In Stacey Lee’s Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies, the titular protagonist finds himself on a weird and wild adventure after inadvertently thwarting a break-in at a curiosity shop. The middle grade novel is an addition to the Rick Riordan Presents library of action-filled, character-driven stories that integrate diverse world mythologies. Lee (The Downstairs Girl) based Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies on a classic Chinese folktale. Lee spoke with PW about writing fantasies featuring underrepresented cultures, creating her character’s unique personality, and the joys of crafting a world filled with “ridiculous magic.”

What can you share about the inspiration behind Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies?

Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies is about a 12-year-old kid growing up in San Francisco who saves a strange curiosity shop from being broken into. As a reward, he is given the chance to choose one of the absurd but intriguing goodies, or "whimsies," from the shop. The first thing he touches will be the thing he takes home. Because he is a kid who has itchy fingers, he impulsively grabs a broom, which comes with a free dustpan, and his life is upended when the cleaning tools begin stealing his stuff, including his baby sister.

My son was definitely the inspiration for this story, though I’m not supposed to tell people that, which is why the dedication says up front, "To Bennett and Avalon, this book is not about you." Mostly. His button has been stuck on "go" since he was born, which has meant lots of adventures for me. He’s touched more than his share of things he’s not supposed to touch and I’ve had a broken toe, a black eye, and a busted minivan to prove it. This was all before he turned four! So I wondered, what if there were magical consequences for a good kid whose motor always ran a little too fast?

Tell me about your titular protagonist. What’s he up against in Winston Chu vs. the Whimsies? What makes him the perfect character for this story?

Winston’s father, a translator for the army, died three years before the book takes place, and Winston’s worried his family is forgetting about him. He’s also dealing with his first crush, on a cello prodigy whom he knows is out of his league—but he’ll still learn the ukulele to impress her. And of course, when the broom and dustpan begin taking over his life, he’s got to get a handle on just what they want from him. Winston is your typical fun-loving middle schooler, but as someone who knows grief, he has tremendous sympathy for those in trouble. Plus, as his soccer team’s midfielder, he’s used to juggling lots of balls.

What surprised you most during the writing process?

How much I loved the process of producing a book with ridiculous magic at its core. You get to explain things like how marshmallow Peeps don’t need legs to hop with a completely straight face.

What does it mean to you to publish the book with Rick Riordan Presents?

The dream of a lifetime. When I was in middle school, the idea that a Chinese kid could be front and center of a fantasy was itself a fantasy. To be part of RRP’s mission to publish great books by underrepresented cultures and backgrounds, inspired by mythology and folklore, is such a privilege for me! Plus, it really makes me cool to the carpool kids. My own kids are now teens and more difficult to impress.

Would the kid in you have loved this story? What do you hope today’s young readers take away from the book?

Absolutely. I loved fantasy growing up and anything with humor, and that is what I tried to serve up with this book. Bonus points for any book where the characters get to fly. I was obsessed with the flying bed in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks and the flying peach in James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. For this book, I just want readers to forget about their troubles for a little while and have a good time helping Winston with his.