Tae Keller is an Asian American author and winner of the 2021 Newbery Award for When You Trap a Tiger. Her latest novel, Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, follows Mallory, who has always followed the rules of fitting in. But when she meets Jennifer, someone who isn’t concerned about her image but has since disappeared, Mallory is forced to confront her own feelings and the truth of why Jennifer may have run away.

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone takes a hard look at bullying, through the eyes of the bully instead of the one being bullied. In your author’s note you write about how you were bullied like Jennifer Chan and discussed why some bullies may act the way they do. How did you decide that this was something that you wanted to write about?

When I was in middle school and I was being bullied, I gravitated towards books about bullying. What I found was a lot of books about kids who were being bullied, which was really helpful for me. But I also kept looking for books about other points of view. I was looking for a way to make sense of it, to try to understand what other people were thinking, and how this happened. I was thinking, “who’s the victim, who’s the mean girl, who’s the sidekick, the follower,” all of the labels that we put onto kids and situations. In hindsight, that wasn’t the healthiest way to process something.

When I was writing Jennifer Chan I really wanted to be intentional. We’re not just one thing. It’s possible to make a mistake in a situation or to do something bad, but not be a bad person. One mistake won’t define us forever. If you hurt someone, you’re not just a bully for life. And that really became clear when I reached out to the kids who had bullied me. I did that because I started to write from Mallory’s point of view and I really struggled because I had a lot of those emotions from when I was in middle school. I was trying to open up and think about the broader context, but I realized that I didn’t have the broader context.

Then I started reaching out to people and hearing from them. This idea [formed] that we all are struggling and we’re all trying our best and we’re all making mistakes and trying to fix them. That became clear when I started to talk to people as an adult. It was hard. Some conversations were really healing. Other conversations didn’t go as well. That was something where I had to say, “OK, maybe this person isn’t at a place in their life where they want to talk about middle school.” That’s fair. There were of course people who weren’t really interested in talking, but I also found people who were. People said things I still think about and who, I found, were also looking for a way to move forward and heal from what had happened when we were kids.

This story also features interesting facts about space and extraterrestrial theories and, most prominently, aliens. Have you always been interested in aliens? Do you believe in aliens?

I’ve started to get this question a lot for Jennifer Chan, which I’m really excited about, because it’s so different from the questions that I would get for When You Trap a Tiger. I didn’t really think much about aliens before I started to write this book. If you had asked me before if I believed in aliens, I would’ve just said, “Yeah, probably.” Now I feel a bit more hesitant to give an answer just because so much of the research that I was doing about is not just about life in the universe, but the universe itself. At one point, I dove into astrophysics, which totally made my brain hurt [laughs]. Not my area of expertise at all! All of my research led me to this feeling that it’s not possible for us to know right now. And that is actually very exciting, letting go of this idea of certainty and absolutes. It’s really freeing to be able to say, “That’s a huge question and we don’t know the answer.”

There are actually a few times where I was doing research and was like, “Why aren’t people talking about this?” so I put it in the book. One of the things is the WOW signal, which became a major plot point in the book. Basically, in a research lab, a radio telescope picked up a signal that was 72 seconds long. It was so unusual and couldn’t be explained by regular space happenings, that the person on duty in his notes wrote “wow,” with an explanation point next to it. I did a lot of alien conspiracy research. Last year when the Pentagon released that UFOs are real, that was a big thing. When that happened, I had basically finished writing Jennifer Chan and I thought, “Oh my gosh, the whole premise of my book is wrong because they’re bullying this girl for believing in UFOs and now the U.S. government has said UFOs are real.”

There is a powerful question that the main character, Mal, asks her mother: “Do you think I am Korean?” And it’s something I’m sure a lot of immigrant and biracial kids ask themselves. What was your thought process behind that?

All three of my books so far have been about biracial Korean characters coming to their identity from a different place. And all of those places have been points along my journey. That’s not a question I had as a kid growing up in Hawaii, because there was a whole community of biracial people. When I left that community and I was surrounded by mostly white people, that was a question that kept coming up for me. Where do I fit into this community? Where do I fit into the world? Since this book is so much about “where do we fit into the world” and “how do we fit into our communities,” I felt like that point on the journey made a lot of sense for Mallory.

I really wanted to bring the tension between and her and her mom into the book because I think that their personalities conflict in some ways, but there’s also that identity element that leads to the tension between them. I’m quite close with my mom, but I know for myself and for a lot of my biracial friends, there is that feeling about being biracial, where there’s this part of you that’s almost afraid of disappointing that parent because you feel like you don’t want them to see you moving away from their culture. That was a really interesting part of their dynamic that I wanted to bring in.

I’m always excited to see books by different POC authors, [about] different identities, different experiences. I am most excited for books that aren’t exclusively about the pain of being a person of color. There are all the different types of stories that we’re used to seeing about white people, [but there should be stories] letting people of color shine in the main world because that is life, not people of color going around just being sad. I also think it’s so important for white kids to get to read these books and grow up hearing stories about people who don’t look like them, [to understand that there are] so many different types of people and recognize that we’re all people.

What are you working on these days?

I actually have a book coming out the week after Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone that’s in the She Persisted series (Philomel). It is the biography of Patsy Mink, who was the first woman of color congressperson. That was really fun to write because I had grown up hearing about her and not really knowing what she did, just knowing that she was from Hawaii. Getting to research her and talk to her family and hear about all of her accomplishments was a great experience. I also have a book called Mihi Ever After (Henry Holt), which is the first book in a younger fantasy series about a Korean American girl who is able to travel into the world of Western fairy tales and kind of update these fairy tales. It’s shamelessly the kind of book that I really would have loved [as a kid]. I started writing it in lockdown and it was really this escapist fantasy book that I needed to write at the time, so it was a lot of fun.

Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone by Tae Keller. Random House, $17.99 Apr. 26 ISBN 978-0-593-31052-6