For as long as she can remember, Van Hoang has been a writer, so the release of Girl Giant and the Monkey King (Roaring Brook) is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition. “When I was a kid, I had this notebook,” she says. “I was obsessed about not having enough pages, so I’d write these stories and then go back and erase them, so I’d have more room to keep writing. We probably had plenty of notebooks, but I was afraid of running out of paper.”
Inspired by work such as Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Hoang’s earliest efforts were dragon centric. “I only wanted to read fantasy novels, because those were the most interesting,” she says. “Contemporary novels weren’t worth it because I could learn about those people in real life, but I couldn’t meet fantasy characters the same way.”
After acquiring a BA in English from the University of New Mexico, Hoang earned a master’s in library information science from San José State University. Initially focusing on technical writing, she worked for a telecommunications company, which she found unfulfilling. “I had this full-time job, but I didn’t enjoy sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, 40 hours a week,” she says. “I wanted to be out there doing something more interactive.”
Currently, Hoang works as a librarian at the Huntington Beach Library in Southern California, where, she says happily, “I get to talk about books all day.”
Throughout, Hoang continued to work on her own fiction. “For some reason, I’d always write stories with a European setting, or with the sort of medieval era you see in fairy tales,” she says. “And I think that’s because that’s what I read growing up, so I thought that’s what I should do also. And those never worked out for me.”
However, Hoang’s first book was strong enough for Mary C. Moore at Kimberley Cameron & Associates to take her on as a client. “We decided to focus more on my Vietnamese background,” Hoang says. “She helped me throughout the entire development process, and I loved working with her.”
For Hoang, this shift in perspective was an eye-opener. “It wasn’t until I tapped into my own culture and what I experienced growing up and what I loved as a child,” she says, “that something clicked and I was able to write a more meaningful story.”
Drawing upon the rich body of Asian literature and entertainment focusing upon Sun Wukong, the complicated trickster figure known as the Monkey King, and fusing it with the Vietnamese tales of the Four Immortals (most specifically the Boy Giant), Hoang crafted Girl Giant and the Monkey King, a contemporary fantasy about a 12-year-old Vietnamese American girl with super strength who becomes embroiled in divine and supernatural matters while exploring her personal and cultural identities. “I really love the Rick Riordan books, and with his Rick Riordan Presents imprint giving so many mythologies their time in the spotlight, I wanted to do the same for Vietnamese cosmology,” she says. “I thought about the Boy Giant as a character, and asked what it would be like if it was a girl growing up in today’s society. What would it be like to struggle with this hidden power, especially in a culture not your own, and how would she deal with it?”
And so Girl Giant’s protagonist, Thom Ngho, is caught between the more traditional attitudes and expectations of her Vietnamese mother and the pressure of being one of only two Asian students in her school, leading to that struggle to find a balance between cultures. It’s an internal conflict to which Hoang can relate. “When you grow up in a culture different from your own, you have this subconscious feeling that yours isn’t great, and you might even reject it,” she says. “I wanted readers to look at this idea of internal racism and challenge it, and accept themselves and their culture no matter where they came from.”
In 2019, Girl Giant and the Monkey King landed at Roaring Brook Press, when it was acquired by Mekisha Telfer. “I was freaking out when I heard she wanted to speak with me,” Hoang says. “Not only is she a great editor,” Hoang says, “she’s on the board of People of Color in Publishing. I love her work.” And while Hoang had to wait to hear back from other publishers who’d been considering the manuscript, she was thrilled to sign with Telfer. “I was so happy I’d get to work with this wonderful person and editor.”
Even as Hoang’s writing career took off, her personal life became more complicated, amid the pandemic. When her library shut down in March, she was six months pregnant and under a lot of stress. “There was this feeling of uncertainty about everything: to have a book come out this year, and not know what was going to happen the next,” she says. “I feel like I missed out on all the events, like the in-person book launch and signings.” She’s looking forward to virtual events as a way to reach her fans in the meantime.
Currently on maternity leave, she plans her writing around her child’s schedule. “I have the night shift for taking care of the baby,” she says with a laugh. “He goes to sleep around 10 p.m., and he’s out for the night. I get most of my writing done then, until like three in the morning. Before that though, when I was still working, I’d wake up at 5 a.m. and write before going in. I spent so much time at Panera.”
A sequel, Girl Giant and the Jade War, is tentatively planned for late 2021. Hoang also wants to write “something fun,” she says, explaining that “when you’re an author of color, there’s a lot of pressure on you to write important books. I want to write something that can just be entertaining.”
Regardless of what Hoang does next, she hopes her debut will inspire readers to embrace all of their complexities, just as her heroine does.