Today I’m interviewing two Texas authors whose childhood experiences inspired them to be writers and shapes the stories they’re writing today.
For Lyla Lee, 2020 is a double debut year with the Mindy Kim chapter book series, illustrated by Dung Ho (Aladdin, January 2020) and the YA novel, I’ll Be The One (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, June 2020).
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
Books have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
As a child I suffered from frequent tonsillitis and needed antibiotic injections. This was the 1960s in Iran, and disposable syringes were not in use yet. I remember getting these shots with what to my five-year-old mind seemed like a giant metal needle.
My mother would bribe me with books to get me through these uncomfortable sessions. By the time I got my tonsils taken out, I had a large collection of books.
When I left Iran in 1979 in the wake of the Iranian revolution, I had to leave behind my beloved books. To this day, 40 years or so later, that is what I miss the most.
My favorite part of the years I spent raising my four children was reading to them. Now, as a classroom teacher, reading aloud to my students is my sacred time of the day that I don’t give up for any reason. The desire to write began when I was in high school and realized that I wanted to create stories similar to the ones that were meaningful and touching to me.
I did not take my writing seriously until about 10 years ago when I joined three of my teaching colleagues who are now my dearest friends in a writing group. Now I see story ideas everywhere.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?
The best thing I ever did for my writing was to sign up for a picture book writing class at The Writing Barn, taught by Donna Janell Bowman and assisted by Gayleen Rabakukk. I saw an ad for it, called my friend and writing group member Carolyn and asked her if she wanted to join me.
It was as an assignment for that class that I wrote From Behind All the Veils and with my instructors’ encouragement and mentorship polished it and sent it out.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
The class I took was on picture book biographies, and we were to select a topic by the second week.
My very first thought was to write the story of Táhirih, a nineteenth century Iranian poet that became a champion for the emancipation of women. At a time where women were not allowed to learn how to read or write, much less talk and be seen in public, Táhirih surpassed her male counterparts in scholarly debates.
Táhirih joined a religious movement that was born in Iran in 1844 and today is known as the Bahá’í Faith, an independent religion that is practiced all over the world and is considered one of the most wide-spread religions after Christianity. It is also severely persecuted in the land of its origin, even today.
Táhirih was one of the early adherents of this faith and the first woman. Despite the cultural restrictions and her family’s outright opposition, she spoke publicly about her beliefs, challenged the religious orthodoxy of the time and was ultimately put to death.
Her last words were “You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women.” My parents raised me with the legacy of Táhirih. My father always encouraged me to pursue an education that would provide me with independence and autonomy.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
My challenge was to write a story for children without assuming or requiring too much historical and cultural knowledge about the time and the place where the events take place. I tried to focus on the universal message of Táhirih’s story, that we all, no matter who we are and where we live, long for freedom and equality. I wanted kids of all backgrounds to be able to see themselves in Táhirih and empathize with her motivations.
What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?
The funniest moment of this whole journey was that I almost didn’t write this book.
As I mentioned I wrote the manuscript as part of a six-week course. I chose the topic after our first session, wrote the opening paragraph and then set the story aside, overcome by doubt.
Can I tell the story of an Iranian woman who lived over a hundred years ago and practiced a little-known religion to a Western audience of children? Would I be able to do her story justice? So I thought about changing my topic to someone else.
A week before the manuscript was due, another writing group member and close friend Andrea asked me how it was going. When I told her that I was thinking about changing topics, she said: “There are many others who can write other’s stories, but you are the only person who can tell Táhirih’s.” She read my opening paragraph and encouraged me to finish it. I am so grateful for her gentle push!
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
Mentors. Find mentors in other writers and their books. I have been part of a writers group for 10 years, and I have benefited from the company of my fellow writers and friends that encourage me and are not afraid to critique my work objectively.
I have also found mentors in hundreds of books and their authors. Read as many books in your genre as you can. Immersing yourself in the kind of literature that you hope to create is like immersing yourself in the language you hope to acquire. There is no substitute.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?
When I was growing up, I moved around a lot (I went to five different schools by the time I was in fifth grade.)
As a result, books were my only constant friends during this period of my life. Books also provided the means for me to make new friendships as well, since, no matter where I went, I was able to quickly make friends due to our shared love of books such as Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, 1997-2007) , Animorphs by Katherine Applegate (Scholastic, 1996 – 2001), Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer (Viking 2001) , Eragon by Christopher Paolini (Penguin, 2003), and etc.
These special bonds I was able to make with and/or thanks to books were the initial reason why I set out to write for young readers.
What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
As a kid, I really loved slice-of-life, comedic books like the Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park, illustrated by Denise Brunkus (Random House, 1992-2013) and the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Clearly (1955 – 1999). But it was only when I was in college, when I saw the first episode of “Fresh Off the Boat” with fellow students of my university’s Asian Pacific American student organization, that I thought to write stories about my own childhood.
I initially wrote a lot of YA books before and had already been on submission for two of them when I first thought about trying my hand at middle grade after being reminded of the books from my childhood. Finally, I wanted to write books for and about girls who looked like me because there were little or no books featuring Asian characters when I was growing up.
