Tag Archives: Middle Grade

Mini Reviews: 5 Southeast Asian Reads

So, I was looking through my drafts trying to delete things I didn’t need anymore when I came upon this ancient post. It was complete except for a missing cover image, and I’m not sure why I never posted it. It’s from 2017, I think? But anyway, here you go.

The Land of Forgotten Girls

The Land of Forgotten Girls by Erin Entrada Kelly – MG, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

The Land of Forgotten Girls is a poignant book that shows the power of words and stories. Sol (Soledad) and Ming (Dominga) are poor and trapped in Louisiana with their abusive stepmother Vea. In order to cope with this suffocating environment, Sol tells stories to Ming, stories passed down from their late mother as well as stories of her own making about their magical “aunt” who travels the world. These stories offer an escape for Sol but also blur the line between fantasy and reality for Ming, who is younger and impressionable. As a result, Sol is forced to grapple with whether her stories harm more than they help, whether fiction is the same as a lie.

In the absence of any loving parents, Sol finds comfort and companionship in her best friend Manny, who’s Mexican; a quiet neighbor in her apartment building, Mrs. Yeung, who’s Chinese; as well as an albino girl named Caroline who she once tormented but apologized to. With Manny and Caroline, Sol braves the neighborhood junkyard, the domain of a terrifying man she calls Blackbeard, and finds treasure and hope in the most unlikely of places. If you like stories about sisterhood, friendship, and adventure, this may be the book for you.

For a review from a Filipino reviewer, I recommend reading Glaiza’s review.

Content/Trigger warnings: bullying, abuse, racism, colorism

Something in Between

Something in Between by Melissa de la Cruz – YA, Contemporary, Filipino American MC, Own Voices

Something in Between doesn’t pull its punches and takes you on a rollercoaster ride of feelings. Jasmine de los Santos has it all: she’s set to be valedictorian, she’s captain of the cheer team, and she’s going to attend a top college. However, all of that unravels when she finds out her family’s visas expired years ago and they’re in the U.S. illegally. This news shocks Jasmine but doesn’t get her down completely. America is the home she identifies with, and she’s not getting deported without a fight.

Life goes on, and with the threat of deportation looming, Jasmine tries to take advantage of the time she has left before her family is forced to leave the country. During this time, she dates the handsome and rich Royce Blakely, son of a Congressman, who may be the key to obtaining legal status for her family. Their relationship is passionate but also turbulent because Royce’s dad’s stance on immigration politics place him on the opposite side of the battle Jasmine is waging on behalf of her undocumented family. The juxtaposition of their backgrounds brings into stark relief the intersections of race and class.

While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the romance subplot, I loved the de los Santos family dynamic and the complicated friendship Jasmine had with Kayla. Overall, this book provides a humanizing narrative of immigration, citizenship, and belonging in the U.S.

For a perspective from a Filipino reader, I recommend reading Sue’s review.

girl-on-the-verge

Girl on the Verge by Pintip Dunn – YA, Contemporary, Thriller, Thai American MC, Own Voices

Girl on the Verge is one of the most intense and mind-blowing contemporary YA novels I read in 2017. This was my Goodreads review immediately after finishing:

I didn’t intend for my review to be a haiku but the universe had the syllable count planted in my subconscious somehow so here you go:
holy fucking shit
what the hell did I just read
I need to lie down

Now to elaborate. The main character, Kanchana a.k.a Kan, is Thai American and lives in a predominantly white town in Kansas. At school, she stands out because she’s Asian, and at home, her grandmother laments that she’s too Westernized, and her way of finding a middle ground between the two cultures she’s immersed in is to design clothes.

Kan’s struggle to fit in takes on a new dynamic when her mother takes in a white girl named Shelly to live in their home. At first, things seem to work out since Shelly is eager to please and integrate into Kan’s family. However, Shelly’s presence becomes uncomfortable and even threatening when it becomes apparent that she’s morphing herself into Kan 2.0 and even trying to steal Kan’s boyfriend, Ethan. As Kan investigates Shelly’s past, she discovers shocking secrets about her own family.

Although Girl on the Verge starts out on a similar note to other contemporary stories exploring second generation Asian American identity, the thriller plotline highlights the theme of identity and belonging in a unique and gut-wrenching way. The parallels between Kan’s experiences as the girl who stands out too much and Shelly’s as the girl who nobody notices and the contrast in how they respond to feeling alienated, is fascinating and terrifying.

Trigger warnings: physical assault, sexual harassment, kidnapping, murder

Roots and Wings

Roots and Wings by Many Ly – YA, Historical Fiction*, Cambodian American MC, Own Voices

*It’s not historical as in older than 2000, but it’s not quite contemporary anymore since it was published in 2008 and probably takes place in the early 2000s based on technology cues.

The writing style for this book wasn’t out-of-this-world amazing, but the characters and themes made the story engaging and sentimental. For me, this is a book that really captures gracefully the complexity of family and community and intergenerational loss and love.

The narrative alternates between the present, which explores the aftermath of Grace’s grandmother passing away, and Grace’s past when her grandmother was still alive. At first, the focus is mostly on Grace’s difficulties with not knowing her own father and Cambodian heritage. Then, as she immerses herself in the Cambodian community in St. Petersburg, Florida, she learns more about her mother and grandmother and the reasons behind her alienation from her roots.

As we eventually see, the three generations of women in Grace’s family all struggle to balance self, family, and community as 1st, 1.5 and 2nd generation Cambodian American women, respectively. I empathized with Grace’s experience, and through her journey into her family’s history, also empathized with her mother and grandmother’s perspectives and decisions. This is definitely not your typical realistic fiction YA because of its strong focus on family and community over school/romantic/friendship drama (which were pretty much absent from the story), but it’s a powerful and important story regardless.

Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai – MG, Contemporary, Vietnamese American MC, Own Voices

Listen, Slowly features a 12-year-old second generation Vietnamese American girl visiting Vietnam with her family and connecting with her heritage while her grandmother searches for her long-lost grandfather who disappeared during the Vietnam War.

