The Children’s Book Review | March 2, 2018
Welcome to The Children’s Book Review, Gloria! Thanks for joining us. I laughed out loud many times while reading AMERICAN PANDA. In so many ways, everyone can relate to it, while in other ways it is a very unique look in to Taiwanese American culture. It’s a joy to read and everyone should buy it immediately!
Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your book, AMERICAN PANDA.
Gloria Chao: Thank you so much for having me! I’m so thrilled to be here! And thank you for your lovely comments about the book!
AMERICAN PANDA follows a Taiwanese-American MIT freshman whose traditional parents want her to be a doctor and marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate. There’s a little romance plus a lot of humor—both nerdy and cultural in the vein of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
I know this is a very personal story for you. Obviously it’s not a memoir, but can you tell us how you drew on your own personal story to create Mei and her struggles at MIT, as well as with her family?
When I started writing this book, I wanted to write the book I needed as a teen as well as the book I needed as I switched careers from dentist to writer, which my parents were having a hard time with. I wanted to capture the struggles I went through as a child of immigrants, and I wanted to tell teens that they aren’t alone, it’s okay to not feel wholly one thing or another, and cultural gaps can be difficult.
I also wanted to capture a universal experience in Mei’s difficulty fitting in at MIT. I dedicated the book to anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t belong.
Upper YA/crossover is becoming very popular lately. How does Mei’s story in AMERICAN PANDA fit in to the increasingly wide-ranging YA market?
AMERICAN PANDA was a tough sell because of the college setting. I received rejections from publishers solely based on this and the fact that they weren’t sure how it fit in the YA market, and I’m so grateful I found a publisher who was supportive of it. I feel that my coming of age didn’t happen until college, and because of Mei’s sheltered background (similar to mine), I feel she wouldn’t have found herself until college either. Because of this, I always knew I needed the book to be post-high school, which is still an obstacle in publishing. I’m hoping it will be less difficult in the future so teens can read a wider range of college experiences!
Mei takes a pretty tough emotional journey in your book. Was that hard to write? Therapeutic?
It was both difficult to write and therapeutic. This book made me face many demons which was incredibly hard at the time but so worth it. Writing this book forced my mother and me to communicate about our culture, which I’d been too afraid to broach before, and as a result, we have a very close relationship now. I don’t think we could have gotten here without Mei.
I loved the “hacks” at MIT, they were so fun to read about. What aspects of the story were the most fun to write?
Thank you so much! I went to MIT, discovered a lot about myself when I was there, and love MIT’s unique, adventurous, nerdy culture. The “hacks” are based on real, long-standing MIT traditions, and I’m so happy to share them with a wider audience.
My favorite part of the book to write was Mei’s mother. Her voice came to me fully formed, and she practically wrote herself. It was so much fun to write all the ridiculous things she says, like swing your arms three thousand times a day for good health, which, yes, are based on things my mother has said to me and my friends’ mothers have said to them.
Is American Panda your first novel? What was your journey to publication with this novel?
I wrote another novel that I shelved because I couldn’t stop thinking about Mei. I drafted AMERICAN PANDA for NaNoWriMo 2015, revised for about two years (and querying periodically) before signing with my fabulous agent. I revised with her for two months, then the book sold in a week.
What is your writing process like? Are you working on something new and exciting for us to look forward to?
I’m discovering that my writing process is different for each book. My second book, MISALIGNED, will be forthcoming from Simon Pulse fall 2019, and I’m thrilled to be working with my amazing editor again.
MISALIGNED follows a teen outcast, Ali, whose family are the only Asians in their small, predominantly white Midwestern town. When another Chinese boy moves to town, Ali connects with him, who understands her in ways no one else in the town does. Ali believes her mother will be happy with her Chinese boyfriend, but the mother forbids them from being together. As Ali searches for the reasoning behind her mother’s disapproval, dark family secrets come to light that threaten more than just her budding romance.
While AMERICAN PANDA began with a character, MISALIGNED began with the plot reveal at the end (which is based on a real phenomenon in China).
AMERICAN PANDA has some amazing descriptions of food. What’s your favorite Taiwanese snack?
Like Mei, I love dried squid. But it’s difficult to find where I am, so my go-to writing snack is dried seaweed.
Writing is a difficult job! What kind of hobbies do you enjoy to relieve stress and help inspire you?
I took up curling this season and am completely in love with it. My husband and I curl in a regular league. DDR is also a great stress reliever for me!
What were your favorite books growing up?
The Baby-Sitters Club! I brought them with me everywhere and they eventually became covered in food (which I would never let happen now).
If you could go back and tell your teen-self one thing, what would it be?
Thank you so much for joining us today, Gloria!
Thank you so much for having me! It was such a pleasure!
Written by Gloria Chao
Publisher’s Synopsis: An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents’ master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can’t bring herself to tell them the truth–that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?
From debut author Gloria Chao comes a hilarious, heartfelt tale of how unlike the panda, life isn’t always so black and white.
Ages 14+ | Publisher: Simon Pulse | February 6, 2018 | ISBN-13: 978-1481499101
About the Author
Gloria Chao is an MIT graduate turned dentist turned writer. She currently lives in Chicago with her ever-supportive husband, for whom she became a nine-hole golfer (sometimes seven). She is always up for cooperative board games, Dance Dance Revolution, or soup dumplings. She was also once a black belt in kung-fu and a competitive dancer, but that side of her was drilled and suctioned out. Visit her tea-and-book-filled world at GloriaChao.Wordpress.com.
This interview—Debut Author Gloria Chao Discusses American Panda—was conducted between Gloria Chaor and Denise Mealy. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Determination, Dogs, Matt Myers, Picture Book, and Sherri Duskey Rinker.