Moon Palace Books and the New Uncle Hugo’s

On Sunday, I attended an author panel on middle grade fantasy at Moon Palace Books. Although I’ve known about Moon Palace for a while, it was my first time visiting the bookstore. It’s located in Minneapolis’s Longfellow neighborhood and is known for its engagement with the local community and its activist and social justice-oriented stances. In 2020, during the unrest that followed the murder of George Floyd, the plywood boarding up Moon Palace’s storefront bore the slogan Abolish the Police painted in huge letters. The bookstore was spared from damage. Moon Palace also continues to require masks in the store, so the audience at the panel was entirely masked.

The storefront of Moon Palace Books

The panel was held in a back room reminiscent of a blackbox theater. The signs reading Abolish the Police were stored against the back wall. The moderator (also an author) was J.M. Lee, and the panelists were Anne Ursu, Kelly Barnhill, Payal Doshi, and H.M. Bouwman. All the authors are Twin Cities residents. I’m most familiar with Anne Ursu and Kelly Barnhill’s work, but I had heard of all the writers.

Lee asked the panel a series of questions about what fantasy meant to them, their thoughts on worldbuilding, the characters in the novels they were each promoting that day, Ursula K. LeGuin’s quote about how fantasy isn’t factual, but it’s true, and children know that. Anne Ursu said that for her first secondary world fantasy novel, The Real Boy (which is good–I recommend it!), she created a map of the island with a river bisecting it, and her editor told her that rivers didn’t work that way. This was in the context of her expressing that she wasn’t good at the more scientifically-minded side of worldbuilding. She said she then decided she needed a real-world cognate so that she could look up all the answers to her own worldbuilding questions; she opted for an island in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the 17th century. For her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy (also great!), the setting was inspired by very early 19th century Romania (her heritage being Romanian on her father’s side).

Kelly Barnhill said–or at least this was my interpretation–that authors or perhaps readers sometimes get too hung up on worldbuilding details that we aren’t even familiar with in our own world. That is, you (or your characters) don’t need to know everything about your fantasy world because there’s so much ordinary people don’t know about the world we live in. She cited as an example the fact that she’d driven to Moon Palace Books in a car, but she had no idea, say, where the tires of her car came from. For her part, she was more interested in the side of worldbuilding that covers what stories everyone knows. For example, if we read an article in the sports section of the paper that uses the phrase Cinderella story, we all know what that means (at least, most people). She likes to know what such cultural touchstones are in her world. Or, what stories do children tell when they really want to scare each other/themselves? These are the things she’s interested in, even if they never make it onto the page. Separately, she also mentioned that the history of sewer systems, and how the technology kept being lost, was fascinating.

Payal Doshi shared an anecdote from when she was getting her MFA in New York and her workshop classmates thought Darjeeling was the fantasy world (I think this was about her debut, Rea and the Blood Nectar, which is a portal fantasy that starts out in India). She also talked about how people assume that fantasy by Indian authors will involve India-inspired worlds or incorporate Indian mythology. The fantasy world in her book, Astranthia, is more “East meets West,” combining different inspirations in a way that is more reflective of her childhood growing up in Mumbai.

Earlier in the conversation, Anne Ursu revealed that she and Kelly Barnhill had grown up going to the same library (the Walker library), though they didn’t know each other at the time. This was in the context of Barnhill talking about how she’d been obsessed with the Oz books as a kid because they were deeply weird and she was a deeply weird child. Her zeal for borrowing all the Oz books was how she discovered interlibrary loan. This led to a whole tangent about how strange the Oz books are and all the startling gender stuff in them and also the fact that L. Frank Baum apparently had all his royalties go to his wife. He also kept trying to stop writing Oz books in order to write other things, but then he’d run out of money and have to write another Oz book.

I especially enjoyed when the panelists got to talking about the characters in their latest books because it turned into a discussion of their siblings. Heather Bouwman’s book features four sisters, and she herself has three sisters. When they found out she was writing this book, they were anxious to check that it wasn’t memoir. Bouwman said the story began as Little Women fan fiction, and indeed the characters’ names still echo Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Payal Doshi has a sister, whereas her main character has a twin brother, but she talked about the love-hate relationships siblings often have (you might hate your sibling sometimes, but if they get kidnapped, you’ll do anything to rescue them!). Anne Ursu said that, like her protagonist Marya, she has an older brother who, it sounds like, got a lot of attention related to his hockey playing when they were growing up. However, she said that he was much nicer than the older brother in her book. Her parents were actually in the audience–she gestured at them–and she said she’d assured them that the family dynamics in her novel were not about the hockey.

Finally, Kelly Barnhill said she was inwardly freaking out because she realized she had this thing about writing oldest daughters. She talked about growing up as an oldest daughter whose job it was to take her four younger siblings (and sometimes extra cousins or friends) to the library each Saturday to give their mother a break. She also has thirtysome cousins on one side of the family and twentysome on the other, and there was something particular about all the oldest daughters. My interpretation was that they were expected to take on a lot of responsibility and internalized that such that they were then always shouldering all responsibilities for the rest of their lives. (I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter…of an oldest daughter! But I only have one younger sibling, so I’m not sure how much I really exhibit oldest daughter traits.) At this point, Anne Ursu jumped in to say that she thought Kelly Barnhill also liked to write very kind characters, and Barnhill agreed.

Inside Moon Palace Books

After several audience questions, the panel ended, and the authors were available to sign books out on the main floor of the store. There was no formal setup for this; they were just hanging out, and people were going up to talk to them. I explored the bookstore, since it was my first time visiting, and I ultimately bought Kelly Barnhill’s most recent book, a novella for adults called The Crane Husband (I did hesitate over When Women Were Dragons). By this time, the small crowd had started to disperse, so I asked Barnhill to sign my book, which she did. Then I went to say hello to Anne Ursu, who I’ve met a couple of times before.

Next, since I was in the neighborhood, I crossed the street to check out the new location of Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. This is another well-known local bookshop that I finally got around to visiting in early 2020. It was then destroyed by fire in the unrest, but happily it has reopened a stone’s throw from Moon Palace. I knew this since I’d been following updates on the store’s fundraising page. The new store feels a bit warehouse-y in its bareness (I think there was a recent flooding issue too, which may have contributed to that), but it’s chock full of books, which is the important thing. There’s also still a bookstore dog. I found what I was looking for: Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace (sequel to A Memory Called Empire) in paperback.

The new Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s

Books purchased, I walked further down Minnehaha Ave. to the Minnehaha Scoop, a little ice cream shop I hadn’t known about before this month. It’s a small store on a corner lot, with doors open on two sides. The seating is all outdoors: a few brightly painted benches under colored umbrellas, with planters of coleus and petunias. They serve Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, which comes from Madison, WI (a sandwich board outside had some amusing “nutrition facts” that included the phrases “don’t even ask” and “if you want nutrition, eat carrots”). At first, I was disappointed that they were out of chocolate ice cream and I wasn’t sure what to get, but there was a flavor called Zanzimint that combined their Zanzibar chocolate (a richer, more chocolate-y chocolate ice cream, I believe) and mint, so I chose that, and it was delicious, especially on a hot, sunny day.

My Zanzimint ice cream cone (this was “one” scoop)

On my way back up the street, I passed the art studio and store of Ricardo Levins Morales, whose artwork I recognized. I don’t think I’d realized he was local! He creates art for community organizing, social justice, and activist movements. Printed on the windows of his studio were the 10- and 13-point programs of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, respectively.

Ricardo Levins Morales’s art studio and store

The Books I Read in 2022

I read 89 books in 2022. As I’d predicted, that was fewer than I read in 2021 (but still more than in 2020!). I served on the Kids All Iowa Reads committee again, which ensured I read a decent number of middle grade books. I still tend to be most excited for adult (and sometimes YA) SFF, though.

