THE BOOK OF LIFE - Not Your All-American Girl
11:33PM May 2, 2021
Wendy Wan-Long Shang
[COLD OPEN] I think that kids today are very sophisticated about recognizing the depth and variety of identities we can all have, and they have the vocabulary for it. I mean I don't think I heard the word intersectionality until about two years ago and my kids know what that means. And again, you know, living where we live outside of Washington DC, they have friends who are Asian and Jewish, it's just not that surprising to them.
[MUSIC, INTRO] Welcome to the Book of Life, a show about Jews kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. It's May 2021. Happy Jewish American Heritage Month, and happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! Today, We celebrate both by talking to Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang, co authors of This Is Just a Test, and Not Your All-American Girl, a pair of middle grade novels set in the 1980s that feature a Jewish Chinese American family. The newer title focuses on David Horowitz's younger sister Lauren. Lauren's audition for the middle school musical is a showstopper. But her teacher doesn't think she looks like an All-American Girl, so, the lead goes to Lauren's white best friend Tara, which inevitably puts a strain on their friendship. It takes two bickering grandmas, the music of Patsy Cline, and some political awareness for Lauren to set things right.
Before we dive into the interview, I want to welcome new Patreon patron. Erica Lyons, a listener who lives in Hong Kong, and is raising a child who is both Chinese and Jewish. If you'd like to join Erica in supporting the podcast, please visit patreon.com/BookofLife. Now, on with the interview. If you think you hear birds chirping, You're not crazy, Madelyn was sitting outside during our Zoom call.
Welcome, Madelyn and Wendy.
This Is Just a Test, your 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book, and your new book, Not Your All-American Girl, are sibling books, literally. The earlier one is about David Horowitz and the newer one is about his younger sister Lauren. What was the inspiration for this series and how did you end up writing it together?
I think writing it together was actually what became the inspiration for this series, Wendy and I had been friends for a long time, and we were in a writing group together, and we had become really good readers for each other's work and had hit that time in our lives where we were both so busy all of the time, you know, with family, with work, with writing, with everything, and it seemed like a good way to spend more time hanging out together was actually to write a book together.
I proposed it to Madelyn in part because I became insanely jealous that she wrote another book with another friend and I thought, well that's really cool, I want to do that too. And Madelyn and I started our careers at roughly the same time; I think we both got our agent within, who was the same person, within like two months of each other, and so we really started our writing journey at the same time. But Madeline has out published me, kind of lapped me several times and I was like I need to learn how to write faster like Madelyn. And so I asked her if we could write together so we could get to hang out and maybe I could pick up a few tricks from her on, on how to speed up my pace. My joke is always that I pulled Madelyn down to my level.
Yes, but when we started working on a book together, there were a couple of things that we wanted it to be and one was that we wanted very much for the book to be a little bit of each of us, or a lot of each of us actually. So when we started writing, we were looking at all of the different things that we had in common, and the things that we didn't have in common, and bringing them all together into one place and into one family, the character came from there.
You know when you're younger and like when you make a really good friend and you like find all these weird things that you have in common and you just think it's like kismet, right? And so for me and Madelyn, it was like oh you know we're both from Virginia, but we also both grew up as "only." When I moved to Northern Virginia, I was one of very few Asian kids in the area. Madelyn had the same experience growing up Jewish in Blacksburg. But then there were also the crazy things, like the first grownup book that we both read was Class Reunion by Rona Jaffe...
That we had each stolen from our mother's nightstands!
But we both have these great memories of growing up in the 80s, it was just such a, it's such an iconic time, you know, in terms of music, in terms of the clothes you wear. To me like there's nothing like it in terms of just how distinct it is. When people say like, oh, I'm a 90s baby, I'm like, what, what is that? I'm sorry guys...
Sorry 90s babies! but that's ... Yeah.
I'm always curious about co-written books, like how do you divide up the work, what's the process?
You know a lot of times when you see co-written books they're two different characters, but we kind of took a different approach to it. Also like thank goodness for technology. I tried to remember, Madelyn, did we use Google Docs for the first, for Test?
For the first one I feel like we were just sending we were whole manuscripts back and forth. You know every night or once a week or something like that for the other person to pick up and keep going with.
Yes, it was an ever growing attachment that we would put into this email, you know, we had sort of a general game plan; we knew the outline of the story and it was just that wonderful feeling of being used to working alone where you kind of hit a part where you feel like okay I can't write anymore, but then you get to send it off, and magically the story gets longer without any effort on your part, so it's like really a fantastic experience.
With our first story we had intended for it to be one character by both of us, we actually made a couple of attempts at doing writing where we were switching back and forth between characters where each of us would take a character like... Wendy's looking at me like...
I'd tell you that I have a terrible memory. And so I rely on Madelyn for everything, but she could, she would, she will not lie, I really I trust her implicitly, but she could literally make up anything, she could say "you wanted this to be about space aliens, remember that?" I'd be like, "Oh yeah, definitely." But if Madelyn says we did then we did, I barely remember what I had for breakfast.
We had tried it in our fantasy book where we were each a different person from a different time, that we were working on, that we're gonna go back to someday, but we couldn't do each of us one character. We both had to do both characters, so maybe we're just kind of, you know, controlling that way, I don't know.
Okay, so you both write the same character, which as you say is unusual. How, like how? How do you make that work?
I mean this is gonna sound like such a cop out answer, but it just does, it just does work. By the time we're done with the book, each of us have probably touched every sentence in the book, in some way or another, and each of us has made that sentence a little bit better, and the voice of the character a little bit better, and I just feel it just, it only works with both of us, for this particular book.
And also you know, by the time we had started writing together we had been in a writers group together for what like five or six years, and so we knew each other style fairly well, you know, we knew each other very well. I certainly trusted Madelyn's editorial voice and thought process. And I think we both agreed, whatever is good for the story is what goes in and it didn't matter who wrote it. And I can tell you very honestly that when I read the books, with very, very few exceptions, I don't know who wrote what words.
Yeah, we tried a quiz once and it was hard to even make the quiz because we just didn't know anymore.
If I really love it it's probably Madelyn.
No, untrue. I feel the same way, but, you know, vice versa.
It's good that you work so well together. These books are set in the 1980s, your childhood and my childhood. And this is now historical fiction, which is weird. But besides the fun of writing about an era that you experienced yourself, why did you want to share the 80s with young readers today?
Part of it was just because we shared it. That sense of onlyness was emphasized in the 80s. Certainly where we live, it's a really diverse area, and I didn't know if we could convincingly pull off this idea of the, the onlyness during this time.
There were some things, when we were writing it, that we wanted to go back to just because we thought those were things that happened in that time and weren't happening now, and, of course, did end up happening now, like some of the racism that we faced recently, you know, as a society, and some of the violence that we had faced especially the Vincent Chin part that we were exploring in the book. I mean I guess part of us knew that that was something that was still happening, but not to the elevated level that it's, it's been lately and, and I don't know, I guess also your childhood always seems a little bit more of an innocent time, and so it makes it an easier time in which to dissect things and look at things from a different perspective, from a different angle.
It's true. And also you know anytime you have a chance to write about a Trapper Keeper, you know, just to mention it, I think you gotta go for it.
Awesome. Do you think that David and Lauren's experiences of being Chinese Jews would be different today?
I think so. I mean I think that kids today are very sophisticated about recognizing the depth and variety of identities we can all have, and they have the vocabulary for it. I mean, I don't think I heard the word intersectionality until about two years ago, and my kids know what that means. And again, you know, living where we live outside of Washington DC, they have friends who are Asian and Jewish, it's just not that surprising to them.
And at the same time like you know, I have a young friend who came home one day and told her mom that she had been marked absent. She's Chinese and Jewish, and has a Jewish name, and the teacher kind of looked around the classroom and not seeing a student who looked like what she thought that student should look like. And just checked that she wasn't there. So, there are certainly still things today that those kids are facing. I guess it's like everything, I mean some things would be the same and some things, hopefully would be very, very different.
Yeah, I mean that's a fair point, I think it's probably different but not as much as we'd like to think it is.
What does it mean to be all-American. And what does it mean to Lauren's teacher and what does it mean to you?
So, we have actually discussed that a lot lately and we've, we've had a hard time I think getting to the exact answer, which is maybe a good thing because I think like you said, it does have a very different meaning to very different people.
I think in the book what Lauren struggles with, obviously, is appearance, and this was I think especially true in the 80s that you know that you couldn't turn without seeing some blond haired, blue eyed white girl smiling you know with their cute little outfit, and to feel that that was the standard that everyone's supposed to aspire, to, to admire, and I think that's obviously part of what Lauren is struggling against. And then there's this part that I think we're still working towards, this dream of, this promise of the United States, and that we're a melting pot, that we all belong here. This is the experiment, can we all be together? and I still believe in it. To me that is the all-American ideal, is that anyone can be an American.
