First Chinese-American kid in school
I mostly grew up in Northern Virginia, and if you're from here, it's hard to believe, but back then I was basically the first Chinese-American kid in my school, or at least at the time I was the only one, and it was just a really different place, but kind of, you know, the longer we stayed here, the more diverse it became, and my kids are in the same school system that I went to, and I think it's really fascinating that, you know, they have so much diversity they don't even think about it.
Freedom to read
Because my parents were immigrants they were fairly conservative. They were very careful about what TV shows I watched. I wasn't allowed to go on sleepovers, but the one place where I had total and complete freedom was in the library, and, I mean, I was allowed to pick out any book I wanted. I was allowed to go by myself, and so I would associate books with freedom because of that experience.
I love books about historical America, so Little House on the Prairie and The Great Brain. I love those series. I also liked Ellen Conford's books. I know she kinda wrote kinda funny contemporary, and then Judy Blume, of course, total literary hero who I got to meet earlier this year down in her bookstore. What else? Oh, and then I was also thinking about Rozanne Knudson, who is an Arlington local who wrote The Zanballer series. So she wrote about girls in sports at a time when a lot of girls were not into sports, and so, yeah, I really liked her books as well.
Seeing myself in a book
So Tracy Woo in Blubber was the first character that I really saw myself in when I was growing up because finally instead of Mr. Sulu or, you know, Bruce Lee, I actually saw a character who was my generation and who had very similar experiences to mine, and I think it filled a need I didn't even know I had to see myself there.
Writing about kids on the cusp
So I've written three books now, and all my characters are in the 11, 12 range, and I think it's because you're just on this really delightful cusp between being a kid and kind of understanding what you're gonna be like as a grown up. You know, that you kind of have this — a little bit more freedom, a little bit more independence, so I just really love that age. I love the way they think. You know, you're still very optimistic and idealistic and, you know, maybe just a little more full of yourself than you are at other ages.
The Great Wall of Lucy Wu
Lucy Wu thinks she's about to have the perfect year because her annoying perfect big sister is finally moving out of the room they share, and she is going to have a room to herself. She's at the top grade in her school. Her basketball team looks good, and then her dad comes home and tells her that he has found a long lost great aunt in China, and she's coming to stay with them, and the only place she can stay is in Lucy's room, and so then Lucy has to learn how to deal with disappointment.
Yi Po is Lucy's mother's, mother's sister, and there is a long back story about how they became separated, and she comes into Lucy's world — she's basically a very patient person. You know, she may or may not be aware that Lucy is not on her best behavior around her, but she gives Lucy space and loves her unconditionally until Lucy is ready to have a roommate and think about her family's heritage.
In terms of temperament, I definitely had an aunt like that. So my Yi Po was just this incredibly loving person. She was a kindergarten teacher, and she was like the kind of kindergarten teacher that people in their 60s would go back and visit, and so, yeah, she kind of was this very patient and abiding person.
Probably when I was about 12 or 13 my mother's mother came to live with us, and I actually don't remember how long, but I remember she was there. We had a hard time communicating because my Chinese was not very good. She did not speak English, and I think part of the reason why I wrote Lucy is because I wished that I had done a better job as a kid 'cause she passed away shortly after she came to visit, and I wish I had done a better job of communicating with her and getting to know her 'cause I think we actually probably had a lot in common, you know?
And so I think Lucy is partly my way of rewriting that story, like, okay, here's what would have happened if I had gotten my act together, basically.
The Way Home Looks Now: Inspiration and Research
The Way Home Looks Now was initially inspired by my dad coaching my brother's team. It was the early 1970s, and a girl wanted to join the team, and the way my dad handled it — and I'm not gonna give too much away here — was something that I always admired about what he did and how he thought, and and even though it was handled a bit differently, memorializing his values and what he was kind of showing me by doing what he did.
Oh, so for The Way Home Looks Now I visited the Little League Museum in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. I went there originally just to see the stadium to see if it was as I had seen it on TV, but they also have this fabulous museum where I saw news clippings that I had been looking for because, you know, as you know, in The Way Home Looks Now one of the issues is girls playing baseball, and I kept looking, and I couldn't find the thing where people were, like, you know, a girl shouldn't play baseball because blah, blah, blah.
And it was there where I actually saw things where people were saying things like, "Girls shouldn't play baseball because if they get hurt then a male coach would have to touch them," or "Girls shouldn't play baseball because there are no bathrooms for them." Like, these were completely unsolvable problems, and they also had some great video clips I hadn't been able to find showing some of Taiwan's games and some of their kinda highlights, so that was a real treat for me to see all that.
