We’re longtime friends and the coauthors of two middle-grade novels, This Is Just a Test (2017) and Not Your All-American Girl (2020). We call them sibling books because they feature David and Lauren Horowitz, a brother and sister in a Jewish and Chinese American family.
A solid one-third of our relationship has probably been conducted on the trails around northern Virginia — hashing out plot points, career moves, family problems, and dinner plans. Always, always, what’s for dinner?
When you’re a kid, your life is so easily marked off in years. You can pinpoint a moment by what teacher you had, the friends in your life. You get so many firsts: when you learned to ride a bike, when you had your first crush, your first pet. When you get to be an adult, though, years start running together with startling ease. You get fewer firsts. But a year ago, we got a collective first — our first (and hopefully, last) pandemic. 2020 has become a collective marker for all of us.
In this conversation, we looked back at what we expected at this point last year, when Not Your All-American Girl was about to be published, and what has actually happened.
—Madelyn Rosenberg and Wendy Wan-Long Shang
Wendy Wan-Long Shang: In the spring of 2020, we were getting ready to launch our second book, Not Your All-American Girl. At that point, we still hoped that life would get back to normal relatively quickly. What do you remember?
Madelyn Rosenberg: For me, the pandemic and our book are tied together with what we thought Not Your All-American Girl would be when we wrote it, and what it came to mean in context of the last twelve months. When we wrote it, we wanted to get back to the Horowitz family — we couldn’t leave them behind because there were more stories to tell and more characters to explore. Our focus was on Lauren, the younger sister trying to prove herself. In This Is Just a Test, she was trying to prove herself within the structure of her family. Here, she’s moving outside her family, trying to prove herself — in school and amongst her friends. And that’s where she faces the microaggressions of the 1980s.
Meanwhile, in the world surrounding the book — the world of these past twelve months — microaggressions have become macroaggressions. The “micro” part of that word has always bothered me. Small things become big things; they’re seeds. A slight, a slur — these chip away at a person’s humanity and set the stage for larger, horrible things to happen. This is something that both of our cultures have long known, but it hit me hard to see what’s played out this year. The shooting at the spa in Atlanta. The man in the Camp Auschwitz T‑shirt at the U.S. Capitol. The rise of anti-Asian and antisemitic sentiment and actions. That all started somewhere. Which is a heavy way to start talking about a humorous book about friendship.
WS: I think it’s a fair question to ask, “micro” to whom? Microaggressions include unintentional slights, but people who are subject to these comments can experience a great deal of stress and harm. Lauren is trying to deal with erosions to her humanity — whether it’s the musical director not casting her as the lead because she doesn’t look “American” enough, or her best friend cluelessly saying hurtful things — to the point that she loses joy in her singing. That’s not a micro-anything. It’s huge. And then she learns about the Vincent Chin case from her mom. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American who was beaten to death by two Detroit men, angry about the languishing auto industry and mistaking Chin for Japanese. They never served a day in jail. Lauren makes the connection — she has to assert her humanity to assure the humanity of other people who look like her.
When we were writing this book, I thought that the Vincent Chin case would be an example of what happened in the past. A year ago, we were starting to see a rise in anti-Asian violence, and now here we are, a point where many Asian and Pacific Islanders in this country are changing the way they live to protect their safety.
Let’s move to a lighter topic. We talk a lot about the pleasure of music in this book, whether in connection to the musical we made up, talking to the country music station DJ, or just singing to yourself. When we were writing about Lauren’s brother David, we didn’t know we were going to write about Lauren, but we had her sing at David’s bar mitzvah. What has music meant to you in the last year?
Small things become big things; they’re seeds. A slight, a slur — these chip away at a person’s humanity and set the stage for larger, horrible things to happen.
MR: Seeing the importance of music to my family during the pandemic has been huge. My kids found their way out of their pandemic prison through songwriting, my husband through his weekly radio show. At the beginning of the pandemic, I started watching The Tweedy Show on Instagram (featuring Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his family). Language-wise, it’s not kid appropriate, but listening to them banter and play and sing has been a balm, particularly with their playing of Mi Sheberach, the Jewish prayer for healing. That’s something we all need.
And I liked listening to the audio version of our book! Though I can’t sing (we’ve discussed this), I still love to — so it was wonderful to write a character like Lauren, who really can sing and who uses her voice to show people “we all have a dream” and what being American means. It was great to hear audiobook narrator Laurine Price’s interpretation, too.
Writing that part of the book with you — a musical about hula hoops — pre-pandemic, was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing. (And hula-hooping during the pandemic was fun, too.) I also loved being able to relisten to Patsy Cline (Lauren thinks she’s Patsy Klein). I visited her house in Winchester during the pandemic. It was closed, but I sat on her two-seater rocker and thought about the power of music. Since you mentioned Lauren’s singing at David’s bar mitzvah, could you talk about “the breadcrumbs”?
WS: Haha, yes, I can talk about breadcrumbs. When we wrote This Is Just a Test, we didn’t know there was going to be a sequel, but when that started to happen, we had to go back to the first book to see what clues we had left ourselves about Lauren. We basically had three details: she had a best friend named Tara, she loved buttons with funny, snarky sayings, and the girl could siiiiing. That was enough to get her story going. Add the 1980s into that mix, and you have all sorts of possibilities. Such as, can you talk about singing talent in the eighties and not about Star Search with Ed McMahon? No, you cannot. You must talk about the wacky world of Star Search. Where else could you see a comedian’s performance, dancing and singing by adults and children, and a spokesmodel contest in a single hour? Only on Star Search.
