a very specific piece of writing rooted in a particular space and time has the ability to transport the reader and lead to understanding and perhaps, empathy. When we encounter the other, we see ourselves.

Q: In my opinion, verse as a literary form encapsulates the expression “less is more.” Did you ever find yourself cutting lines or details while writing In the Beautiful Country? If not, what aspects did you find challenging about writing it?

Honestly, it was painful to cut lines, even though I knew it had to be done. It’s like that quote from Stephen King, “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

One of the most challenging parts was cutting because even though I spent a lot of time writing the book, I was self-conscious about the word count and wanted to puff things up. At the same time, I really appreciate books that are short. So, I figured I’d return the favor.


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About the Author

Jane Kuo is a Chinese and Taiwanese American writer who grew up in Los Angeles. She is an author, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner. Jane graduated with a degree in English Literature from UC Berkeley, where she studied under Bharati Mukherjee, Ishmael Reed, and Robert Hass. Also, she once borrowed a pencil from Maxine Hong Kingston. 

Jane lives in California with her husband and two kids. Her first novel, In the Beautiful Country is inspired by the events of her childhood.

Author Links:


Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts, please consider donating to the victims fund for the Taiwanese American church community in Orange County that was attacked this weekend on May 15th by a gunman, or donating to Ren, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese person who needs help with student loan debt and medical bills. Thanks!