Posts Tagged author interviews

How To Write Chapter Books with 8 Chapter Book Authors

From the Mixed Up Files writer Samantha M Clark here, and a couple weeks ago, my debut chapter book series, the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, was released by Bloomsbury. Moving from writing my middle-grade to writing chapter books has been a lot of fun but also had some challenges. So for this post, I chatted with some other chapter book authors about their experiences writing for this category and want to share what we said.

Before I get to our chat, a few quick notes about chapter books, in case you don’t know what they are:

  • While the sweet spot for MG readers is 8 and up, chapter books are generally appropriate for ages 6 and up.
  • They’re shorter than middle-grade too. My shortest MG, AMERICAN HORSE TALES: HOLLYWOOD, is 20,000 words. Chapter books, however, are usually between 8,000 to 12,000 words. My GEMSTONE DRAGONS are each around 10,000 words, laid out in the book with lots of spacing between the lines and a bigger font size.
  • Also, although MGs sometimes have interior illustrations, chapter books always have them. For example, the first GEMSTONE DRAGONS book has 16 illustrations sprinkled throughout the 111-page story.
  • And finally, chapter books are nearly always designed to be series; quick, multiple-read books that hook young readers into becoming lifelong readers.

So, how do you write them? In this post, you’ll hear from the following authors:

Marya Khan and the Incredible Henna Party by Saadia FaruqiSaadia Faruqi, whose brand new MARYA KHAN AND THE INCREDIBLE HENNA PARTY launches from Abrams Kids on October 18, with a second book, MARYA KHAN AND THE FABULOUS JASMINE GARDEN coming out March 28

Kelly Starling Lyons, whose first two books in the MILES LEWIS series, KING OF THE ICE and WHIZ KID, came out from Penguin Workshop in July

Kathryn Holmes, whose CLASS CRITTERS series from Abrams/Amulet added the third book, MADISON MORRIS IS NOT A MOUSE!, on August 16

Jennifer Torres, whose CATALINA INCOGNITO series published by Aladdin, is adding its fourth book, SKATEBOARD STAR, on November 22

Debbi Michiko Florence, whose fifth JASMINE TOGUCHI book, BRAVE EXPLORER, comes out from FSGBYR/Macmillan on October 18

Rie Neal, whose third and fourth books in her ASTRID THE ASTRONAUT series, published by Aladdin, are coming soon: HYDROPONIC HIJINKS on October 11 and ROBOT REBELLION on February 28

Lyla Lee, whose eighth book in her MINDY KIM series, MINDY KIM MAKES A SPLASH, came out this past July from Aladdin/Simon and Schuster

(And by the way, all these authors and two others are offering books in a giant giveaway right now here. Ends Aug. 20.)

Samantha: What did chapter books mean to you as a kid and what were your favorites?

Rie: I loved chapter books as a kid! I think I especially enjoyed the predictability of the setting and characters, the fact that I could read them so quickly, and … they had pictures!! I kept reading chapter books even when I was older, sometimes, when I wanted a quick dose of comfort. My favorites were the Polk Street School Kids and Babysitter’s Little Sister.

Samantha: Same here on the comfort. I loved the illustrations in chapter books and would scour them for every detail that had been in the text. When I saw the illustrations for my GEMSTONE DRAGONS books, I did the same.

Mindy Kim Makes a Splash by Lyla LeeLyla: As an immigrant and child of immigrants who came to the US at a young age, chapter books in English were my first exposure to “American culture.” In order to understand the new country I lived in and also catch up on the stories (fantasy or contemporary) my new friends in the US liked to read, I read a lot and even taught myself English through these books. I had quite a few favorites but I especially loved the Ramona Quimby books and The Magic Tree House series.

Samantha: I love that, Lyla! Why did you all want to write a chapter book series?

Saadia: I have a very popular early reader series called YASMIN, perfect for kids upto second grade. Once those readers grow a little older, they want something more advanced and complicated, but they’re not ready yet for middle grade novels. After several requests from parents and teachers about this gap, I decided to write a series for YASMIN fans who are older now.

