Earlier this year I interviewed children's author Lisa Yee. Find out how Yee got started writing novels for kids, if she made a conscious decision to have Asian Americans be central characters in some of her books, and how an obsession with putting marshmallow Peeps into a microwave turned into a great way to meet famous authors. Her latest book, Warp Speed is available in bookstores starting March 1, 2011.
How did you get started writing children's books? What drew you to writing children's books?
I'd been almost every sort of writer before penning novels for kids. I was a journalist, a television writer, copywriter, jingle writer, you name it! However, I had always wanted to write children's books. It wasn't until I was a mom that I realized, how could I tell my kids they should pursue their dreams, if I wasn't pursuing mine?
Since I was working full time, I had to write late at night. I didn't have an agent when I first started, so I just sent something to Arthur Levine, the editor of the HARRY POTTER series. He pulled it out of the "slush pile." I've been publishing with Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Books ever since. WARP SPEED will be our seventh book together.
Many of the central characters of your books are Asian American. Was it conscious effort to create stories with Asian American characters?
It wasn't a conscious effort at first. When my first novel, MILLICENT MIN, GIRL GENIUS, came out in 2003, the main character just happened to be Chinese American, probably because I was. I didn't think twice about it. Later, I was shocked to learn that the book was the first children's contemporary fiction with a photo of an Asian girl on the cover.
My second book, STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG-TIME, featured a boy who was Millicent's enemy. It took place during the same timeframe as her story, only from his point of view. However, this time around I was aware that I was writing about an Asian protagonist, so I decided to go against stereotype when writing about a Chinese American jock who was flunking school.
Since then, not all my books have Asian protagonists, but they all have Asian characters. Two of my books, BOBBY THE BRAVE (SOMETIMES) and BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) are about a Hapa kid and his family. Plus, my most recent American Girl books, ALOHA, KANANI and GOOD JOB, KANANI also feature a Hapa girl, this time from Kaua'i.
Your latest book release is Warp Speed. What is the story about and how did you decide to write the story?
WARP SPEED is about a Star Trek geek who gets beat up everyday at school. I was inspired to write the book when a boy stood up at a school assembly and said, "I need to know what happened to Marley." I had almost forgotten who Marley was, then I recalled he was a minor character in Stanford's book--a nobody who gets pushed around. Later, the boy's teacher told me that he was exactly like Marley, and I knew I had to write that book.
As a Star Trek geek, which of the various Star Trek TV shows is your favorite? Who is your favorite Star Trek character of all time?
I love TOS, the original series. I remember watching "The Man Trap" episode as a kid and being terrified of the Salt Monster. It gave me nightmares. Like Marley Sandelski in WARP SPEED, I'd have to say my favorite character is Spock. Marley even has a temporary tattoo on his hand that says, "WWSP" -- What Would Spock Do?
Tell me about your obsession with Peeps? How did that all start? Do you find that "Peepy" your plush Peep is a great ice breaker?
I liked blowing up marshmallow Peeps in the microwave and would blog about it (http://lisayee.livejournal.com). One day a fan sent me the plush Peep that I named Peepy. Since I travel so much, I decided that she'd go with me and I'd blog about our adventures. It's so cool because when Peepy's around I'm not shy about going up to a famous author or someone and saying, "May I take a photo of you with my Peep?"
What advice do you have for other aspiring children's book authors?
Read, read, read, write, read and write. Know what's out there, but don't try to copy--instead find your own voice. Also, join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. It's the group I credit with jump starting my career.
When you are not writing, what are some things you enjoy doing in your spare time? Any guilty pleasures?
Hmmm . . . spare time? I'm not sure what that is.
I love spending time with my family. And reading's on the top of my list, too. It's also been a goal of mine to take a nap, but I haven't mastered that yet.
What is a typical day like for Lisa Yee?
I still do most of my serious writing very late at night and quit around 2 or 3 a.m. In the morning I pretend to be awake while I answer email and do lots of business stuff like arranging for school/library visits, etc. Afternoon is time to blog, goof off on facebook, and begin writing. Just as I'm gearing up and feeling good about what I'm writing, it's time to stop. Grocery shopping, laundry, mom stuff. Later, when everyone's asleep, I start writing again.
And finally, what would you like to say to all your fans out there?
Thank you, thank you, thank you, for helping make my dream come true. I can't imagine a better job than being an author. Also, I do hope everyone likes WARP SPEED. It's about bullying, and I want kids who are being bullied to know that they are not alone.