Author Interview: E.L. Shen Discusses Her Latest Book, Maybe It’s A Sign & Her Author-Editor Life

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By Suma Subramaniam

I am thrilled to welcome E.L. Shen to Cynsations today!

Congratulations on the release of Maybe It’s a Sign, Elizabeth! Could you tell us what the book is about and what inspired the story? 

Thank you so much! Maybe It’s a Sign (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, January 2024), tells the story of thirteen-year-old Freya June Sun. She’s always believed in the Chinese superstitions spoon-fed to her since birth. When her father passes away, she clings to these superstitions and believes he’s sending her signs from beyond the grave that tell her what to do. Like on her way to her orchestra concert where she’s dreading her viola solo, a pair of lucky red birds appear—a sure sign that she should continue with the instrument and make her dad proud. As Freya grapples with following her dad’s expectations or following her heart, she finds inspiration from an annoying classmate who’s surprisingly cuter than she thought, her messy middle school friends, and even her prickly older sister.

This is a story I’ve wanted to write for years. My dad passed away suddenly when I was fifteen. We had a wonderful relationship, and I am immensely grateful for that. I treasure every softball game played together, every long Saturday meal, every couch cuddle—even the times when he took my sister and me to movies that we were far too young for and scared us silly.

He died right when I was on the precipice of young adulthood. At that point, I was just beginning to form real opinions about the world and create an identity beyond my childhood self. And as I grew up, I realized that my opinions didn’t always align with his. At times, I wanted different things for myself than perhaps he wanted. This was a very scary reality because I didn’t know if my dad would be proud of me or if he’d be disappointed in who I’d become. And I couldn’t ask him what he thought or guess what kind of opinions and feelings he’d have beyond the ones from when he died in 2011. He was static, and I was moving forward.

These were difficult questions I wanted to explore in Maybe It’s a Sign. What does it mean to cling to someone else’s expectations, especially when they’re no longer alive? How do you form your own purpose, your own self, without losing the love and admiration you have for your parents? I think these are all questions that many children are working through—even if they haven’t experienced the death of a loved one. The ages between 10 and 13 are pivotal years where kids are working to shape their identities outside of parental figures, and that can be scary and intimidating.

E.L. Shen, age six, and her father

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I think I knew from a very early age that language had power. I was a kid who often convinced my classmates that I could do things that I absolutely could not do (to my kindergarten best friend: I’m sorry I pretended I was a ballerina for half the year!).

I liked knowing that I could become anyone and anything I wanted through storytelling. And obviously, when I was old enough to learn that you shouldn’t lie, I turned to writing. From first grade on, I was constantly creating other worlds through prose.

My mom gave me my grandfather’s old desktop computer when I was six. The only thing it had on it was Microsoft Word and Microsoft Paint, and I would get up early and just write every weekend until breakfast. Writing was both an opportunity to escape and a chance to show who I was and what I cared about at every stage of life, without necessarily having to say anything aloud.

E.L. Shen as a child writing her first story

What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?

In addition to being an author, I am also a senior editor at Penguin Workshop, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers. I adore the push and pull between my day job and my “night shift” as a writer. I learn so much from my authors and from my writing. For instance, there’s so much entrepreneurship that comes with being an author, and so much vulnerability and fear of the unknown, especially when it comes to the “business” side of things. I hope that my direct experiences with these things as an author help make me a more empathetic and thoughtful editor.

I also just really love the creativity that comes with writing. I still get to create my own worlds like I did when I was six, and best yet, I get to collaborate with someone whose job it is to pull apart my work and analyze it with me and emerge with something stronger and more exciting. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that process.

E.L. Shen reading a chapter from Maybe It’s a Sign for Chef’s Dinner Table, a culinary salon in Little Italy, New York City

What’s been the biggest surprise about the author life?

Definitely the entrepreneurial aspect of author life. When you think “author,” you usually think “writing,” but now you have to think about self-promotion through social media, events, etc. Some of these are fantastic and fulfilling, but some can also be draining and stressful. The idea of pushing book sales is admittedly daunting. The best part, however, is being connected directly to readers and gatekeepers; I absolutely adore meeting young readers in person so that’s been so surprisingly lovely.

E.L. Shen with her preorder campaign items for Maybe It’s a Sign

Do you have any tips for debut authors about balancing the roles of author and writer?

When you’re writing and revising, focus solely on the creative process. The book sales, the reviews—none of those things matter. Don’t let them infiltrate your psyche.

When you get to the marketing and publicity end of things, be mindful of what you can and can’t do—you are not a miracle worker! Make a list of tasks within your control that you’d like to accomplish, and once you achieve those, try not to dwell on the rest.

And please, enjoy the moment! You’re only a debut once and this is such an incredible accomplishment.

Cynsational Notes

E. L. Shen is a writer and editor living in New York City. Her debut middle grade novel, The Comeback (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2021) is a Junior Library Guild Selection, received two starred reviews, and was praised for its “fast-paced prose, big emotions, and authentic dialogue” in The New York Times. Her young adult debut, The Queens of New York (Quill Tree Books, 2023) is a New York Public Library Best Book of the Year, a Junior Library Guild Selection, and a Common Sense Media Selection. Her latest novel, Maybe It’s a Sign, published on January 23, 2024.

Suma Subramaniam’s interests in writing for children are centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting by day or writing by night, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI or blogging about children’s books. Her picture books include, Namaste is a Greeting, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (Candlewick, 2022), She Sang for India: How M.S. Subbulakshmi Used her Voice for Change, illustrated by Shreya Gupta (FSG Books, 2022), and The Runaway Dosa, illustrated by Parvati Pillai (Little Bee Books, 2023). Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door middle-grade anthology (Penguin Random House, 2019) and What is Hope? poetry anthology (Pomelo Books, 2023) . Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation’s first Young People’s Poetry Edition of Poetry Magazine. She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows. Learn more at