Here are the books I read in 2022, rereads bolded, with links to any related blog posts:

The Girl Who Drank the Moon Kelly Barnhill
The Night Country Melissa Albert
How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories Holly Black, illustrated by Rovina Cai
Last Night at the Telegraph Club Malinda Lo
Starfish Lisa Fipps
The In-Between Rebecca K.S. Ansari
How to Find What You’re Not Looking For Veera Hiranandani
In the Serpent’s Wake Rachel Hartman
Too Bright to See Kyle Lukoff
How to Become a Planet Nicole Melleby
Front Desk Kelly Yang
Both Can Be True Jules Machias
Miosotis Flores Never Forgets Hilda Eunice Burgos
Beverly, Right Here Kate DiCamillo
Mira in the Present Tense Sita Brahmachari
Riot Baby Tochi Onyebuchi
Provenance Ann Leckie
George Alex Gino
Under the Pendulum Sun Jeannette Ng
The Tangleroot Palace Marjorie Liu
Doomsday Book Connie Willis
I Crawl Through It A.S. King
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
Maizy Chen’s Last Chance Lisa Yee
Sisters of the Neversea Cynthia Leitich Smith
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith
Maya and the Robot Eve L. Ewing
The Legend of Auntie Po Shing Yin Khor
Echo Mountain Lauren Wolk
Himawari House Harmony Becker
Skinny Donna Cooner
The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family Sarah Kapit
Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany D. Jackson
Séance Tea Party Reimena Yee
Grown Tiffany D. Jackson
The Golden Hour Niki Smith
Yummy: A History of Desserts Victoria Grace Elliott
And We Stay Jenny Hubbard
Eva Evergreen Semi-Magical Witch Julie Abe
Of a Feather Dayna Lorentz
Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight Aliette de Bodard
The End of Summer Tillie Walden
It’s Not the End of the World Judy Blume
Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life Zao Dao, translated by Brandon Kander & Diana Schutz
Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American Laura Gao
The Greatest Thing Sarah Winifred Searle
The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Shing Yin Khor
The Legend of Auntie Po Shing Yin Khor
Himawari House Harmony Becker
Displacement Kiku Hughes
Quatre couleurs Blaise Guinin
Shadow Life Hiromi Goto & Ann Xu
The Girl from the Sea Molly Knox Ostertag
NewsPrints Ru Xu
Spirits Abroad Zen Cho
Premier Amour Ivan Tourgueniev, translated by Michel-Rostislav Hofmann
The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
Iron Widow Xiran Jay Zhao
Exhalation Ted Chiang
Trail of Lightning Rebecca Roanhorse
Kindred Octavia E. Butler
Grass Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong
Coming Back Jessi Zabarsky
Indestructible Object Mary McCoy
The Whitsun Daughters Carrie Mesrobian
The Mirror Season Anna-Marie McLemore
Storm of Locusts Rebecca Roanhorse
The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue V. E. Schwab
Seven of Infinities Aliette de Bodard
An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon
The Sun Is Also a Star Nicola Yoon
American Street Ibi Zoboi
Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent Marie Brennan
Elatsoe Darcie Little Badger, illustrated by Rovina Cai
The Way Spring Arrives and Other Stories: A Collection of Chinese Science Fiction and Fantasy in Translation edited and collected by Yu Chen and Regina Kanyu Wang
A Scatter of Light Malinda Lo
Paper Towns John Green
The Four Profound Weaves R.B. Lemberg
The Unbalancing R.B. Lemberg
The Bone Witch Rin Chupeco
All the Horses of Iceland Sarah Tolmie
Raybearer Jordan Ifueko
Le jardin des silences Mélanie Fazi
A Snake Falls to Earth Darcie Little Badger
Geometries of Belonging R.B. Lemberg
Disorientation Elaine Hsieh Chou
Piece by Piece: The Story of Nisrin’s Hijab Priya Huq
In the Wild Light Jeff Zentner

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 89
  • Books in French: 3 (3%)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 35 (39%–whoa!) (Graphic novels/comics, including non-fiction: 20; Collections/anthologies: 8; Novellas: 6; Verse novels: 1)
  • Books read in translation: 4 (4%) (Chinese to English: 2; Korean to English: 1; Russian to French: 1)
  • Rereads: 3 (3%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 32 (36%); Young Adult: 28 (31%); Middle Grade: 29 (33%)

The following categories are identity-based and therefore necessarily approximate. (They can also obviously overlap.) I can’t necessarily determine how someone identifies from a name, an author photo, or a set of pronouns, and not everyone chooses to identify publicly as anything, which is fine. Consequently, this isn’t guaranteed to be totally accurate; I’m just curious about my own reading habits. Take this only for what it’s worth. (For my purposes, “by” means at least one author, editor, contributor, or translator falls into the relevant category.)

  • Books by women: 69 (78%)
  • Books by self-identified trans or non-binary authors: 14 (16%)
  • Books by Black authors: 11 (12%)
  • Books by Indigenous authors: 6 (7%)
  • Books by other authors of color: 33 (37%)

And now, for my favorite books of 2022! I chose these on a whim (rereads excluded), and I ended up with 17, which is maybe too many? But who cares? Here they are!

  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club Malinda Lo
  • In the Serpent’s Wake Rachel Hartman
  • Provenance Ann Leckie
  • Echo Mountain Lauren Wolk
  • Himawari House Harmony Becker
  • Monday’s Not Coming Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight Aliette de Bodard
  • Spirits Abroad Zen Cho
  • The Buried Giant Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Exhalation Ted Chiang
  • Kindred Octavia E. Butler
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts Rivers Solomon
  • Elatsoe Darcie Little Badger, illustrated by Rovina Cai
  • The Unbalancing R.B. Lemberg
  • All the Horses of Iceland Sarah Tolmie
  • Geometries of Belonging R.B. Lemberg
  • In the Wild Light Jeff Zentner

Malinda Lo and Andrew Karre at Red Balloon

My fall break happily coincided with the St. Paul stop on Malinda Lo’s book tour for her just-released YA novel, A Scatter of Light. (It’s set in 2013–does that make it contemporary or historical? :P) When I learned she was coming to Red Balloon Bookshop (where I had my release parties) and would be in conversation with her editor, Andrew Karre, I reserved my spot, well, on the spot. I’ve read nearly all of Lo’s books (which encompass fantasy and science fiction, contemporary and historical), and Karre is the editor of several other authors whose books I love, including Kristin Cashore and E.K. Johnston. Plus, he’s a Minnesotan!

The event took place on a brisk Sunday afternoon. I arrived a little early to pick up my preordered copy of A Scatter of Light, which Lo had already signed. Then Lo and Karre took the stage and launched into a discussion of how much art (and information about art) Lo had consumed in order to write her books. The protagonist of her earlier novel A Line in the Dark, which I’ve also read, is a comic book artist, and the heroine’s grandmother in A Scatter of Light is an artist and photographer. The main character also develops (oh, no, a pun) an interest in photography while she spends the summer with her grandmother in Marin County. Lo talked about how her research into art (for the grandmother character) led her to abstract expressionism, which she liked, and contemporary abstract art, and this special type of camera with two lenses that facilitates taking double exposures, and at one point she remarked that this was getting very esoteric, but I don’t think anyone minded.

Fairly early on, Karre made the comment that non-writers are frequently horrified to learn what an inefficient process writing a book is, and a lot of us laughed, possibly in partial commiseration. As Lo told us, she began working on A Scatter of Light in 2013. She wrote a great post about this book’s journey to publication that makes it clear it wasn’t just because writing books is an inefficient process that A Scatter of Light didn’t hit shelves for nearly a decade (basically, it was because the publishing industry wasn’t ready for such a book yet). But it was still sort of comforting to me as someone who is now revising a book whose genesis dates back to over a decade ago now! I’ve been working on it since before I wrote Wildings.

Lo joked that we should ask Karre all our hard questions about things like themes in her books because he had those answers. There was a funny moment where he was describing how the layout of the lesbian bar in Last Night at the Telegraph Club (Lo’s previous novel) mirrored the main character Lily’s experience: you first enter through this narrow passage, and then the space opens up to something much wider. Lo exclaimed that she’d never thought of that before, and Karre applauded her subconscious.

After Lo and Karre talked back and forth for a while, it was time for audience questions. The first was from an English teacher sitting in the front row who wanted to hear more about themes because she asks her students to talk about the themes the authors had woven into the texts they read all the time. Something in the way she asked her question made me think, Oh, no! because there was an implication that students had to look for the meaning that the author had put into the work, and this was a stumbling block for me in English class. My junior year of high school, I somehow reached the epiphany (possibly thanks to my teacher!) that it didn’t matter what the author had intended; the reader could discern meaning in the text, and this meaning was real whether the author meant to put it there or not (assuming the reader could point to some textual evidence). All of a sudden, literary analysis made sense to me and actually seemed potentially interesting, worthwhile, and exciting (I still never wanted to be an English major). Anyway, coming back to the book event, both Lo and Karre gave excellent answers with which I agreed wholeheartedly. Lo said she never thought about themes or what lessons she wanted the reader to get from her books when she wrote them, though she allowed that some writers might consider these things. I think she also said that what the author intended or meant didn’t matter once the book was out in the world. Karre said he believed that authors crafted “pattern-rich spaces” within which readers created their own meaning based in part on their own experiences. I thought this made a lot of sense. I think it was Lo who said that what her perspective as an author was didn’t mean that English teachers couldn’t ask their students to talk about what they thought a text meant or was doing.

The next questions were from Shannon Gibney, a Twin Cities author I was pretty sure I’d spotted in the audience at the beginning of the event. She was curious about Lo’s approach to genre, given how many she’s written in, and also about what it meant that A Scatter of Light was called a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club. With respect to genre, Lo said that once she determines the genre of the book she’s writing, she does think about the conventions of that genre and what readers’ expectations of that genre are, just so that she can adhere to or subvert these conventions and expectations in a conscious way. Essentially, she does practice genre awareness for a given project.

Lo and Karre both said that the companion designation was a publishing term or a marketing strategy. I interpreted this to mean that labeling A Scatter of Light a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club was meant to capitalize on the success of the latter–fans of Telegraph Club will be on the lookout for more of what they loved, including familiar characters! We’re told that in A Scatter of Light we’ll find out stuff about Lily and Kath 60 years later. Plus the books do have other elements in common: first love, queer coming-of-age, etc. Karre added (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) that adolescents’ tumultuous lives don’t realistically lend themselves to pat endings and he doesn’t like it when YA novels tie things up too neatly, but at that same time, readers kind of want to know what happened to the characters! So if you can give a glimpse of how someone’s story turned out in another book, that can be a very nice touch. Lo made reference to Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, which she grew up reading and which feature a large cast of characters who walk in and out of one another’s stories.

Another audience member said she’d loved Lo’s first novel, Ash, as a teen and loved her more recent books too and was curious how Lo felt her writing had changed over time (I think?). Lo talked about genre again and how as she switched from fantasy to conteporary sci-fi/thrillers, she had to adjust her prose style. Similarly, switching from a third person to a first person POV necessitated adjustments too (e.g. inhabiting the character’s voice). But she still thinks all her books have something in common because they were written by her.

What I believe was the last question was more of a comment: someone shared their theory that Aunt Judy from Last Night at the Telegraph Club, Lily’s aunt and a computer at the Jet Propulsion Lab, was gay too. Lo and Karre were both struck by this; it didn’t seem to have occurred to either of them before, but they were game. Also, somehow the topic of grandmothers came up again (and I might be misplacing this in the chronology). Lo said that her grandmother (not sure which one) was amazing and had written a book (I think) about the family’s experience during the Cultural Revolution and had gone on PBS, something Lo herself has not achieved. She said she thought her grandmother would have been flattered to be compared to Aunt Judy (and maybe another character?) but that after thinking about it for a while she’d have said she wasn’t anything like her.

After the Q & A, we could get our books personalized; I’d brought my copy of Last Night at the Telegraph Club for Lo to sign in addition to my newly acquired copy of A Scatter of Light. I told her I was looking forward to reading about a mixed Chinese American protagonist in this newest book because I didn’t encounter a lot of them. She said she didn’t either! As soon as I finish reading it, I’ll add it to my (non-comprehensive) list of books with mixed Asian main characters.

À la rencontre du petit prince

I’m visiting Isabelle in Meudon again, and at the end of June, we went to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to see the exhibit “À la rencontre du petit prince” (“An encounter with the little prince”). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs is right by the Louvre, but I had never been there before. We actually caught the last day of the exhibit (although Isabelle and Olivier had gone before).

English first edition of The Little Prince with a dedication by the author in French to Annabella Power

According to the museum, “À la rencontre du petit prince” was “the first major museum exhibition in France dedicated to the timeless literary masterpiece, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.” It was a big show (many rooms!) that explored seemingly every moment of Saint-Exupéry’s (tragically rather short) life, as well as the writing and publication of Le Petit Prince. There was a lot of emphasis on his dual identities as a writer and an aviator and on his humanistic vision of the world. On display was the original manuscript of Le Petit Prince, which is normally kept at the Morgan Library in New York City and had never been exhibited in France before. There were also scads of drawings, sketches, and personal letters in Saint-Exupéry’s own hand.

The little prince and the fox

I think I first read Le Petit Prince in 7th grade, in my French class. But I believe we also had a copy at home, so maybe I had looked at it before. I was very taken with the drawing of the elephant inside the boa constrictor. I also imitated others of Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, especially an image of two overlapping hills with a lopsided five-pointed star overhead, which I drew in the margins of a lot of school notebooks.

The little prince watching the sunset on his planet

I don’t know how many times I’ve reread Le Petit Prince, but it definitely had more of a lasting impression later. When I was in college, I wrote a story (which wound up basically novel-length) about a group of teenagers living on their own in a closed environment. One day, they discovered a hidden room in their living space. It was a library of books and music. They all began reading different books, and the main character discovered The Little Prince and was stirred by some of the passages in it. (The story was probably not very good; the premise was that the teenagers were sent unsupervised on a generation ship to populate a new planet, and a rogue member of the team that conceived the project built the library into the ship to break the teenagers free from their stultifying existence and state of forced ignorance.) Anyway, this story prominently featured my favorite part of Le Petit Prince, which is the little prince’s encounter with the fox. Isabelle also loves this part. In grad school, she made me a pin with a tiny book inside a glass dome, and on its pages she penciled an excerpt from the conversation with the fox.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s contract with his U.S. publisher for The Little Prince

Returning to the exhibit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900 in Lyon. His father died when he was young, and his family scattered (boarding school, living with relatives, etc.), but they kept in close touch via letters. Many handwritten letters to his mother, from throughout his life, were on display in the museum.

Stamps of various countries featuring the little prince and Saint-Exupéry the aviator

Saint-Exupéry was taken with the idea of flight from a young age and became a pilot during his military service. He then worked as a mail pilot, flying routes in North and West Africa and South America. His flights inspired his first novels, published when he was around thirty. The exhibit went into quite a bit of detail about pretty much everything, so there were lots of photos of airplanes, a flight log, newspaper clippings, illustrated advertisements for airmail companies, various editions of all of Saint-Exupéry’s books… There were quite a few pictures of Saint-Exupéry too, and Isabelle and I agreed that he bears an (unfortunate?) resemblance to Mr. Bean.

