Catherine Con Morse was one of the inaugural Writers in Residence at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Boston University, where she taught undergraduate creative writing for several years. Her YA debut, The Notes, is a coming-of-age novel with autobiographical elements starring a Chinese American teen at a Southern performing arts boarding school. Ellen Oh is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books and the award-winning author of numerous middle grade novels and the YA Prophecy trilogy. In her new book, a speculative fiction adventure, The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee, a teenage artist grapples with first love, grief, and learning how to take charge of her own life. We asked Morse and Oh to discuss their new books and the importance of authentic Asian American representation in children’s literature.

Ellen Oh: Hi, Catherine! I’m so excited to have this conversation with you. I truly enjoyed your debut The Notes! The music school world is so fascinating. I was forced to play piano but was never good enough to be competitive. So is it true that a Juilliard professor had a glass eye that he would take out and train on his students?

Catherine Con Morse: Thanks so much, Ellen! I fell in love with classical music and playing the piano in high school. I still love to play. What I also loved as a teen was playing pop songs for my friends who were much better singers than me. I think I heard that glass-eyed professor is teaching at a music school somewhere in the U.S.

Oh: I love that we’ve got a book from this perspective coming out for Asian American readers! As a Gen Xer, I never saw myself represented in children’s books when I was little. But I do remember feeling awful in second grade when my teacher read The Five Chinese Brothers, with those really racist illustrations. Bad representation can be really harmful. And for me, it wasn’t until I was in college that I read The Joy Luck Club and I finally saw myself in the pages of a book. It changed my life.

Morse: Honestly, I’m having a lot of trouble remembering the first time I saw myself in a book, and I’m a millennial! I remember reading Yang the Youngest and His Terrible Ear, which I enjoyed, but the Yang family had so recently immigrated from China—it was hard for me to relate. I loved the Baby-Sitters Club books, but I don’t remember Claudia Kishi struggling with being the only Asian at Stoneybrook High.

In books or movies, the Asians were often side characters who were typecast. I didn’t get to see them being a “cool” kid, and I definitely didn’t see them as a love interest. When I went to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities (the school that The Notes is inspired by), it was the first time I met many different Asian students who were interested in many different things. That was life-changing for me.

Oh: Yeah, I didn’t want my kids to have the same experiences that you and I did. So I went looking for the books I never had when I was young. I was so sure that times had changed—and while I was so happy to find Linda Sue Park, Grace Lin, Lisa Yee, Laurence Yep, it just wasn’t enough. I couldn’t even fill one bookshelf. It’s why I started writing.

Morse: I started out trying to write fiction for adults. But my feelings, memories, and experiences from high school are still so vivid. I was drawn to younger protagonists and found that I still had questions about that time in my life, like, what was the deal with that glamorous Taiwanese piano teacher who only taught at our school for a year? Writing was my way to explore those questions. I think if I had had these YA books when I was a kid, it would’ve been easier to be confident about who I was.

Oh: I know, right? I wrote my debut novel Prophecy because I wanted my kids to read about a strong Asian hero. Did you know it was the first Korean mythology–based YA fantasy novel to be published?

Morse: That is incredible!

Oh: When Prophecy came out in 2013, only 2.3% of books published were by Asian authors, per CCBC diversity statistics. Before then, most Asian fantasy books were written by white authors. I remember talking about this fact with Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, both of whom had also written YA Asian fantasies. And it was depressing for us to see readers write things like, “For good Asian fantasy read Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff” or other books by white writers, as if Asian fantasy was only good when written through the white gaze.

Thankfully, times have changed and 10 years later the number of Asian books written by Asians has jumped up to over 18%.

Morse: Wow, it’s amazing how quickly that number has skyrocketed.

Oh: That’s why I’m so excited that both of our YA books are out this year! Although my book is a lot different from Prophecy. The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee is speculative fiction romance about a webcomic artist who gets sucked into the webcomic world that she creates, only to find that the story is wreaking havoc on everyone and only she has the power to fix it—even if it means giving up the one boy she’s ever loved. I have to admit, it was a lot more complicated writing this book than I expected. How about you?

Morse: At first, The Notes was going to be a shorter, simpler novel about a girl and her piano teacher. But as the story unfolded, I knew I had to probe deeper, maybe get sort of uncomfortable myself, and explore the nuances and tensions around race and culture for both Claire and Dr. Li.

Usually, campus novels have nearly all white characters, which makes sense because traditionally, boarding schools are predominantly white institutions. I loved writing a boarding school novel that has main characters who celebrate being Asian American—and they’re the cool, popular kids.

Oh: I love that so much! Asian kids need to see that kind of positive representation. When I go on school visits across the country, at some point in almost every school, I have Asian kids come find me and tell me just how important it is to read about kids who look like them and have those Asian cultural touchstone moments. It is such an important reminder of why I write.

Morse: I also can’t wait to talk with teens. What I love about my high school students is that they are unfiltered, lively, and not afraid to be themselves. So I’m also very much looking forward to school visits!

