Four questions to Tae Keller


Tae Keller is an Asian American author and winner of the 2021 Newbery Prize for When you trap a tiger. His latest novel, Jennifer Chan is not alonefollows Mallory, who has always followed the rules of integration. But when she meets Jennifer, someone who doesn’t care about her image but has since disappeared, Mallory is forced to confront her own feelings and the truth about why Jennifer may have run away.

Jennifer Chan is not alone takes a critical look on bullying, through the eyes of the bully rather than the one who is being bullied. In your author notes, you write about how you were bullied as Jennifer Chan and why some bullies can act as they do. How did you decide that this was something you wanted to write?

When I was in college and I was bullied, I turned to books on bullying. I found many books on children bullied, which was very helpful. But I also continued to look for books on other points of view. I was looking for a way to make sense of it, trying to understand what other people thought and how it happened. I thought, “Who is the victim, which is the mean girl, who is the sidekick, the follower,” all the labels we put on children and situations. Looking back, it was not the healthiest way to something processes.

When I was writing Jennifer Chan I really wanted to be intentional. We are not just one thing. It is possible to make a mistake in a situation to do something wrong, but not to be a bad person. One mistake will not define us forever. If you hurt someone, you’re not only a tyrant for life. And that really became clear when I reached out to the kids who had bullied me. I did it because I started writing from Mallory’s perspective and I really struggled because I had a lot of those emotions since I was in middle school. I tried to open myself and reflect on the broader context, but I realized that I had not the wider context.

Then I started reaching out to people and hearing from them. That idea [formed] we all struggle and all do our best and we all make mistakes and try to correct them. This became clear when I started talking to people as an adult. It was hard. Some conversations were truly healing. Other conversations don’t go as well. It was something where I had to say, “OK, maybe this person isn’t in a place in their life where they want to talk about middle school. ” It’s just. There were of course people who are not really interested in talking, but I also find people who were. People said things that I still think about and that I find were also looking for a way to move on and heal from what happened when we were kids.

This story also presents interesting facts about space and extraterrestrial theories and, most importantly, extraterrestrials. Have you always been interested in extraterrestrials? Do you believe in aliens?

I started getting this question a lot for Jennifer Chanwhich I’m really excited about, because it’s so different from the questions I would get for When you trap a tiger. I didn’t really think about extraterrestrials before I started writing this book. If you had asked me before if I believed in aliens, I would have simply replied, “Yeah, probably. Now I feel a little more hesitant to give an answer just because so much of the research I was doing was not just about life in the universe, but the universe itself. At one point I dove into astrophysics which completely broke my brain [laughs]. This is not my area of ​​expertise at all! All of my research has led me to this feeling that it is not possible for us to know at this time. And it’s actually very exciting to let go of this idea of ​​certainty and absoluteness. It’s really liberating to be able to say: “This is a huge issue and we do not know the answer.

There are actually a few times when I was doing research and I thought: “Why people do speak they not?” So I put it in the book. One of the things is the WOW signal, which has become a major plot point in the book. Basically, in a research laboratory, a radio telescope has captured a signal lasting 72 seconds. It was so unusual and could not be explained by regular space events that the service person in his notes wrote “wow” with a point of explanation next. I did a lot of research on the alien conspiracy. Last year, when the Pentagon said that UFOs were real, it was a great thing. When it happened I had basically finished writing Jennifer Chan and I thought, “Oh my God, the whole premise of my book is wrong because they’re bullying this girl because she believes in UFOs and now the US government has said UFOs are real.”

There is a powerful question that the main character, Evil poses to his mother? “Do you think I’m Korean” And that’s something I’m sure many immigrants and biracial children wonder. What was your thought process behind that?

So far, my three books focused on Korean biracial characters who have gained their identity from a different place. And all these places were points along my journey. It’s not a question I asked myself when I was a child in Hawaii because there was a whole community of biracial people. When I left this community and that I was surrounded mainly whites, it was a question that came to me constantly. Where do I fit in this community? Where do I fit in the world? Since this book is about so much “when we register us in the world” and “how do we insert in our communities”, I felt that this trip was very meaningful for Mallory.

I really wanted to bring the tension between her and her mother into the book because I think their personalities conflict in some ways, but there’s also this element of identity that leads to the tension between them. I’m pretty close to my mom, but I know that for me and for a lot of my biracial friends, there’s this feeling of being biracial, where there’s this part of you that’s almost afraid of disappointing that parent because you feel like you don’t want them to see you walking away from their culture. It was a very interesting part of their dynamic that I wanted to bring.

I’m always happy to see books from different POC authors, [about] different identities, different experiences. I am excited for books that do not deal exclusively with the pain of being a person of color. There are all different types of stories we used to see on the white, [but there should be stories] let people of color shine in the mainstream because that’s life, not people of color just walking around being sad. I also think it’s so important for white kids to read these books and grow up hearing stories about people who aren’t like them, [to understand that there are] so many different types of people and recognizing that we all are.

What are you working on these days?

In fact, I have a book coming out the week after. Jennifer Chan is not alone which is in the series she persisted (Philomela). It is the biography of Patsy Mink who the first wife of the colored senator. It was really fun to write because I had grown up hearing about her and not really knowing what she did, knowing she was from Hawaii. Getting to do his research and talking to his family and hearing about all of his accomplishments has been a great experience. I also have a book called mihi forever (Henry Holt), which is the first book in a fantasy series about a young American girl of Korean origin which is capable of traveling in the world of Western fairy tales and update these fairy tales. It is shameless the kind of book I wish I had [as a kid]. I started writing it in lockdown and it was really that escape fantasy book I needed to write at the time, so it was a lot of fun.

Jennifer Chan is not alone by Tae Keller. Random House, $17.99 April 26 ISBN 978-0-593-31052-6

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