Local author explores growing up in two worlds in children’s book

Author Susan Tan adores Boston’s Chinatown. As the granddaughter of James Tan, founding minister of Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, she accompanied her Ye Ye (grandfather) and Nai Nai (grandmother) around Chinatown as a little girl.

Author Susan Tan based her debut novel “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire” on her mixed-race family and her childhood growing up in greater Boston. (Image courtesy of Jacqueline Moss Photography.)

“Because my grandparents were so well-known in the community, there were people who knew me growing up,” Tan said. “I’d go with Nai Nai to get groceries and it would take forever, but I liked it because she knew everyone.”

Tan’s family is Chinese and Jewish. She drew on her mixed-race upbringing in her first book, “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire,” about an eight-and-a half-year-old Chinese-Caucasian girl.

“For Cilla, the idea of the book came to me when I was thinking about a question mixed-race kids get a lot, which is ‘What are you?’ It was always meant as a compliment, but pointed out an otherness,” Tan said.

Cilla misunderstands the question about “what” she is, deciding to be a literary genius. She pens a memoir, detailing her love for her parents, Grandpa Jenkins, Grandma Jenkins, Ye Ye and Nai Nai. Cilla decides she must become a bestselling author before the birth of her baby sister, which she fears will make her family forget about her.

“She begins to see the tension that’s always existed between the two sides of her family, and realizes that she gets the chance to consider how she fits into her families, and how their differences and similarities can be sources of joy and celebration,” Tan said.

The children’s book is the first of a series, based on Tan’s childhood experiences. Cilla’s first installment published in March, with her second book focused on Chinese New Year coming out in 2018.

“I was in graduate school getting a doctorate studying children’s literature. It got really frustrating because I was reading books about the same types of kids,” said Tan, who teaches English at UMass Boston. “I kept waiting for more diverse literature and stories that reflected my own experience. As my own Chinese cousins began to have kids, I finally decided that I was done waiting, and started to write my own.”

Tan hopes to inspire more unique narratives.

“My goal is to help add more voices and new stories to children’s literature,” Tan said. “It’s so important to give kids literature that reflects the reality of the world they live in.”

For more information about Tan, visit www.susantanbooks.com.

Book jacket of “Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire” by Susan Tan, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte. (Image courtesy of Roaring Brook Press.)

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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