Talking about breadcrumbs makes me think about food. Food was a big issue in This Is Just a Test, because David has to figure out how he’s going to survive in a fallout shelter. He even bases a science fair experiment around it! And a year ago, food was also a huge issue — we had to deal with weird forms of scarcity, and try to find some comfort from food, too. I have a friend who has an uncle with a wheat farm, and she hooked me up with flour and yeast. That was some serious riches. It was like that scene in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter when the town is desperate for wheat, and Pa figures out where to find some.
What are some of your recent food memories? Did you tuck any personal memories into Not Your All-American Girl?
MR: We made a lot of bread, too. And my basement shelf has a lot of tuna on it, which did make me think about Test. I always sneak things from my childhood and, let’s face it, adult life, into books. Asking the four questions at Passover was something I always did with my brother once we were too embarrassed to do it alone. We sang them together until we were well into our thirties. And, of course, feelings. When I was little, a woman outside the TG&Y variety store asked my mom if my brother and I were American, for instance. I think most of what I tucked into the book from my childhood has to do with feelings, actually: that sense of sadness when I was at a loss as to how to deal with something that was completely unfair; that sense of euphoria when I figured it out. What about you?
WS: Part of the book is about who “gets” to be thought of as an American based on appearance, but there’s also a little bit about who “gets” to be thought of as beautiful that comes from my childhood. There’s a scene where Lauren goes to a hardware/general store, and looks at the magazine covers and they are all the same. The eighties were all about blonde hair and blue eyes — I vividly remember learning about genetics in my high school biology class, and being disappointed that my future children would not have blonde hair or blue eyes. I feel that there is such a greater definition of beauty now — encompassing all kinds of people, body types, etc.
The mall with a carousel is definitely from my childhood, as well as the buttons! I loved looking through bowls of buttons with funny or snarky comments. I spent way too many of my formative years at the mall.
We can’t talk about this book without talking about the grandmothers! As in This Is Just a Test, the grandmothers are always about ten seconds away from chaos in Not Your All-American Girl. Do you have a favorite grandma moment in the book?
Humor is a way of saying, If I can laugh in this moment, I can get through this moment. Laughter is a form of resiliency.
MR: I count almost every time the grandmothers interact as a favorite, as they vie for the title of Best Grandma. The scene where they’re showing off their technical knowledge about the VCR still makes me laugh out loud. And the moment they join together to help their granddaughter still makes me tear up.
The thing I really love about the grandmothers is that they do so much humor. I’ll pass the potato latke to you and ask: How does humor help when we deal with serious subjects?
WS: Have you seen the movie Gran Torino with Clint Eastwood? It’s a brutal movie, exploring racism, sexual assault, mortality, and revenge. It’s also, on occasion, incredibly funny. I’m a big believer in using humor to break tension. Good heavens, who wants a book with only seriousness and tension? Not me. Humor is a way of saying, If I can laugh in this moment, I can get through this moment. Laughter is a form of resiliency. We laugh because we sense a connection with something or someone, usually on a ridiculous level.
From what I remember, in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, there’s a scene in which the devil is menacing an angel. So what does the angel do? She opens her mouth and laughs. And laughs and laughs and laughs. Not in a cruel way but in a joyous way, to assert her own being. And the devil is hopeless in the face of this.
One of my big motivators when we write is to make you laugh. Now we’re working on separate projects (though we’re beta reading for each other, natch). How’s that going for you? I miss our time together, although I think there are some things I can only write alone. (Then again, that means there are also books that can only be written together!)
MR: I miss it, too! (I hope that more projects together are on the horizon.) We started writing together for companionship, and it turned out that the book we wrote was about a period where we each felt alone. The only Jewish kid. The only Asian kid. It was a different type of isolation than the kind we all experienced this long, weird year. Growing up, I was the only one who could never have perfect attendance because of the High Holy Days. In middle school, I felt like the only one who wasn’t “going with” someone, and I thought it might be because I was Jewish. On Passover, I was the only kid bringing matzah to school. (Why is matzah such a strange thing to people? Does it really look so different from a saltine?) I like how writing a book about being an only was also a way for us not to feel alone in our only-dom. I’m hoping it will let kids who are growing up now know that they’re not alone, either.
Madelyn Rosenberg is the coauthor of This Is Just a Test, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book, which she wrote with Wendy Wan-Long Shang; Dream Boy, cowritten with Mary Crockett; and many books for younger readers, including the How to Behave books and Nanny X books. She writes books, articles, and essays for children and adults, and lives in the suburbs of Washington, DC. You can visit her online at madelynrosenberg.com.
Wendy Wan-Long Shang is the author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, which was awarded the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature; The Way Home Looks Now, an Amelia Bloomer Project List selection and a CCBC Choices List selection; and This Is Just a Test, which she cowrote with Madelyn Rosenberg and which is a Sydney Taylor Honor Book. She lives with her family in the suburbs of Washington, DC.