Monday, September 25, 2017

Three Questions For Kat Yeh

Not only did author Kat Yeh send me an ARC of her latest middle grade novel, THE WAY TO BEA, but she personalized my copy with the quote, “Always Be You.” This captures the theme of her latest novel, which came out September 19 from Little, Brown and Company. In the book, everything is changing for seventh grader Bea. She used to have friends, but now she doesn’t. She used to be an only child, and soon she won’t be. Bea finds solace in writing poems in invisible ink. She hides the poems in a secret spot, but one day, someone writes back. Is it her ex-best friend, the librarian who passes books to Bea, or the boy whose obsession with labyrinths is as intense as Bea’s love for words? Solving the mystery might help Bea discover where she belongs. Kat Yeh, also the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Truth About Twinkie Pie, kindly answered the following three questions about writing THE WAY TO BEA:

1. Is Bea based on you in any way? (Her love of words and phrases and the way they inspired poems definitely felt like it came from a deep place within your heart!)
Actually, it's funny that you say that because my editor, Lisa Yoskowitz, made almost that identical comment to me about a scene where Bea is writing a very important haiku to someone she wants to keep in her life.      

I take a breath. Words should never be wasted or rushed. I want everything I write to be real and true and special.

I think that most of the stories we write or feel connected to come from very true and real and deep places in the heart. The best writing we do – the writing that feels the most connected —the writing that people will relate to comes when we are vulnerable enough to allow parts of ourselves to be revealed on the page. I am certainly not Bea, but there are so many parts of her that feel like me. That express my feelings.

Whenever I used to discuss The Truth About Twinkie Pie, I would talk about how people ask me if it is autobiographical. And I'm starting to hear the same questions with Bea too. While the question about GiGi from Twinkie Pie always made me laugh (since she is a young white southern girl), I can see how people would ask that of Bea, a Taiwanese American girl born to creative parents (my mom is a composer and pianist and my father was an inventor and painter).

Neither of the stories are autobiographical, but they both have my truths throughout. No matter what the story is about, if it contains emotional truth, it will be real for the reader.

2. One of my favorite characters in THE WAY TO BEA is Will, a wonderful friend to Bea who is growing up with Asperger’s. In the acknowledgments, you mention that you are “determined to continue working toward sensitivity and understanding of all the complex and wonderful humans we share this planet with.” What do you hope readers can take away from Bea and Will’s friendship?

I believe that readers will take from books whatever they need to take and I have little control over that, but if I had to choose something, I think I would say I'd like them to take this:

Friendship is friendship is friendship.

Love is love is love. 

When we look past labels and understand that under every possible label we could slap on someone—whether it's On the Spectrum, Artist, Mean Girl, Teacher or Friend—beneath any of them lies a endless range of what belongs there. Every individual on the planet is so completely different, we should never make decisions about them before we get to know them.

I mean think about why people like to label. It makes things easier. You know where things belong. We label the contents of our pantry or the boxes in our attic. Labeling for the most part has made our lives better. So then we extend the idea of labels to the people we interact with (or, more commonly and even worse, the people we never interact with!)

We want to label them. 

To make ourselves comfortable.

So we know where they go.

Now imagine a world where we don't label someone right away. And we don't put them up on some hard-to-reach shelf where we think they belong. 

Imagine that we get to know them first. 

We talk.

We listen. 

We might actually end up keeping them on a shelf right by our side.

That was a big reason why I didn't want Will to be labeled. Because Bea is so sensory in all her experiences, I knew she'd be a perfect person to just meet someone and figure them out the way an artist or writer would. By how she experienced being around him, how her emotions responded to his friendship.

The takeaway I'd wish for?

Leave the labels for organizing the pantry. 

3. One of my favorite lines from the novel is when Bea is listening to the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. Bea says, “I wanted to tell her she doesn’t have to stand there so still and afraid and hand-twisty, because it’s not worth it to be with people who make you feel like you can’t say what you want to say.” Bea draws inspiration from music. What was the importance of including music in a story that already has poetry and art in it? And of all the songs listed in the back, you never list Bea's personal theme song...

Bea has grown up around creative expression her whole life, she knows there are many ways to communicate feelings. Along with poetry and art, she uses music. I knew I wanted her to be this fully formed, three dimensional, ultra-technicolor human, bursting to express herself every way possible. And then explore what to do when she finds herself locked up inside. Realizing that there are people (best friends!) who are disparaging of all her very personal expressions is devastating to her.

 All these ways of expressing herself are like messages to the universe. Something that Bea talks about throughout the novel is how important messages are. There are so many messages in her life. 

The ones she sends out to her secret correspondent. 

The theme songs S's mom say are like messages to yourself to remind you who you are. 

Bea's mom's art. Which she says tells everyone what she feels on the inside.

And especially Bea's Playlist, which she names I Hope You Listen. It's a compilation of songs that she created for her former best friend, S. A message to let her know that she can be whoever she wants to be. 

Just who ends up receiving this message, though, is not who Bea planned.

As for the song list in back. I chose NOT to include Bea's personal theme song. I had put it in and taken it out so many times. But ultimately I liked the idea of the reader maybe coming up with their own choice for her theme song along with their own theme song. I know what I'd make it. Though I'm dying to know what readers will think of.

Kat Yeh is the award-winning author of middle grade novels, THE WAY TO BEA (Sept, 2017) and THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE (an NPR Best Book of 2015) from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, as well as picture book, THE FRIEND SHIP, from Disney-Hyperion. Kat and her family live in one of those crooked little nooks along the north shore of Long Island with secret beaches and lots of hidden paths. Learn more about Kat at



WendyMcLeodMacKnight said...

Love this interview and can't wait to read this book!

Unknown said...

You will love the book, Wendy!

Mich said...

That book sounds great! Definitely will give it a read.