Saint-Exupéry’s writing and art materials

In 1935, Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic, André Prévost, attempted to beat the record for fastest flying time from Paris to Saigon. They crashed their airplane in the Libyan desert and eventually set off across the dunes in search of help. Saint-Exupéry encountered some fennec foxes during this sandy trek. He and Prévost were ultimately rescued by Bedouins. As the exhibit pointed out, this episode inspired the opening of Le Petit Prince (and probably the fox too).

First editions, in English and French, of The Little Prince

After the Nazis invaded and occupied France in 1940, Saint-Exupéry went to New York to help persuade the United States to enter World War II. While in the U.S., he published a war memoir, but it was also in New York that he wrote and illustrated Le Petit Prince. The book was published in 1943 in both French and English in the United States; it wouldn’t be published in France until after the war, in 1946. Saint-Exupéry wanted to fight for France, and he returned to Europe to fly military missions. Apparently he didn’t fit in that well with all the young pilots, since at this point he was in his forties. Only a year after Le Petit Prince came out, in the summer of 1944, Saint-Exupéry and his aircraft disappeared during a reconnaissance mission. He was probably shot down by a German plane. He was recognized as having died in service to France.

Unpublished illustration of the little prince, with the narrator’s hand in the foreground (ultimately, Saint-Exupéry decided not to show the narrator in any of the book’s illustrations)

One room of the exhibit was dedicated to the original manuscript of Le Petit Prince, although there seemed to be pages from several versions, which was a bit confusing. One version was the manuscrit autographe, which is the one held by the Morgan Library. Another was the premier état, which suggests an earlier version…? I have not figured this out. In any case, it was cool to see the pages of the book written in Saint-Exupéry’s own hand. Le Petit Prince is dedicated to Saint-Exupéry’s best friend, Léon Werth, but somewhere in the exhibit, there was a letter he wrote to his wife, Consuelo, in which he said he regretted not having dedicated the book to her. He and Consuelo had a tumultuous relationship echoed by the relationship between the little prince and his rose in the book.

Manuscript (premier état–first draft?) of the first chapter of Le Petit Prince, with the iconic elephant inside a boa constrictor

In another room, there were draft chapters and illustrations that didn’t make it into the final version of Le Petit Prince. In the book, the little prince visits a number of planets inhabited by odd characters, and Saint-Exupéry apparently came up with some other characters, like a crossword puzzle fanatic, that he ultimately cut. There was also a scene in which the little prince walked into a house where a couple was eating dinner, and they basically ignored him.

The little prince and a baobab, surrounded by those lopsided stars

The last room in the exhibit displayed over a hundred different translations of Le Petit Prince. The book has actually been published in nearly five hundred languages, often with a version of the original cover but sometimes with art by another illustrator. I always love seeing the same title in a bunch of different languages and scripts. In this case, it was a testament to how broadly this slender and deceptively simple book has resonated.

Réunion Creole translation of Le Petit Prince (other translations on display included Basque and Breton editions)

Michelle Zauner at Grinnell

Back in May, the Grinnell Asian American Association hosted a reading and Q & A by Michelle Zauner, the author of the bestselling memoir Crying in H Mart. Zauner was also on campus to perform with her band, Japanese Breakfast, which I personally did not know of but which seems to be kind of a big deal? I had heard of Crying in H Mart, though pandemic time being what it is, I somehow thought it had come out before the pandemic rather than in April 2021. I wasn’t originally planning to attend the reading, but then my friend Laura, a colleague who also comes from a Taishanese-speaking family, asked if I wanted to go with her, so I did. It was well worth it.

The event drew a crowd that filled the auditorium. When Zauner walked out of the wings, I was surprised to realize she was mixed race. Somehow I had assumed she was just Korean; maybe Zauner was her married name. But the chapter she read from her memoir made her background pretty clear. Crying in H Mart is generally about her Korean mother’s death from cancer. I haven’t read it, though I’d definitely like to now. Zauner read the chapter about her and her white father’s vacation in Vietnam after her mother had passed away. They had thought to take a trip for a change of scene, to take their minds off things, and they decided on Vietnam. Unfortunately, Southeast Asia did not furnish an escape from the fog of grief, and the trip was not exactly fabulous. The chapter describes some of their sightseeing and then relates a fight she and her father had a Franco-Vietnamese restaurant, which culminated in her father telling her her mother had warned him not to let her, their daughter, take advantage of him after she was gone and Zauner saying to her father that she was exercising great self-control in not telling him all the things she could be. She then stormed out of the restaurant and wandered around the town. She ended up in a karaoke bar frequented by locals, where she met a young Vietnamese woman. They each told the other they were sad. When the Vietnamese woman asked Zauner why she was sad, she said because her mother had died. The Vietnamese woman was sad because she wanted to be a singer but her parents didn’t support this. She encouraged Zauner to sing a song, and by the sound of it, everyone in the bar did.

The chapter was very well written and funny in places, and Zauner read it compellingly. Afterward, the floor was opened for audience questions. I don’t remember all the questions and their answers, but Zauner was great at this part too. There were some questions about her dual careers as a writer and a musician. Zauner said that, funnily enough, when she was growing up, becoming a rockstar seemed more possible than becoming an author. I believe she said she wasn’t much supported in artistic pursuits. In college, she took all the creative writing classes available to her except creative nonfiction because she didn’t think someone like her (a mixed race person) could write nonfiction that anyone would be interested in reading. It sounded like she hadn’t seen any examples of this, that is, she hadn’t had any mirrors, so she didn’t think it was a possibility.

Someone asked her if her father had read Crying in H Mart and what he thought of it. By the sound of it, the memoir may not have been the most flattering portrait of him. Zauner said he claims to have read it, though she’s not sure if that’s true. He did object to her having written that he’d sold used cars to the military because actually the cars had been new. She found it funny that it was this of all things that he’d complain about.

Another thing Zauner brought up, although I can’t remember what prompted it, is a notion a fair number of mixed race people subscribe to, namely, that we aren’t “half” anything. I might not be recalling how she expressed it exactly right, but she said that a lot of mixed people nowadays see themselves or at least choose to describe themselves as whole: wholly X and wholly Y (rather than half-X and half-Y). And she thinks that’s great, but for her personally, that doesn’t really resonate or feel authentic to her own experience. She does feel half-Korean, and I think she also said it felt like an asset, in some way? (This is what comes of writing blog posts a month after the fact!) Maybe that it had helped her in her musical career somehow, this feeling of not being fully one thing or the other? I was struck by her comment because I count myself among those who try not to use “half-X” language when talking about their own identities. But adjusting your language is one thing, and how you actually feel is another. That’s not to say I feel “half,” but being mixed is definitely a disinct experience. I liked how Zauner addressed that head on and shared what she actually thought, even if it perhaps didn’t fit into recent prevailing sentiments.

Middle Grade Fantasy About Fighting Injustice

Shepherd is a new book discovery website that lets you browse lists of books on a particular theme or topic (e.g. middle grade books about unlikely friendships, zombie books, etc.). Each list is written by an author who has a connection to the topic and personally recommends five titles that fit the theme. When Shepherd invited me to put together a list, I decided to recommend books in the same vein as my two middle grade novels Sparkers and Wildings, that is, children’s fantasy novels about fighting social injustice. You can read my recommendations over on Shepherd (and maybe you’ll find you enjoy list-hopping!).

If you want some behind-the-scenes tidbits: one of the titles on my list, Ptolemy’s Gate, is the third book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, which I read as an actual middle grader (I remember really wanting the first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, when I saw it in a book fair catalogue–and I got it!). Years later, after I’d written Sparkers, it struck me that it probably showed the influence of Stroud’s trilogy. The other four books on my list are much more recent titles, all of which I read as an adult. In terms of tone and theme, I think The Troubled Girls of Dragomir AcademyA Wish in the Dark, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy, for that matter, are the most similar to Sparkers and Wildings, so if you liked my books, I think you’d like those, and vice versa!

