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Interview: September 2009

In this interview with's Donna Volkenannt, Lisa Yee --- author of six novels for middle-grade and YA readers --- discusses what led her to write her latest book, BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY), for a slightly younger audience than her usual fare, and explains who and what inspired her colorful characters. She also shares some of the positive feedback she has received from the Asian-American community, reveals what she finds most satisfying about her work, and gives details on her upcoming projects due out in the next few years. The main characters in your latest book, BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY), are a couple of years younger than Millicent Min, Stanford Wong and Emily Ebers --- the main characters in your highly successful middle-grade trilogy. What inspired you to write BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) for a younger audience?

Lisa Yee: The series was actually my son's idea. When he was in fourth grade, I was telling him about a Civil War book I was working on. I was waving my arms around and describing the battles, when he said, "Mom, why don't you write a book with not a lot of commotion?" That's when I realized, elementary school can be a wild ride unto itself, especially if you're a high-energy kid prone to trouble.

KRC: The characters in your novels are unique, yet genuine. Millicent Min is a girl genius who longs for a best friend. Stanford Wong is a basketball star who is less than stellar at schoolwork and wants to please his father. Bobby Ellis-Chan, whose father is a retired football star, can barely throw a football. Do you base your characters on people you know, or are they created from your imagination?

LY: The only character I have who's come from someone I know is Mr. Glick, the scary teacher in Stanford Wong's book. The other characters came from my imagination, though I've used incidents that I've experienced. For example, in BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) a pair of Bobby's sister's underpants accidentally gets static clinged to his shirt. Um, that happened in real life. Only it was my underwear, and it stuck to my daughter’s tae kwon do uniform…and wasn't discovered until she got to class. Whoops!

KRC: You are skilled at writing about the awkward age when boy-girl relationships are in a state of flux. In BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY), Bobby Ellis-Chan is confused as to why his long-time friend, Holly Harper, has changed over summer vacation. What message do you hope to convey to your readers about this tender time in life?

LY: When children are little, they play with whomever happens to be around, be it a boy or girl. There are no preconceived prejudices or barriers. I know that in pre-school my son was particularly impressed with one girl because she could yell really loud. Later though, boys and girls start to only hang out with their own gender. This can be really sad for some kids who have genuine friendships with someone of the opposite sex.

What I want to show in Bobby's story is that his friendship with Holly Harper is the real thing. That even though some kids may make fun of them, they are true friends and always will be. Sometimes being a true friend can be hard, but it's worth it. It is.

KRC: Your respect for family, especially elders, and the blending of Chinese culture with modern American life shine through in your writing. How has the Chinese-American community responded to your portrayal of Chinese-American life?

LY: I've been surprised by the positive response from the Chinese-American community. Many of my characters are third-generation Asian Americans, but that's just who they are and not what the story is about. I get letters all the time from kids thanking me for writing about someone who's "just like me."

KRC: Artist Dan Santat’s illustrations in BOBBY VS. GIRLS (ACCIDENTALLY) complement your writing and help bring to life the characters and events in the story. How did the author-illustrator relationship work in producing this book?

LY: It was totally cool working with Dan. In real life, we're friends and neighbors. (I've even babysat his bunny.) I am a huge fan of Dan's work, so I would write scenes knowing that he could take them to the next level.

KRC: Arthur Levine and Cheryl Klein, who edited the Harry Potter series, also edited your novels. That must’ve been an amazing experience. Can you describe how your editing process worked?

LY: Arthur Levine discovered me and believed in me, even when I had no clue what I was doing. Cheryl started in the publishing world at the same time I did, so we've grown up together. They are both incredible to work with. I value their editorial insights and their friendship. Although…sometimes it can get weird. I'll get notes on a manuscript where they disagree on certain points. Then it's up to me to sort it out and decide what to do and who to side with. Sometimes I'll side with Arthur, sometimes I'll side with Cheryl, and sometimes I'll disagree with both of them. But whatever I do, I know I have to have a compelling reason.

KRC: According to your website, you’ve been an inventor, a hand model, and paid to eat chocolate (I love that one!). How did you get started writing books for children?

LY: I have wanted to write children's books ever since I was able to read. It wasn't until I became a mom that I realized I had to really give it a try. I mean, how could I tell my kids that they have to follow their dreams if I wasn't doing that myself?

KRC: Most writers grew up loving to read. Do you have a favorite book or an author you especially remember?

LY: Ooooh, hard question!!! There's no single book, but many. I can recall the thrill of checking out a book from the library and getting lost in it. Some of my favorites included the All-Of-A-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor, the Katie John books by Mary Calhoun, and of course, Nancy Drew. (Okay, I'll admit, sometimes I couldn't stand it and I'd read the ending first.)

KRC: What’s the most satisfying part of being a writer? The most surprising?

LY: That I get paid to tell stories is amazing to me. I mean, basically, I make up things for a living. There's nothing that compares to sitting at my computer at midnight and creating a world of characters and their lives, knowing that one day they won't belong to me anymore --- but that they will belong to my readers.

The most unexpected part of being a writer is the heartfelt letters I get. That someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and then sit down and write to me is astonishing. Each letter is a gift that I cherish.

KRC: Do you have any advice for readers who want to become writers?

LY: The best thing you can do is to read, read, read, write, read, write, revise, read, and then write some more. Seriously. It takes a lot of hard work to make the writing look easy.

KRC: What projects are you working on now, and what’s the best way to learn about upcoming events or projects?

LY: Currently, I'm finishing up the second book in the Bobby series. That will be out in 2010. I'm also working on a spin-off novel from the Millicent Min series. This one takes place during the school year after the other books end. It features Marley, a “Star Trek” geek from Stanford Wong's book. Stanford, Emily Ebers and Millicent all have small roles in the book, plus you'll be seeing more of Digger, the bully from all three books.

I'm also working on another young adult novel. My first one was called ABSOLUTELY MAYBE. But the next YA novel won't be out until 2012.