When writing YA, you can’t hide behind beautiful sentences or a character study without plot. It’s not about trying to show off. Stories for young adults are real and fast-paced and unpretentious. I love that every YA book ends with a glimmer of hope. So many adult books end in despair. It’s not easy to write a not-sad ending, just as it’s not easy to hold on to hope—but I love that young adults do that!

Oh: And they need to see us, the Asian writers! I remember going to my first writer conferences and there were so few East Asian authors in YA that we were constantly being confused for one another. Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Marie Lu, Jenny Han, Julie Kagawa, Stacey Lee, and Maurene Goo. But now there are so many more for us to get confused with! :o)

The sheer number of amazing Asian authors who are putting out fabulous books these days is truly wonderful. June Hur, Traci Chee, Axie Oh, Kat Cho, Samira Ahmed, Xiran Jay Zhao, Jamie Hoang, Patricia Park, Chloe Gong, R.F. Kuang, Emiko Jean, Judy Lin, Adib Khorram, Randy Ribay, Gloria Chao, Lyla Lee, Daniel Nayeri, Joan He, Robin Ha, the brilliant Sabaa Tahir, and so many more that I’m not able to list them all. And this is just YA! There are even more writing middle grade, picture books, and graphic novels!! My bookshelves are now full of wonderful Asian books! It makes me so proud to be Asian!

Morse: I live in a very white part of Connecticut, and when I was at a bookstore last summer, a staff person made sure to let me know they had lots of books by Asian American authors there—way more than when I was a kid. I was like, I know! I’m part of Kundiman, an excellent literary community for Asian American writers, and it has been thrilling to see names of other Kundiman Fellows on shelves at bookstores.

One of my favorite things about seeing more Asian rep in books is the diversity of not just genres but storytelling.
—Ellen Oh

At Choate Rosemary Hall, where I teach high school, they emphasize global literature, and I had so much freedom in choosing my material. The students and I would sometimes have a full term where we only read writers of color, mostly female authors. That was incredible. My students really want to see themselves represented—and there is so much good literature out there for them to choose from. The school itself is fairly diverse, especially for a boarding school, and my students were able to have productive and open dialogues about some pretty tricky issues around race and class. The books we read helped make that possible.

Oh: I have to say one of my favorite things about seeing more Asian rep in books is the diversity of not just genres but storytelling. As much as I loved The Joy Luck Club, I’m so happy to see fantasy and sci-fi and romance and historical and all different types of storytelling, including graphic novels. The sheer breadth of diversity makes me so happy! Some of my favorite recent YA books this year have been Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham’s beautiful graphic novel Lunar New Year Love Story, Traci Chee’s epic fantasy Kindling, June Hur’s brilliant historical novel A Crane Among Wolves, Adib Khorram’s adorable romance The Breakup Lists, Samira Ahmed’s call to arms This Book Won’t Burn, Jamie Hoang’s devastating My Father, the Panda Killer, and Patty Park’s hysterically funny What’s Eating Jackie Oh?

Morse: A resounding yes! I also love that there are many different kinds of Asians represented: not only East Asian but Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern. One of my favorite graphic novels is Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. I’m also a fan of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels, and I loved Stargazing by Jen Wang. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Picture Us in the Light was so impressively multilayered and moving.

It was so refreshing to read Imposter Syndrome and Other Confessions of Alejandra Kim by Patricia Park! When I was a kid, it always felt like a big, confusing thing to explain my parents’ immigrant background (my dad is Chinese–Costa Rican). I also often felt like I didn’t fit in with other kids at, say, Chinese school, because my parents spoke English to each other since that’s the language they have in common. It was amazing to see how Patty Park laid out Alejandra’s background in a way that was both compelling and felt organic and true. I am super looking forward to reading What’s Eating Jackie Oh?

And of course, I can’t wait to read The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee, which sounds like an incredibly fun ride!

Oh: Colliding Worlds is my 13th published book, and The Notes is your first, but we still probably have the same concern where we hope our books will reach readers who will love them. That hasn’t changed for me over the years. I hope that my books find both Asian readers and non-Asian readers. I want Asian kids to know that they are seen and they belong despite the racism and othering that are a part of their diasporic experience. And I want all kids to read about Asian kids so they will learn not to other them.

Morse: I hope my books help readers to embrace their racial and cultural identities, and I hope my readers learn a little bit more empathy and have a bit more awareness about their own prejudices. My protagonists are daughters of immigrants who live in predominantly white spaces—that’s how I grew up. So for kids who make art, who wish they lived somewhere else, and who aren’t quite sure where they fit in, I hope my books help them feel seen.

Oh: Yes, this exactly! It’s why in my Asian American middle-grade anthology You Are Here, the dedication is, “To anyone who has ever wondered if they belong, we see you and know that you do.” I hope our books can help.

The Notes by Catherine Con Morse. Crown, $19.99, Apr. ISBN 978-0-593-71138-5

The Colliding Worlds of Mina Lee by Ellen Oh. Crown, $19.99, Jan. 2024 ISBN 978-0-59312-594-6