The title feels like an apt description of the dynamic between Mai and her heritage. Although she can’t speak Vietnamese very well, she can understand it better than she lets on to her extended family, thus much of her time is spent listening to them.

The listening she does is also figurative. Her initial reactions to spending multiple weeks in Vietnam is dismay that she will be separated from her best friend and her secret crush (referred to as “HIM” throughout the story) and the summer outings of her friends and classmates. She initially sees Vietnam as her parents’ heritage more so than her own.  Bridging the psychological distance between herself and Vietnam takes time. Through a friendship with a boy who’s learning English with the hope of going to the U.S., she begins to appreciate the language and culture of her heritage.

[Blog Tour] Review and Fanart for Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field by Angela Ahn and Julie Kwon

Hi, everyone, and happy Year of the Ox! I’m pretty busy with school, but I’m still trying to do book reviews and blog tours. Today’s review is for Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, written by Angela Ahn and illustrated by Julie Kwon. I read Angela Ahn’s debut novel, Krista Kim-Bap, back in 2018, so it was nice to get a chance to review this second novel of hers. This blog tour is hosted by Hear Our Voices Book Tours and you can find out more about the other tour stops on their tour launch page.

Book Info: 

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Release Date: March 2, 2021
Genre: Middle Grade Fiction

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. But in one summer, that all falls apart. Told in short, accessible journal entries and combining the humor of Timmy Failure with the poignant family dynamics of Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Peter Lee will win readers’ hearts.

Eleven year-old Peter Lee has one goal in life: to become a paleontologist. Okay, maybe two: to get his genius kid-sister, L. B., to leave him alone. But his summer falls apart when his real-life dinosaur expedition turns out to be a bust, and he watches his dreams go up in a cloud of asthma-inducing dust.

Even worse, his grandmother, Hammy, is sick, and no one will talk to Peter or L. B. about it. Perhaps his days as a scientist aren’t quite behind him yet. Armed with notebooks and pens, Peter puts his observation and experimental skills to the test to see what he can do for Hammy. If only he can get his sister to be quiet for once—he needs time to sketch out a plan.

Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop.org | Book Depository


Review:

If you look up the word “wholesome,” this book should be there as an example. There’s so much to love in this book, which addresses several important issues for kids while being fun and uplifting.

The most obvious thing that attracted me to the book is that it features a dino-lover! I mean, a lot of people like dinosaurs, but when I was younger, I was obsessed. Like Peter, I owned tons of dinosaur books, and while I didn’t have much of a dino figure collection, I had plenty of dino plushies to go around. Science museums were my catnip, and like Peter, I did even think about becoming a paleontologist. Peter’s obsession is arguably more intense and directed since he is actually practicing the work of paleontologist by keeping a detailed field journal, digging in a simulated excavation pit, and so on. But either way, the dinosaur love really made me feel seen.

While they didn’t resonate with my own experiences, I still loved the family dynamics of the Lees. Peter lives with his dad, mom, and younger sister, and his maternal grandparents are still a regular presence in his life. His younger sister L.B. (short for “Little Beast”) is something of a prodigy, which means Peter can have intellectual conversations with her despite their 3-year age gap (he’s in 5th grade, she’s in 2nd), but she’s also just a kid, a ball of irrepressible energy, and an annoying brat at times. Even so, Peter still loves her and feels responsible for her as an older sibling. Their back-and-forth banter was one of the highlights of the book.

Peter’s parents come off as a little strict and uptight at first glance because they’re constantly trying to get their kids to do academic enrichment activities, but they are clearly acting from a place of care, and they do encourage Peter’s passions. His grandparents, by contrast, are much more laid back and doting. Peter calls them Hammy and Haji (derived from “halmeoni” and “harabeoji,” the Korean terms for grandmother and grandfather, respectively), and he can count on them to be a voice of moderation when his parents are being overly pushy. He cherishes them greatly.

This book is something of a love letter to diaspora kids. Peter is a third generation Korean Canadian (his grandparents immigrated to Canada), so he doesn’t have quite the same experience as someone who’s second gen like me, but his family still keeps ties to their roots. He’s one of three Korean kids at his school (him, his sister, and an upperclassman named Samuel), where he feels drawn to Sam and creates a Korean solidarity bond with him. While being one of few Korean kids at his school is lonely, and Peter does experience some insecurity over not knowing Korean, racism and identity struggles aren’t the focus of the book. His Korean heritage is simply the canvas on which the events of the story unfold, informing his interactions with the people and the world around him.

The true focus of the story is two-fold: dealing with the disappointment of finding out that the reality of your dream job isn’t what you expected, and coping with powerlessness when a loved one is sick and your family is hiding it from you. Both of these themes are explored and woven together in a really lovely way, and both felt intensely relatable for me as someone who has experienced both.

Peter goes on an excavation trip and realizes that digging for hours under the sun in clouds of dust doesn’t work for him and his asthma. The coolness of paleontology becomes eclipsed by the grueling, tedious work it requires. This reminded me of my own experience with aerospace engineering, one of my two undergrad degrees. I applied for the major as a space-loving nerd, thinking it was a great match for me, but when I started taking the classes for the major, I realized I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. The feelings of failure and disillusionment that come with this realization are quite painful, and this book takes Peter and the reader through those stages of extreme emotions with compassion.

At the same time, Peter realizes his Hammy’s health is declining, and the adults are keeping secrets from him about something. He eventually discovers that Hammy is developing dementia and will likely need to move into a nursing home too far away for them to visit regularly. Unable to bear the thought of growing apart from his grandmother, Peter sets to work on a special project for Hammy that leads to an epiphany about his relationship with paleontology and the skills he cultivated through that passion.

One of the things I really loved about this book is that it didn’t treat science and art as mutually exclusive or in competition with each other. Peter draws as part of his field journal entries, and even after he decides to “break up” with paleontology, he still uses his artistic skills and even explores a creative path with them. As someone who has always loved both science and art, I thought this was a nice theme to have.

