Anne: Hello, Kelly, and welcome to MG Book Village! You’ve written many books for middle grade readers, and I love that you’re here today to talk about your most recent one: Finally Seen, recently out from Simon & Schuster. Would you please give readers a short summary of the action?
Kelly: Sure! Ten-year-old Lina Gao arrives in Los Angeles, having not seen her parents and little sister in 5 years. She is a “left behind” child, as they are called in Asia. She’s been living with her grandmother in Beijing, waiting for her parents to send for her. Finally, her parents are ready for her to join their fabulous life in America! But it’s not exactly like the postcards they’ve sent. At school, Lina feels no one can possibly understand what she’s going through… until she picks up a book. It’s a graphic novel that makes her feel seen. When that book gets challenged, it takes all of Lina’s courage to choose a future where she’s finally seen.
Anne: Great! On your website, you mention that you came to America when you were six years old. Did you base any moments in Finally Seen on your own immigrant experience?
Kelly: Absolutely! I based Finally Seen on my early days in this country, trying to learn English, and bonding with my ESL teacher and librarian. Those are some of the most emotional moments of my childhood, and I tried hard to bring them to life in this book. I also based the book on my own heart-wrenching experience having my book Front Desk get banned.
Anne: Oh, that is heart-wrenching. (I hope the ban led to you getting even more readers!) I love the “Imagination Hotel” scenes in which characters dream big dreams as a way of coping with disappointing and/or difficult circumstances. Where did you come up with that idea?
Kelly: First of all, I just love hotels, lol. I love the idea of parents taking kids on an imaginary vacation—to the future. And them checking in to better circumstances. The parents in Finally Seen don’t have much. But they have their imagination and they have hope… Hope can be very powerful. As I often say to kids, if you can picture it, you can make it happen!
Anne: So true! And look at what the family makes happen: you show Lina’s mom starting a business selling handmade “bath bombs”—fizzy balls that dissolve in water, releasing fragrances. In order to write this book, did you have to learn to make bath bombs? Did you try freezing them, like Lina did? What research did you do to get the details right?
Kelly: My daughter and I both love bath bombs. We love watching them dissolve and seeing the various combinations of colors. I remember being at a friend’s house and seeing her make bath bombs. That’s when I thought, wouldn’t it be cool for Lina and her mom and sister to have a side hustle business on Etsy doing this? I did try my hand at it, eventually, and they are a lot harder to make than you think!
Anne: Ha! I can only imagine. Now, let’s talk about the adults in this story. In some cases we see adults lying through their teeth, and in other scenes, those same characters reveal quasi-good motivations behind some of their, uh, let’s call them “bad behaviors.” Tell us about your decision to craft the adult characters the way you did.
Kelly: I really enjoy crafting complex adult characters because I think in real life, people are multi-layered and multi-dimensional. That’s what makes them interesting. You might meet someone who is extraordinarily kind and giving in one way, but shockingly cold in another. And you wonder, huh, I wonder why that is. So you start exploring and you start having conversations, and trying to understand. I want kids to always be curious. To dig deep so they can understand. So they can really see life, people, and the circumstances around them and come to their own conclusions.
Anne: Always curious. Yes! The story is more serious than funny, but there are plenty of funny lines, such as references to the TV show The Simpsons, and Finn trying to serve as Lina’s translator when the only Chinese words he knows are names of foods. When you started writing this story, did you know you’d include humorous moments, or did you work them into the story later, during revisions? How long did it take you to write—and revise—Finally Seen?
Kelly: My rule in life is a day without laughter is night! As any of my kids will tell you, I love to sprinkle in jokes at dinner. Even when I’m talking about serious stuff, I’ll suddenly make some sort of funny noise. So it’s always my goal to put in as much humor as I possibly can in my books. As for my drafting process, it usually takes me a few months for one draft, and Finally Seen did take a few drafts.
Anne: You’ve written a bunch of books for middle grade readers! Do you have plans for a new MG story? What are you working on now?
Kelly: I am excited for Top Story, the 5th Front Desk book, coming out in September! I’m also super excited for Little Bird Laila, my newest picture book. After that, I don’t have anything announced yet but I’m always working on new middle grade stories for my readers.
Anne: Where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Kelly: You can learn more at kellyyang.com and follow me on Twitter and Instagram at kellyyanghk and Tiktok at kellyyangauthor for hilarious videos of me trying to juggle books, kids, and puppies!
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such a heartfelt story about one girl’s experience of immigrating to America!
Kelly: Thank you so much for having me!
Kelly Yang is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Finally Seen, New from Here, the Front Desk series, and two young adult novels. Kelly immigrated to America when she was 6 years old and grew up in Southern California. After law school, she gave up law to pursue her passion of writing and teaching children writing. She is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, a leading writing and debating program for kids in Asia. Kelly has helped thousands of children find their voice and become better writers and more powerful speakers. Before turning to fiction, she was a columnist for the South China Morning Post. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She is the Honorary Chair of the American Library Association for National Library Week. She has three children and lives in Los Angeles.
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.