Her debut novel Flying the Dragon came out from Charlesbridge earlier this month. Check out what she has to say about her novel, why she wrote about the Japanese culture, her journey to becoming a writer, and more!
If you could choose 3 words to describe your novel The Flying Dragon what would they be and why?
Family: The family dynamics in this story are complicated at times, but by the end of the book, the characters all realize the importance of family ties how deep they run.
Home: I don’t just mean the houses where the characters live—but how both Hiroshi and Skye learn to feel at home in their own skin.
Hope: This is the feeling that I hope all readers will take with them once they’ve closed the book at the end. Hiroshi and Skye go through some tough times, but although we don’t know what will happen once the story has finished, we do have a sense of hope that they’ll both be just fine.
What made you decide to write a story about Japanese culture?
I’d lived in Yokohama, Japan for two years where I taught at an international school. I was fascinated by the culture and so impressed by the respect that people show each other. There are so few children’s books on shelves with Asian main characters—some of my favorites have been written by Grace Lin, Mitali Perkins, Linda Sue Park, Cindy Pon, Wendy Shang and Lisa Yee. But although Japanese main characters appear in several picture books (I especially love Allen Say’s work), middle grade novels with Japanese main characters are scarce.
After reading Khaled Houssani’s The Kite Runner, I was fascinated by the sport of rokkaku, Japanese kite-fighting, and thought that kids might be interesting in learning about it, too.
Why did you decide to write a middle grade novel? Have you always wanted to write for children? Do you hope to write for an older or younger audience in the future?
Believe it or not, I actually thought this story would be a picture book when I first starting thinking about the characters and possible plotlines. The middle grade voice is probably the most comfortable and natural for me because, of my eighteen years as a teacher, sixteen of those years have been teaching middle grade readers, kids between the ages of 8 and 12. Also, two of my own kids are in the middle grade range, so that age group is the one I know best.
I did write a young adult manuscript that’s more on the “sweet” end of YA, so maybe that will morph into a middle grade novel in my revision future. I’ve also written some picture book manuscripts, so hopefully one day I’ll have a range of work out in the world!
Tell us about your writing journey. Have you always wanted to be a writer? What are some things in your life that have shaped your writing?
I decided in 4th grade that I wanted to be a teacher, but even at that age, I loved writing stories. By the time I went to college, I never thought about majoring in something that would lead to being a published author. Once I started teaching, I absolutely loved it and writing was one of my favorite things to teach.
But it wasn’t until I took a break from teaching to stay home with my kids that I actually took the time to explore writing. I took an online class in magazine writing from Writer’s Digest, and eventually wrote articles for American Baby, Parenting, and Scholastic’s Instructor magazine. But writing for children was my ultimate dream, so I also signed up for a course in writing for children. Soon after that, I joined SCWBI, where I found my critique partners, and then I joined Verla Kay’s forums for writers, all invaluable resources that I’d recommend to writers in all writing career stages.
What are some new themes and genres that you've seen popping up in literature that you're most excited about?
As a part-time elementary school librarian and part-time ESL teacher, I’ve been pleased to see a slight rise in the variety of multicultural books now available to kids. My school’s population is highly diverse, with 88% of our students speaking a language other than English at home. It’s important for kids to see their own realities reflected in literature and characters with whom they can identify. But multicultural fiction is also for those of us who were born and raised in the US in English-speaking homes, because these books give us a glimpse into the customs and behind-the-scenes realities of our neighbors.
I’m also super excited about the popularity of graphic novels in the last few years. My reluctant readers head straight for the graphic novel shelves in our library, and we cannot keep those shelves stocked to meet the demand. Graphic novels make both classic and new stories accessible to all kids, and I don’t see this trend waning anytime soon. This includes hybrids—books that are not officially graphic novels, but that are highly illustrated, like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, Ruth McNally Barshaw’s Ellie McDoodle series and Rachel Renee Russell’s Dork Diary series. I’ve seen these books turn kids into readers, which is powerful and potentially life-changing for those readers.
Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
Oh, this is a hard question, because there are too many to count! For plot, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me is one of my favorites. For point of view, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief—who knew that Death as a narrator could be so sympathetic and compelling? For setting, Ammi-Joan Paquette’s Nowhere Girl is a delicious peek into the Thai countryside and the craziness of Bangkok, and Laura Resau’s What the Moon Saw made me want to travel to Mexico. For voice, Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now left me feeling like Doug Swieteck, the main character, had become a friend. For strong characters, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys and Jeannie Mobley’s Katerina’s Wish are new releases with heart. There are many more beloved books that I’m leaving off this list, but this is a good start!
If you could have one crazy superpower what would it be and why?
That’s a good question! I’d love to have the power to transport myself from one place to another in a matter of two seconds. I’d love to be able to pop into far-flung places for a quick visit. This superpower would come in handy if I ever needed to get myself out of any scrapes, or if I needed a quick chocolate fix in the middle of a thunderstorm—I could zip to the store and back again without an umbrella. :-)
If you were an animal instead of a human which animal would you be and why?
I think I’d have to say a cat—one who rules the house in a family of cat fans. As a human, I’m definitely more of a dog person, but if I had to be an animal, I think I could definitely handle lounging around the house all day!
Thanks so much Natalie!
Thank you, Julia, for hosting me on That Hapa Chick!
Want to know more about Natalie's book Flying the Dragon? Check it out on Goodreads here! You can also find out more about Natalie and her writing on her official website here.