Lastly, the narrative format of this book is a huge part of what makes this book such an immersive experience. The chapters are Peter’s field journal entries with the date and the current “conditions,” which range from the literal weather to more abstract representations of Peter’s emotional state. The cute illustrations by Julie Kwon help us visualize Peter’s perspective and add personality to the pages. I can’t wait to get a physical copy of the book.

Content/Trigger Warnings: bullying, ableism, hospitalization of a family member

Fanart:

I’ve been experimenting with digital drawing, and it’s still pretty new to me, so excuse the roughness of the drawing. Here’s Peter with two dino friends (not drawn to scale).


About the Author:

Angela Ahn was born in Seoul, but her family immigrated to Canada before she could walk. Armed with a BA, BEd, and MLIS, she worked for several years as a teacher and a librarian, but lately has been working from home, taking care of her two children. When she can, she writes novels for kids. She’s lived most of her life in Vancouver, B.C., with brief stints working in Hong Kong and Toronto. Although she likes to blame her parents for her atrocious Korean language skills, she will admit that she was a reluctant learner. Angela’s proud to say that her children are bookworms, and that every member of her family has a stack of novels by their bed. She’s grateful to be able to write books where her children can see faces, just like theirs, on the front covers. Angela’s first book, Krista Kim-Bap, was published in 2018 and her second book, Peter Lee’s Notes from the Field, will be released March 2021.

Author Links:

Twitter | Instagram | Website | Goodreads

[Blog Tour] 5 Books to Read After Lupe Wong Won’t Dance

Hello and welcome to the second half of my stop on the blog tour for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance hosted by Colored Pages. You can read my review of the book here if you haven’t already.
Since I love middle grade books and want to spread the love, I thought I would feature and recommend some middle grade novels by Asian and Latinx authors with similar themes or vibes as Lupe Wong Won’t Dance.

Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly

I reviewed this book several years ago and knew that I would read everything by Erin Entrada Kelly after I finished it. Blackbird Fly features a Filipino American girl who wants to be a famous rock star but is struggling to fit in at her predominantly white school, where she ends up on a horrible list called the Dog Log ranking the girls considered the ugliest in their grade. This book gets very real about racism and bullying but emphasizes the beauty of true friendship.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears features a Cuban American protagonist and captures the essence of middle school perfectly: the troubles of fitting in among peers, the frustration of butting heads with your parents, puberty and the confusing aspects of people around you developing crushes and acting weird. It also tackles classism and the experience of being poor in an environment where everyone else is rich and the alienation that comes with it.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

My Year in the Middle is set in 1970 in Alabama and features an Argentinian American girl who loves to run track and is figuring out her place in a school where classrooms seating is segregated into Black and white. Lu is a passionate, sensitive protagonist whose personality jumps off the page. This story provides a nuanced view of racism in history and sets a great example in showing young readers how to stand up for what is right in spite of doubts and peer pressure.

Pippa Park Raises Her Game by Erin Yun

Pippa Park Raises Her Game is a modern reimagining of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Pippa is a Korean American girl from a lower class background who attends a private school on a basketball scholarship and has major impostor syndrome from having to hide her family’s laundromat from her classmates. Unfortunately, an anonymous troll on social media threatens to expose her secret.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom is the first in a hilarious middle grade series featuring Abbie Wu, who is an anxious Asian American tween trying to keep her head above the water as she enters the dreaded institution known as middle school. The story is told in a combination of simple but expressive doodles and prose that’s super dynamic and fun to read. If you’re prone to catastrophizing and overthinking, you’ll probably find this book super relatable.

[Blog Tour] Review for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance by Donna Barba Higuera

Hello again! I hope everyone is faring okay. I just started school last week and am trying my best to juggle school and blogging. This week I’m pleased to be a part of the blog tour hosted by Colored Pages for a middle grade debut novel featuring a biracial Mexican/Chinese American protagonist.

Title: Lupe Wong Won’t Dance
Author: Donna Barba Higuera
Publisher: Levine Querido
Publication Date: September 8th, 2020
Genres: Middle Grade, Contemporary

Synopsis:

Lupe Wong is going to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who seasons.

Lupe needs an A in all her classes in order to meet her favorite pitcher, Fu Li Hernandez, who’s Chinacan/Mexinese just like her. So when the horror that is square dancing rears its head in gym? Obviously she’s not gonna let that slide.

Not since Millicent Min, Girl Genius has a debut novel introduced a character so memorably, with such humor and emotional insight. Even square dancing fans will agree…

Review:

There’s nothing like middle grade fiction to remind me of my bygone days as an awkward tween/teen. In some ways, reading Lupe Wong Won’t Dance felt like peering into my own middle school memories. This book really evokes the way school is basically your entire life, your peers and teachers have the power to make your existence a living hell, and having friends you can lean on means everything.

The story is told in first-person narration from Lupe’s point of view and is imbued with the humor and emotional honesty expected from a kid who’s trying to assert her will in a world where she only has so much control over her life. I honestly related so much to Lupe’s stubborn opposition to the concept of square dancing. If I had been forced to dance as part of my P.E. class I would have hated it with every fiber of my being as well. Unlike me, however, Lupe actually acts on her will and begins a campaign to cancel the whole affair, with mixed, surprising, and even hilarious results.

Lupe Wong Won’t Dance is a wonderful representation of different friendship dynamics and the ups and downs of those friendships. The struggles of causing and mending a big falling out with your best friend, watching your close friends make other friends who either hate you or don’t vibe with you the same way–all of these experiences are explored in the story, along with the exhilaration of having friends who will stand up for you and make you feel less alone.

I enjoyed the family dynamics portrayed in the book. Lupe’s brother is annoying yet somewhat endearing, and her mom is the epitome of “I love you but please stop embarrassing me.” Her grandparents on both sides are doting, and her grandmothers have a funny competitive streak against each other. The book touches on grief a bit as Lupe’s father passed away prior to the start of the story. Her obsession with meeting the baseball player Fu Li Hernandez is motivated in part by the resemblance he bears to her dad in her mind.

