Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele. ‘A ukelele?’ You ask. Yes, a ukelele, trust me, he’s like the John Mayer of ukelele playing. Or maybe the Jason Mraz. Whatever, he’s really good is my point. (I don’t have a clip of him playing, but check out the fantastic photo below of him serenading editor Arthur A. Levine and author/illustrator Dan Santat)
‘But this is not a blog about ukelele players!’ You argue. ‘This is a blog about middle grade writers’. Which brings me to the point I was trying to make all along — Mike Jung is a funny, funny man with a ukelele who is also a fantastic writer. His debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic Books, 2012) is hilarious, heartfelt, rip-roaring adventure chock full of middle grade goodness! And not only that, he’s a one-time blogger at Mixed Up Files, who has come back to let us help celebrate his book launch!
So fasten your seatbelts, middle grade readers! Here is one stupendous interview with the man who made superhero Captain Stupendous famous:
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed on “From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors,” Mike! It’s nice to have you, as a former blogger here, return “home” to celebrate the launch of your fabulous debut novel, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities.
Superheroes, Robots, Aliens, and Dastardly Supervillains – your novel has them all. Yet, “Geeks” get top billing in your title and in your line-up of protagonists. What’s up with that? Are geeks the new superhero?
Geeks and superheroes both have perennial relevance, if you ask me! I knew all along that while the heroes, villains, battle scenes, and sound effects were important for making the book fun to write and read (I hope, anyway), the real heart of the story lay with the emotional arc of the characters. One of the many benchmarks of Arthur Levine’s genius is his ability to cut through all the trappings of a story and see its essence. He helped me see that GEEKS is really the story of how Vincent Wu, who sees himself as dismissed, berated, and unlovable, but eventually realizes that he’s acknowledged, celebrated, and genuinely loved. Vincent is very much the eponymous geek.
So onto the second part of your title, “Girls.” There are three boy protagonists in your adventure – the three stalwart members of the Captain Stupendous Fan Club– and one girl. Did you think about things like gender balance when writing?
Thinking about gender issues is something I always try to do – it’s a big deal, you know? I want my daughter to grow up in a world that doesn’t devalue or dismiss her because of her gender, and I think our personal sensibilities and values do infuse our work to at least some degree.
That said, I wasn’t thinking specifically about maintaining mathematical balance between the boy and girl characters. In early drafts Polly actually was the narrator of the story, and the most important secondary character was her best friend, who was also a girl. And after two years of working on the manuscript I hit a wall, because it just wasn’t working as well as I thought it could – I couldn’t find the story arc, the characters weren’t developing fully, and most importantly in my mind, the voice felt off.
I scrapped the manuscript, strip-mined it for recyclable bits and pieces, and started over. I didn’t make the story autobiographical, but the friendship of the boys in the Captain Stupendous Fan Club was loosely inspired by my own boyhood and teenage friendships, which were NOT gender balanced. And the manuscript suddenly came alive.
Now, does that indicate something about my own level of unconscious gender bias? Probably, although I’m not sure that’s a question anyone can honestly or accurately answer with regard to themselves. In terms of sheer “this many boys” and “this many girls” numbers, the story ended up resembling my own middle-grade life experience with a fair degree of accuracy, so it is, at the very least, grounded in the childhood Mike Jung’s subjective perception of reality.
Alright, now that we’re on a roll with this title thing – Secret Identities. Tell our loyal readers, Mike. Do you have one? If you did, what would it be?
My mind is actually making an interesting connection between this question and my new identity as an author! I’m a very, very, very introverted person, and I also deal with quite a high degree of social anxiety. As a result, I have a deep, rich inner life, as I imagine all writers do. I often think that if I’d tried doing this 20 years ago, when in-person networking was the only game in town, I’d have utterly failed to gain a toehold in the publishing world. Now, however, we have the Internet, which allows raving Walter Mitty types like myself to get online and express our inner lives with ease, speed, and potentially wide distribution.
It’s made all the difference for me – online watering holes like Verla Kay’s Blueboards, Facebook, Twitter, and group blogging communities (including the Mixed-Up Files!) are where I’ve established the overwhelming majority of my writerly relationships. They’re also where the louder, brassier, goofier facets of my persona have taken flight. People who’ve only interacted with me online actually mistake me for an extrovert, whereas those who’ve met me in corporeal space know that while I have some very extroverted moments, I usually behave in a much more reserved manner.
That’s not to say the loud, brassy, goofy things I say and do in service of my writerly identity aren’t genuine expressions of who I am – those qualities do exist in me, they’ve just spent a lot of time below the surface. I think I just needed to find the right context, tools, and community of people, at which point it’d feel natural and easy for them to emerge. So here I am, and here those qualities are, emerging like a house on fire.
