Anne: Hello, Wendy! I’m so glad you’ve stopped by MG Book Village to chat about your newest novel, The Secret Battle of Evan Pao. It came out this summer and I loved reading it. Would you please give readers a super-brief summary of the story?
Wendy: Sure! Evan Pao moves to a small town in Virginia, hoping to get a fresh start after his dad’s scandal in California. While most everyone is friendly, one kid makes sure that Evan feels like an outsider, focusing on the fact that everybody in town has a connection to the Civil War—something that Evan does not have. When Evan discovers, though, that Chinese soldiers did fight in the Civil War, he hopes to gain a sense of belonging, but instead is confronted with a choice he never expected to make.
Anne: Great. I’ll ask about the Chinese connection in a sec, but first… dogs play a huge role in Evan’s story! Are you a dog lover? And what about cats? (There were no cats in the book. I grew up with cats. Just saying.)
Wendy: For the record, I have two cats and a dog, I love them all, but what can I say? There’s something about a dog. Zoe is a pandemic puppy—we got her a few months into the pandemic—and she is still surprised when we leave the house.
Anne: Awww, Zoe looks super sweet!
Okay, now back to the book: do you see yourself in any of the characters in the story? Is any part autobiographical? How much of you is inside this gentle, sensitive, and insightful protagonist Evan?
Wendy: The story is written in multiple third-person points of view, but much of the story is told through three boys—Evan, of course; his new best friend Max; and the boy who wants to exclude Evan, Brady. I feel attached to the three boys for different reasons. Evan is very sensitive to people’s feelings, which is definitely me, though like Evan, I also have my blind spots! I relate to Max because he tries to do the right thing, but can be a bit clumsy about it. Brady is a dog lover and has an older brother like me (though my older brother is nothing like Brady’s!).
Anne: As the new kid in a small Virginia town, Evan notices things that no one else seems to question, like the fact that there’s a dead person on the Virginia state flag, the oddness of naming a school “Battlefield Elementary,” and the way “Yankee” became a Northern-versus-Southern thing. When did you first cue into ironies like these and decide to weave them into a novel?
Wendy: I started questioning things a few years ago, probably around the same time that we started having a national discussion about Confederate statues, though I do remember, as a kid, thinking that Virginia having a Lee-Jackson-King Day—a holiday for two Confederate generals and a Black civil rights leader—was pretty weird. Living in Virginia, it’s hard to see how incongruous it is to have places named after people who fought against the United States because they are everywhere. Until they were renamed, I lived near Lee Highway and my kids’ friends went to JEB Stuart High School. Once you start noticing these kinds of details, it’s kind of hard to stop, to be honest. That’s where a lot of those observations came from!
Anne: I hear you! In my Virginia town, the high school used to be Lee-Davis and has recently been renamed. Now, in the book, one of my favorite parts was learning new historical tidbits, such as the fact that Chinese men fought alongside Americans in our Civil War. Really interesting! How did you come to learn this history?
Wendy: I have a really terrible memory, so I can’t remember where or how I first learned about the Chinese soldiers. If I had to guess, I would imagine it was through the work of Ruthanne Lum McCunn, who has written both fiction and nonfiction about the Chinese American experience, particularly in the American West. I ended up using one of her scholarly articles to pin down details for the book. What I can tell you for sure is that once I found out about these soldiers, I knew that I was not going to rest until I had them in a story.
Anne: I found these lines especially touching: “[Because of] the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese were not allowed to become citizens, not even someone who had fought in the war. But [the Chinese man Edward] still went out and saluted the flag every evening… [He] must have loved the United States when it did not seem to love him back, would not call him a citizen” (pages 170-171). These lines broke my heart. I’m so glad you included them in the book. While you were writing this section, how did you feel? Would you talk a bit about your writing process?
Wendy: One of the trickier parts about writing about the soldiers was trying to convey their story without getting too bogged down in the weeds; some of the more well-known men had very complex legal or life stories. But sometime while I was writing this book, I heard that expression, and it seemed to fit this situation and sum up the experience of being Chinese-American, both then and now. I was raised to love the United States, and I do believe in the highest ideals of our country, though we are still fighting to reach those ideals. At the same time, the recent increase in violence against Asian-Americans has been frightening and disturbing.
My writing process for Evan Pao was unusual in a lot of ways. I started writing it before the pandemic, and then, a few months in, I had an opportunity to write books for the American Girl of the Year, but on a very short deadline. So I hit pause on Evan Pao to write those books, and when I came back, the world had changed in so many ways, but most notably, the rise in anti-Asian hatred. That brought the issues I wanted to explore in the book into a whole new light, and I really struggled with whether I wanted to talk about forgiveness at that point. At the same time, I kept finding little phrases or ideas that pushed me to stay the course of how I originally envisioned the story. When I was writing the ending, I was trying to really hit that right note, and then Chloe Zhao won the Academy Award for Best Director, and included the chengyu (Chinese idiom) in her speech that people are basically born good. It was a gift to hear that!
Anne: Love it. There’s so much hope in that idiom. So much optimism.
You’re already known for your novels The Great Wall of Lucy Wu and The Way Home Looks Now, plus two books co-written with Madelyn Rosenberg (Not Your All-American Girl and This is Just a Test), and the picture book The Rice in the Pot Goes Round and Round. What are you working on now? Will you be writing more novels for middle-grade readers?
Wendy: I have a few irons in the fire! Madelyn and I are trying our hand at screenwriting. I have a picture book out on sub, and I’m toying with a non-fiction picture book idea. And I do have an idea for a middle-grade that I’ve been pondering for the last few years. Middle grade books are really my first love, so I think I’ll always have something MG to work on.
Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt and eye-opening story for middle-grade readers!
Wendy: Thank you for having me!
Wendy Shang is the author of numerous books featuring Chinese-American characters, including The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, winner of the Asian Pacific-American Librarian Association award, and the American Girl 2022 Girl of the Year books. Wendy’s most recent book is The Secret Battle of Evan Pao, which has received three starred reviews. While she joined the Wordle craze in 2021, she remains a stalwart New York Times Spelling Bee fan. In addition to her writing, Wendy works for the Pretrial Justice Institute. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia with her family, dog and two cats.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about Anne at the MG Book Village “About” page.