Aside from grief, the story also addresses issues like bullying and racism. Lupe’s mixed race background isn’t the primary source of conflict or the main focus of the story, but some of the microaggressions surrounding that are present. More salient to the plot is the hidden history of square dancing and quintessentially “American” traditions that are steeped in racism and how schools can work to make educational environments safe and inclusive for students of color.

One last thing I liked about this book was the representation of one of Lupe’s best friends, Niles, who’s autistic. I was pleasantly surprised by the way Niles’ sensory issues and boundaries around touch and other neurodivergent traits were brought up in the story organically and without too much fuss. He receives accommodations for certain things, such as navigating crowded hallways, something that I think is important to depict and normalize in children’s literature. Disabled people exist and we deserve equal access to education just like everyone else.

If you’re looking for a diverse middle grade story that will make you laugh and maybe even cover your face in secondhand embarrassment, read Lupe Wong Won’t Dance!


Book Links:

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Indigo | BAM!

About the Author:

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. ​

Donna’s Middle Grade and Picture Books are about kids who find themselves in odd or scary situations.​ From language to cultural differences in being biracial life can become…complicated. So like Donna,  characters tackle more than just the bizarre things that happen to them in their lives. 

Donna likes to write about all things funny, but also sad, and creepy, and magical. If you like those things, she hopes you will read her books! ​

Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. 

Author Links: 

Website – https://www.dbhiguera.com/
Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18946765.Donna_Barba_Higuera
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/donnabarbahiguera/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/dbhiguera
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/donnabarbahiguera

Check out the other stops on the tour!

Schedule

September 8th

Polly Darling’s Books and Tales – Interview and excerpt 
Salty Badger Books – 15 thoughts while reading
El Blog de Aldara –  Playlist 

September 9th 

Melancholic Blithe – Review
Book Lover’s Book Reviews – Review 
Binge Queen – Review 

September 10th

Ecstatic yet Chaotic – Review
Tasting Pages– Review 
Scorpio Reader –   Review

September 11th

Her Book Thoughts – Favorite Quotes
Marshmallow Pudding – Review
Dinah’s Reading Blog – Journal Spread 

September 12th

Yanitza Writes – Review
Loveless Degrees – Review 

September 13th 

By My Shelf – Playlist
READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – Book recommendations based on book
Nox Reads – Reading vlog video

September 14th 

Too Much Miya – Review
Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Review as GIFs
distinguished detective phantom – Mood board / Aesthetics

[Blog Tour] Books to Read After We Are Not Free

This is the second part of my tour stop for the We Are Not Free tour hosted by Colored Pages.
As I noted in my review, at the end of We Are Not Free, the author provides a bibliography of further readings, and I’d like to add a few recommendations of my own for novels by Japanese American authors that address Japanese/Japanese American experiences during World War II.

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

The Last Cherry Blossom is a middle grade historical fiction book that chronicles the tale of a young girl who experiences and survives the bombing of Hiroshima. This book takes you through a lot of emotions as you witness the tragedy through the eyes of Yuriko, who lives in the shadow of a terrible war whose purpose she does not understand but whose effects she feels deeply nonetheless. It’s a moving story of family secrets, love and loss, survival and hope. It is based on the author’s mother’s real life story. For more on the background of this book, you can read my interview with Kathleen Burkinshaw from 2017.

This Time Will Be Different by Misa Sugiura

This Time Will Be Different is a contemporary young adult novel that centers on CJ, a Japanese American teen who is still trying to figure out her life and spends her time helping her aunt Hannah at the flower shop her family has run for multiple generations. When her family is pressured to sell the shop to the very people that swindled them back during the era of Japanese American incarceration, CJ finds a sense of purpose and ignites a campaign for reparations that polarizes her family and her community. This is an engaging story that depicts a teen dipping her toes into social justice activism and being realistically messy that also has a complex portrayal of mother-daughter relationships.

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda

This Light Between Us is young adult historical fiction novel with an emotionally gripping and harrowing portrayal of World War II and Japanese American incarceration. It depicts the war through the eyes of a Japanese American boy named Alex and his pen pal, a Jewish girl named Charlie living in France. This book totally blew me away when I read it earlier this year. I felt completely immersed in Alex’s world, as if I were experiencing the events alongside him as he moved from home to internment camp to the battle front in Europe. The letters and bond between him and Charlie were sweet and a ray of light in the looming darkness, a testament to deep friendship. The parallels between Alex and Charlie’s lives as minorities facing persecution were striking and skillfully emphasized. The complexity of Japanese Americans’ feelings about their citizenship/identity and serving in the military were also explored in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

Displacement by Kiku Hughes

Displacement by Kiku Hughes is a young adult graphic novel that weaves fact and fiction, jumping between present and past. In this book, a fictionalized version of the author/artist Kiku is suddenly transported to the time of World War II and experiences incarceration alongside her late grandmother, who was a teenager at the time. Displacement is a timely, poignant, and introspective examination of history, family, and intergenerational trauma, as well as the need to make sure history does not repeat itself in the present. The dominant color palettes of brown and orange and blue-green-gray convey the muted atmosphere of the camps very well. I also really loved the use of lines, shadows, and silhouettes to convey movement and contrast. Displacement makes a perfect complement to We Are Not Free because it includes some of the same locations: San Francisco, Tanforan Assembly Center (San Bruno, California), and Topaz City, Utah. You can see the details and events brought to life in a different medium.

When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka

When the Emperor was Divine is an adult historical fiction novel. It was my introduction to Japanese American incarceration in fiction. I read it in one of my Asian American studies courses, Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature. Like We Are Not Free, When the Emperor was Divine narrates the events through multiple points of view, following the four members of a single family forced into the camps. While the viewpoint characters in We Are Not Free are all teens or young adults, the ones in When the Emperor was Divine are either adults or younger children (ages 11 and 8). The characters are also nameless. This authorial choice creates a sense of narrative distance that contrasts with We Are Not Free, but it is still evocative in its own way, like watching a black and white film.