How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?
Going from a writer to an author is definitely a big transition, one that wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
I wanted to be a published author since I was in eighth grade, and naively thought that everything would be butterflies and rainbows if “I just got that book deal.”
Although there is a big sense of accomplishment at achieving my childhood dream, being an author as a career is definitely a lot more work and nerve-wracking pressure than pleasure.
I also have a lot of generalized (especially in social situations) anxiety to begin with, so suddenly being expected to do things like talking to thousands of kids and participating in panels, business phone calls, interviews, etc. has been pretty challenging.
Thankfully, I think I’ve been managing pretty well, despite the steep learning curve. My books just debuted so I’m honestly still learning, but the best way I can think of approaching things is “one thing at a time,” whether it be an email or a deadline or a publishing call.
I think the biggest lesson I learned in terms of self-image was to be more professional. I got involved in publishing Twitter very early—when I was a junior in high school. Because of this, I’ve made every mistake in the book from oversharing about my personal life to just posting too much in general. Learning how to professionally use social media is definitely something I’ve had to learn how to do.
As an author-teacher, how do your various roles inform one another?
As I approached my debut year, everyone from my closest friends to my parents have suggested that I quit my day job as a private tutor and write full time. Although I may reach that point in the future, as of now, that shift is something I can’t even imagine because the daily interactions I have with my students is vital for me as a writer.
I come from a psychology background, so I’m always sensitive to how kids interact with the world around them and learn new things.
For Mindy Kim, interacting with my kids at that elementary school level helped me find Mindy’s voice.
For YA books, interacting with students in high school definitely helps me keep track of what’s “cool” and “not cool” (I witnessed how dabbing first became popular and then witnessed its slow fade into “things old people do,” for example).
Being an author also helps me as a teacher because one of my goals as a teacher is helping kids learn how to communicate effectively through their writing.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your perspective bring to your story?
I tapped deeply into my own childhood as a Korean American girl as I wrote my books.
This is most evident in the second book in the Mindy Kim series, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, which was inspired by the Korean traditions kept alive in my family despite the many years we lived in the United States.
But also, even in the books that aren’t directly about Korean culture, bits and pieces of my culture always pop in my books, like the seaweed snacks Mindy brings to school or the activities that Mindy does with her dad.
My diverse perspective is an inseparable part of my identity, and thus it is a inseparable part of my writing.
Do you have any tips or strategies for switching gears to write for a different age group? Are there any pre-writing rituals that help you get into the right frame of mind for teens or a younger audience?
I am actually blessed in that I work with children of various ages for my non-writing job, so, when I switch gears from the Mindy Kim books to my YA books, for example, I just switch my frame of mind from what my elementary school students would say to what my older, high schoolers would say.
If you don’t work with kids, though, I suggest going out to places where there are lots of kids of different ages (the mall is a great place to do this!) and just people watch/eavesdrop. See what kids are up to. Listen to what they’re talking about. Reading books or watching TV shows/movies meant for your target audiences definitely helps as well.
I’ll Be the One is going to be a movie! Can you tell us more about that?
Yes! We’re so excited about it.
I’ll Be the One is currently in development over at HBO Max with Nahnatchka Khan (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Always Be My Maybe”) to produce and possibly direct and Colleen McGuinness (“30 Rock,” “Friends From College”) to write the script.
When we were in talks to develop the project with Anonymous Content, I asked that we have an Asian American writer. I’d worked a few years in Hollywood while I was in college so it was important for me to have that kind of representation because I know how hard it is for POC writers to thrive in the industry. I was so fortunate that my team was 100 percent with me along the way.
It’s honestly so amazing because watching Nahnatchka’s “Fresh Off the Boat” as a college student was what inspired me to write the Mindy Kim books in the first place!
Whatever happens, I’m so thankful for the opportunity.
Susan Hansen was born in Iran, educated in the US and left her heart in Venezuela. Currently, she lives in Texas and teaches fourth grade in an English/Spanish dual language program.
She started writing stories when she was in fourth grade and her dream of publishing her work for children came true with the publication of From Behind All the Veils: The Story of Táhirih in October 2019.
Lyla Lee is the author of the Mindy Kim series (Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business, Mindy Kim and the Lunar New Year Parade, both January 14, 2020, Mindy Kim and the Birthday Puppy, May 12, 2020 and Mindy Kim, Class President, September 15, 2020) as well as the upcoming YA novel, I’ll Be The One (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins).
Although she was born in a small town in South Korea, she’s lived in various parts of the United States, including California, Florida, and Texas. Inspired by her English teacher, she started writing her own stories in fourth grade and finished her first novel at the age of 14.
After working various jobs in Hollywood and studying Psychology and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, she now lives in Dallas. When she is not writing, she is teaching kids, petting cute dogs, and searching for the perfect bowl of shaved ice.
Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is a former Writing Barn Fellow. She’s worked with Cynthia Leitich Smith as a Cynsations intern since 2016 and also serves as assistant regional advisor for Austin SCBWI. Gayleen is represented by Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency.