Wendy Wan-Long Shang and Madelyn Rosenberg Return with "Sibling" Novel to "This Is Just a Test"

The author duo behind This Is Just a Test talk about teen life in the 80s, what has (and hasn't) changed, and how to return to familiar characters with a fresh perspective in Not Your All-American Girl.

In our new book, Not Your All-American Girl (Scholastic, Jul. 2020, Gr 3-7), we return to the world we created in This Is Just a Test (Scholastic, Jun. 2017, Gr 4-8), this time from the viewpoint of younger sister Lauren. Lauren loves her best friend Tara, singing, and someone she believes to be a kindred spirit —country-western singer Patsy “Klein,” whom she assumes must be Jewish just like her. When she is denied the lead in the school musical because the teacher believes that she doesn’t appear to be “all-American,” Lauren must find a way to fight for what she loves.

Wendy Wan-Long Shang: We’re back in the 80s for this book with Sun-in, Star Search, and banana clips. Confession time: What makes you a child of the 80s?

Madelyn Rosenberg: The fact that very few pictures of me exist from the year I turned 16. Sometimes I blame it on my parents’ divorce, but I think the real culprit was a curly perm I got that made me look like Little Orphan Annie. Now imagine Little Orphan Annie at 16, in an Army jacket covered with punk-rock buttons, and instead of singing “Hard Knock Life,” she was singing The Go-Gos. That’s what makes me a child of the 80s. Well, that and the fact that my marching band marched to an Earth Wind and Fire song. What about you?

WS: I’ll tell you my most 80s memory. I was in ninth or tenth grade PE, and I had gotten a new purse which was yellow and blue. This girl I knew only moderately well told me that my purse was “really boppy,” and I spent several moments trying to figure out if it was a compliment or an insult. It was a compliment. We became friends; she later moved to West Germany and we wrote letters to each other (this sentence does not exist in 2020). Also, any time I hear a song from that time period, the accompanying music video starts playing in my head.

We’ve called this book a “sibling” book to This Is Just a Test, since we switch from David to his sister, Lauren. Tell me a story that sums up your relationship with your brother.

MR: We had foot-fights in the back seat of the Impala to see who could take over the most room. The loser sat scrunched up in a corner for the rest of the trip. We were pretty competitive growing up (at least, I was)—but when we were older, my brother became one of my best friends. I really like stories that explore changing sibling relationships. 

[Read: 14 Novels Set in the Past for Middle Grade Fans of Historical Fiction | Summer Reading 2020]

WS: My brother is seven years older than I am, incredibly smart and scientifically minded. When I was in fourth grade, he gave me the explanation for why leaves change in the fall. Imagine his pride a week later when I came home with a prize for a story with that very title; imagine his dismay when he read my explanation that it was Mother Nature making sweaters for the cold little leaves. That’s pretty much our two personalities in a nutshell. 

There are moments in a book that hit home in a particularly strong way for authors. I remember in This is Just a Test, you wrote this amazing moment when the grandmothers are talking about surveillance in their respective home countries; when David asks why the government would do that, they tell him “it’s something to take away.” What is that moment for you in Not Your All-American Girl?

MR: There were actually a lot of moments that hit home for me. Trying to figure out how to mourn something you’ve lost still hits home hard, especially now [Ed. note: during COVID-19] as we are trying to figure out how to mourn people and all of the other things we’re missing right now: graduations, weddings, lemonade with our parents, hugs from friends.

The part where Lauren’s parents talk to her about the death of Vincent Chin also hit me. It was one of those conversations that takes away some childhood innocence, where we see the impact of racism in the death of a single human with everything in front of him. Do you remember when you first learned about Vincent Chin?

WS: I actually don’t remember the exact time. I suspect that it might have been in college. Learning about Vincent Chin comes in two parts: first the brutal details of his death, and then learning that the people who murdered him were really not brought to justice. It’s a horror on top of horror. At the time we were writing NYAAG, I thought, this will be a good reminder of what anti-Asian prejudice looked like (past tense), and now it’s come back at full power. A powerful reminder about history repeating itself, until we learn to do better.

Every book is its own journey for a writer. What did you get out of writing this book?

MR: One of the things I always find in working with you is that you help me go deeper as a writer. I felt that during this book. Getting to delve back into these characters for a second time also helped me look at the 80s and my own childhood in a different way. Our search for Asian Americans in pop culture during that time? Yeesh. (Go ahead, readers. Try it.). The book was a steadying force for me during an emotional rough patch. As a wannabe rock star, I try to incorporate something musical into much of my writing—and here we got to write an actual musical! How did that work for you?

WS: The musical was a revelation to me. We were so stuck trying to work with existing musicals, but not wanting to quote them, and then, when we decided to write our own, everything started to flow. I learned a lot about when to stay with a problem, and when to try new strategies with this book. Also, we didn’t know at the time that the book would also be an audiobook, which means those songs we made up were actually going to get sung. Thank goodness you have a musical child to help us with the melodies!

MR: I thought we did pretty well, too, all things considered. That was one moment when we were totally in sync on this book. I know you always tease me about my “fish stories” about the first book—that each time I talk about writing it, it seems like it came out easier and took less time. For this book, it was almost the opposite. It felt harder to write. Why do you think that was?

WS: Yeah, at this point, it’s like, “We wrote the first book in a day! It just flowed! We barely had to type!” Well, the second book was already under contract, so there’s this pressure to produce by a certain deadline that makes me seize up creatively, sometimes. But, on the plus side, I loved going back to this world we’d created; it’s nice to already have characters and situations to build upon. In the first book, Mom is a paralegal, and in this book, Mom is talking about law school. Lauren’s buttons have become a money-making opportunity. And of course—the grandmas! They’re friends, sort of. What was the challenge for you?

MR: The grandmas! I was so excited to get back to them. And worried at the same time. Not about the grandmas taking over the story (that’s what we worried about the last time) so much as about creating a book that had the same people, but was still its own thing. I think we accomplished that in the end. Lauren had her own story to tell, and her own relationships with her family and her friends. And ultimately, it was her friends and friendships that were in the spotlight for this story. They laid a lot of things bare.

WS: I think Lauren and bestie Tara had some of those hard conversations that people are having now; bringing up microaggressions (not that we used that word in the 80s), accepting responsibility, and making things right. I am definitely one of those people who would rather walk on broken glass than engage in conflict; but, as Lauren learns, there’s a price for that silence. In the end, Lauren had to decide that not having that conversation was going to cost her their friendship and her joy.

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MR: My mom told me, after reading the book, that she had to pause and say: "How did those kids have the guts to do that?" To have conversations. To stand up to grown-ups. I wondered: Would I have been able to do that? I’m not sure I would have, but my mom said that at my bat mitzvah, when I was supposed to be leading the service and everyone kept talking, I just sort of gripped the bema with both hands and said, “I’m waiting.” And everyone shut up. She somehow interpreted that as being self-possessed enough to speak up to get what I needed. 

We put a lot of thought into Tara and Lauren’s relationship. What do you think would have happened to their friendship after middle school? Would it have lasted?

WS: Yes, and they would have invested in Apple stock as young entrepreneurs, so they’re good now! But seriously, creating and maintaining that level of trust in a relationship means you’re in it for the long haul. You know. Sort of like us. Writing books together is like the ultimate trust fall. 

MR: It is. I know that’s a question a lot of people ask us: How is it to write books with another person? I always like to refer to you as the other half of my brain. And admittedly, there are times when I’m working on my own projects that I think: What would Wendy do? (Fortunately, I can always ask you when I have those questions.) I always tell people that the important thing about writing with a partner is to write the book you could only write together. 

WS: Then I can’t wait to find out what we’re going to write next! I always feel like you push me to do better—to find a more well-chosen word, be a little funnier. Not by being bossy but by being an appreciative reader. I’m happy when I make you laugh. 

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.

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