Crystal Chan grew up as a mixed-race kid in the middle of the Wisconsin cornfields and has been trying to find her place in the world ever since. Over time, she found that her heart lies in public speaking, performing, and ultimately, writing. She has published articles in several magazines; given talks and workshops across the country; facilitated discussion groups at national conferences; and been a professional storyteller for children and adults alike. In Chicago, where Crystal now lives, you will find her biking along the city streets and talking to her pet turtle. Her debut middle-grade novel, Bird, is published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers. She is represented by Emily van Beek of Folio Literary Management. Bird has also sold in Australia, the UK, Brazil, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Romania. Also, Bird is out in audio book in the US, and the narrator is Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games.
About Bird (From IndieBound):
Jewel never knew her brother Bird, but all her life she has lived in his shadow. Her parents blame Grandpa for the tragedy of their family’s past; they say that Grandpa attracted a malevolent spirit–a duppy–into their home. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Now Jewel is twelve, and she lives in a house full of secrets and impenetrable silence.
Jewel is sure that no one will ever love her like they loved Bird, until the night that she meets a mysterious boy in a tree. Grandpa is convinced that the boy is a duppy, but Jewel knows that he is something more. And that maybe–just maybe–the time has come to break through the stagnant silence of the past.
Bird is your debut novel. Can you tell us a little about its journey from idea to book?
I had just finished reading Keeper, by Kathi Appelt, and was sick at home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book.
And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story; it’s about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid and goes out to sea in search of her. And I thought, A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid – that’s such a great idea – I wish I had thought of that! But what if… instead… there was a girl whose brother thought he was a bird, but then he jumped off a cliff because he thought he could fly … Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking and I got out of bed and wrote the first chapter.
Jamaican and Mexican cultures and beliefs play a prominent role in Bird, but seem very out of place in Iowa. What made you decide to introduce that culture clash?
There has always been a culture clash for me! (laughing) I’m half Polish, half Chinese, and grew up in a small town in Wisconsin. Navigating multiple cultures is the only thing I know. For example, my father, who is Chinese, demanded that I become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, and my mother, who is White, said I could be anything I want, which was also echoed by the larger American population. Of course, this was confusing and hard to navigate. Books that address culture clashes are out there but hard to come by, and I wanted to write a book for kids that might be experiencing them.
Do you believe in Duppies?
What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?
The sense of story for middle-grade fiction has to be very, very strong. With adult literature, you can take your time on the page, show off your writing a little bit, and maybe twenty or fifty pages in you can start in the plot. If you give that same methodology to middle-grade kids, they’d chew you up alive. You need to have a strong story, a strong voice, and start it at the first line. I love that.
Why do you write middle-grade?
It’s the voice that came to me! My next WIP is for young adults, so we’ll see where my trajectory goes.
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Bird, what would it be?
The power of forgiveness can transform you and those around you in startling ways.
What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed Bird?
Bud, not Buddy, The Tiger Rising, The Underneath, A Wrinkle in Time. And don’t forget about Bridge to Terabithia!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?
Accept whatever emotions come up inside you – don’t push them down or ignore them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Because if you don’t allow yourself to feel anger, sadness, grief, or loss, how can you possibly write about these emotions for your characters?
And write from your heart, always. When you write, remember you’re writing from a special space inside, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And practice telling stories – tell stories all the time. When you’re not telling stories, practice listening to others tell their stories. Because that’s all that writing really is: telling a story.
Crystal is giving away a copy of the UK version of Bird (complete with all those weird UK spellings).
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Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas.