I really enjoyed reading the Cilla Lee-Jenkins series! These books have so much heart and humor, and I loved following Cilla’s journey into questions about race, culture, family, and identity. At the same time, you fold in so much information about narrative devices within these books. There is so much I could ask you!
Thank you so much! I really enjoyed writing the series: it was such a joyful, important process for me, and it means the world to hear that it resonated with you!
What inspires you to write children’s books?
Primarily, I think I write children’s books mostly because I love children’s books. As a kid, books were my world. They helped me through tough times, inspired me, moved me, and taught me so much about the world and the kind of person I wanted to be. For me, there are no books as magical, in my mind, as the ones I encountered in children’s literature.
I also struggled to learn how to read, which has really shaped me as well. It meant that when I finally did learn how to read, the books I read felt that more special. I think that’s also contributed to my love of children’s books, and my love of writing.
You mention that these stories are semi-autobiographical. What was your writing process like?
Most of the events in the Cilla series are based on at least a seed of truth, which I then explore and develop in fiction. So, for example, while I never had a princess party with a cousin, I was definitely bald as a kid (and would decorate my head with glitter glue and stickers to feel fancy and dressed up).
For me, writing semi-autobiographical stories really helps with the writing process. I usually know what I want to include in the story, and the basic premise I’m working from. From that factual premise, I then consider the emotions attached to various moments, trying to remember how I felt in certain moments, and why. I then let those emotions guide me, as I consider what kind of story I want to tell with each anecdote, and what kind of emotional arc would be satisfying for the character or particular moment.
What has nurtured you on your path toward creating books?
There are so many answers to this question, I barely know where to start. But first and foremost, I should really say – people! I’ve been so lucky to have the most supportive, amazing people in my corner, who have supported me at every turn in this process. From my best friend who, when she found out that I was writing a few pages of a book every night, encouraged me and offered to read it when I was done, to my family, to the children’s lit writing community, I’ve found so much encouragement and support in all corners.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t name, specifically, the librarians in my life. Looking back, I truly think that they’re the reason I’m a writer. My public school librarians worked so hard to help me find books and audiobooks that I would enjoy, even when I struggled with reading. In middle school, my librarian (named Ms. Clutter, who I put in Cilla 3), pushed me to read books she knew would interest and challenge me. We had an unofficial book club: every few days I’d come in, return a book, and we’d talk about what I liked, what I didn’t like, and why. I also worked for my public library in middle school – I actually didn’t even have to apply to the job, my librarians submitted my application for me the moment I turned 14! Spaces like this offered me community, where I could unashamedly nerd out over books, and share my honest ideas about what I loved and didn’t like in stories. They were truly transformational! (And I should say that these librarians from childhood still nurture and encourage me – I got to have one of my first book events in my childhood public library, with the librarian who’s been encouraging me to read and write since I was a kid!)
In addition to being an author, you are a professor of children’s literature. How does your academic work influence your children’s writing? How does your children’s writing influence your academic work?
I love this question! Teaching children’s literature and writing children’s literature sometimes feel so different, but they all allow me to consider the same questions and ideas, just from different angles.
I’d say that my academic work has given me a really solid foundation for tropes in children’s literature, and has really shown me what kinds of things I want to push back against. I’m grateful for my background in the academic study of children’s literature, which has really helped me think about the kinds of stories I want to put out in the world.
That said, I don’t publish academic work anymore, but I do teach academic children’s literature courses. For me, teaching is one of the most invigorating things I do for my writing. I love discussing the field with students and introducing them to different takes on the books they read as kids. My students push me: hearing what they’re interested in or concerned with really shapes my priorities, and I find that teaching inspires and fuels my writing.
The use of capitalization throughout the books is so effective. I found it powerful when Cilla names certain behaviors as characters, for example in Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire the “Rude Individual” who asks her where she came from. Will you talk about this device?
You are the first person to ever ask me about this!! Many of my academic friends tease me that Cilla capitalizes like a Victorian novelist, and I kind of love that. For me, the capitalization was a very natural, organic part of her voice. Cilla has a very specific way of seeing the world, and I loved the idea that she would essentially create her own proper nouns to communicate this. This too is very much how I remember childhood. There were these terms that felt like big ideas or big deals, like “Clean Up Time” or “Responsible Big Sister,” which we used a lot in my family. So, I felt like it would be fun to reflect these larger ideas in the language of the story. “Rude Individual,” of course, is the one that started it all. For me, it was important that Cilla had the power to define people in the world around her, particularly in moments like her encounter with the “Rude Individual,” where an adult is trying to put her in a box and take away her self-definition.
In Cilla Lee-Jenkins: The Epic Story, Cilla’s friend Colleen is teased by a classmate about her braids and with the support of her friends she reports this to her parents and teacher. As in other times in the series, you gently guide the reader in strategies for speaking up. How do you think about the role books can play in supporting kids to take action in their own lives?
Thank you for this question – I thought a lot about this moment, and how I could model this kind of community support within Cilla. I think that books can give kids (and any readers, really) a roadmap for so many different kinds of scenarios.
In my books, my hope is to show readers that you can take action: asking an adult for help, being there for a friend, uplifting someone in your community, and advocating for yourself and other people. I hope that by modelling a moment where Melissa and Cilla are there for Colleen, I can encourage kids to do the same, even in simply talking to an adult about what’s happened.
You present in schools on diversity in children’s literature. How can school communities mobilize on this issue?
This is such a great and big question. I think the best things school communities can do is to educate themselves, and encourage their community members to read, reflect, and act. There are so many fabulous resources out there on diversity in children’s literature, with a lot of scholars, teachers, librarians, and bloggers who are working tirelessly to promote and elevate the work of diverse writers, and who point towards the issues still facing us in children’s literature. Read, and don’t be afraid to ask yourselves — or your communities — the hard questions that might arise. Remember – we don’t just live in culture, it lives inside us. This means that sometimes, we have to confront that we’ve internalized certain messages from larger society. It’s so important to reflect and self-educate when these moments arise, and to consider how we as individuals can act within our communities to change old patterns and messages. And then – act! Buy books, host author events, encourage community discussion, request diverse books by diverse authors at your local libraries, suggest a book by an ownvoices author for a school book club, or advocate for increased diversity in your school reading lists and curriculum. All these make such a difference!
What are some of your favorite children’s books with social justice and activism themes?
I love this question! Right now, I’ve been thinking a lot about Breanna McDaniel’s GORGEOUS picturebook Hands Up!, illustrated by Shane Evans. The publisher’s book description reads: “This triumphant picture book recasts a charged phrase as part of a black girl’s everyday life–hands up for a hug, hands up in class, hands up for a high five–before culminating in a moment of resistance at a protest march.”
I find this book to be so joyful and powerful – it moves me and energizes me with every read. Be sure to read Breanna’s author’s note as well, which is a beautiful essay which speaks to her inspiration and motivation for writing the book.
What do you hope to see more of in children’s literature?
Really, I’d say more stories! I want to see more voices elevated in children’s literature, and in every kind of story. Children should be able to see every facet of themselves reflected in their literature in all genres – they should see themselves in silly stories, serious stories, pet stories, detective stories, fantasies, superhero stories, horror, everything! We’re living in a really exciting time for children’s literature I think, with a lot of gains being made, but there’s so much work still left to be done.
You have a picture book, Piece By Piece, coming out soon! Can you tell us about it?
Yes! Piece by Piece is a picture book coming out with the Peabody Essex Museum, about the Yin Yu Tang House. Yin Yu Tang is a Chinese house built in southeastern China during the late Qing dynasty. The house was brought over to the museum – deconstructed and then reconstructed — literally piece by piece.
The story is about a young girl, Emmy, whose Nai Nai (grandmother) has just returned to China after a long visit. Emmy misses her Nai Nai, and these emotions are reflected in her experiences through the house, helping her to reconnect with art and family. It was a really fun project to be involved with (especially because I used to visit the Yin Yu Tang house as a kid, and in writing it, I got to spend so much time there – I even got to sit in the house as I wrote!).
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just a big thank you for having me! I really look forward to following this blog!
Learn more about Susan Tan at https://susantanbooks.com.