When we were looking at this as the title for the book, Not Your All-American Girl. The YOUR is kind of a reference to the teacher, the people who thinks of Lauren as an outsider. You know we would call it All-American Girl, for short, because it was clear to us, and hopefully to everybody, that that's exactly what Lauren is, is a character that she, she is the All-American Girl.
That's interesting. I hadn't thought about the YOUR, but you're right, that's really significant. Lauren and David Horowitz, are of mixed Jewish and Chinese heritage, as we've talked about. So, Madelyn, you are white and Jewish, Wendy, you are a Chinese American and not Jewish. How did you create characters who reflected part of your own experience, but in a combination that you yourselves have not experienced?
We wanted very much for the character to be both of us. So when we were working on it, we did a lot of reading, a lot of research, we read interviews with people who were both, we had people that we knew who are both Jewish and Chinese American or Jewish and Filipino American, read through the manuscript, and we had some good conversations with them, so that's one way that we worked on creating a character,
We had them read the story between our finished draft and before we turned it in to make sure we got the points right.
Was there anything that these sensitivity readers pointed out to you that was interesting or something you hadn't thought of or a big adjustment, like, did you learn anything cool through that process?
Especially in the first book, I remember David's mom, who had grown up Chinese but not Jewish, was trying to plan the Bar Mitzvah. A friend had pointed out that she had wanted to prove that she could do it for her kid. And so that kind of came into the character a little bit more, I think, of the mom like just wanting to show that she could pull off a bar mitzvah, she could do the planning, so I know that was one thing. Wendy, what do you remember?
I can't remember if it's something that someone said to us or something we read, but someone pointed out that when you are Asian and Jewish, you get three new years, and I just love that idea that, you know, you're like why limit yourself to one per you know every 12 months? You have three! And I thought that that's fantastic because I always am looking for a new inspiring start.
That's great! I felt like this book offered a great demonstration of microaggressions without ever even using the word, can you talk about that?
It didn't use the word and Wendy will tell you, because it wasn't a word that anybody used in the 1980s. Like, in the 1980s, the word Asian wasn't even something that people used.
Not until the latter half. I think part of it, because it comes from people that she cares about, on one level or another whether it's her, her best friend or it's a teacher you know an authority figure. And part of it is writing it almost from their point of view, you know that they're saying these things, and they're not really having this terrible intention, you know, and, and to show how it's still hurtful. In some ways it's more painful than from, you know, a more aggressive stranger I would say.
So, I don't know about Wai-po, but Safta has some traits that are very typical of a Jewish grandmother. She's kind of bossy. So how do you avoid stereotyping, while writing ethnic characters?
Part of it is just that you have to recognize that every character has their own desire, whatever source that desire comes from, and I think that when you honor that, then you avoid the stereotypes, because then you are recognizing their humanity, their desire for dignity and recognition and love, and all those things that every single person on this planet wants.
Right, and the characters, some of them are based on very real people in our lives and Safta certainly was based on somebody that I knew very well. She was based on the grandmother that lived the longest, who was you know, a fairly typical Jewish grandmother. She knew nothing outside of New York and Florida and yet when I went to college in North Carolina. She somehow realized that I wasn't too far from Duke University where there was some X number of Jewish doctors in training. It was something that she knew and I don't know how she could possibly have this information, the internet wasn't around, but she knew! Even if it started out with my grandmother, once Wendy got ahold of her and started adding her own thing she was not my grandmother anymore but...
OK, this is why I was really surprised, we're talking about living in North Carolina, because I could have sworn, I thought I had given her the trait where she knew everybody.
What, the Jewish geography?
Yeah, yeah, was that you or me? Maybe it was you.
I mean, but it could have also been you, we don't know, but it actually you know what, I do remember because you thought of it. And then I was like, that's actually a thing! And you were like, what do you mean it's a thing? I'm like, it's a thing!
The grandmothers must have been really fun to write.
We had to always rein them back a little bit, like okay now make room for the main character, you two.
Yeah, a friend of ours had suggested that they should go on a road trip together and that certainly has not left my mind anyway.
That would be a great third book in the series, just the grandmas having their own adventure!
Take the grandchildren with them. It'll be fun. It'll be fun, they said.
Yeah, I can just imagine them all on a road trip together. That would be great. You should do that.
So, for Not Your All-American Girl, you invented a musical, Shake It Up, a story about Elvis and hula hoops. So did you actually write the whole musical? Did you create songs?