Don’t miss out on the other stops in the blog tour!

August 30th

Book Rambler – Welcome post & interview

Mellas Musings – Favorite quotes

Debjani’s Thoughts – Review Only

Sophie Schmidt – Review in Gifts

August 31st

The Reading Fairy – Review Only

Her Book Thoughts – Favorite Quotes

What Irin Reads – Review Only

September 1st

Sometimes Leelynn Reads – Author Interview

The Confessions Of A Music And Book Addict – Review Only

Emelie’s Books – Mood Board

Too Much Miya – Fanart /Art related to the story

September 2nd

Yna the Mood Reader – Favorite Quotes

The Writer’s Alley – Review Only

Marshmallow Pudding – Favorite Quotes

September 3rd

Div Reads – Reading vlog

Clairefy – Review Only

Know Your Books – Favorite Quotes

September 4th

READING (AS)(I)AN (AM)ERICA – Book Recommendations Based on Book

Per_fictionist – Favorite Quotes

Mamata – Review Only

September 5th

Wilder Girl Reads – Review Only

Lives In Books – Book Recommendations Based on Books

A Fangirl’s Haven – Review Only

Author Interview: Cindy Lin

For Day 4 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Cindy Lin about her middle grade fantasy series The Twelve. The second book and conclusion, Treasures of the Twelve, releases July 28th, 2020.

Synopsis:

Usagi can hear a squirrel’s heartbeat from a mile away, and soar over treetops in one giant leap. She was born in the year of the wood rabbit, and it’s given her extraordinary zodiac gifts.

But she can never use them, not while the mysterious, vicious Dragonlord hunts down all those in her land with zodiac powers. Instead, she must keep her abilities—and those of her rambunctious sister Uma—a secret.

After Uma is captured by the Dragonguard, Usagi can no longer ignore her powers. She must journey to Mount Jade with the fabled Heirs of the Twelve, a mystical group of warriors who once protected the land.

As new mysteries unfold, Usagi must decide who she stands with, and who she trusts, as she takes on deadly foes on her path to the elusive, dangerous Dragonlord himself.

Interview:

Q: What sparked the idea for The Twelve?

It happened to be Lunar New Year right around the time I was taking my first creative writing course, and so there was a lot of mention of how we were entering the year of the Ox. And my sister is born in the year of the Ox, as well as other friends and family, and I was struck by how we usually identify ourselves as the zodiac animal itself, like “I’m an Ox!” or “I’m a Tiger!” That got me to thinking — what if people actually had the power of the animal that ruled their year? Like, what if someone born in the year of the Ox had incredible strength? Or if a Tiger-born person had super keen night vision? It seemed like it would be a fun concept to explore and write about, and it was! But it took me a long time to figure out how to make it work in a way that made sense to me. I initially tried setting the story in our contemporary world, but in the end, setting it in an imaginary mythical time and place unlocked it for me.

Q: What is your zodiac animal and what powers would that give you in the universe of The Twelve?

My ruling animal is the Dog, and I made sure to include a character with dog powers in my books — more than one, actually! I gave them different talents associated with dogs, like a hyper-powerful sense of smell, and the ability to communicate with and command dogs. Other talents might be strong jaws and a fearsome bite, or the ability to hunt anything down. There are so many types of dogs that the possible talents are endless, but I definitely had to start with a super sensitive nose that could identify all sorts of things near and far.

Q: In the book, there are twelve legendary treasures, each with a special power. If they were real, which of these treasures would you want to possess, and what would you use it for?

I’ve asked myself that question a lot! One thing about power is that it usually comes with a price, so I wanted to make sure that the powers of the Treasures were tempered somewhat. As a writer you don’t want an object that gives you unlimited power without consequence, because what’s the fun in that? It’s always more interesting when there’s a catch and a downside to having power, I think. I feel like I already have one of the Treasures — my smart phone is a lot like the Mirror of Elsewhere, and I struggle with its pull all the time. I wouldn’t mind having the Conjurer — the hammer that grants you whatever you wish for (albeit for just a day). But at this moment, in the midst of a global pandemic, what I really want is the Apothecary — the pillbox that holds cures for ailments — as well as the Bowl of Plenty, which fills up with whatever you put in it. We could really use those two now.

Q: What was your favorite part about writing The Twelve?

All the fun I had doing research! I visited museums, read countless books on all sorts of topics, tried different sports (including kendo, or Japanese fencing, which ended up being so fun that I joined a dojo), and generally got to geek out. It was also really gratifying to put in little mentions of things that are meaningful to me. For example, though the island kingdom of Midaga is inspired by many different places, I did write in a little shout-out to where I lived in Japan (Stone River Province is in honor of Ishikawa Prefecture) and gave some locations the names of actual landmarks in Taiwan, where my family is from. I loved the feeling of discovery as I wrote, and I also met so many great fellow writers as I worked on The Twelve. When I started all this, I didn’t realize I would find such an amazing community and kindred spirits.

Q: What was the hardest part about writing The Twelve?

Not knowing what I was doing, as it was my first attempt at writing a novel! It was hard to eke out a sentence, a paragraph, a page for the first time, and wonder if I could string together enough to make a coherent long-form story. It took many tries and many versions, and a lot of lost sleep and sacrifice. I wrote when I was on vacation with family, I got up early before my day job to write, I wrote in the middle of the night and wouldn’t get to bed until dawn — it was like I was possessed. I couldn’t not do it, but I gave up a lot for it, and at the same time, I was riddled with doubt. That was hard to wrestle with. And writing itself is so solitary. That can be lonely at times. Rejection is also no picnic, though all of the difficult stuff really does make you better and stronger.

Q: Who is your favorite character in the duology and why?

Of course, I love my main character Usagi, as I’ve been carrying her with me for years. But I did find a couple of supporting characters surprisingly fun to write, and so I feel a lot of affection for them. One is the hermit, Yunja — I have a blast with him every time I bring him into the story. I also love the Tigress, because she’s like my personal Yoda. Honestly I love all my characters for different reasons, but I’ll stop with those three!

Q: Sequels and sophomore novels have a reputation for being difficult to write. Did you find Treasures of the Twelve, which is not only a sequel but the conclusion to a series, to be a challenge compared to the first book?

It was a challenge for sure, but in a different way from Book 1. I had to figure out how to develop things that I’d set up in the first book, and how to start the book in a way that wouldn’t be horribly confusing for anyone who hadn’t read The Twelve, but not too repetitive for those who had. I tried to balance introducing new ideas, places and characters with including familiar bits from Book 1. I also had to wrap things up in a satisfying way. And I had to do it all in a compressed time frame. It took me many years to write Book 1, and just a fraction of that for Book 2. That said, it helped that I had already spent so much time building the world of my story — it did make some things easier as I drafted Treasures of the Twelve. I kept reminding myself that other authors have written sequels for publication in consecutive years, so it was in the realm of possibility — but I definitely worried about pulling it off. Given the constraints of time, I did the absolute best I could, and take heart in the fact that my publisher gave it the green light. I think it goes to show that there’s nothing like a deadline to help kick you in the pants!


About the Author:

Cindy Lin author photoA former journalist with degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, Cindy Lin has worked for Sony Pictures Entertainment and has written and produced many multimedia news features for children, one of which received a Peabody Award. The Twelve is her debut novel.

Author Links:

Website: https://www.cindylinbooks.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/cindylin_tweets

Author Interview: Victoria Ying

For Day 2 of Taiwanese American Heritage Week, I interviewed Victoria Ying, whose debut middle grade graphic novel City of Secrets releases July 28th, 2020!

City of Secrets

Synopsis:

Author Interview: Grace Lin

Hi, everyone! If you weren’t aware, it’s Taiwanese American Heritage Week, so in honor of the occasion, I’ll be posting a series of five author interviews and two book reviews focusing on Taiwanese authors and their books. This is the first, featuring middle grade and picture book superstar Grace Lin! Her two most recent releases are A Big Bed for Little Snow and Mulan: Before the Sword.

A Big Bed for Little Snow

Synopsis:

Little Snow loves the new big, soft bed Mommy made him for the long, cold winter nights. But Mommy says this bed is for sleeping, not jumping! What happens when he can’t resist jump, jump, jumping on his new fluffy, bouncy bed?

Mulan Before the Sword

Synopsis:

Family is important to Hua Mulan—even if her parents don’t understand why she would rather ride her horse, Black Wind, than weave, or how her notorious clumsiness can be so different from the graceful demeanor of her younger sister, Xiu. But despite their differences, Mulan has a deep love for her family, especially Xiu. So when her sister is bitten by a poisonous spider, Mulan does everything she can to help, including seeking out a renowned healer. However, it quickly becomes apparent that there is more to both the mysterious spider bite and the healer than meets the eye. On a quest with the Jade Rabbit of legend, Mulan visits extraordinary places, meets Immortals, and faces incredible obstacles while searching for an antidote for her sister. And the danger only rises when Mulan learns of a prophecy foretelling that a member of the Hua family will one day save the Emperor . . . and of the powerful enemies who will stop at nothing to prevent it from coming to pass.

Interview:

Q: Where did you get the idea for A Big Bed for Little Snow?

“A Big Bed for Little Snow” is a companion book to my book “A Big Mooncake for Little Star.” Both books are kind of my homages to classic picture books that I loved as a child, yet yearned to see someone that look like me—someone Asian—in. “A Big Mooncake for Little Star” is inspired by “Blueberries for Sal” by Robert McCloskey and “A Big Bed for Little Snow” is inspired by “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. They are my attempts at making American classic picture books featuring Asian faces, hopefully helping to show that we are also a part of the Americana.

Q: What art tools did you use for A Big Bed for Little Snow?

I’m still very old-fashioned in my art—I don’t use a computer.  I used pencil and paper to draw the sketches; paint and paintbrush to do the paintings. I use a kind of paint called gouache which is an opaque watercolor. For “A Big Bed for Little Snow” as well as “A Big Mooncake for Little Star” I did take photos of models in costumes. Because I was using the patterns on the clothes to articulate the character’s bodies, it was really important to get the folds correct.

Q: As an adult, how do you get yourself into the head of a young child to write a book from their point of view?

Well, I think I kind of have the mind of a child to begin with! Though, I have to admit having my own child has made it easier as well. When I see all the thing that fascinate her, hear all the questions she asks—it is fodder for books!

Q: Your most recent release, Mulan: Before the Sword, was an official collaboration with Disney. How much creative freedom did you get in writing the story? Were you the one who came up with the story’s premise?

I actually was given quite a bit of creative freedom, which was wonderful. They gave me the script and pretty much said I could write whatever I wanted as long as I didn’t contradict anything that happened in the movie. So, yes, I did come up with the book’s premise. It was such a delight to think up the backstory of some of the characters!

Q: I love the full cover spread for Mulan: Before the Sword. How long did it take for you to complete it?

A painting like that takes me about a week and a half, maybe two. It usually takes me about a week to do one spread in a book.

Q: So far all of your books have been for middle grade or younger audiences. Do you think you’ll ever write books for teens?

Well, you never say never, but I don’t see it in the near future. Maybe when my daughter hits the teenage years!

Q: Can you give us any hints for what’s coming next from you?

I’m working on another picture book! Right now it’s called “Once Upon a Book” and co-written with Kate Messner. It’s inspired by the Children’s Book Week poster I did for the CBC—I loved the image so much I wanted to do a book about it. At the time, I was so deep into writing Mulan that I couldn’t think of anything and asked my friends if they had any ideas. Kate did and, now, if I can get the illustrations done, it will be a book!


Grace Lin author photoBefore Grace Lin was an award-winning and NY Times bestselling author/illustrator of picturebooks, early readers and middle grade novels, she was the only Asian girl (except for her sisters) going to her elementary school in Upstate NY. That experience, good and bad, has influenced her books—including her Newbery Honor WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, her Geisel Honor LING & TING, her National Book Finalist WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER and her Caldecott Honor A BIG MOONCAKE FOR LITTLE STAR. But, it also causes Grace to persevere for diversity as an occasional New England Public Radio commentator and when she gave her TEDx talk “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf,” as well as her PBSNewHour video essay “What to do when you realize classic books from your childhood are racist?.” She continued this mission with a hundred episodes of the podcast kidlitwomen* and now currently hosts two other podcasts: Book Friends Forever and Kids Ask Authors. In 2016, Grace’s art was displayed at the White House and Grace, herself, was recognized by President Obama’s office as a Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling.

Review for More to the Story by Hena Khan

I really enjoyed Hena Khan’s middle grade debut Amina’s Voice (review here), so I’m happy that Simon & Schuster offered me a copy of More to the Story to read and review.

More to the Story

Synopsis:

From the critically acclaimed author of Amina’s Voice comes a new story inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic, Little Women, featuring four sisters from a modern American Muslim family living in Georgia.

When Jameela Mirza is picked to be feature editor of her middle school newspaper, she’s one step closer to being an award-winning journalist like her late grandfather. The problem is her editor-in-chief keeps shooting down her article ideas. Jameela’s assigned to write about the new boy in school, who has a cool British accent but doesn’t share much, and wonders how she’ll make his story gripping enough to enter into a national media contest.

Jameela, along with her three sisters, is devastated when their father needs to take a job overseas, away from their cozy Georgia home for six months. Missing him makes Jameela determined to write an epic article—one to make her dad extra proud. But when her younger sister gets seriously ill, Jameela’s world turns upside down. And as her hunger for fame looks like it might cost her a blossoming friendship, Jameela questions what matters most, and whether she’s cut out to be a journalist at all…

My Review:

More to the Story is an endearing story about a Muslim Pakistani American girl, Jameela, who’s struggling to deal with several stressful changes and situations in her life. It touches on multiple themes and manages to balance a number of subplots well and resolve them with a pitch-perfect ending.

First among the issues touched on in the story is Jameela’s father leaving the family to work a job far away. Life as a middle schooler can be tough enough as it is without one of your parents being across the globe. Although modern technology allows long-distance communication, it’s definitely not the same as having your parent by your side on a day-to-day basis. I found this particular struggle of Jameela’s relatable because when I was a teen, my dad had to take a job that forced him to relocate over a thousand miles away, and I missed him terribly. Like Jameela, I have a close relationship with my dad, so I found their dynamic touching.

Another central theme in the story was sibling dynamics. Jameela is a middle child, with an older sister and two younger sisters. I’m also a middle child, with one older sister, and one younger sister. Her relationships with her siblings don’t look anything like mine, but it was still interesting to see how they played out. This story emphasized how, even if you envy them or find them annoying at times, your siblings are your family, and you can’t help but love and care about them.

The third theme I want to talk about is friendship. In the story, Jameela meets and befriends the nephew of a family friend, a British Pakistani boy named Ali who has just moved to the U.S. I liked the way their friendship was developed, with Ali gradually opening up to Jameela, who has a genuine desire to understand him better and help him with the troubles he’s dealing with on his own. I also appreciated the exploration of consent and boundaries and ethical journalism when Ali and his experiences became a tentative topic/subject for Jameela’s school newspaper article.

Next is the subplot on Bisma, Jameela’s younger sister, who develops a tumor. Cancer is terrifying. I know this firsthand from when my mom got leukemia. Despite the fear and uncertainty, Jameela is able to cope with support from her family and takes it upon herself to be as supportive of an older sister as possible. I was several years older than Jameela when my mom was diagnosed, but I found myself admiring and envying her bravery and resilience in the face of everything, and I really wanted to give her a hug to let her know she’s not alone in experiencing such a scary situation.

Another topic that came up in the story was anger management. Jameela is a passionate person who feels things intensely, and sometimes that manifests as anger, which can have destructive consequences. The story is explicit about addressing this issue, which made me appreciate it even more. I feel like if I’d had a book like this when I was younger, I wouldn’t have struggled so much with anger as a teen, something that definitely negatively impacted my relationships with my peers.

Last, but not least, I loved that this book showed a teen pursuing a creative passion and having it taken seriously. A lot of times people downplay kids’ hobbies and interests as things that are fleeting or pointless, so it was heartening to read a story where a young teen character does what she loves and is supported in that endeavor by her parents and other adults. It’s my hope that young readers of this book will feel encouraged follow their dreams, be it journalism or art or science, and carry their passion into the future with them.

All in all, this was a heartwarming read that’s perfect for anyone who loves stories about family, sisterhood, and love in all its manifestations.

Author Interview: Henry Lien

Hi again! Today’s Taiwanese author interview is with Henry Lien on his debut middle grade fantasy novel Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Peasprout Chen Future Legend of Skate and Sword

The synopsis from Goodreads:

Welcome to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where the blades are sharp and the competition is fierce. 

Peasprout Chen dreams of becoming a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating. 

As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking. 

Tensions rise when the dazzling pearl buildings of the Academy are vandalized and outsider Peasprout is blamed for the attacks by her rivals … and even some friends. 

Now, she must uncover the true vandal to ensure peace between Shin and Pearl – all while becoming a champion.

Now, buckle-in for this in-depth interview!

Q: To start off, what is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You’re allowed to pick more than one.)

A: What a great question! Food is identity. I choose dan-dan mian (peanut butter noodle). It’s classically Taiwanese, naturally vegan, appeals to young and old, and serves as an eminently charismatic introduction to Taiwanese food. It makes an appearance in the second PEASPROUT CHEN book. In fact, there are a lot of cameos by Taiwanese food in the series.

Runner up would be a traditional Taiwanese breakfast spread with ride porridge, three kinds of pickled vegetables, simmered tofu, fried crullers, warm soy milk, etc. Truly the best breakfast in the world and I will fight, kill, and toss into the sea anyone who says different.

Q: Tell us a little more about Peasprout and the world of Pearl beyond what’s in the synopsis.