Finally, my Shepherd list says “best books,” but really they’re just favorite books (and books that I’ve actually read, of course!). In assembling the titles, I had to make some decisions, and two books that I considered including were Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon and Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill SquadThe Girl Who Drank the Moon won the Newbery and is in many ways a fairy tale, but it does have things to say about oppression and political power. I’ve only read the first book in the Dactyl Hill Squad series, but it stars Black and brown kids in an alternate Civil War-era United States–with dinosaurs!

The Books I Read in 2021

In 2021, I read 106 books, up from 69 in 2020. I had a feeling my numbers would be up! I guess 2021 was a good year for reading. (2022 might not be, since this coming semester I’ll be teaching three courses for the first time ever.) I suspect serving on the Kids All Iowa Reads Committee contributed to my increased book intake since I read so many middle grade novels for that selection process. I also started the year off strong with a stack of SFF my brother had given me for Christmas, and I ended the year with some highly anticipated SFF reads as well.

Here are the books I read in 2021, rereads bolded, with links to any related blog posts:

Dread Nation Justina Ireland
Echo North Joanna Ruth Meyer
The Lost Future of Pepperharrow Natasha Pulley
A Memory Called Empire Arkady Martine
Prairie Lotus Linda Sue Park
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky Kwame Mbalia
Rick Alex Gino
Serpentine Philip Pullman
Gideon the Ninth Tamsyn Muir
Indian No More Charlene Willing McManis with Traci Sorell
Clean Getaway Nic Stone
From the Desk of Zoe Washington Janae Marks
Efrén Divided Ernesto Cisneros
Closer to Nowhere Ellen Hopkins
More to the Story Hena Khan
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! Jessica Kim
Pippa Park Raises Her Game Erin Yun
Fireheart Tiger Aliette de Bodard
When Stars Are Scattered Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed
The Year We Fell From Space Amy Sarig King
New Kid Jerry Craft
Class Act Jerry Craft
Snapdragon Kat Leyh
Race to the Sun Rebecca Roanhorse
Snapdragon Kat Leyh
The Magic Fish Trung Le Nguyen
The Only Black Girls in Town Brandy Colbert
A Wish in the Dark Christina Soontornvat
The Calculating Stars Mary Robinette Kowal
The New Voices of Fantasy edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman
Dragon Pearl Yoon Ha Lee
Girl Mans Up M-E Girard
Other Words for Home Jasmine Warga
The Miraculous Jess Redman
All the Birds in the Sky Charlie Jane Anders
The List of Things That Will Not Change Rebecca Stead
Sal & Gabi Break the Universe Carlos Hernandez
The House That Wasn’t There Elana K. Arnold
The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane Kate O’Shaughnessy
The Barren Grounds David A. Robertson
Things You Can’t Say Jenn Bishop
Sal & Gabi Fix the Universe Carlos Hernandez
For Black Girls Like Me Mariama J. Lockington
Serena Says Tanita S. Davis
Pet Akwaeke Emezi
Itch Polly Farquhar
All Systems Red Martha Wells
The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez Adrianna Cuevas
Things in Jars Jess Kidd
The Fountains of Silence Ruta Sepetys
The Raven Tower Ann Leckie
Rascal Jean-Luc Deglin, translated by Edward Gauvin
The Fated Sky Mary Robinette Kowal
Ghost Talkers Mary Robinette Kowal
The Bird King G. Willow Wilson
Shine Lauren Myracle
Fireheart Tiger Aliette de Bodard
Un monde à portée de main Maylis de Kerangal
Firekeeper’s Daughter Angeline Boulley
Winterkeep Kristin Cashore
This Is How You Lose the Time War Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
Raymie Nightingale Kate DiCamillo
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children Kirstin Cronn-Mills
You Know I’m No Good Jessie Ann Foley
Every Color of Light Hiroshi Osada & Ryōji Arai, translated by David Boyd
Don’t Go Without Me Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Anaïs Nin: Sur la mer des mensonges Léonie Bischoff
La Manticore Maylis Vigouroux
The Silence of Bones June Hur
Heretics Anonymous Katie Henry
Dig A.S. King
Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories Naomi Kritzer
Upright Women Wanted Sarah Gailey
Magic for Liars Sarah Gailey
Enemy Child: The Story of Norman Mineta, a Boy Imprisoned in a Japanese American Internment Camp During World War II Andrea Warren
Show Me a Sign Ann Clare LeZotte
The Hazel Wood Melissa Albert
Louisiana’s Way Home Kate DiCamillo
Are You Listening? Tillie Walden
Legendborn Tracy Deonn
A Bestiary Lily Hoang
Midsummer’s Mayhem Rajani LaRocca
Letters from Cuba Ruth Behar
Six of Crows Leigh Bardugo
American Betiya Anuradha D. Rajurkar
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph Brandy Colbert
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter Erika L. Sánchez
Hey, Kiddo Jarrett J. Krosoczka
We Are Not Free Traci Chee
The Daughters of Ys M. T. Anderson & Jo Rioux
Dancing at the Pity Party Tyler Feder
Fighting Words Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Spin With Me Ami Polonsky
In the Role of Brie Hutchens Nicole Melleby
Please Ignore Vera Dietz A.S. King
Light from Uncommon Stars Ryka Aoki
This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein Kenneth Oppel
The Unbroken C. L. Clark
Tye Leung Schulze: Translator for Justice Dawn K. Wing
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda Becky Albertalli
She Who Became the Sun Shelley Parker-Chan
The Parker Inheritance Varian Johnson
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt Varian Johnson
The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy Anne Ursu
Dactyl Hill Squad Daniel José Older
The Ship We Built Lexie Bean

The Numbers:

  • Total books read: 106
  • Books in French: 3 (3%) (all thanks to Isabelle)
  • Books that were not prose novels: 28 (26%) (Prose non-fiction/memoir/essays: 2; Novels in verse: 2; Short stories/short story collections: 3; Graphic novels/comics including non-fiction: 15; Picture books: 1; Novellas: 5)
  • Books read in translation: 2 (2%) (French to English: 1; Japanese to English: 1)
  • Books read for the first time: 97 (92%)
  • Books read not for the first time: 9 (8%)
  • Books by category (as decided by me): Adult: 28 (26%); Young Adult: 28 (26%); Middle Grade: 49 (46%); Picture Book: 1 (1%)

These next categories are identity-based and therefore necessarily approximate. How someone identifies can’t always be deduced from a name, an author photo, or even a set of pronouns, and not everyone chooses to identify publicly as anything, which is fine. Consequently, this isn’t guaranteed to be 100% accurate, but I’m still curious about my own reading habits, so only take this for what it’s worth.

  • Books written by women (where at least one co-author, co-editor, or contributor is a woman): 83 (78%)
  • Books written by self-identified trans or non-binary authors: 10 (9%)
  • Books by authors of color: 47 (44%)

Finally, my favorite books of 2021, excluding rereads (I picked these on New Year’s Day without thinking about it too hard and…came up with a lucky seven again! But these choices were borderline capricious and I loved many books this year, so don’t ascribe too much meaning to this):

  • A Memory Called Empire Arkady Martine
  • Snapdragon Kat Leyh
  • The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane Kate O’Shaughnessy
  • Winterkeep Kristin Cashore
  • Light from Uncommon Stars Ryka Aoki
  • She Who Became the Sun Shelley Parker-Chan
  • The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy Anne Ursu

Middle Grade Book Pairings

This calendar year, I’ve been serving on the Kids All Iowa Reads Committee, a group of mostly librarians (I’m one of the few non-librarians) who select a single children’s book (as well as a shortlist of finalists) for statewide programming. There are also Adult and Teen All Iowa Reads selections. The 2021 Kids All Iowa Reads title is Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai, and the 2022 title was selected yesterday and will be revealed very soon!

In any case, as a result of my committee membership, I’ve read more middle grade literature than usual in 2021, and in reading so many books, I noticed some interesting connections between stories. This post presents pairings of MG books that share something in common.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks and Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca: Both feature girl bakers and a baking contest at a local bakery.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park and Letters from Cuba by Ruth Behar: These two historical fiction titles feature girl dressmakers who face discrimination in their new homes.

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone and The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane by Kate O’Shaughnessy: Both of these books are about interracial road trips in a Winnebago with an older woman at the wheel.

More to the Story by Hena Khan and A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat: These are MG retellings of classics (Little Women and Les Misérables, respectively), but you don’t have to know anything about the original stories to enjoy them.

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King and The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead: Both of these books deal with divorce, anger management, and being haunted by a guilty secret.

The List of Things that Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead and Itch by Polly Farquhar: This kind of relates to the guilty secret above, but these two titles have a protagonist stewing over a moral dilemma. Plus both main characters have chronic skin conditions that require management.

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe by Carlos Hernandez and The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez by Adrianna Cuevas: Each of these books stars a Cuban American boy who moves to a new town and quickly makes friends.

AAPI Month: Beyond Fractions Panel

May was Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month (sidebar: why is it Asian American and Pacific Islander rather than Asian and Pacific Islander American? I know I’ve seen APIA before, but suddenly AAPI seems to have become dominant), and the Asian Author Alliance organized a month of virtual author panels featuring many kidlit authors speaking on a variety of topics. Thanks to Twitter, I did not miss one of the panels that had caught my eye: Beyond Fractions: Writing and Living the Mixed Race AAPI Experience. Heidi Heilig moderated a conversation among Keala Kendall, Sarah Kuhn, Karuna Riazi, Pearl Low, and Rebecca Kuss.

To kick off the panel, Heidi said that when people who aren’t mixed race talk about the mixed race experience, they focus so much on pain. She wanted to know what joyful experiences the participants had had. Sarah agreed that people were always focused on, Oh, how sad you must be! She said joy comes from community, including community with other creatives like her fellow panelists. She and her brother grew up in a pretty white town, but there was one other mixed Asian family with two daughters, so of course they became best friends. She said it’s beautiful how mixed race people can embrace each other as whole people. For Pearl, being mixed has created so much abundance, with layers of experience on top of each other. She’s been able to connect with so many people, including people from the Chinese community, the Black community, and the general mixed community. Keala agreed, saying that you stand to inherit culture from all sides, and there’s a lot of pride there. She noted that in mixed race stories told by people who aren’t mixed, there’s a lot of focus on the mixed race character’s whiteness or their proximity to it. She also said she had a lot of great food in her family.

Sarah jumped in to talk about the creation of dishes, giving the example of her Japanese American mother’s teriyaki hot dogs. She said she hadn’t yet been able to replicate them; this is her tragic biracial quest. Rebecca said that her mother made hot dogs with water chestnuts and kimchi and that food was very tied to the mixed race experience for her. Here, Heidi said that, of her two sons, the one who looks more white likes a wider variety of foods and more Asian food than the other, and she feels like she’s colonizing (or decolonizing? I may not have caught this exactly) her husband’s white family.

Karuna, being South Asian and Black, saw two sides of resistance against colonization having come together to make her. She’s proud to be able to say she’s mixed race because two families came together and shared their backgrounds, resulting in a new generation that has a different experience. She mentioned a family photograph of her Bangladeshi grandmother and African-American grandmother hugging and crying the first time they met. Sarah said this was really beautiful because the stereotype about mixed race families is that they hate each other. As she gets older, Pearl sees more and more parallels between her Chinese and Black cultures. Noting that her mother is Chinese, she said that there’s a Jamaican fruit that’s kind of like a longan.

Next, Heidi asked whether anyone had anything special to share about the moment when they started to find community. Sarah always feels heartbroken when she hears about mixed race people who’ve faced racism within their families. She’s glad her mother made her realize she should appreciate all of herself and was so invested in making sure she was proud of who she was. Sarah learned about Japanese American incarceration and anti-miscegenation laws from her mother. Her mother also ensured she had a connection to Japanese culture, taking her up to Portland sometimes, where there was a little bit more of a Japanese American community. It made it more natural for Sarah to seek that out when she moved to more diverse areas.

Heidi explained that her mother is white and her father is Chinese, but her father didn’t connect very well with her and her siblings when they reached adolescence, so her mother encouraged her to talk to her Chinese grandmother, to learn her recipes, go over to her house after school every day, etc. So even though her mother didn’t embody that heritage, she encouraged Heidi to engage with it.

Pearl grew up with a single Chinese mother who made an effort to make Jamaican food for her so Pearl would know that part of her identity. Food is the strongest tether she has to her heritage, and she wants to know how to cook these recipes and share the food with others. She related to Heidi’s experience of having the parent from the other culture instilling a culture in you.

Rebecca said she’d had a similar experience, but perhaps not a positive one. She and her sibling(s?) were the only mixed race kids in their Jewish community and went to Jewish school. She believes her mother saw her children’s proximity to whiteness as being the best path for them, so she converted to Judaism, learned all the prayers, and cooks Jewish food better than people on Rebecca’s father’s side of the family. It was in college that Rebecca started to embrace her Korean side. She added that what Pearl had said about noticing the similarities between cultures resonated with her; in her case, it was Korean culture and Jewish culture.

Karuna also cited a similar experience. Her Bangladeshi grandmother only came to visit the U.S. once, but she taught Karuna’s mother how to make all her dishes, and now her dishes are considered to taste the closest to the originals, even though she’s the only non-Bangladeshi daughter-in-law. While Karuna spent every summer with her Black grandparents, her Muslim community is almost all Desi, so she experiences a pressure to present Desi, although that’s not fully who she is. She used to speak Bengali but no longer can (though she still understands it) because her father encouraged her to speak English. This language loss makes her “not Desi enough.” And then there’s the anti-Blackness, not within her family but within the community. Recently, she’s come to own that it’s both sides of her that make her strong and make her who she is. She’s decolonizing herself by refusing to choose a side.

Pearl shared that her mother was disowned for marrying her father. The first person in her mother’s family who reached out again was her great-grandmother, who Pearl thought would be the most stubborn. So this proves that people can change. Pearl said the whole battle to try to prove you belong to a culture you belong to is exhausting. Eventually you reach a point where you decide you don’t have to prove it, but it is really helpful when a family decides to open up and take in both cultures.

Heidi said she wanted to come back to anti-Blackness, but first she asked the panelists what the biggest misconceptions about the mixed race experience were and how they were reflected in fiction and other media. Keala named the misconception that mixed race equates to biracial with whiteness on one side. Consequently, a lot of stories emphasize biraciality from a white viewpoint. When Keala tells people she’s mixed race, their reaction is often, Oh, yeah, you look white, but in fact she’s a lot more “other stuff” than white. Mentioning that she has five siblings she loves to death, she said she rarely sees stories focused on mixed race families as a whole. Another misconception is that mixed race people are pulled toward one side or the other rather than experiencing abundance.

Sarah agreed that always centering whiteness was a problem. As Keala said, there’s a misconception that if you’re mixed race, you must be at least part white, and then the story revolves around how white you are, how colonized you are. She would love it if we could deconstruct that and get away from the idea that whiteness is what must always be centered. Being mixed is kind of like being a writer: people who aren’t that think they know what it’s like and tell you to your face. People make assumptions and express weird microaggressions that are supposed to be compliments. Sarah said mixed race people are always reduced to concepts instead of people, but she is still a person, with a totality of experience that others are perhaps not seeing. These assumptions and reductive conceptualizations are then reflected in stories, which is how we wind up with a lot of stories where mixed race people are just sad or there to teach someone a lesson.

