My absolute happiest moments as a writer are those when I am talking to students, either in person or online via skype. It energizes me to see bright, curious faces and answer questions from eager readers. Perhaps this is because I have many vivid memories from my own childhood.
When I was in fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be a writer. So I went to the public library and looked up my name in the card catalogue. I had a common last name—Jones—and a first name that is not common now but was fairly ordinary then—Dorothy. I was sorely disappointed to discover that there were already several authors with my same name! I kept writing any way.
By the time I was in high school, I had taken the nickname of Dori–borrowed from one of Tolkien’s dwarfs. I decided I should marry a man with an unusual last name. That would solve my “common name” problem. And it did!
What I never expected is that I would marry a Chinese man with the name Yang. Where I grew up, in Ohio, there were lots of white faces and black faces but no Asian ones. No kids who looked like my daughter, Emily. Today Asian Americans are the fastest growing group of students in American schools. Like all kids, they enjoy finding books with characters who look like them.
My Chinese-American daughter is the reason I started writing books for children. I worked as a journalist for Business Week for fifteen years, including eight years covering China from Hong Kong. Back in Seattle, my first book was about the origins of Starbucks Coffee Company, and it reached several bestseller lists. But Emily, at age ten, thought that was boring.
So I decided to write a books for kids her age. The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang is about a girl from China who arrives at school in Seattle speaking no English. I related to her because I remember how difficult it was for me to learn Chinese when I was living in Singapore. Most kids who immigrate to the U.S. learn English quickly, so I gave Gina another problem: She gets so nervous in front of other people that she can’t speak at all—in any language—at school. That makes it hard to learn English—and to make friends. An overly talkative classmate named Priscilla brings Gina out of her shell.
I was very lucky with that book. I heard about a contest by the publisher of the American Girls books, then called Pleasant Company Publications. They offered a prize of $10,000 to encourage more authors to write for them. The first year I submitted to the contest, I lost. But I got an encouraging letter from an editor. So the next year, I submitted the book that became The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang. It won the contest!
After that, I wrote a young adult book, Daughter of Xanadu, set in China at the time of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. It turns history on its head, writing from the point of view of an Asian girl instead of a white male. Emmajin, granddaughter of the Khan, wants to become a soldier in the Mongol Army and fight. But when she learns about other countries and cultures, through Marco Polo, and experiences war herself, she decides she’d rather work for peace.
Most of my author visits so far have been to discuss Daughter of Xanadu. Middle school teachers have found that the topic works well with humanities studies about the history of China, the Silk Road, war and peace, and explorers. When I come to schools in person, I bring lots of props from my travels: a miniature yurt, a toy Mongol soldier on horseback, a Mongolian dress (del), and two hats, for men and women. Kids love it. In fact, my soldier’s horse has broken his ankle many times from eager sixth-grade hands.
As you can imagine, I strongly believe in the cause “We Need Diverse Books.” It shocked me to learn that, although 37 percent of Americans are Hispanics or people of color, only 10 percent of children’s books feature such children. My daughter is biracial and bicultural, and my husband and I raised her to value her heritage on both sides. She grew up near Seattle, with many friends of different backgrounds. Often her teachers asked me to recommend books about Chinese kids—and, frankly, there were not many to choose from. So I wrote children’s books about strong, interesting Asian girls. My upcoming middle-grade novel is about a Chinese boy who comes to America in 1875—not as a laborer but as one of 120 boys sent by the Emperor in a grand experiment to modernize China.
I look forward to many more classroom visits with bright, curious readers of all backgrounds, encouraging children to read about characters from many cultures and to empathize with them.