Miles Lewis: King of the Ice by Kelly Starling LyonsKelly: Growing up, I loved to read, but I didn’t see chapter book series with Black kids as the stars. That invisibility sent a message that our stories didn’t matter. I knew that they did. My mom wrote and acted in Black theater. Our home was filled with books about heroes like Mary McLeod Bethune and Malcolm X. I didn’t realize it then, but a seed was being planted that I could help make a difference through writing books that centered Black children.

It was like coming full circle when my debut, NEATE: EDDIE’S ORDEAL, a chapter book in a series created by Just Us Books was published. I enjoyed coming up with a plot for their wonderful characters and dreamed of one day having a series of my own. A decade later, a Penguin Workshop editor invited me to write an early chapter book. Here was my chance to create the characters I longed to see. At every school and library I visit, there are children who are unsung. They need to know that they’re seen and loved. Toni Morrison famously said, “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” My MILES LEWIS and JADA JONES series are tributes to kids who dare to shine by being who they are.

Catalina Incognito: Skateboard Star by Jennifer TorresJennifer: Chapter books meet kids when they are beginning to see themselves as readers. To me, there’s something so special about that moment. Like Kelly, I want children, especially children who are newly devouring words, to see themselves and their stories in books. To be able to picture themselves having magical adventures like Catalina, who reflects my own Mexican-American background and experience.

Samantha: Such great answers. Chapters really are a great bridge between early readers and MG, and as the sweet spot — I think — for helping kids become life-long readers, it is SO important that all children are represented. When you first set out to write a chapter book, what did you do to prepare?

Kelly: My best advice is to read mentor texts. That’s where I started. When I was writing for Just Us Books’ NEATE series, they sent me the first three titles to study. That helped me understand how to draw readers in, the way chapter books are put together, what elements help establish characters and aid in their growth and development through the story. I did the same when writing my JADA JONES and MILES LEWIS series. I read other chapter books to see what styles resonated with me, what innovations I could bring and learn some structural tips. Read the mentor texts for the joy of the story and then take them apart and figure out how the writer made them sing.

Class Critters: Madison Morris Is Not A Mouse by Kathryn HolmesKathryn: Like Kelly, I did a lot of reading of the chapter books that were already on shelves. I’d previously published YA (and had written MG, though my first published MG will not release until 2024), so I needed to get a sense of both the younger voice and the rhythm of a story of this length. Additionally, my daughter was a toddler when I started working on the CLASS CRITTERS series, and when I took her to the playground, I found myself observing young elementary schoolers. How were they interacting with one another? What kinds of conversations were they having? What issues were they dealing with that I could potentially tackle in a story? Being a fly on the wall, so to speak, gave me a lot of inspiration and insight.

Rie: ASTRID isn’t my first chapter book series (I did a write-for-hire series for Little Bee Books before this), but I wanted to put my two cents in for this one! Yes to mentor texts for sure! And in terms of getting into the language level for chapter books, one tool I’ve found really helpful is to use a service that will scan your draft and give you a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score (or any other similar metric). My tendency is to write my first drafts at more of a middle-grade reading level, which is too complex for chapter books. So, after I go through developmental edits, I use the Flesch-Kincaid (it’s available through MS Word in Editor–Document Stats–Insights), and I go through sentence by sentence until I’ve simplified the language down to between a 1.0 and 2.0 grade level rating. It sounds super tedious, I know, but it has really helped me!

Samantha: I analyzed mentor texts too! I bought some and borrowed a bunch more from the library, then I looked at everything from chapter breaks, number of chapters, sentence structures, voice… I broke down some of the stories into outlines so I could see how they were different of the same to my MG. And I did have the problem of making some of my language too MG when I was working on books 3 and 4, which come out on Dec. 27. I’ll have to remember the Flesch-Kincaid tip, Rie! It seems like a lot of us also write MG. Outside of language, how is writing chapter books different from writing MG?

Saadia: In some ways, it’s the same. You still have to write the best possible story, develop your characters, and take care of your craft. But in other ways, writing a chapter book is very different from middle grade novels. The plot has to be much simpler, and the main character takes center stage in a very obvious way. I think it’s so much fun writing chapter books!

Jasmine Toguchi: Brave Explorer by Debbi Michiko FlorenceDebbi: I agree with Saadia! As a writer, you still need to know and develop the characters just as deeply in chapter books as in novels for older readers. But because chapter books are for newly independent readers, it helps to create characters that have memorable personalities, quirks, and phrases so that the reader can anticipate some things and feel successful. Like how Jasmine Toguchi always says “Wowee zowee” when she’s excited and “Walnuts” when she’s disappointed. And also, chapter books are often part of a series, so it helps to be able to carry those things through all the books.

Samantha: Great tips! Speaking of series, how did you approach that aspect of chapter books, ie. creating characters and a world that would continue?

Kathryn: Because each book in the CLASS CRITTERS series has a different protagonist, I spent a lot of time world-building their classroom. I knew as I wrote book one, TALLY TUTTLE TURNS INTO A TURTLE, that every kid Tally interacted with was a potential protagonist down the line. I took the time to name every child and come up with an animal that they could transform into, as well as a possible reason for the transformation. I made a spreadsheet! With 24 kids in the class, I also had to think about how to introduce them in a way that would make them (and their idiosyncrasies) feel familiar in subsequent books without the number of characters ever becoming overwhelming. David Dixon (narrator of book 2) and Madison Morris (narrator of book 3) both appear in Tally Tuttle’s story, and Tally features in their books—but David and Madison’s stories also introduce kids that aren’t in Tally’s story. So, with each book, the classroom feels a little more fleshed out. No kid is just a side character; they all have the potential to be the hero of their own story one day.

Jennifer: While each of the books stands alone, I knew I wanted the main character, Catalina, to grow and change over the course of the series. So I kept track of the skills she develops from book-to-book and spent a lot of time thinking through how her relationships with others would shift as she learns and responds to challenges. I also had some threads I wanted to pull through all four books: Cat’s Stitch and Share lessons at the library, her best friend’s latest telenovela obsession, a magical disguise. I think that helped create a consistent and familiar world.

Astrid the Astronaut by Rie NealRie: For Astrid, I wanted to use the breadth of the series to especially show how she’s growing as a team player and as a friend. Teamwork is SO important for astronauts (and for so many other professions, and just for life in general! Ha!), and it’s something that Astrid doesn’t really factor into her plan in the beginning–she’s too focused on doing things her way. So while each book has its own plot and character arc for Astrid, the greater arc of the series also shows her friend circle slowly expanding with each book–often with characters only mentioned briefly in previous books later becoming Astrid’s friends (instead of just acquaintances–or in the case of Pearl, enemies!).

Lyla: With MINDY KIM, I wrote books about topics that I myself cared about/found interesting when I was a chapter book reader myself. Getting a puppy for the first time (and proving to my parents that I am responsible enough for one), feeling singled out and sometimes like a downright outcast when I was the new kid at school that packed food from my culture for lunch, trying to find ways to preserve ties to my family and culture as a child from an immigrant household (but still have fun, too!), or even something as seemingly simple as learning how to swim. Even though the series isn’t strictly autobiographical (Mindy’s family and mine are very different, for example), putting myself back into Kid Me’s shoes really helped me develop the series and the world of the books.

Samantha: Wonderful! What’s the biggest thing you have learned from writing this chapter book series so far?

Debbi: Chapter book readers are the best! These are newly independent readers, and there’s nothing like the feeling of pride, success, and joy of reading an entire book yourself, alone, for the first time. And because of this, these readers are extremely loyal and enthusiastic. I get the best reader mail from readers who fall in love with Jasmine Toguchi and I love recommending other chapter book series to them.

