Writer, reader and gummy bear eater Wendy Wan-long Shanghas flown to Hong Kong from the US to be a guest author at this year’s International Young Readers Festival, which is taking place now through March 16.
Lucy Wu, Peter Lee and David Da-wei Horowitz aren’t the typical protagonists you’d come across in books, but you’re sure to findthem, and many like them, in Shang’s work. Her debutnovel, The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, centres on a Chinese-American, like herself, living in America. It has received several awards, including the Asian-Pacific American Librarians Association’s Children’s Literature Award and a place on nine state reading lists.
Young Post was lucky enough to sit down with Shang the day after she arrived and ahead of her busy festival schedule, to talk about her books, what it was like growing up in the United States, and why she thinks it’s important to have Asian-Americans represented in literature.
She says her childhood was very different from that of her three children, now aged 12, 15 and 18, who grew up with friends from all over the world. As a Chinese girl in Virginia in the US, Shang didn’t have many people in her school who looked like her.
“I was the only Asian kid in my school as far as I could tell.” And she didn’t find many in the books she read, either.
“When I was growing up, there were so few books featuring Asian-American lives, especially as main characters,” she recalled.
One of her favourite authors is Judy Blume, whose book, Blubber, has a Chinese-American character called Tracy Wu. Even though Tracy is not the main character of the story, it was still something. “I remember as a kid it kinda blew my mind,” Shang said.
Now Shang gets to write the books that she wanted to see as a kid and doing what matters most to her: creating books rich with diverse characters.
She explained the importance of having “mirrors and windows” in books – which means to let readers see into the lives of other people, and to be able to see themselves reflected in stories as well – which are most definitely present in her own.
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Not only did she wish that fictional characters were more diverse, but she also noticed a lack of diversity in authors.
“I always thought writers were dead or British,” Shang said. This is one of the reasons she studied law and worked as a juvenile justice attorney before breaking into writing.
Shang wants kids today to know that “a writer can be anybody”.
“There’s a growing number of female Asian writers that I’ve seen and it’s so exciting because they’re writing in completely different genres,” she said, adding that it’s also “really fun to see the expansion of genres featuring Asian-American characters”.
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Her latest book, This is Just a Test, tells a timely, thoughtful, and hilarious tale about a half-Jewish-half-Chinese boy living in America in 1984. A lesson she hopes readers will take away from it is that “you have to speak up for what you want, and you have to start with yourself.”
When asked what advice she would give to young aspiring writers, she said, “you can’t do any better than read a lot, and write a lot.”
She added, “whatever you write about, to do a good job, you have to feel passionate about it.” Shang found her passion, and is adding colour and diversity to the literary scene one book at a time.
Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge