Jen Wang’s earned widespread acclaim for the relatable, character-based stories in her graphic novels, including The Prince and the Dressmaker. Her latest, Stargazing, draws from her own adolescence for a humorous, touching story of friendship and expanding your perspective.
Christine is young, hard-working, and anxious as she goes through adolescence. Moon is the exact opposite..and Christine’s new next-door neighbor. Moon’s fearlessness and fantastical view of the world – including her belief that she’s really from the stars – both startle Christine and inspire her to start coming out of her shell. But their friendship is tested as tragedy threatens to strike, and Christine’s going to have to face some truths about herself to help her friend…and realize the kind of person she wanted to be.
Scheduled for release September 10 from First Second, Stargazing is a YA story that, as revealed at the end, is drawn from some extraordinary circumstances in Wang’s own life. We talked to Wang about the book, the experiences that helped inspire the book, and much more.
Newsarama: Jen, without spoiling too much, what were some of the inspirations for Stargazing?
Jen Wang: I’d been wanting to tell a story loosely based on my childhood for a long time. I grew up in an area with many other Chinese-American kids but still felt somewhat awkward around them. I don’t think that’s a unique feeling, because I think when you’re from a specific community you spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting yourself to people who’re supposed to be like you. I figured it was a story a lot of kids can relate to, especially as our country continues to diversify.
Nrama: What made you want to tell this story in graphic novel form?
Wang: That’s the medium I’m most comfortable with! I don’t think I would’ve done as well writing a prose novel or a screenplay. Comics just feel most intimate to me.
Nrama: What were some of the hardest parts of revisiting this point in your life?
Wang: I think examining my own feelings and relationship to other Asian-Americans/Chinese-Americans was very scary. It’s hard to look at a very complicated dynamic and try to look at it objectively as an adult, question some of my own prejudices and feelings I’ve had throughout my whole life! It was scary, but writing Stargazing was part of the healing process, so I’m very glad I did it.
Nrama: How much did Asian culture affect the way the perspective of the story?
Wang: I would say it’s more that this book is made up of my personal experiences, and a lot of these experiences (but not all) happen to be influenced by my Asian background. So Asian culture is there, but only through the filter in which it was a part of my family life and identity.
Nrama: For that matter, what were some of the tricks of writing kids today?
Wang: I actually found the trick was just honesty. I went in intimidated because I’d never written for such a young audience before, but then I realized all I had to do was think about how I felt at that age, what my real feelings were. The more authentic I was to how I really felt, the easier it was to write!
Nrama: What was your collaboration with colorist Lark Pien?
Wang: Working with Lark Pien was one of the highlights of making Stargazing! Lark and I have been friends for a long time, and as another Chinese-American, I felt she had a strong perspective on the themes of the book as well. What was great about Lark's coloring was she included all these great little details, like shirt patterns and logos designs that I never would’ve spent time on. It’s a nice treat to see your pages punched up with such care.
Nrama: What was your process like for establishing the visual look of the characters and their world?
Wang: I didn’t want Stargazing to look exactly like my other books. It didn’t need to be romantic and ornate like The Prince and the Dressmaker or super colorful like In Real Life. I wanted the focus to be on the characters, their faces, and their expressions, so instead of brush inking I switched to ball-point pen. It was what I used to ink comics in high school, and I felt having that thinner, less fussy, and more intimate line helped me connect with the story more.
Nrama: There are a number of traditional Asian dishes in the book. Any recipes you'd care to share?
Wang: I actually don’t have any recipes! But if anyone is ever in Los Angeles, I can recommend a number of restaurants where they can go eat! As far as what I like to make at home, my most made Chinese dish is stir-fried tomato and scrambled eggs. It was my favorite thing my mom made for us growing up and I make it at least once a week.
Nrama: What were some of the biggest YA influences on this story?
Wang: I didn’t have any direct influences for this story, but I did think about books I read as a kid that were reality-based and focused on character’s relationships and friendships. Books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Those were ones that really stuck with me because how much they resonated with reality!
Nrama: What do you hope people take away from this story?
Wang: I hope any kid who has similar feelings to the characters is able to process their experiences better through this book! And in general, I think it’s positive for readers of all ages to see more books where multiple diverse characters interact with each other. Especially in a visual medium.
Nrama: What's it been like working with First Second on this?
Wang: It’s been great! I’ve done four books with First Second now, and mostly with the same team and same editor, Calista Brill. So, it’s nice that they are familiar with how I work and understand what my process is like. It allows me to really focus on my work and not worry as much how they will respond.
Nrama: Though Stargazing tells a very specific story, do you ever see yourself revisiting these characters?
Wang: While I don’t have any current plans, I would be happy to revisit these characters. Since their stories are about growing up in the real world there are plenty of themes to explore. What happens when Christine and Moon get to middle school? What do they do over summer? When do they start getting crushes?
Nrama: What are some other books/creators you're currently enjoying?
Wang: For comics I really enjoy works by Sophia Foster-Dimino and Eleanor Davis. Maia Kobabe put out a really nice memoir recently, Genderqueer, which I think fans of The Prince and the Dressmaker who are looking to learn more about queerness would love. |
As far as prose books go, I really loved Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s a nonfiction book by an indigenous botanist about our relationship to nature and science that’s just very thoughtful and has so many interesting facts. I learned a lot from this book.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Wang: I can’t say too much yet, but I’m writing a new book!