From growing up in Concord to signing with a major publishing company, the author of “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire” hopes her novel brings individuality and diversity to the world of children’s books.
Susan Tan’s debut children’s novel follows a young Chinese-American girl as she prepares for the arrival of her baby sister and explores her own identity as an “author extraordinaire” and as a biracial child.
“So much of Cilla is based around this idea of facing this adult world that keeps trying to put you in a box. And for Cilla it’s this constant question of ‘What are you?’” Tan said.
In the third chapter, a woman asks Cilla “What are you?” Cilla does not realize the woman is inquiring about her ethnic background, so she answers, “I am a future author extraordinaire.”
“There’s this idea that she misunderstands the question and in misunderstanding it gets to reclaim it,” Tan said.
Tan, who is half Chinese and half Caucasian like Cilla, wrote the story as a semi-autobiographical novel and incorporated many of her own childhood experiences into the character’s life.
“I have always felt really disempowered and silenced when people would ask me things like ‘What are you?’ rather than ‘Who are you?’” Tan said. “They ask you what you are, but they don’t ask your friends what they are, so it’s this reminder that you’re different. You’re a ‘what,’ not a ‘who.’”
Ever since she was a child growing up in Concord, Tan knew she was interested in children’s literature. However, while studying children’s literature in graduate school at the University of Cambridge, she became increasingly frustrated with the lack of diversity she found in middle-grade novels.
“One of my priorities in writing Cilla was to give mixed-race kids a mirror to see themselves and to write a story that not only showed mixed-race kids themselves but honored…