Pearl feels it comes down to writing multidimensional characters. The mixed race experience is a human experience. There are so many assumptions out there: that a white/Asian mixed person has a white father and an Asian mother, that a Blasian person has a Black father… Another one Pearl has heard from Blasian friends, especially in Japan, is that mixed people like them are always supermodels. They just want to be regular people! So it comes down to actually having mixed race people in the writers’ room. Perhaps when you don’t, there’s a weird fetishizing of the mixed experience that happens. People think it’s fun to write about because of The Turmoil.

Karuna observed that the mixed race experience is really daunting for an industry like publishing that really likes to shoehorn people. It would be nice to not be seen as a trope and to see biracial kids who have a good connection to both sides of their family. While mixed race people with a white parent need representation too, not all mixed race people are part white!

Keala suggested that the commodification of the mixed race experience functions as a way to insert white writers in the writers’ room. For instance, you can have a mixed race character raised by their white parent while their parent of color is dead. Sarah agreed that having mixed race characters was seen as a way to “insert diversity,” say by having a mixed race character who’s “basically white with a bit of soy sauce.” She’s also frustrated with people who say, Isn’t it more diverse if this character is full [X race]? Heidi noted that so often everything is measured with respect to whiteness, so some white people can’t even handle the idea of mixed race characters who aren’t white at all.

I may have missed the last question, but next Sarah talked about how her latest novel, From Little Tokyo With Love, was her first time writing about the mixed race experience in a direct way. It was difficult for her to write about the Asian American community she loves in a way that might portray it in a negative light, but things do happen that can make people feel unwelcome. While she’d centered mixed race characters before, this was the first time she tried to delve into things that are not so great within the community that could be worked on. She would like to see more stories that engage with that complexity, specificity, and messiness. Finally, Pearl said that if we want to talk about these issues, we need to create space for it, space in which to express our different experiences.

The second part of the panel consisted of an audience Q & A. The first question was: for those of you who have incorporated your mixed race identity into your stories, what aspects of that experience did you choose to include (or actively not include) and why?

Sarah circled back to what she’d just said about how it had taken her a while to take on the complexity of the full experience. In her earlier novels, the focus was on being Asian American, but this time around, her editor, Jenny Bak, pushed her, if she was comfortable, to explore the feeling of not being enough in the Asian American community. It was scary for Sarah because she didn’t want people to think that it’s really the Asians who are the problem; “it’s still the white people who are the problem.” In the book, her main character is almost trying to flatten herself and take the nuance out of her experience so she can just uplift the greater idea of community. She feels bad about any negative feelings she has. With YA, Sarah feels like she’s writing a letter to herself and doesn’t realize it till later. She said that it’s okay to bring up discomfort and that you’re hurting yourself by not expressing it.

Heidi talked about her latest YA series, with its bipolar main character, and how the two sides of her family take different approaches to mental illness. She sort of brought in stuff from her white side and gave it to her main character in a pan-Asian fantasy.

Pearl, who primarily works in animation, TV, and film, tries to bring her mixed experience to whatever she works on. She can try to insert representation on a visual level where she can, and she felt like she put a lot of herself into Hair Love because even though the character isn’t mixed race, she has a single parent who doesn’t know what to do with her hair.

The next question was: would you ever write write a mixed-race character with ethnicities that are not your own? How far do you “cross the line” into another culture that isn’t your own?

Karuna said this would need to be done as respectfully as when writing cross-culturally in general. Being mixed race is often treated as POC Lite, which is really not the case; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Being invited into such a space (she said “crossing the line” sounded negative) takes research, getting sensitivity readers, and listening respectfully. She pointed out that your mixed race experience may not be like someone else’s. She does have a WIP with a mixed race character whose ethnicities are kind of like her own but not exactly.

Keala said that she’ll never say never, but there are some experiences she knows she’s not equipped to write. She lives in Hawai’i, so she might be able to write certain characters, even if not as perspective characters. But she’s not sure she could write a Jewish character because she didn’t grow up adjacent to any Jewish communities, and she doesn’t think she could write a Blasian experience. She noted that if you want to write a Hawaiian Japanese character, you have to know about Hawaiian-Japanese relations.

The third audience question was: in the Asian diaspora, we still struggle with discussing intracommunity issues–colorism, intersectionality, purity policing, etc. How might we move forward in a genuine way to have these discussions?

Pearl said this was a hard one. A lot of it has to start with labeling things as a problem. As a Chinese Black person, she sees the Model Minority myth as very pervasive. There can be a Chinese attitude of you just have to work harder, our oppression is the same, so if we can do it, you can do it. We need to have honest conversations about what we face and not pit communities against each other, because they live different experiences. There should be discussions that don’t take the white gaze or white approval into account.

Karuna echoed Pearl and said she sees a lot of defensiveness when the word anti-Blackness comes up. She shared a story about an auntie at the masjid who suggested she might have better luck meeting someone if she didn’t bring up how she’s Black so often. As hate crimes against Asians were rising, she saw people in the Asian author community calling out Black people for not supporting Asians while not going after white people, even as Black people were posting. She wondered if others (on the panel…?) were raised with the attitude that we shouldn’t criticize within the community because there’s so much external criticism. She sees a frequent impulse to save face, but Asian (American) communities just need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable. If the anti-Blackness conversation had already happened, it wouldn’t have derailed the conversation about how to support Asian elders. Keala added that coming from a marginalized group doesn’t exempt anyone from marginalizing others and causing harm.

Sarah said that she’s had to overcome her upbringing in order to say things that might make others uncomfortable. She recalled an Asian reaction to Black Panther she’d observed, which boiled down to, How do we get our own?  She also sees a wallpaper of comments about mixed race people in the community that goes unchallenged, but making people uncomfortable is one of the only ways to move forward.

Finally, someone asked whther the panelists could share some media or stories that they thought encompassed the mixed race identity in an authentic and/or positive/uplifting way. Rebecca cited To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was the first book she read (in her late 20s!) by a Korean author with a biracial Korean character. She told her now-husband they couldn’t get married till he’d read it (he ultimately read all three books in the series). Lara Jean, the heroine, is proud of being biracial, but that’s not what the books are about, it’s just the reality of her experience.

Sarah named Akemi Dawn Bowman (yay!). One of the first times she saw some of her own experiences on the page was in Starfish, a novel about a Japanese and white girl. The way Bowman incorporates the experience of being multiracial into fun, poignant narratives is something Sarah would’ve died for when she was younger (and still loves today).

Keala cited Heidi’s The Girl from Everywhere, which is partly set in Hawai’i. Heidi had never seen a biracial character in a book before her own book. She gave a shout out to Karuna’s The Gauntlet because there was no whiteness. Karuna named the Color Outside the Lines YA anthology of interracial love stories, in which she has a story.

Pearl said she’s had a hard time finding stories that speak to her experience, but she definitely cried when she read Sarah’s Shadow of the Batgirl because it had a Blasian character (Sarah confirmed that Erik, the character in question, had gotten a lot of love). Pearl also mentioned the TV show Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts.

Firebreak Reading

Earlier this month, I attended a reading and Q & A with Nicole Kornher-Stace, author of the recently released adult SFF novel Firebreak. The event was hosted by C.S.E. Cooney, with guest co-host Amal El-Mohtar. While I read Nicole’s YA novel Archivist Wasp years ago (2015, apparently!), I have still not read its sequel, Latchkey. But I like following Nicole on Twitter, and of course I like Amal El-Mohtar, and I’d just enjoyed C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez’s short story “The Book of May,” so I jumped on that registration link.

As we settled into Zoom, Amal talked about her walk that day and the swarm of swallows she’d seen over the river, which led to a discussion of what the collective noun for swallows is (options include gulp and kettle). In the chat, attendees shared where they were connecting from. Then Claire (that is, C.S.E. Cooney) eased her co-presenters into the Q & A by asking Amal what she’d been burning to ask Nicole. The answer, it turned out, was what she was going to plant in her garden! Nicole revealed that she lives in a townhouse without a backyard but has lots of containers, potentially in defiance of the homeowners’ association. The pandemic inspired her to try to grow food, so she has (in upstate New York) a baby nectarine tree, a cherry bush, a fig tree, a persimmon tree, and three kinds of raspberries, among other things.

The three authors then reminisced about how they had met one another at various cons and how they were all connected through the online poetry journal Goblin Fruit, founded by Amal and Jessica Wick. Somewhere in here, my Wifi failed me, and when I returned, Amal was asking Nicole about Firebreak, the novel whose release we were celebrating. Specifically, she asked her why, in the book, she’d wanted to have giant robots in the real world (as opposed to the immersive video game that plays a major role in the book). Nicole said that she just takes a bunch of things she enjoys, squishes them together, and sees what sticks. She also cited watching anime and playing lots of video games.

Claire noted that Mal, the protagonist of Firebreak, is employed as a dog walker and then mentioned how she had this constant sense of thirst while reading the book because all the characters are dehydrated. (Maybe I should mention that Firebreak is a near-future dystopian novel in which a corporation controls all access to drinking water and collecting rainwater is illegal.) Claire asked Nicole what kind of research she’d done on water scarcity and dehydration. Among the sources she mentioned was the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars. For the benefit of the audience, Claire said that the rage and the thirst (and the tenderness) were part of the experience of reading the book.

Amal said one of the things she loved most about Nicole’s writing, of which there was more in her recent work, was the physicality of everything, how the prose was always slamming and hurting. She called her writing extremely embodied. Then she invited Nicole to talk about the origins of Firebreak. Nicole said she’d been kicking the idea around since before Archivist Wasp came out and spent three years telling herself she wasn’t good enough to write it and could never do it justice. (Of course, she did write it!) Firebreak is a standalone, but it’s about the war that’s referenced in Archivist Wasp. She’d gotten a review of Archivist Wasp that said obviously the war mentioned in that book hadn’t been fully thought out, so she wrote Firebreak out of spite. She also said there was a lot of her in her main character Mal, including being bad at people and having a gamer background.

At this point, Claire put in that Mal thinks she’s bad at people but is actually surrounded by friends and is good at friendship and at being loyal. She asked Nicole if she’d chosen her name for malcontent. Nicole said she hadn’t but that Mal’s name made her think of Amal. Amal said the only time she saw her name in books was when someone she knew tuckerized (new word for me!) her. In Firebreak, she’d enjoyed seeing a name that was most of hers. 

My Wifi was being exceptionally persnickety that evening, so I missed another bit, but when I was back online, Nicole was talking about how she’d been thinking a lot about social media activism. There’s so much organizing you can do if you get people together in any way. In Firebreak, the company that runs the game Mal plays is trying to keep everyone isolated and unable to organize. Nicole said this was like the world we live in. Especially now, we’re all isolated. She said she’s an idealist, so she wanted to write about the potential and where it could go, but she still wanted it to be realistic. Claire said, in relation to the organizing, I think, that it was a collaboration between Mal, her friend Jessa, and all the viewers of the game, who were supplying the players with what they needed. Amal said it was striking to her now how much that dynamic of having to fight to keep your rank was echoed in Archivist Wasp. And that dynamic doesn’t change until people stop fighting and start working together against the people who want them to keep fighting. I believe she said this dynamic was one of the few true things in fiction.

Then Amal shifted gears (“speaking of desire!”) and said she wanted to ask Nicole to elaborate on something she’d been talking about a lot on Twitter, namely, ace representation and aromantic representation. She (Amal) said that in some books she sees a “box of chocolates” approach to representation (“here is an ace character!”), but what Nicole was representing in Firebreak was actually what a certain kind of asexual desire and experience and longing looked like. Amal thought it was really valuable and gorgeous. Nicole said she could talk about this topic for a really long time. She described Mal as introspective but not very good at expressing how she talks or thinks about herself. She’s figuring it (i.e. herself and her feelings) out, but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to her because, like for us today, she doesn’t have a template for this. So she talks about it, but without using the words we might use. Here, Claire added that Mal’s friends talk about it too. Nicole said she didn’t want Mal to exist as a teaching moment but rather to just be who she is. She wanted to leave Mal’s experience in a gray area. Mal feels something for someone in a way that most people would read as romantic, though in fact it’s platonic. But Nicole wanted to leave room for different interpretations because she doesn’t want to say that platonic relationships are only for aroace people. Claire observed that no one can give the ace-aro experience in a single character.

Amal pointed out that the relationship between Mal and 22 wasn’t the only platonic relationship in Firebreak. She found the one between Mal and Jessa so gorgeous. She noted that she was on the record multiple times as saying she wantd to see more female friendships as driving narrative forces, to see them given the same weight as romantic relationships. Then she had some musings on the transactional nature of romance vs. the creation of a bond in friendship, but I don’t think I captured all the nuance (and am also not sure I agree with the distinction). Claire’s last thought here, which may have been related to this thread, was about Nicole writing characters who grow less lonely while remaining loners. This was something she saw in Archivist Wasp too.

This concluded the host Q & A. Next, Nicole, Amal, and Claire read two scenes from Firebreak. Nicole read Mal’s first person narration and lines while Amal was Mal’s friend Jessa and Claire was 22, when he appeared. In this first scene, Mal and Jessa were in the video game, playing with a bunch of new gear. At the end, Jessa lets Mal go off with 22 so she can get closure with her friend crush or somesuch. After this reading, Claire asked Amal for her best supervillain laugh, which she delivered. Then she (Amal) said to everyone, “I don’t know if this is apparent, but I love this book so much!”

At this point, Carlos Hernandez, who’s Claire’s husband, loosened Zoom’s video permissions so attendees could join with video and applaud. A few people stuck around on camera for the remainder of the event, and I’m pleased to say no fewer than two audience members had cats appear in their windows.

The second reading was from the end of the novel’s third section (of four). Right before this scene, Mal had seen a deepfake of herself supporting the evil corporation, and all her video game fans thought it was her. This excerpt was an intense showdown between corporate soldiers and protestors, and then it started to rain and people lifted cups to the clouds. But things were looking pretty iffy for Mal. 

There was a little time at the end for audience questions. The first question was what meal or drink paired perfectly with Firebreak. I think Nicole was stumped, and then everyone concluded the drink would be water, given everyone’s chronic dehydration? Then someone asked what games had been major influences on the book, and I know Nicole at least mentioned Anarchy Online. But also action movies like Fury Road, Edge of Tomorrow, and Aliens. There was a request for anime recs, and Nicole said that every time someone asked her for some, her mind went blank. She said Evangelion was formative, though not necessarily good; it was the weirdest thing she’d seen at the time. Right now she was enjoying Dorohedoro. (I should just come out and say I barely get any of the references in this paragraph.)

Claire asked Nicole what she was enjoying reading right now, and Nicole said she was in a nonfiction phase. Although she was writing a list of friendship books, so she was reading recommendations. To everyone, Claire recommended The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, and Amal recommended Hench. Then she slipped in a last question to Nicole, asking her if she’d watched the show Killjoys. Nicole said she hadn’t, although many people had recommended it to her. Amal said she found it very delightful but extremely “a lot”; she also cited the core, non-sexualized friendship between a man and a woman (whom Amal had a crush on). Amal made one last plug to the audience for word-of-mouth recommendations, and then that was about it!