Today we are celebrating the release of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the debut novel of Mixed-Up File member Wendy Shang. Lucy Wu thinks she’s about to have the perfect year, with the imminent departure of her annoying big sister from their shared bedroom and the prospects of an excellent basketball season. When her father announces that a long-lost aunt from China is coming to visit (and that Lucy needs to go to Chinese school), Lucy thinks her “perfect” year is ruined, but discovers that she can create something better instead.
Susan Carpenter of the Los Angeles Times wrote in her review, “A delightful story about assimilation and family dynamics, “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu” is sure to appeal to young readers struggling with issues of self-identity, whatever their heritage.”
Tell us a little about your title. What is the “great wall” of Lucy Wu?
The title came from a line in the book – a friend suggested I use it. When Lucy finds out that she has to share her room with her great-aunt, she decides to divide the room in half. But the real wall in the book is Lucy’s initial refusal to let herself get close to her great-aunt.
How long did you work on the book?
I worked on the book for almost two years. I developed several chapters in a writer’s workshop, but then on my own, I fumbled around a bit. Around that time, I received a Work-in-Progress grant from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and it really motivated me. In addition to giving me a boost of confidence, I realized I had been acting as though I wasn’t planning to finish the book, and I had to change my attitude. I set a deadline, and really pushed myself to meet it.
Is there any particular aspect to writing that you enjoyed in particular?
Oh yes – more than one. When I started writing the book, I was a stay-at-home mom with three kids under the age of 6. It was an intense time, from a motherhood perspective. Writing gave me an outlet for being my own person again. And when I joined a critique group, it was like finding my tribe.
Writing The Great Wall of Lucy Wu also gave me a chance to talk to my own parents about our family history and draw out their experiences. I hope this book encourages readers to find out their own family stories and ask lots of questions.
Can you talk a little about the Chinese proverbs you use in the book?
After college, I lived in Taiwan for several months, and as part of studying Chinese, I learned some Chinese idioms. As I was writing the book, I thought it might be fun to employ some Chinese idioms in the story. My favorite one was called the old man lost his horse, which says that events that appear to be good luck or bad luck are often quite the opposite. For a first-time writer, this device was a great way to help structure the story. When things started looking too bad (or good) for Lucy, I knew it was time to switch things up!
Now, we understand that you’re a fan of the Bravo show, Inside the Actor’s Studio?
Yee-e-s? (Begins patting hair, looks around for host James Lipton.)
Would you like to take the Inside the Actor’s Studio famous questionnaire, middle-grade style?
Oh yes! Bring it on!
I recently read Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and she is a master of beautiful and unusual words and phrases. She used the word “dovecote,” which has been stuck in my head ever since. It’s the long O sounds joined together, plus the idea of a building just for doves and pigeons. Try it out one day when your brain needs a tickle. Dovecote, dovecote, dovecote.
What is your least favorite word in a middle grade book?
The word “worthless” just came to mind. I don’t associate this word with any particular book, but I think it goes against the middle-grade ethos of showing children that their lives and the lives of those around them, in whatever condition, are precious and meaningful.
I’m such a sucker for a terrific ending, and conversely, an otherwise great book with a so-so ending is a terrible disappointment. Al Capone Does My Shirts has one of my favorite endings, I think – it’s so pitch perfect and satisfying. I wrote the ending to The Great Wall of Lucy Wu when I was maybe 60-70% through the manuscript – it just came to me one day, and I wrote it down before I could forget it.
What turns you off in a middle grade book?
I don’t like it when children are “surprise” adopted at the end of a book or movie. I have been a Court-Appointed Special Advocate on behalf of children in the foster care system, and that is not how it works. Children have a voice in the process.
What sound or noise do you love in a middle grade book?
I love it when characters have time to slow down and pay attention to the sounds around them. I think children are in such a hurry these days (including my own). There’s a scene where Lucy can hear the sounds of a basketball practice before she can see the practice itself, and I wrote it to show how fully engaged Lucy feels when she is near a basketball court.
What sound or noise do you hate in a middle grade book?
Screeching brakes. I’m a mom – please, no car accidents!
Of course, swearing is always a little dicey in middle grade books. (See this great Mixed-Up Files entry by Brian Kell on swearing in middle-grade books here.) Go over the line and you might end up in YA! I’ll give Lenore Look props for making Shakespearean-style swearing popular in her adorable Alvin Ho books. Bootless toad-spotted bladder!
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
You wouldn’t know it to look at my house, but I love the *idea* of being a professional organizer. I think it’s the equipment – I love any kind of bag or box with compartments, slots and pockets.
What profession would you not like to do?
I would not like to be one of those people who denies health insurance coverage to sick people.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
How about a sequel?
Thanks, Wendy! And now, for a chance to win an ARC of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, please leave a comment below by answering your favorite Inside the Actor’s Studio (middle-grade style!) question. Bonus entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter (please mention each link in a new comment). The lucky winner will be announced on Thursday! If you want to learn more about The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, the blog tour continues to National Book Award winner Kathy Erskine’s blog tomorrow in two parts (here and here), and then the blog of the fabulous Madelyn Rosenberg on Thursday.