Yep, and Madelyn's son, who is a very talented musician, helped set them to music. So if you listen to the audiobook version, the very talented Laurine Price, you can hear her, her sing the songs. But yeah, we were at a coffee shop, we were kind of struggling because you know if you want to use an existing musical there are all these copyright issues. And then it was like bam, no we should write our own musical, and it should be about hula hoops. I think we had the bones for the musical in like 15 minutes.
Yeah, it's not like we wrote all of every single song but we have a list, half in my notebook, half in Wendy's notebook, of all the songs they were going to sing and the plot and what was supposed to happen. The other thing is that Wendy and I are not the world's best singers, unfortunately, but we want to. So when we were, when we were working on it, we were singing the songs and stuff like that and we wrote down the lyrics, but of course we didn't write down the notes because I don't know notation. And then when we went back and we tried to sing it again, it wasn't quite like we remember we were just kind of like, agh! This meter is off!
Exactly like oh yeah that's something, that meter did not, did not work as well outside my head as it did in my head.
So are you going to make the script available? Middle schools and high schools like Lauren's could put on a show?
I think we should. The thing is I'm very sensitive because I am hula hoop impaired. So, I don't want anyone to feel like they couldn't be in the musical because they have this inability to hula hoop for more than about four seconds.
Well I like the advice in the story, that as long as you look like you're having fun, it doesn't matter if you look like you're good at it.
That came from a very honest place!
I remember we found all these videos, like there are teams of kids across this country who do like synchronized hula hooping and it's amazing. My other favorite tidbit, was that we found this Russian cultural critic who said this was just a sign of the emptiness of American culture. And I just, I just thought that was so great and so typical of the Cold War so we had to sneak that in somewhere.
I love the mistake that Lauren makes when she thinks Patsy Cline C L I N E is Patsy Klein K L E I N and that she is Jewish. So is that a mistake that that you made in your own childhood, or are you a country music fan? How did this become a part of the story?
I do like country music but it's not a mistake that came from my life, it is a mistake that Wendy thought of. And when she told me, I screamed so loud, because it was so perfect. I'm sure I worked the neighbor's baby.
But also, poor Madelyn, for every like wake the baby scream there, there's also like No, maybe not that idea. I will get off track so fast on these plots, and I'm so grateful that Madelyn is there to kind of keep us on track.
It's not that you get off track. Wendy's what we call a plot complicater, but it's all good, because she makes things go super deep, which is one of the reasons that I had wanted to write with her in the first place, just because of the depth.
Well, that's such a perfect idea because it's all about upsetting expectations, which is exactly what the story is about
No, I like that. Yeah,
So you talked a little bit about how characters were inspired by people you know. Are there any other sort of, for lack of a better term, Easter eggs or afikomens in the, in the story? Any any fun little hidden things that that readers can watch for?
Well I was just going for the 80s-est memories that we had. Watching Star Search and hearing that music come on, seeing who was the challenger and I think it was the challenger and the champion. Back when you know, there were four channels on TV. The kickoff for Test is that cultural moment of watching The Day After and everyone starting to collectively think about what nuclear war actually means. It's so hard to get that moment now and that's something that we want to have the kids experience, when you don't have the internet, how did we find things out? We used phone books and we had to like look up things in a book, just to show that like we used to not have all this information at our fingertips.
It's almost like our synapses worked in a different way to, when it came to figuring things out. Like with Trivial Pursuit, for instance, we both played this way when we would play Trivial Pursuit, you'd have to reason out answers and eliminate things and was much trickier than going for your phone, and you can almost feel the pull of wanting the phone so you can look up the thing and not make your brain do the work.
That's interesting that the thought processes were different at the time and you're probably right. Is there any particular thing about the 80s, that is the most nostalgic for you, or, or some particular piece of 80s culture that you would urge listeners to go look up on YouTube or something?
I would say we are due, because we've all been home for a year, for a Look. When you find pictures of people in the 80s, you know. You know, it's turquoise and pink and white and puffy and the hair is out to here. I just think it's so great to have such a definitive look. And I think once we all get to walk out of our houses again, wouldn't it be great to just have like, oh that's so 2021. Are we going to be tired of wearing sweat pants, or are we just going to like fully commit to never wearing clothes with waistbands, fitted waists anymore. I don't know, but I think it would be cool.
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel lady on Steven Colbert had called what we war now soft pants as opposed to hard pants that we used to wear, so I think that's gonna be a thing. Yeah, I mean totally the hair and Sun In people could look up Sun In. Like Wendy was saying, the experience of just having those few TV channels... we were talking to my daughter the other day about when the air would go dead, when the TV show would sign off with the Star Spangled Banner and then you'd see the test screen, and then you'd hear SHHH, you know.