A: Peasprout is a huge personality. She is courageous, has a huge heart, is expressive (when she’s not reticent), is warm (when she’s not being icy), makes grand, gorgeous, generous gestures, says things that no one else says, does things that no one else thinks to do or has the guts to do. She is always the most original, most talented, most unforgettable person in the room. When you meet her, you will think about her later that day. She is also self-aggrandizing, deluded, extreme, a bit of a weirdo, and rather lonely. She’s pretty much me.

It was excruciating to write such a deeply flawed character based so candidly on myself while forbidding myself from shading her more flatteringly. However, writing this way was an exercise in a) learning to applaud the parts of myself that I am proud of while; b) gazing at my flaws fully and hideously lit; and c) accepting that I’m perpetually a work in progress and will probably die that way. Sigh.

Regarding the world of Pearl, I could go on and on. It’s a world where you can skate on any surface, any rooftop, handrail, balustrade, etc. The entire city was built to accommodate this fictional sport of wu liu, which combines figure skating with kung fu. The city is essentially a figure skating, kung fu amusement park. It was my own personal parkour course on a city-scale, my own private Disneyland built from a brain-scan of what I liked and cared about. I feel like joy is pretty thin in science fiction/fantasy and the world in general these days. I wanted to create a city that while far from perfect, was in one primary way an exuberant expression of pure joy.

Q: Why the name Peasprout?

A: I wanted a name that that was gender-neutral, equally adorable in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, didn’t actually exist, and had a lot of personality. I wanted something that was as rich in Chinese/Taiwanese flavor as the names that Tolkien made up to express essential Englishness in his works.

Q: Given the history and current presence of Asian Americans in figure skating, from Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi to today’s Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, and Alex and Maia Shibutani, it feels appropriate to have an Asian ice skating story. Did any of these skaters influence or inspire your story?

A: Massive influence! I don’t feel equipped to make generalizations about why there is such a high representation of Asian Americans in the sport. However, Kwan and Yamaguchi had to both deal with a lot of misstatements and nonsense regarding their Asian heritage in media coverage about their performances, endorsements, etc. That unfairness influenced the book since Peasprout herself is an immigrant and a dawning awareness of unfairness in the world is a classic theme in middle grade fiction.

On a more fundamental level, it felt right to write an Asian skating story because I always saw figure skating as the soulmate of traditional wushu (kung fu).

Q: What kinds of research did you do for this story, if any?

A: I took figure skating and kung fu lessons and was appalling at both. I wrote a blog about it, actually. If you want a good laugh, here’s a link: http://henrylien.com/writer-suffers-devastating-injuries-while-researching-kung-fu-figure-skating-childrens-book/ Despite the farcical tone, it’s actually 99% true. Read it and laugh at my woe.

For the worldbuilding, I also did a tremendous amount of research about language, culture, history, international relations, the complex history among Taiwan, China, and Japan, marine biology, architecture, engineering, meteorology, fashion, puberty, culinary fads, superstition, and on and on and on. A lot of that is happening under the hood but there’s so much solid research supporting the book that I in fact don’t really consider it fantasy. The fantastical worldbuilding is actually just exaggerated/extrapolated real stuff. I deliberately set out to write a fantasy that had no magic because I wanted to show that culture and history are in themselves magic enough.

For the characters and the interpersonal dynamics, I spent a lot of time in conversation with women including my sister, my agent, my editor, beta readers, etc., to make the representation of girls diverse and realistic, since I was writing from outside my own lived experience. I particularly wanted to examine the oft-bandied generalization that girls are socialized to be more relational and to develop instant relationships, positive or negative, with every other girl in their social unit, which instinctively felt super-sweeping and super-binary. Whether or not there is truth in this generalization, I wanted to explore the idea that not all girls are like this, want this, or agree with this generalization. Appreciating the differences of opinion about this idea was one of the things I spent the most time on.

Q: What would you say has been the hardest part of writing Peasprout Chen?

A: This question is hard to answer because everything about this book was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing was the puzzle nature of the plot. I was determined to write a puzzle plot that was as ambitious as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban” or “Abre Los Ojos”. The engineering required to pull off such a plot while staying mindful of all the other elements that go into a book while serving my particular plot’s unusual requirements for pacing, frequency of clues, scaling of transparency of clues to a vast age range of potential readers, passage of time in the book’s world (mapped onto a rigid academic schedule and seasons that don’t match with our world’s seasons but have plot impacts), number of pages elapsed, etc., while also making the book as enjoyable on a second read after you learn its secrets, all while striving for a feeling of effortlessness in the choreography of story elements, was a staggering amount of work.

Q: I went and listened to the podcast of Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters, which was posted on Asimov’s Science Fiction (links: Part 1, Part 2). According to your site, Peasprout Chen’s story is a sequel to this story but also the first in a trilogy of its own. Why did you choose to Peasprout Chen’s story as the start for the series?

A: “Pearl Rehab Colony” was always intended as a contained experiment, a sort of proof of concept for the larger series. It’s told from the POV of Suki, the villain of the Peasprout Chen series. As such, it was intended as an experiment to test my powers of empathy and ventriloquism. However, Suki’s head is a cramped, claustrophobic, forbidding place in which to situate a viewpoint. I don’t think readers would have been able to bear spending 360 some pages in the head of such a nasty person. Peasprout is quite the pill herself but a different sort of pill, one whose edges break off as it goes down, one that sweetens while being broken apart. In some ways, Peasprout’s story is not the story of a winner, but of a loser, and it takes a tenderer, more complex narrator than Suki to bear such things with dignity and beauty. I wanted a narrator that showed that being vulnerable was not incompatible with being strong.


Henry Lien author headshot

Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West, and his short fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov’s, earning multiple Nebula Award nominations. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood, California. Before becoming an author, Henry worked as an attorney, fine art dealer, and college instructor. His hobbies include vegan cooking, losing Nebula awards, and finding excuses to write and publicly perform science fiction/fantasy themed anthems. He is the author of Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.