I guess that means “public persona” is my superhero identity, and my “private persona” is my secret identity, huh?
One among many things I love about your books is that you take the trope of “small town protected by beloved superhero” and put it in the context of a multicultural America of today, without ever making race an “issue” to be “addressed.” Can you talk a little about ethnicity in your novel?
I’m a great admirer of Lisa Yee’s work, and among the many reasons why is the fact that she writes about Asian and mixed-race kids, but doesn’t write about them being Asian or mixed-race. The first time I saw Millicent Min, Girl Genius was in my local public library, which had it and Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time in a display of California authors. I was delighted to see an Asian kid right there on the cover, and I was even more delighted to read a story about a child of immigrants who the author wrote about as if her ethnicity and family circumstance were completely, utterly normal. Which, of course, they are.
I wanted to write my book the same way, not because I dismiss the importance of discussing ethnic identity, immigration experiences, cultural assimilation, or racism (how could any thoughtful, rational, intelligent person dismiss those things?), but because I strongly believe that kids with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds shouldn’t have to subsist solely on a diet of books about what it means to be kids with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They need stories in which the characters look like them and have families like theirs, but also have fun, go on adventures, make stupid jokes, engage in immature stunts, and take on the occasional giant robot.
My kids are growing up in a spectacularly diverse community, and there are plenty of days in which the complexities of that diversity aren’t problems or issues – they’re simply part of their experience of the world.
Another issue we’ve talked about at this blog and in other kidlit communities is what Leila Sales called the “Ol’ Dead Dad Syndrome” in a PW article last year. So there are no dead parents in your novel! And parents actually play a major role! How did you balance this with the need to let your kid protagonists take on the active role in driving the plot?
A little secret: there actually was a dead parent in the manuscript when it was acquired! So initially I had the syndrome, but we worked through it during the editorial process. Broken record time – another measure of Arthur’s genius is his insight into the emotional core of a book, and one of the first things he told me was that the manuscript simply wouldn’t support the psychological weight of a dead parent, and fixing it would require turning it into an entirely different book. So I converted the dead dad into an example of that other parental trope, the emotionally absent workaholic, which worked much, much better.
Vincent’s parents were present in the story from the first time I wrote him, but Arthur really worked with me to give all of the characters more depth and nuance. That process resulted in a whole bunch of new relationships between different characters, and that’s how Vincent’s parents ended up playing such pivotal roles in the plot.
Ok, I’ve been softballing you this far. Onto the hard questions – but I like you, so I’ll make ‘em multiple choice:
Solo superhero, one loyal ward/sidekick, or fan club/support team?
Fan club/support team, of course.
Genetic mutants, alien from another planet, or self-made depressed millionaire with gadgets?
Alien from another planet. Cultural diversity, you know.
Evil Robot or Mad Scientist?
Why not both?
Superhuman strength or Telekinesis?
Telekinesis. It’s more subtle.
Tights or a mask and cape?
Mask and cape, PLEASE. The world will thank you for not giving me a pair of tights.
There are a lot of comic book style capitalized words with big letters like BOOM and WHAP in your novel. What were/are some of your favorite comics? (And in follow up – what were/are some of your favorite capitalized action words?)
My favorite superhero growing up was probably Spider-Man – angsty teenage kid who’s a social outsider and a bookworm? Yeah, I related. The Silver Surfer wasn’t far behind, though – he had a different kind of angst, but it was still one of his defining characteristics. Plus he was a guy with an indestructible silver skin riding on a cosmic surfboard, working for an interstellar entity that ate entire planets at a gulp. How can you lose?
I think of the capitalized action words in somewhat archetypical terms, so I don’t have too many examples that are truly ripped from the pages of a Silver Age Marvel or DC comic. But Nightcrawler’s teleportation-induced “BAMF!” is a classic, as is the “THWIP!” of Spidey’s web-shooters. In the realm of declarative statements, “HULK SMASH!” stands the test of time, “IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME” is an eternal winner, and of course there’ll always be “SHAZAM!”
Thank you so much for your time and for your hilarious, romp of book!
Thanks so much for having me! I’ve always been proud of the tiny role I played in helping launch the Mixed-Up Files, so this feels very much like a homecoming.
If you would like to qualify to **WIN** a copy of Mike’s book please leave a comment below telling us about YOUR favorite superhero within the next 24 hours! A winner will be announced tomorrow October 4 at noon! Don’t be late, because unlike that other caped crusader who shall remain nameless, Captain Stupendous can’t turn back time for you!
Sayantani DasGupta is both a geek and a girl, and she’s working on her secret identity. As a kid, she preferred Supergirl to Wonder Woman, although she did covet that invisible plane and the awesome wrist cuffs. When she’s not working on her MG and YA novels based on Indian folktales and myths, she’s hanging out with her own 8 and 10year old superheroes.