Author Interview: From Inspiration to Representation, Diana Ma Reflects on Her Journey in Children’s Literature

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By Suma Subramaniam

I’m thrilled to welcome Author Diana Ma to Cynsations today! I first met Diana at a local SCBWI summer party and we struck up a wonderful conversation about her middle-grade novel and her passion for getting Asian American stories out to the community. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Diana.

What inspired you to write for young readers?

Like many authors, I fell in love with books as a child, and I never quite forgot the magic of that first love! But as much as I loved the books I read as a kid—there was something missing. The truth is that I never saw myself in those books. I didn’t see an Asian American girl making friends at school, riding dragons, flying spaceships, and just having fun adventures. These were the books I longed to read as a kid before I even had any language around diversity or representation.

It actually took me a long time before I realized that I could write those books. After all (I thought), who would want to read about a Chinese American girl like me?

And then We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) came on the scene in 2014. Their work in highlighting and supporting underrepresented identities was instrumental in diversifying the landscape of children’s publishing. Suddenly (or at least that’s how it seemed to me), books about BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled characters as well as characters with other marginalized identities started popping up in libraries and bookstores. Just as importantly, many of these books were also written by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled authors!

Before I continue talking about the effect of increased diverse representation in inspiring my own writing, I want to note two things:

First, authors with marginalized identities were, of course, writing and publishing before WNDB. What WNDB and others did, however, was to point out the stark disparities in the children’s publishing industry and advocate for the absolute necessity of diverse representation.

Secondly, children’s book publishing still has a long way to go! There’s a tendency to think, “Oh look at all this literature by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, Muslim, Jewish authors! We’re good now!”

Actually, we’re not good. Even though there has been more representation of marginalized groups in the last decade, we certainly have not come close to redressing the serious problems of underrepresentation or just plain misrepresentation of marginalized groups. Lee & Low’s Diversity Baseline Studies, for example, do a good job of illustrating how far we haven’t come.

Okay, now back to the uplifting and hopeful part of my response! The increase in books by BIPOC authors was so exciting to me, and I not only fell back in love with writing but also reading. I started reading YA and MG for the first time since I was a kid, and slowly, I started to realize that I could write the books about the Asian American heroes that I always wanted to read as a child.

Speaking of BIPOC authors who inspired me, I want to make sure to say that I was fortunate to receive a 2019 WNDB mentorship and work with the amazing Swati Avasthi, whose support was so crucial to my own publishing journey. [See also, a WNDB post about Diana’s mentorship with Swati and learn more about WNDB’s mentorship program here.]

Your debut novel Heiress Apparently was a Washington State Book Award finalist in the Young Adult category. How did you switch to writing for the middle-grade audience with The Unbeatable Lily Hong?

At the time my second YA novel was published in 2022, my youngest child was only eight and too young to read my YA books. He asked me to write books that he could read, so I started to write middle grade. But I don’t want to make it sound like I’m only writing MG for my kid! I also genuinely love MG!

I did find that I had a lot to learn in switching from YA to MG. The best advice I got (and I really wish I could remember who gave it to me or where I read it) is that MG has a greater proportion of hope. That really struck me since I was already drawn to YA because of its strong dose of hope. Naturally, I was thrilled to lean into the hopefulness and fun of MG!

The Unbeatable Lily Hong has a lot of funny moments. Do you have any humor-writing resources you’d like to share?

Thank you for saying my book is funny! I sometimes think I have a twelve-year-old sense of humor, so writing this book was a pure joy for me. For my main humor resource, I’m going to have to give credit to my kids. They are genuinely so funny and crack me up!

I also love the humor of TV shows, and I reference two of them in my book—Never Have I Ever and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I wanted to capture the fun banter and feel of the shows I love!

What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

I want readers to know that Chinese school can be fun! Like Lily, I also attended Saturday morning Chinese school and did Chinese dance as a kid. And like some of my characters in the book, I resented Chinese school and had convinced myself that it was boring and a waste of time because my middle school friends all said things like “That’s terrible!” or “Why would your parents do that to you?” when they found out about Chinese school. But the truth is that I secretly kind of loved Chinese school! I just didn’t think it was “cool” to learn how to read and write Chinese and connect to my culture.

My cousin, who also attended Chinese school, emailed me to tell me he had read The Unbeatable Lily Hong (Harper Collins, 2024) and loved it. He found it funny and liked how I depicted the tension between middle school and Chinese school friendships. Then jokingly, he said he could tell it was fiction because the kids in my book were trying to save their Chinese school!

Diana doing a Chinese fan dance as a middle schooler

He’s totally right that a lot of kids do resent going to Chinese school like I did (or thought I did). I wonder, however, if I would have felt differently if I had read a book like The Unbeatable Lily Hong where the kids have fun adventures at their Chinese school and love their community so much that they would do anything to save it.

The truth is that going to Chinese school made me feel different from my peers at an age where I was self-conscious about being different. I think we need books that depict a wider range of experiences, and this brings me back to why we need diverse books!

So, my takeaway for young readers—love what you love and don’t worry about what anyone else says!

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

Oh wow. I always giggle nervously to myself whenever someone asks me this question. Let me first explain that in addition to being a YA and MG author, I’m a full-time professor at a community college, mother of two school-age children, and involved in equity work in all those capacities. Oh, and I am also writing a teacher practitioner book.

So…to answer your question, I write at whatever time and in whatever space I can manage to sneak into my day!

