Pho­to­graph of Wendy Wan-Long Shang © Maria Pschigoda

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 made​lyn​rosen​berg​.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.