Co-writing This Is Just a Test
So This Is Just a Test is a book I co-wrote with Madelyn Rosenberg. We met in writers group — well, we met at SCBWI, which is a society of children's book writers and illustrators, and then we ended up in the same writers group, and we're around the same age. Our kids are around the same age, and we were always hanging out, and finally said one day, you know, "Hey, Madelyn, why don't we get paid to hang out? And let's write about kinda what we know."
So we both grew up during the '80s, and we both had the experience of being onlys, you know, being, you know, at least one of a — only one of a few Asian kids growing up in Northern Virginia. Madelyn was, you know, one of the few Jewish kids growing up in Blacksburg, and so we kinda combined all those experiences to create David Da-Wei Horowitz growing up in the '80s.
It's such a solitary endeavor to write, and then, you know, when you kind of run out of an idea or you feel like, okay, you know, I've kind of written what I'm gonna write, and I don't know what to do next, and then I could just, you know, click send and shoot it over to Madelyn, and then, you know, get something back and be like, oh, okay, now it's longer, and, you know, based on what she's written I have a new idea. So it was almost like sending a writing prompt back and forth.
Being a Mom and a Writer
So I had had my third child. I'd been a stay-at-home mom, and, like, I had gotten an invitation to a high school reunion, and, you know, you get those things and it kinda makes you stop and think, and for that one, I thought, "You know, what have I not done that I always wanted to do?" And I realized I always wanted to write — try to write a children's book, and so I called up a friend of mine who had an MFA, and I said, "Well, you know, what should I do?" And she said, "Go to the Writers Center in Maryland. They have, you know, great programs," and so I took my first class with Mary Quattlebaum, who's a really awesome teacher, and it just kinda took off from there.
I think, you know, the hard part about being a mom when you're a writer is you kind of sometimes have this instinct to protect your characters, and that's really the last thing you wanna do. You really kind of wanna make their lives as difficult as you reasonably can for the sake of the story. I think having kids has been helpful in that you kind of have a sense of, you know, what a kid's life is like now, which is different from, you know, what my life was when I was growing up.
But at the same time, I try to respect their space. Like, I don't want them to feel like, "Oh, this happened, and it's gonna end up in Mom's book." So there's always kinda that line, or at least, you know, you have to ask permission. Like, is it okay if I put this, you know, fill in embarrassing incident in this book?
We need diverse books because …
We need diverse books partly because when we leave these empty spaces where we don't show kids of diversity, we're sending a silent message that you're not worthy of story, and so we want kids to know that they can be the heroes of their own stories.
Looking for history’s untold stories
I guess what I've been thinking about lately is about kind of gaps I history, and as an Asian-American, you don't always feel like you're part of it. You don't feel like you're part of that history, but there are tremendous roles that Asian-Americans have played at different points in history, and I would say that you should challenge your students to look for the gaps and to look for the empty spaces, and they might be surprised at what they find.
Excerpt from The Great Wall of Lucy Wu
Hi, my name is Wendy Shang, and I'll be reading from my book The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Regina's upper lip curved into a sneer. "You are Chinese. You are supposed to like Chinese food," she hissed. When attractive people make faces like that they look even uglier than normal people would. "I do like Chinese food," I told her, even though discussing food was making me feel slightly queasy. "There are plenty of dishes from Panda Café that are just fine with me, like their egg drop soup and chicken fried rice."
Regina rolled her eyes. "That's not real Chinese food. Panda Café cannot even begin to compare with The Golden Lotus." "That's your opinion," I told her. She sniffed. "It's an opinion backed by one of the world's greatest Chinese chefs. When Chef Yi came to my school for the Chinese Culture and Language Society he mentioned The Golden Lotus. I don't believe he discussed Panda Café." Regina practically spat out the words Panda Café as if they tasted bad in her mouth.
"Just get over yourself," I muttered to her. "Girls," Dad said sharply from the driver's seat, "Enough." "You're a banana, a Twinkie," Regina whispered. "What are you talking about now?" For a second I thought Regina was telling me to eat something. "You're yellow on the outside, white on the inside. That's what you are." Who did Regina think she was telling me how or how not to be Chinese? I am sure there are people, maybe lots of people in China, who do not love eating pig's ears and other weird stuff, and no one ever calls them out and tells them they are not Chinese enough.