Lyla: For me, the biggest lesson I learned was definitely that the most seemingly random and specific experiences in life can actually resonate with a lot of people. For example, when I first wrote the first MINDY KIM book, MINDY KIM AND THE YUMMY SEAWEED BUSINESS, I thought: “Okay, so I had this not-so-good experience in third grade where I was the new kid and the other students made fun of the lunch I brought from home” and for the third book, MINDY KIM AND THE BIRTHDAY PUPPY, I thought: “Well, in third grade I was so obsessed with dogs that getting a dog was all I could think about/was my ultimate goal in life.” These (and other plot points that I didn’t mention here) are seemingly arbitrary things that I pulled from my own life, but I still get emails today from both adults and children telling me they could relate with these parts of the stories.

Samantha: What was the biggest challenge creating this chapter book series?

Kathryn: Writing a series with different protagonists means coming up with a new, distinct voice for each book. It was a challenge to make each protagonist sound like themself—rather than a third-person omniscient narrator telling everyone’s stories. But it’s a challenge I’ve loved! For instance, David Dixon was my first time ever writing a boy narrator, and it was a delight to get inside his head. (I channeled my five nephews…) One of the most satisfying moments in each book’s process has been when I can fully hear the character in my head, speaking in their own unique voice as they experience their adventure.

Gemstone Dragons: Opal's Time To Shine by Samantha M ClarkSamantha: Different voices would be a challenge! For the GEMSTONE DRAGONS, I used third person because it had the classic feel of the chapter books I had grown up with, so that has been easier. But I’d say the biggest challenge has been separating myself from the MG mindset when I’m working on chapter books. As Saadia said earlier, there are a lot of similarities. I plot the stories the same way as my MG, just with fewer subplots. But I have to keep the readers’ age in my head much more when I’m writing and revising for both the language and story. For example, book 3 in the series has spooky elements and it was challenging to find just the right level of spookiness for this age group. What’s your best tip for writers who want to get into chapter books?

Saadia: Read a ton of chapter books! There is a lot of variety in the books already out there, in terms of word count and reading level. You want to make sure you absorb all that variety before making up your mind about where your book will fit.

Jennifer: I agree with Saadia! In developing the CATALINA INCOGNITO series, what most helped me get a feel for the voice, pacing, and plot structure of chapter books, was reading lots of chapter books. Luckily, there are so many good examples (many of my favorites are represented here!) and studying them is a joy. I also think it’s good to spend some time understanding chapter book readers, and who they are developmentally. Many of them are exploring new kinds of independence, discovering strengths and interests, and navigating their roles in friend groups and teams. They’re kind and inquisitive and often hilarious. All of that can inform and enrich your writing.

Samantha: Yes! Great advice. This has been such a fun conversation. Thank you to everyone! And readers, good luck in creating your own chapter books.

WNDMG Wednesday – COMING OF AGE Interview

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We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

COMING OF AGE Anthology Author Interview

We Need Diverse MG is so lucky this month … we get to feature an incredible new anthology called COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman)–which happens to be the number one release on Amazon for children’s Jewish fiction. We’re thrilled to have an “in” with one of the editors and a contributing author–because they’re both MUF contributors! Jonathan Rosen and Melissa Roske graciously agreed to interview with us. Moreover, because they’re so cool, we did half our interview in text and the other half on Zoom audio. So, enjoy our multi-media visit and get excited for COMING OF AGE before it appears on your bookshelves on April 19.

Book Cover for COMING OF AGE antholody features book title and starburst graphic around the text

 

About COMING OF AGE Anthology

Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories: As you might be able to deduce from the title, COMING OF AGE  is geared to a middle-grade audience. What does it mean to become an adult in your faith? Join thirteen diverse characters as they experience anxiety, doubt, and self-discovery while preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. And whether celebrating with a lavish party or in reception room A with an accordion player, the Jewish rite of passage remains the same. Filled with humor, hope, and history, there’s something in this anthology for every reader, regardless of their faith.

Meet Co-Editor Jonathan Rosen

WNDMG: Tell us the origin story for the book?