Diana’s book launch at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park

You have several books out now, looking back what is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and the necessity of community is a big one for me!

I’m going to use this question as an opportunity to send all my love and gratitude to the Muslim Storyteller Fellowship. The Highlights Foundation has been phenomenal in running this fellowship, and the Doris Duke Foundation has been so generous in funding it—so big thanks to them and everyone involved in creating and supporting this program. I adore my wonderful cohort, all the mentors, the programming committee, and everyone at Highlights. They are my family, and being in community with them has meant the world to me.

I also want to say that my first two books came out during the pandemic, so The Unbeatable Lily Hong was a chance to do the in-person events in my community. Third Place Books at Lake Forest Park, my local bookstore, has been gracious to host all my book launches, including the virtual launch of my debut book, and I’m so grateful for their support.

Diana in Conversation with Karen Maeda Allman at Community College Book Event

All my book events at the community college where I teach have been virtual up until now, but I was thrilled to have my first ever in-person event at my college for The Unbeatable Lily Hong. I got to be in conversation with local literary advocate Karen Maeda Allman about my book, and the event was supported by my college library, my college chapter of the AANAPISI (Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution) organization, and the Wing Luke Museum.

My family, friends, and students came to support me at my book launch at Third Place Books, and my friends, colleagues, and students came to my event on campus, and both were such wonderful community events!

Writing can be a lonely endeavor, and I have learned that I need community to really thrive as a writer. Not incidentally, The Unbeatable Lily Hong, at its heart, is a book about community!

How do you celebrate success?

With food! I’m a lot like Lily in how much I love food. Come to think of it—all my characters seem to love and celebrate with food.

For my book launch event, I asked my local bakery to make a “cupcake cake.” I know what you’re thinking because I was wondering the same thing—What is a cupcake cake? Well, it turns out that there is this glorious concoction that involves many cupcakes shellacked together with frosting. It looks like a cake…but then you pull it apart, and surprise—it’s actually a bunch of cupcakes!

I asked the bakery to put an image of my cover on the cake, and I actually got a little teary when I saw it!

Cupcake cake to celebrate her book launch

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

I’ve been thinking about this because I was just at a school visit where a fifth grader asked me a similar question. At first, I said that I have all these stories in my head, all the time. In fact, when I was a kid (and okay, as an adult too), I developed a reputation for being a little spacey because I would walk right by my friends and not even notice them. There always seemed to be a whole other world in my head that I was lost in. As a writer, I’m able to bring those stories to life, and that is just so cool.

Then I thought about the question some more, and I felt I had more to say because there’s so much I love about being an author! I added that I not only get to create new worlds in my stories, but better worlds. For example, in The Unbeatable Lily Hong, I included a minor character—a nonbinary kid who’s just a part of the community with no one making a fuss. That’s the world I want to live in.

So yeah…I have the best job in the world.

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

There’s a common piece of advice that’s given to writers, and that’s “Write what you know.” But as someone who loves writing fantasy worlds and incomprehensible adventures (like a group of kids who actually want to save their Chinese school), I would like to modify that advice a bit. Instead, I would advise beginning children’s writers to write what you love—you’re going to be spending a lot of time with your book, so it should be something that brings you joy!

What are you working on next?

I have a second middle-grade book coming out in winter 2025, also through Clarion Books. It’s called Rainbow Fair, and I’m so excited for this book!

Lily, my main character in The Unbeatable Lily Hong is Hui, Chinese Muslim, like me. I don’t go into this identity very much in this book, but my editors at Clarion Books asked me to pitch them another MG book with a Hui main character, so I did. Rainbow Fair is that book! I basically pitched it as “intersectionality for middle graders.”

In Rainbow Fair, Sophie, my main character, is put in charge of the Muslim booth for her middle school’s cultural fair and has to navigate the intersectionality of being both Chinese and Muslim as well as the complexities of middle grade friendships.

I haven’t been able to find any hard and fast data on this, but there aren’t many middle grade books with Hui representation, and I love that The Unbeatable Lily Hong has a Hui main character. I also love that Sophie will continue that representation in a different way in Rainbow Fair!

Cynsational Notes

Diana Ma is a Chinese American author of middle grade and young adult books. Her debut novel Heiress Apparently (Harry N. Abrams, 2020) was a 2021 Washington State Book Award finalist in Young Adult Literature. She was also a 2019 We Need Diverse Books mentee and a Highlights Foundation Muslim Storytellers Fellow. She is represented by Christa Heschke and Daniele Hunter of McIntosh and Otis and has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington and an MA with a Creative Writing focus from the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Diana teaches at a community college in Seattle and believes that it’s important for all kids to recognize themselves as the heroes of the books they read. Her belief that diverse books help us create a better world is what drives her writing and teaching. More information can be found about Diana on her website:

Suma Subramaniam is a recruiter by day and a children’s book author by night. Her picture books include Namaste is a Greeting (2022 Crystal Kite and 2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner), She Sang for India (2023 Northern Lights Book Award Winner and 2023 NYPL Vibrant Voices Book), The Runaway Dosa, A Bindi Can Be…, My Name is Long as a River, and more. Suma is also the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Finalist -2023 Massachusetts Book Award). Her poems have been published in Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine, What is Hope?, and other anthologies for children.

She lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who will do anything for Indian sweets and snacks. Follow her on InstagramTwitter or Facebook and connect with her on Linkedin.