I’d like to introduce you to Susan Tan, author of the recently released middle grade novel, Cilia Lee-Jenkins Future Author Extraodinaire. Susan is a debut author and I hope you’ll support her by purchasing her book and making sure your local library has a copy as well. If they don’t, suggest they purchase it. Susan will read this post so be sure to leave any questions for her in the comments.
Hi Susan! Thanks for agreeing to this interview! When did you know you wanted to be a writer of children’s books?
This is such a funny question to reflect on. To be honest, I think I always knew at some level that I wanted to write children’s books – I loved children’s literature, and when I was younger I always used to come up with stories, write them down (or have my parents transcribe them when I couldn’t write, as it took me a while to learn to read and write), and then illustrate my stories.
But, the official “aha” moment came in middle school, when I got my seventh grade yearbook. In our “most likely” list, I’d been labeled “most likely to be a children’s book writer.” I can so clearly remember looking at that, and thinking how right it felt. Writing for children was pretty much my dream from then on!
What are some of the things people around you did or said to encourage you to start writing and to keep writing?
As corny as it may sound, I think the most encouraging thing I encountered was early support from my friends and family. Writing can be so daunting when you’re just starting out. It’s easy to feel like the hours you’re spending typing and scribbling away are wasted time, and there were many moments when I doubted myself, and if I could really write a book. In those moments, the best things my friends and family did for me was simply to affirm that the time I spent writing wasn’t a waste, or some kind of futile pursuit. I had dear friends who always asked after my writing, and opened up to me about theirs. Other friends would do their own academic work alongside me as I wrote. And many people, friends and family alike, commented on how happy writing seemed to make me, and how valuable it was for me. This kind of support and encouragement helped me to acknowledge the fact that writing, for me, is something deeply personal, and deeply necessary. My friends and family helped me to recognize my writing as a long – often hard, but also joyous – process, that I was allowed enjoy for the craft and story, without needing a concrete product to validate the time I spent doing it. Without this support, I really think I might have given up on my book over the roughly two years it took to write and revise it.
Congratulations on the recent release of your first book, Cilia Lee-Jenkins Future Author Extraodinaire which I have not had a chance to read, yet! Could you tell us about it?
Thank you so much – it’s still so surreal to know that Cilla is out there in the world!
To give you some background, Cilla is a semi-autobiographical, middle grade story based on my own experiences growing up in a mixed-race family. As a mixed-race child, I was constantly being asked “what are you?” This question felt inescapable, and always served as a reminder of difference – even at a very young age, I understood that this was a question that my friends didn’t get asked, and that I was somehow seen as separate from them.
The idea for Cilla stemmed directly from these memories. I imagined a young girl who’s asked “what are you?” who misunderstands the question, and in doing so, reclaims it. Cilla imagines that this is an opportunity to declare “what” she is – to claim an epic destiny – and she finds the perfect answer: she’s a future author extraordinaire.
The book itself begins a few years after this encounter, when Cilla is eight-and-a-half years old, and has just discovered that she’s soon going to have a new little sister. Cilla decides to write her first-ever novel now, to ensure that no one in her family can forget about her. And, after hearing that author should write what they know, she decides to write what she knows best – herself.
As Cilla details her many adventures and mishaps (she was bald until the age of five, is pretty certain that one of her classmates is an alien, and has a best friend who will probably be a famous astronaut someday), she also details her close relationships with the two sides of her family: her Grandma and Grandpa Jenkins, and her Nai Nai and Ye Ye (Chinese for grandmother and grandfather). And, in the course of writing and considering how a new baby will change her family, she begins to confront the tensions that have always existed between the two very different sides of her family: the white Jenkins’s and the Chinese Lees.
Ultimately, along with stories of unicorns, dinosaur princesses, dragons, friends, and car chases, Cilla details with the questions, challenges, and joys that navigating different racial and cultural identities can bring.
How did you celebrate its release?
I had a launch party at Porter Square Books (an amazing independent bookstore in Cambridge, MA). I was staggered by the number of friends, family members, colleagues, and writing-group friends who came to support me (one friend surprised me from the UK, which was astounding!).
The launch itself was a wonderful celebration, and great fun to plan. I’d made two crocheted rainbow unicorns to give away as raffle gifts, and in true Cilla fashion there were three kinds of dessert: almond cookies, chocolate chip cookies, and dinosaur lollipops. I also made a life-sized cardboard cutout of Cilla, which has led to some fantastic mementos and photos from the event. All in all, it was a wonderful experience!!
Why is it necessary that Cilia be identified as biracial? Why can’t she be just a girl in a good book?
That’s such a great question, and I’m so glad you asked it. When I wrote Cilla, it was deeply important to me that Cilla be a biracial character, and even further, that she be allowed to consider how her racial identity affects her, and what it means to her. Growing up, I had very few mirrors in the books I read. In fact, I vividly remember the first time I encountered a mixed-race character like me. I was about ten years old, and intrigued by a colorful spine, I pulled Lawrence Yep’s The Thief of Hearts off of my library’s shelf. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a mixed-race, half Chinese heroine. To this day, I can tell you everything about that cover – what the protagonist looked like, what she wore, how she stood. And I can also recite, close to word for word, her descriptions of herself, and her account of the looks of surprise, and sometimes confusion, she receives when people look at her and realize her mixed heritage.
As a child, this book gave voice to feelings and observations that, up until that point, I’d never heard articulated. For the first time, I saw myself and my experiences reflected and validated in a story: I knew that I wasn’t alone, that my experiences mattered, and that my observations about the adult social world had weight and truth.
With Cilla, I wanted to acknowledge and honor children’s abilities to understand the complex social worlds around them. I wanted to write a book that I’d wished I’d had as a child: a book that showed me myself, and offered alternative ways to define myself in an adult world always seeking to put me in a box, or responding to my identity and existence with confusion and shock.
To draw on Rudine Bishop Simms, offering children mirrors and windows is very important to me – giving children a place to see themselves, and a space to imagine the lives of people not like themselves.
At the same time, to go back to your excellent question, I think it’s very important too that Cilla gets to be a character who’s biracial and a girl in a good book. (Thanks for that faith, by the way – I certainly hope its good!). Part of what motivated me in writing Cilla was the fact that I wanted to push back against the idea that “universal” stories must be white stories. I grew up adoring reading: I studied English in college, I got my PhD in literature, and I did it all while seeing very few people in books who looked like me. When I say that War and Peace is my favorite (adult) book, no one ever expresses confusion, or wonders how I can relate to the story, even though I’m a Chinese Jewish woman (so probably not what Tolstoy had in mind). I wanted to push back against the assumption that universalism is always given to narratives featuring white characters, while stories featuring minorities are often labelled as “niche.” And I firmly believe that Cilla is “for” everyone – that it can be enjoyed by audiences of all backgrounds, and that readers of all kinds can relate to it. At the end of the day, we all have experiences with blending families who are different in some way, or experiences realizing that the world labels us, or experiences of having dreams and passions, or wanting to be writers, or making friends, or feeling anxious when new siblings or new friends come along. To me, it’s important that characters of color are centered in narratives that acknowledge that race shapes their daily experiences and senses of self, while also showing how their experiences should be labelled as universal, human ones, just as we label the experiences of a Prince Bolkonsky, or Hamlet, or Tom Sawyer, as similarly universal and relatable.
What are some of the books you’d like to read if only you had the time?
I have SO many of these (and happily, the teaching semester just ended, so I’ll hopefully have plenty of time to curl up with my books this summer). I’m REALLY excited about Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen by Debbie Michiko Florence, which comes out in July. I also can’t wait to read Stephan Pastis’s Timmy Failure: The Cat Stole My Pants, which just came out in April. I I’m also desperately excited to read the new graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (illustrated by Damian Duffy), and March: Book Three, by Congressman John Lewis.
Susan, than you so much for a lovely interview! I wish you much success!