And it was time to go to bed.
And without that, how would you have a poltergeist, right? You need to have the snow on the TV.
That's a thing I would not like to revisit from the 80s because that, that movie cost me about three months of sleep.
So it's time for our Tikkun Olam moment. I'd like to invite each of you to ask listeners to take some kind of action to help repair the world.
So I would ask listeners to look up an organization called ihollaback.org. It's a nonprofit that focuses on ending harassment of all types, and they are offering a variety of free classes that you can take. So the one that I'm signed up for, is part of the Stop Asian Hate discussion that we've had lately and it's how to not just be a bystander but how to intervene and help, so I would urge people to take the action of looking at that site and figuring out how to be an upstander, and you can take a class for free, or you could donate to the organization.
I would like readers to think about how important children's books are in this fight against hate, that when we introduce kids to a variety of people of differing backgrounds, even if you don't live in a place that is diverse, that you can have this opportunity to know a person through these books. And I think one organization that is raising the next generation of voices that we don't hear enough from is Shout Mouse Press. It is a nonprofit based here in DC. I'm fortunate enough to be on their board. They work with kids who are from marginalized communities for a variety of reasons whether its economic, whether it's immigration status, whether it's kids in juvenile justice facilities, and they encourage them to write their amazing beautiful stories, and hopefully this will encourage yet another generation of writers.
Wonderful, thank you both. What are each of you working on either together or individually for your next writing assignment?
I have a book coming out in June called One Small Hop. I am working on a picture book, and then Wendy and I are always working on something together...
Our secret project. I have my first picture book coming out in June, it's called The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round. And I am working on a book for Scholastic tentatively titled The Secret Battle of Evan Pao. It is also about kind of how do we deal with aggression, but kind of on a different level.
Growing in relevance every day.
That reminds me that we briefly referenced Vincent Chin, so let's go back to that. Within the story, Lauren's family tells her about a racist incident that up until then, they had felt she was too young to understand or deal with. But there comes a time when they, they introduced this history to her about Vincent Chen and she comes to understand its significance. Can you talk about that? Fill in the listeners about who he was and what was his story.
Vincent Chin was a young man in Detroit in the 1980s. He was Chinese American. And the piece of context that our young readers would need to know is that during this time, Detroit was kind of the epicenter of American car manufacturing, and there was a lot of resentment toward the influx of cars made in Japan. Vincent Chin was out celebrating on a bachelor party. He got into an argument with two auto workers, and the long the short of it is that they ended up beating him so severely that he died of his injuries a few days later.
And we should add the people that did it, were white, and were tried. Much like some of what's happening today when people make it into the court, the Court sided with them.
The judge said they didn't seem like the kind of people who should go to jail.
And this is the lesson that they want Lauren to take away, is you've got to speak up for yourself, you've got to let people know that it's not okay, that you know, these smaller aggressions turn into other things when they're left unchallenged.
And so much of it, I think, is about humanity too. When people stop seeing other people as human. And that's not a problem that Lauren has with her friends, but she needs her friends to know who she is and what bothers her.
I know that there's, it sounds like a terrific book, called From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry by Paula Yoo, either out or about to be out, and it's about kind of the political movement that his death fomented.
Thank you for the explanation. I feel like Not Your All-American Girl, maybe even more so than This Is Just a Test, does a really great job of placing into context, being an intersectional member of a marginalized group. It really demonstrates what microaggressions are, demonstrates, where they can lead, role models working against that by standing up for yourself. It just it did all the right things and at the same time it was fun and fairly light hearted. I think, I think you really hit the nail on the head in so many ways that are important right now.
Thank you, that means a lot.
Thank you. And we do believe that humor is a really important way of getting at some of these issues, of making them something that people can talk about.
Yeah, I mean books in a way are practice right? They're practice for a reader to say like oh, how would I react in that situation.
Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you so much for having us, it was really a great conversation.
Thank you so much, Heidi.
[MUSIC, TEASER] Hi, my name is Adam Eli. I am the author of The New Queer Conscience. I'm thrilled to be joining you on The Book of Life podcast and my episode is dedicated to Jews, any Jew that has felt excluded or marginalized or not seen by the Jewish community as a whole. So that's queer Jews, trans Jews, black Jews, Asian Jews, disabled Jews, Jews that converted, anyone that has felt like they were not welcome in a Jewish space. This episode is for you.
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