After two acclaimed graphic novels for teens, In Real Life and The Prince and the Dressmaker, Jen Wang has written her middle grade debut, a story about two very different Chinese-American girls, who become unlikely best friends while navigating their cultural identities. Drawing from her own childhood, Wang speaks to the experience of feeling different within your community. Wang talked with PW about finding her way to writing for young readers, pulling from lived experience, and collaborating with other writers and artists.
This is your fourth published graphic novel and first published specifically for a middle grade readership. How did you come to writing for children and teens?
When I started in comics, I wasn’t thinking about writing for kids. Then, I did In Real Life with Cory Doctorow, which was my first YA book. I found that I really enjoyed the experience and liked the interaction with kids and teens after publication. You go around and talk at libraries and schools; I really liked that there was a real enthusiasm for comics, storytelling, and learning. I started to think about what writing literature for children is all about and how meaningful it is. I did The Prince and the Dressmaker next. I wasn’t necessarily thinking about kids when I started writing it, but it made sense for the characters to be younger because it’s a story about identity and figuring out who you are. Stargazing is the first book I specifically planned for a younger audience, partly as a challenge. I wondered, “Can I do this?” I found that it was hard in a way that I didn’t expect. Writing for kids is more sophisticated because it’s dealing with more intricate feelings and emotions that, at that age, you don’t really know how to process yet. It’s challenging, but in a fun way.
Have there been any experiences with children and teens that made you realize there was a place for you in the kidlit world?
Every time I speak to kids and teens and they’re having a good time or excited to meet an author, it makes me think about how I would have liked something like that when I was a kid and how meaningful that would have been for me. Thinking about myself at that age and what would have been special to me is the thing that feels significant.
Did you have to adjust your perspective or approach to write for a younger audience?
For me, because this book is based on my personal experiences, all I had to do was think about how I experienced things at that age. The characters are the same age I was when I had the same experiences, so it made sense that they would behave and react in certain ways that are how child me would act, but not adult me.
What inspired the premise of Stargazing?
I always wanted to tell a story that was about my childhood and how I felt growing up around a lot of other Chinese Americans. I feel that it’s pretty common for kids of color in America to be either the only [kids of color] in their schools or communities or just one of many because there are a lot of immigrants in the area or they live in a community hub. Stories with multiple characters from the same community, all protagonists, was something that I hadn’t seen a lot. I wanted to do that and focus on the specific ways I felt and reacted to the other Chinese-American kids around me.
Stargazing is about two Chinese-American girls, one from a more traditional immigrant family and the other with a single mom and who’s vegetarian, Buddhist, and a little different. I wanted to highlight the dynamic between two very different individuals within one community.
When you’re beginning a new story, what comes first: the words or the images?
For me, it’s the writing. I come up with a concept and might doodle a little bit to get some ideas flowing, but I mostly write and take notes. I write an outline. In a way, I feel like I can make the art fit the story that needs to be told, so I start with the story first.
Did you do any research for Stargazing?
I did a little bit of research into my own history. This is kind of a spoiler, but in the book, one of the characters has a brain tumor. That was something that happened me, but when I was younger. Because I was only six, I have memories of that time, but not really facts, so I interviewed my mom and she gave me all the details from that period of my life.
Has the success of The Prince and the Dressmaker at all influenced your writing or storytelling approach?
It was a little scary because there’s a lot of expectation after you have one book published that is successful. There’s sometimes this expectation that you’ll do something very similar again or write books that are just as successful, but I wanted to detach from that as much as I could. That expectation wasn’t helpful. So, my response was to do a very different book, freeing this idea that I had to make something similar to succeed.
At what point after The Prince and the Dressmaker did you start working on Stargazing? Do you only work on one project at a time?
I usually wait until everything is done with one book before starting another, just because it’s easier that way. But I do start thinking about what I want to work on next as I’m going through the production process for the current book because, after I’ve finished the writing, the drawing is very relaxing for me. There’s a lot of time when I just sit and draw and think about things. So, I wait until everything is done and my energy is replenished before starting something new.
Do you do all the art, including the coloring?
Yes, for most of my books I’ve done all the artwork, including cover design, but Stargrazing was my first time working with a colorist. I worked with Lark Pien, who is a good friend of mine. She also colored Gene Yang’s books, including American Born Chinese and his upcoming book. She’s also a Chinese American and has had a lot of similar feelings and experiences. I felt that [working with Lark] was a good way to avoid stressing my body finishing the book and to collaborate with someone who has a strong perspective about this specific experience. It ended up being a lot of fun because we were able to talk a lot while working and, because her job was solely in coloring, she was able to add a lot of detail that I wouldn’t have been able to as I tried to get it all done alone.
You’ve collaborated on other projects, such as In Real Life with Cory Doctorow, and published solo projects. Do you find that your process changes significantly depending on whether you’re collaborating?
Every collaboration I’ve done has been very different, so I think it depends on the collaborator and the circumstances around the project. With In Real Life, all of the collaboration was upfront because it was just in the writing. We did drafts and went back and forth, and our editor Mark Siegel was working with us, so that included a lot of communication early on, but when I started doing the drawing, it was just me. With Stargazing, it was the opposite because everything upfront was all me, then, only at the very end, did I start collaborating with someone and was able to see the project in a new light.
Do you have a favorite part of the creation and publication process?
Writing is the most challenging and most interesting, but drawing is very relaxing. That’s the part where I feel like I kind of get into a routine. I like different parts of it for different reasons, but I think writing and penciling are my favorites.
You’re the co-founder and organizer of Comic Arts LA in Los Angeles. Can you share a bit about the festival and its creation?
We did our first show in 2014. Before that, I never thought I would be interested in doing anything like this. I had no experience in organizing anything, but I was talking with some friends, who became my co-organizers, about why there weren’t any independent comics shows in L.A. Nobody wanted to do it because it’s a lot of work. I thought about how so many people wanted something like that and thought maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to roll a ball down a hill; maybe more people would help along the way. It did end up sort of like that. It was a lot of work, but so much of the show is built out of the energy of the artists and attendees.
I hadn’t realized how much I enjoy doing this kind of community effort because so much of what I normally do is sitting at my desk and drawing, which, while I enjoy it, is private and isolating. Doing something like Comic Arts LA is the complete opposite. I enjoy interacting with so many people and doing work that’s not about me.
Are you able to share anything about your next project?
It’s a little early to say, but I am working on something new. Ask me again in a year.
Stargazing by Jen Wang. First Second, $12.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-25018-338-0