When the coronavirus hit Hong Kong last year, middle grade novelist Kelly Yang sprang into action. Making the difficult decision to move her three kids across the world to the United States—leaving behind her husband who needed to stay for his job—she embarked on what she describes as the most dramatic, emotional experience of her life. “Moving to a new country, navigating a long-distance family, single parenting, ADHD, distance learning… all while going through a pandemic… it’s been a roller coaster of a year, and I just knew I had to write about it,” she told PW.
Such tremendous upheaval inspired her to write New from Here (S&S, March 2022), Yang’s fourth novel, following the award-winning Front Desk and 2020 release of its sequel, Three Keys, and her debut YA novel, Parachutes. In the new novel, the story of the Wei-Evans family closely mirrors the real-life plight of Yang’s children who endure anti-Asian discrimination as they settle into their new life in California. Yang chose the title for its irony: a reference to her Hong Kong-born-and-bred kids (with American parents) immigrating to the U.S. for the first time. “They are from here, but this place is still new to them; they’re new from here,” Yang explained. Yang introduced the premise for her book to her readers via a YouTube video.
Close to Home
Family life has helped shape much of Yang’s writing: Front Desk was written for her older son, Eliot, to help him understand her upbringing, while Knox, the main character in New from Here, is based on her younger son, Tilden, who has ADHD. “I wanted to document the struggle of trying to understand and manage his condition as a family—as the book shows, it really takes a village—but also the profound wonder and joy in celebrating the fascinating way his mind works,” she said. Yang describes Knox as a kind, curious and lonely boy, trying to find his place both in his new country and in his family. “What makes Knox so special is his tremendous capacity for empathy,” she added. “He has so much love in his heart to give, if people will just give him a chance.”
In another case of life imitating art in New from Here is the Wei-Evans’ relationship with their father. Like Yang’s kids, the children are geographically separated from their dad, but the author maintains this familial connection in a similar fashion, via FaceTime and frequent phone calls. “My husband usually calls early in the morning and ‘helps’ me get the kids ready for school,” Yang said, adding that everyone has a chance to talk to him. “I also video every single track practice and soccer game for him. It’s not been easy, but we’re making it work.”
Also resembling Yang’s life, the book’s story line encompasses the nuances of the family’s experience with racism in their new home. She recounts how she was verbally assaulted at the park in front of her kids and told to go back where she came from. “Like Knox, my children were made to play coronavirus tag at school and told to be ‘it,’ ” Yang said. To combat this injustice, she teaches her children the importance of supporting each other and imparts this wisdom to her readers. “We can show up for other people… [as] in the story, Knox tells his brother the importance of echoing statements of support for the victim,” she noted. “That’s something we can all do; when we see the instances of hate and injustice, we can stand up for what’s right.”
In her previous novels, Yang demonstrates her penchant for not only identifying with her characters, but drawing rich portraits of what it’s like to be a certain age. Her editor at S&S, senior editor Krista Vitola, believes this quality is Yang’s strength as a middle grade author. “Kelly is a master of dialogue, specifically those small, seemingly inconsequential moments between siblings or between parent and child that deeply resonate with readers,” she said, adding that Yang’s rich prose helps her tackle serious subjects head-on. “She doesn’t shy away from the tough issues that middle graders experience daily, but in doing so, she also arms them with knowledge and action and the power we have in taking care of and supporting one another.”
The cover of New from Here, designed by artist Maike Plenzke under executive art director Lucy Ruth Cummins, shows a moment when the Wei-Evans siblings join together in the face of adversity. Set against the backdrop of their new home, the scene depicts the smiling faces of all three siblings as a sign of a family that has stuck together through thick and thin. “We wanted to be sure to capture the sense of place, both for their home in Hong Kong and their father who is still there, as well as in San Francisco, where all three siblings have spent many vacations, but have not lived for an extended period,” Vitola described. “Also who doesn’t love a good dinosaur suit?”