Mike Jung, author of Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities (2012) and the upcoming Unidentified Suburban Object (Apr. 2016, both Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks.), is a man of many talents. In addition to working as a library professional, he is a frequent panelist, avid Twitter participant, and spokesperson for We Need Diverse Books. SLJ recently caught up with Jung to chat about surviving those tough middle grade years, writing complex and authentic tween characters, and the impact of the We Need Diverse Books movement.
Identity is such a huge concern to middle grade readers. Who were you when you were this age? (And would you be willing to share a picture?)
I entered and left my middle grade years in two very different places, psychologically speaking. Going into my age eight year, I was very much an overachiever in school, the introverted middle kid with two much more gregarious brothers, part of a small circle of friends, and a super-enthusiastic reader. At age nine, my family moved from the Los Angeles area to suburban New Jersey, where I continued to be an academic high-flyer, but also became one of the very, very few kids of Asian descent at my school. I continued to be a pretty omnivorous reader. I once won a year-long reading contest by reading 100 books, which is still one of my most prized accomplishments. A quarter of the way through sixth grade I was moved up to seventh grade, and everything went haywire—my grades plummeted, the amount of bullying I was experiencing went through the roof, and I went into a tailspin that lasted deep into my twenties. I remained an ardent reader, but my need for books rapidly and forcibly changed. Books, which had always seemed essential to my happiness, suddenly felt essential to my survival.
Librarians and educators often advocate for the inclusion of more strong, interesting female characters like Polly (from Geeks) and Chloe (from Unidentifed Suburban Object), but they are still somewhat hard to find in middle grade literature. What motivated you to create these female characters?
The quick and easy answer is that I started writing Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities right after our daughter was born, so I was up to my eyeballs in thoughts about what it means to be a girl in our society and curious about who she would be at various stages of her life. My original idea for Geeks was about a girl who discovers that her father is secretly the world’s most powerful superhero (I know, so narcissistic!), then I flipped the relationship so the girl was secretly the superhero, so the relationship between fathers and daughters was embedded into the story from the start.
I eventually created Vincent and took that book in another direction, but when I finally hit on the true plot line and context for USO, I returned to the father-daughter relationship as one of the core relationships in the book.
The other reason I write characters like Polly and Chloe is because I’ve never felt capable of or interested in meeting our society’s often-toxic standards of masculinity—emotional stoicism and an alpha dog demeanor have never been part of my makeup—and so I’ve generally functioned on an emotional level in ways our society codes as exclusively female (to society’s immense detriment, in my opinion). To quote Daniel José Older quoting Junot Díaz, “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck.” However, in order to NOT create girl characters, I’d have to completely ignore reality. Risky or not, including girl characters who are as real and multidimensional as I can make them seems like an absolute no-brainer.
Most middle grade readers like books where “things happen”. USO is more thoughtful and involves fewer chase scenes and explosions than Geeks. What kind of story do you prefer to write?
I love chase scenes, explosions, and other action-oriented sequences, but it’s interesting to realize that my writing is actually moving away from the POW, BOOM, ARGH approach of Geeks. I’m working on what I’m fairly optimistic will become my third book, and it’s straight-up contemporary realistic fiction, with nary an explosion, chase scene, superhero, or giant robot in sight. While I love speculative fiction (and will almost certainly seesaw back in that direction at some point), I am certain that humor and emotional resonance are what I’m most interested in exploring with my work. So I guess the answer is…both?
I really appreciated the fact that both of Chloe’s parents in USO were alive, supportive, and really involved in her life. This is really bucking a trend. Was this a conscious decision? How do you feel about the preponderance of deceased parents in middle grade fiction?
It was definitely a conscious decision, although not necessarily to buck a trend, because I understand that getting the parents out of the way can be necessary in order to give child protagonists sufficient agency (depending on the story, of course), and there’s no more definitive way to do it than to kill the parents off. I don’t have a categorical objection to dead parents in books, but dead parents wouldn’t have worked for this book.
Unidentified Suburban Object actually started out as a very different story—it was a portal fantasy, with an otherworldly, underwater dimension; an ancient order of three-foot-tall warrior clams; a tyrannical group of giant, evil, iridescent, telepathic fish; and a rag-tag group of young, human freedom fighters. There were a lot of chase scenes! But the core idea was always about a 12-year-old child who discovers that her family history is not what she thought it was. Well-meaning, culturally displaced parents who hide the truth remained integral to that core idea, even as I lit everything on fire and started over multiple times. USO is Chloe’s story, but Chloe’s story isn’t even remotely complete without her parents’ story, in both the past and the present.
Vincent Wu’s ethnicity was not as crucial to Geeks as Chloe Cho’s was in USO. Do you think the We Need Diverse Books movement made it easier to address the concept of cultural identity in such a straightforward manner?
Racially, our industry is disproportionately white, so writing about any culture that isn’t rooted in white American culture equates to “writing outside of our cultural identities” for the vast majority of kid lit’s working authors. I could pontificate about the perceived risks of doing that for days, but the most recent numbers from the CCBC’s “Children’s Books By and About People of Color and First/Native Nations” study indicate that while the number of books written by people of color and First/Native nations saw an uptick between 2013 and 2014, the number of books about people of color and First/Native nations saw a significantly bigger uptick during the same period. So there has been an increase in books that directly address cultural identity from POC perspectives, but that increase is largely representative of authors who are white.
I have two other questions that concern me more. First, has the work of We Need Diverse Books made it easier for writers whose identities are not grounded in white American culture to address their own cultural identities in their manuscripts? (Full disclosure: I’m a founding We Need Diverse Books team member, although I’m not speaking as a representative of the organization here.) For me personally, WNDB’s work has been transformative; it’s spurred me to think about my work in a different way, and write about aspects of my personal history that I’ve always shied away from, even though at times it’s intensely, horribly uncomfortable to explore those aspects. However, I also know there’s an abundance of writers from non-majority cultures who have been directly, powerfully, and thoroughly exploring questions of cultural identity in their manuscripts from the get-go, and if asked, I imagine a whole lot of them would say “it’s NEVER been hard to write about my own cultural identity.”
Which brings us to my second question: has it become easier for writers whose identities aren’t grounded in white American culture to get published? Well, that’s a stickier wicket, isn’t it? I’m Korean American, and my forthcoming book is about a Korean American character, so it’s obviously possible to find individual examples that suggest the answer is yes, but the CCBC numbers show that while more authors of color and First/Native nations were published in 2014 than in 2013, in the context of the full study (which examined 3,500 books in 2014), that increase in authorship was statistically miniscule.
It is too early to know what kind of impact We Need Diverse Books has had on publication numbers, because the books that have been acquired by publishers since the organization’s inception are still making their way through the pipeline. 2016 is most likely the first year in which “WNDB-concurrent books” will hit the shelves, and of course there won’t be any way to inarguably quantify the impact WNDB may have had on those books. It’ll still be interesting, though. I’m as curious as anyone else to see what CCBC’s future research will show about the past two years.