JR: Basically, the impetus was just wanting to get something with Jewish content for kids out. I’ve experienced someone telling me to make a book “less Jewish”. Or that Jewish books don’t sell well. I’ve spoken to many other Jewish authors who have told me about their similar experiences. Also, in my mind is how over the last ten years or so, antisemitism has been skyrocketing. So, wanted to do something that would feature Jewish characters, not just for Jewish kids to see themselves and their own experiences, but hopefully for non-Jewish kids to be able to read, and see how similar Jewish kids are. I know it’s cliché, but making a difference really does start with children. Lastly, one of the things that was important to me was to have a portion of the proceeds donated to Jewish organizations that fight antisemitism.

yellow road sign with word antisemitism lined through with red

WNDMG: How did your selection of authors come together?

JR: To start, it really was as simple as first reaching out to Jewish authors that I knew. I had done a couple of trips sponsored by PJ Library, so I got to meet several other Jewish authors as well. So, I reached out to who I knew. There were also people who were on my wishlist who I didn’t know. When I spoke to Henry Herz, my co-editor on this book, he suggested some people he knew, so between the two of us, we were able to get a great collection of authors. Fortunately, almost everyone that was asked, immediately agreed to participate. My biggest regret was after word got out, many other Jewish authors reached out to me to find out if there was room, because they wished to participate, but there wasn’t enough room. Perhaps, I’ll have to do another anthology. 😊

Centering on B’Nai Mitzvah

WNDMG: What direction/driving question did you give the authors for their stories?

JR: I didn’t want to give too much direction, because I wanted each one to write what they wanted. The only criteria was that it had to be centered around a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, since we were targeting Middle Grade readers, that’s kind of the biggest event in a middle grade Jewish kid’s life. But, otherwise, each author had the freedom to take the story where they saw fit. It was interesting to me that everyone wrote such different kinds of stories. We had memoirs, comedic stories, more serious, and even a few sci/fi which surprised me that more than one person thought along those lines.

Welcome to Melissa Roske

At this point in our conversation, we are joined by contributing author Melissa Roske, whose short story is a lovely exploration of a meeting of generations.

Connecting to Grandparents

WNDMG: Let’s talk about your stories—both are about connecting to grandparents but in very different ways. Melissa, what led you to write about connecting with Grandma Merle?

MR: Unlike Bella, the protagonist of my story, I was extremely close to my maternal grandmother, Molly. We even lived in the same New York apartment building, and she took care of me after school while my parents were at work. Most days we played “School,” where I was the teacher and Granny (that’s what I called her) was the pupil. I insisted on playing this game every single day, and Granny was kind enough to go along with it.

Author Melissa Roske with her grandmother posed in front of a decorated orange backdrop

Melissa and Granny

Like most Jewish grandmothers of her generation, Granny loved to feed people—especially me. She even kept a special drawer of chocolate in her kitchen for my sole enjoyment. Unfortunately, the chocolate drawer was the source of multiple cavities and a root canal. J Another thing about Granny, besides her tiny stature (she was 4’10”), was her impressive collection of flowered housedresses. I never saw her in anything else, except on the day of my Bat Mitzvah. She wore a fancy black-and-gold dress to please my mom.

Melissa Roske at her Bat Mitzvah standing with her parents

Melissa and Family

Earlier in her life, Granny was against the Viet Nam War and refused to pay her taxes in protest. My mom was convinced Granny would be arrested and begged her to pony up the funds. I was too young to witness this, but it says a lot about my grandmother’s character. She was little but fierce. Maybe that’s why I wrote a story about a girl who didn’t know her grandmother. I was blessed to know mine, and somehow wanted to pay it forward.

((Curious about more books with B’Nai Mitzvah themes? Read Melissa’s book list here.))

Time Travel and Grandparents

WNDMG: Jonathan – same question for you, but I need to add – is there a personal significance to the time travel watch? (I mean, I’m half expecting you to say you met Abraham Lincoln at your Bar Mitzvah, which was of course only 20 or so years ago)

JR: Twenty? More like fifteen! Actually, my kids always wonder why their ages keep increasing, but when I give them mine, it decreases every time they ask.

But as far as the story goes, I had figured that most of the stories would be more conventional stories, or memoir types, so I figured I’d do something different. Little did I know that I’d get other sci/fi submissions as well. But, the idea for me was always to show that the tradition is more important than the spectacle. That’s something that’s sometimes lost, because the tendency, at times, is to treat a Bar/Bat Mitzvah as big as a wedding, and there really have been times throughout history, where Jews had to do these things in secrecy because of certain regimes in power made it illegal for Jews to observe. So, through time travel, the main character kind of gets to experience that.

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall standing with his father behind him, a young boy and his smiling father wearing sunglasses

Jonathan Rosen Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall

Finding the Relatable

WNDMG: As authors, we all want our books to resonate with readers. Beyond that, we also have dreams about how exactly our words might become a part of our readers’ hearts. What do you each hope for with this book?

MR: My hope is that kids from all religious and ethnic backgrounds will find something relatable within the pages of Coming of Age. Yes, it’s a B’nai Mitzvah-themed book, written by Jewish authors and aimed primarily at Jewish readers. But you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate the stories and themes each author presents. In my story, “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish,” I wanted to show readers that there’s more than one way to achieve a goal. In Bella’s case, it was having a Bat Mitzvah—something she thought was unobtainable because she wasn’t “Jewish enough.” Children often feel as if they’re not “enough.” Smart enough, fast enough, thin enough, popular enough… Here’s hoping they’ll see themselves in a more positive light, and acquire greater self-acceptance, after reading the stories in this book.

JR: Really, I just hope that the book as a whole entertains. Of course, there are things that I hope the reader takes away, but the overall purpose for me was to put out something with Jewish stories, and Jewish characters, which Jewish readers could identify with. And even non-Jewish readers could relate to seeing kids their age going through similar experiences to things that they experience in their lives.

The Jewish Equivalent to the Easter Egg

WNDMG: Authors often like to put small references in their books—maybe to a friend’s inside joke, a family tradition, or even a previous book. Ironically, they’re often referred to as “Easter eggs.” What would the Jewish equivalent phrase be? And did either of you put any in your stories?

So, What’s the Answer?

Curious about Jonathan and Melissa’s answer to that last question about the Jewish equivalent to the Easter egg?

We decided to have some fun and offer you all a mixed-media interview: blending text with audio for a true immersion into our conversation. So, to hear the answer,

Click here to listen to the rest of our interview:

We also talked about being Jewish in America, Jonathan and Melissa’s own Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and whether Melissa is going to be able to sell books out of her car at Time Square.

Thank you so much to Jonathan and Melissa for a wonderful chat and CONGRATULATIONS!

Release Date: April 19

COMING OF AGE: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman) releases April 19, 2022.  To buy a copy:

Amazon

Bookshop

About the Authors

Author head shot, dark-haired man with beard

Jonathan Rosen

Jonathan Rosen is a transplanted New Yorker who now lives with his family and rescue dog, Parker, in sunny South Florida. He is proud to be of Mexican-American descent, although neither country has really been willing to accept responsibility. He is the author of the Spooky Middle Grade titles, Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies and its sequel, From Sunset till Sunrise, as well as the co-editor of the anthology of Jewish stories, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories, He is an administrator of the Middle Grade reading site, FromtheMixedUpFiles.com, and the co-host of the YouTube channel, Pop Culture Retro. He can also be found on his own site at www.Houseofrosen.com

Author photo woman in dress sitting in bookstore signing books

Melissa Roske

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge, 2017), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” will appear in the forthcoming Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Compay, 4/19/22). An active blogger for the popular MG website, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-grade AuthorsMelissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

 

WNDMG Wednesday – Author Shing Yin Khor

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

WNDMG Author Interview with Shing Yin Khor

Featured in today’s WNDMG Wednesday, a WNDMG author interview with Shing Yin Khor about their graphic novel, THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. (Penguin Random House, June 2021)

Shing Yin Khor Interview

About THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO

Part historical fiction, part magical realism, and 100 percent adventure. Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.

Shing Yin Khor Interview

MUF: Thanks so much for doing this interview with me – I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO. And I have to tell you, both my 9-year-old daughter and I enjoyed it immensely – she’s already reading it again! We’re grateful to you for bringing such a vibrant, creative book into the world.

What is the origin story for THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO? What is the significance of your decision to incorporate the Blue Ox?

SYK: My interest in the Paul Bunyan mythos goes back many years – it started with a fairly straightforward interest in logging history and this American myth, but as I learned more about early American history, especially in the Wild West, I realised how much history I didn’t know, or that was left deliberately untaught to me. A lot of these histories are glossed over in the popular American narrative. The popular conception of early American history, and especially that of Old West heroism is one full of white heroes and white individualism, which is more a matter of myth-building than historical fact. Often, marginalized groups are spoken of as a monolith, as a people rather than a collection of individual people, living a diversity of lives. This is not true now, and it wasn’t then either.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

Paul Bunyan and the Blue Ox

SYK: The evolution of the Paul Bunyan myth feels like a microcosm of this history to me – it has become a story of individual strength, while the stories in the oral tradition are often far more about collective labor. Including Pei Pei(as the stand-in for Babe the Blue Ox) felt pretty compulsory to me, he’s just such a signifier of the Paul Bunyan myth, and I also just wanted a big goofy ox in the book.

I find American myth-building extremely compelling, and Paul Bunyan is probably the biggest American mythological figure, although probably a less generally destructive one than the myth we have made our “founding fathers” out to be. The American mythology dehumanizes and caricatures us. It tells us that indigenous people were “savages,” or healers, with no nuance for the individual, it tells us that enslaved people were “treated well,” it ignores the labor and death that this entire country was predicated on, and yes, some of the early Paul Bunyan stories are racist.

Shing Yin Khor Illustration

And to also know that these logging camps were filled with immigrants, and Black and Indigenous workers, that they had tons of Chinese and Japanese workers in them – at the center of this book is the simple question – what were the stories that we lost, because of the person that told them?

MUF: Why did you decide to set this story in a logging camp?

SYK: I am specifically interested in logging and forest history, and in the evolution of the Paul Bunyan mythos – a logging camp was the obvious choice.

The Power of Myth

MUF: A major theme of your book is the reclaiming of the power of myth and who gets to own it. How do you hope to empower your readers with this message?

SYK: I’m writing quite indulgently here – the reader I’m trying to write for is the 12 year old version for myself, not anyone else. I wrote this book to restore something to the young version of me, who only found books about brave imaginative kind white girls. I hope that young readers today won’t need to have that futile search because my fellow authors have already been writing them into history. I hope there are more books like this, especially those that center Black and Indigenous perspectives, but I am heartened that this book is coming out at a time where marginalized voices are centered more, even though I think the traditional publishing industry still has a very long way to go. I hope that this book assures young readers from marginalized communities that they can tell their own stories too, and I hope that the collective work of my elders and my peers and the work that I try my best to do now and in the coming years, will help to ease the path for them to center their own voices as storytellers and be their own protagonists.

The Chinese Story in Logging Camp History

MUF: One of the most painful moments in the book is drawn from the racial tension that followed the Chinese Exclusion Act—can you describe the experience of writing and researching that period?

SYK: The thing about doing research about any marginalized peoples, and especially if you are from the same group, is that you often get bogged down by the grief and trauma of the research. It is difficult, because a lot of the history is not well documented, and what is documented is often the violence of the time period against Chinese workers. 

Part of my impetus for writing Auntie Po was actually learning how Chinese people were, in some ways, valued by the world beyond their own Chinese communities. The plot point where Ah Hao finds out that he was paid more than the white cook is a historical fact, that I encountered in Sue Fawn Chung’s Chinese in the Woods, which is just about the only academic book about working-class Chinese in the lumber industry in this era. This story of logging camp cooks sprang basically fully formed into my head when I read it – I already knew a lot about the Paul Bunyan mythos, and I knew a lot about the early American logging industry, but this book so clearly placed Chinese people in this history I was already interested in and made it feel like it was something I deserved to claim.

((Enjoying this WNDMG interview? Read this guest post from author Christina Li))

Today’s Bias

MUF: How do you feel that history connects to today’s awful bias against the Asian

community?

SYK: I don’t really feel like I have the ability to form complete thoughts about this yet. But it is clear to me that the only way we move forward is in solidarity with other marginalized peoples, especially Black and Indigenous people, and other people of color. Anti-Asian racism is not just a current issue, it is an ongoing pattern of institutional racism that this country has engaged in, rooted in white supremacy, that seeks to pit marginalized people against each other, which does not ever benefit any marginalized group, and only benefits white supremacy. A large part of my book is about Chinese people forced into navigating whiteness for their survival and comfort, and realizing the limits of what white-adjacency can bring them. Our histories are much more intertwined with other marginalized groups than the stereotypical Asian-American narratives suggest, and solidarity backed by solidarity action is our only way out of the model minority myth. 

Personal Resonance

MUF: What is the most meaningful part of the book for you personally?

SYK: Mei’s relationship with her dad is really important to me, because it’s really similar to my relationship with my own dad. We immigrated to the United States when I was 16, and even though we are a much more privileged family than a logging camp cook, it is so clear to me the sacrifices he made to give me a life where I could make art for a living. He was the first person in his family to go to college, his brothers and sisters pooled their money so he could go, being an artist was never an option for him. 

I also loved being able to write a queer character while not necessarily needing to make it a major part of the book! Mei is a queer character that exists in many intersections of experiences, just like many other queer people. Not every experience foregrounds queerness, it is just part of who she is as a person. 

Publishing Team of Color

MUF: As a creator of color in the graphic novel space, what was your experience on your path to publication? In your Acknowledgements page, you note that this book was finished in collaboration with a team that was entirely made up of people of color. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you? 

SYK: I was already doing a lot of my own work, both self published and shorter works with online publishers, so the path to publication for this book was fairly straightforward. I had some early experiences in my early days as a writer, where I was often made to feel that the stories that were wanted from me in traditional publishing were about trauma, or confessional memoirs about even more trauma, and I was unenthusiastic about that. But because I was doing my own work, and had established enough of my own voice, my entire publication journey for The Legend of Auntie Po was with a team that was always on the same page about the sort of story that I was going to be telling. And of course, my book is coming out after so many other incredible marginalized authors and bloggers and editors have done the work of making publishing a more inclusive and welcoming space for a range of voices. I am extremely lucky, I am writing books about parts of the Asian American experience ten years after I first read MariNaomi Kiss and Tell, after Gene Luen Yang’s been making graphic novels for decades, after Kazu Kibushi’s Avatar series is wildly beloved. 

 Working with a team that is entirely composed of people of color(my agent, editor, art director – all of Kokila, my publisher), meant that while I had a lot of work to do on this book, the work that I did not have to do included things like “explaining racism” or “being nicer to the white characters.” Authors of color deserve to work with publishers and editors who understand their lived experiences. Working on this book has been a dream with them – the editorial team at Kokila is staffed with the most brilliant women of color, all of whom are thoughtful and incisive and philosophically devoted to centering stories like these in publishing.

MUF: What do you hope readers will take away from THE LEGEND OF AUNTIE PO?

I hope they will feel even more agency and urgency to tell their own stories.

Chickens and Cats

MUF: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share with our readers?

Every time I was stressed when drawing the book, I added a drawing of a cat or chicken to it. I think there are seven cats and four chickens, if you’d like to take a stab at finding them all.

MUF: I love that. Headed now to look for the cats and chickens. Thanks again, Shing, and congratulations!

Shing Yin Khor Bio PIcture

Photo Credit: Shing Yin Khor

Shing Yin Khor is a cartoonist and installation artist exploring the Americana mythos and new human rituals. A Malaysian-Chinese immigrant, and an American citizen since 2011, they are also the author of The American Dream?, a graphic novel about travelling Route 66.

Connect with Shing:

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