"It all came from a two-word joke," Lisa Yee says of her first middle-grade novel, Millicent Min, Girl Genius (Scholastic/Levine). And ever since the book's release, young readers (and reviewers, too) have been enjoying Yee's sense of humor. "I was thinking about the term 'child psychologist' and how funny it was," Yee explains. "Initially I thought I would write a book about a child who was actually a psychologist—and I did that, but it has since evolved into Millicent Min."
Eleven-year-old Millicent is a profoundly gifted child who has skipped so far ahead academically that she is about to enter her senior year of high school while her contemporaries will be going into sixth grade. Though she loves the intellectual challenges of her situation, Millicent lacks for friends and social skills, believing that writing Latin quips in a classmate's yearbook is the height of cool and that her grandmother and her books are all the companionship she needs. But one eventful summer—the time frame of the book—changes everything.
For Yee, it was the confluence of luck, quick thinking and a little white lie that led to her recent career changes. "I've been a professional writer ever since I left college," she says, having done writing work in advertising and television after graduating from the University of Southern California in 1981. But longing to express herself in a more creative way, Yee embarked on a personal goal to write a children's book. Her first attempt landed in the slush pile at Knopf Books for Young Readers back in the mid-1990s, where it was seen by then-Knopf editor Arthur Levine. "Arthur pulled my book out of the slush pile," Yee says, with a hint of disbelief in her voice. "I now know that it was pretty much a miracle."
"Arthur wrote me and said something like, 'This isn't quite it, but if you do something else, I'd like to see it,' " the author recalls. "I told him—well, I wouldn't exactly call it a lie—that I had this idea," she said with a slight laugh. "I mentioned that if he was interested, I would send him three chapters and, if he liked those, I'd send the rest of the book. He asked me for the entire book, and there was no rest of the book—I hadn't written it yet!"
Yee finished the manuscript in good time and Levine, who had since moved to Scholastic, was enthusiastic, noting, "We can work on it together" in another letter to Yee.
However, Yee's initial burst of activity in the children's book arena was temporarily put on hold when she faced more demands in her family life. "I was having another baby [a son who is now six; her daughter is 11] and my husband and I had started a creative services company, so things were crazy," recalls Yee. "I didn't write anything for a year."
Finally, it was Yee's attendance at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference that got Millicent Min back on track. "Everyone was discussing what various kinds of rejections mean. I quickly realized how special it was that I had received a personal letter from an editor. That's when everything changed for me. I apologized to Arthur and got to work on the book."
As Millicent inched toward publication, Yee was surprised at the whole process. "You have romantic images of writing something in a garret and then, poof, it's a book," she says. "It took me by surprise how collaborative it was. Arthur and [associate editor] Cheryl Klein really helped me shape the book—and they were polite about it! In advertising they often say, 'Do this, do that' rather than 'Have you ever considered this?' "
It looks as though Yee will be enjoying the courteous collaboration a while longer, too. She recently completed the first draft of a companion book to Millicent Min, which stars one of the characters in the book, Stanford Wong, and is scheduled for spring 2005.
For now, she's happy enjoying being a new children's book author. She has done signings at her children's schools as well as her own junior high alma mater in southern California, and will be facilitating an online seminar for gifted children who have completed an analysis of the book.
"For so long, this had been a dream," Yee says. "It wasn't until I saw the galleys that it was real. When Listening Library bought the audio rights, that was another eye-opener. It was more and better than I could have imagined. All along the way, I had visions of this being like one of those reality shows where someone would appear and say, 'The joke's on you, we're not going to publish your book.' "
Happily, it's Yee who's having the last laugh.