Author Feature: Lisa Yee: Millicent Min, Girl Genius; Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time

Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2003). From the catalog copy: “Millicent Min is having a bad summer. It isn’t easy being a genius. But when she finally puts her mind to it, she realizes just what it will take to make her first friend.” Winner of the winner of the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor from SCBWI. Read excerpt.

Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time by Lisa Yee (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Stanford Wong is having a bad summer. If he flunks his summer-school English class, he won’t pass sixth grade. If that happens, he won’t start on the A-team. If *that* happens, his friends will abandon him and Emily Ebers won’t like him anymore. And if THAT happens, his life will be over. Then his parents are fighting, his grandmother Yin-Yin hates her new nursing home, he’s being “tutored” by the world’s biggest nerdball Millicent Min–and he’s not sure his ballpoint “Emily” tattoo is ever going to wash off.” Read excerpt.

What was your inspiration for creating these books?

My first book, Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2003), came out of a two-word joke. Child psychologist. I thought that was funny. A kid who was also a psychologist. I wrote an entire novel about an 11-year old who solved problems for adults. The book went through massive changes, including throwing out all the plots, but one thing remained true and ended up in the final version. The MC was lonely.

I had a happy childhood, lots of friends, and loving parents. Still, at times, I felt all alone. I thought that many kids might feel this way, too. So I wrote about it.

After I completed the novel, I was going to write a non-fiction. But my daughter, then about 11-years old, was so down on boys. She was convinced they were stupid and smelly, and could not understand why anyone would want them around. So I asked, “Would you read a book about Stanford?” (He was Millicent’s enemy in my first novel.) And she said, “Yes!”

I think she thought I’d prove her assessment about boys to be correct. But my motivation was different. I really wanted to do was to show her, and others, that boys are kinder and more sensitive and more confused than she could ever imagine. I wanted to give voice to boys who so often have a lot to say, but no forum. And so Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2005) was born.

What were the timelines from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Millicent Min, Girl Genius took years and years and years to write. I had been pulled from the slush pile by Arthur Levine, but was told “this isn’t the one, but I would love to see anything else you have.” So I told him about a story I had about a smart girl. I sent a synopsis and three sample chapters. He loved it and asked to see the complete manuscript. I panicked. I hadn’t written the book. I’d only implied that I did.

When I told him this, I expected to be banished from publishing forever. Instead, I was encouraged to keep writing. I sent in the novel (the one about the child psychologist) and Arthur loved the main character, but not the broad humor. He kept saying, “I want literature.” I wrote two more completely different novels, each time changing everything but the main character, before it became the book that is out today. The entire process took over six years. Although at one point, real life took over and for an entire year I didn’t write at all.

For Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, I wrote the first draft in three months. By then I had figured out how to write a book. It went through about two or three more drafts until the final version. In all, the process was about two years.

I would like to add that there is an incredible amount of time and effort that goes into producing a book, that has nothing to do with the author. At least work/time-wise. Even though it took Stanford Wong’s novel two years to be released, my writing time was about a year of that. And it was not one continuous year. There is a lot of down time between completing a draft and getting it back from you editor with his/her notes. In my case, I actually work with two editors, Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein, and I’m proud that both their names are listed in the back of Stanford Wong’s book!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing these books to life?

One of the main challenges for the first novel was that I felt the weight of high expectations upon me. (I put them there, no one else did.) It wasn’t until I wrote the novel in e-mail format that I found Millicent Min’s true voice. You see, I was always e-mailing Arthur and he loved the humor that came out of our correspondence. But when I’d send book chapters they were so formal. That’s because I got too serious when writing. I really needed to loosen up to do my best work.

I began researching child geniuses quite a bit, then abandoned it. It finally dawned on me that I was writing a book about a child who happened to be a genius. Not a book about a genius who happened to be a child. However, I did Google extensively when looking up Latin phrases, trivia, etc.

Probably the biggest challenge was trying to find the time to write. I co-owned a business with a dozen employees and was working anywhere between 50 – 70 hours a week. I had two young children. And writing was low on priority list, coming in just after laundry and before going to the dentist. I wrote at night when all were asleep, between 11 pm and 2 am. However, once I got a contract, I cut back my career hours to 40 per week, and later to 20, and got really got serious about writing.

Logistically, Stanford’s novel was harder, and easier. I was writing full-time, but still was able to find tons of distractions. (I am excellent at this.) Since his book had the same timeframe as Millicent’s, key scenes and dialog had to overlap, yet each from distinctive points of view. Plus, the novel needed to have divergent plot lines and characters to sustain interested and make it a stand-alone book.

Whereas novel #1 was painful at times to write, novel #2 was a joy.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s novelists?

Read, read, write, read, write, and read and write. Read whatever you can. All genres, even books you are convinced you will hate. You need to know bad literature to appreciate good. And then write whenever you can. Carve out time for yourself and learn to value what you do. Only then can you succeed.

What insights do you have to share about writing humor?

There are two kinds of humor, slapstick and personal. I write personal humor, the kind that comes from life experiences. My novels are character driven, therefore so is my humor. I develop my characters, given them heart, and go from there. The jokes, the funny bits, the humorous scenes, they usually come last.

I taught a humor workshop recently and told the group that your book needs to stand up, even without the funny parts. Humor is the icing on the cake. It can bind a story together and give it a richness that enhances the plot, characters, theme. But without a great storyline and compelling characters, all you’d have are a bunch of random jokes.

How would you describe the landscape today of Asian American children’s literature?

When I wrote MMGG and made the protagonist Chinese American, it was not because of any ethnic agenda. I happened to have an Asian American MC because she reflected who I was. Therefore, I was surprised to get so many letters from girls who said they were Asian and had never read a book about a typical American girl like themselves. Or kids who were drawn to the book because they saw an Asian on the cover of a contemporary novel.

Stanford’s story was interesting to me because he was so anti-stereotype. An Asian kid who is a stellar athlete, but flunking in school. And boy, does he feel the pressure to get good grades. With his novel, I wanted to turn perceptions upside-down.

I like to celebrate a person’s ethnic heritage yet, at the same time, make it part of the fabric of the story, not the core. Since writing that first novel, I have been more aware of Asian American books, or lack of contemporary books featuring Asian American characters. Recently I blurbed a debut novel by Justine Chen Headley called The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Little Brown, 2006), about a girl who is half Chinese and half Caucasian. It’s funny and touching and contemporary.

Of the children’s/YA books you’ve read this year, which are your favorites and why?

I love Cecil Castellucci‘s Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005), she really captured what it felt like to be an outsider. D.L. Garfinkle‘s Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl (Putnam, 2005) was hilarious. And, Drums, Girls and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick (Scholastic, 2005) made me cry.

Right now I’m re-reading A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2001). This time it’s out loud to my son, and it’s even better sharing the story with someone you love.

Cynsational News & Links

See recent cynsational interviews with other humor writers: M.T. Anderson; Carolyn Crimi; Bruce Hale; Kathryn Lay; Dian Curtis Regan; Philip Yates. Congratulations to my husband, humor author Greg Leitich Smith, whose novel Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) was nominated for the ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults List (see Books That Don’t Make You Blush).

An Agent’s Advice on Selling Your Artwork by Chris Tugeau from the Purple Crayon. See also The Artist/Agent Team.