E.L. Shen is the author of The Comeback, a vibrant middle-grade novel about a young ice skater with a lot of passion. I spoke to E.L. about her debut middle-grade book, ice-skating, writing an emotionally honest novel, and handling racism, microaggressions and macroaggressions on the page. I enjoyed this interview just as much as I did her book.
Hi E.L! I’m so happy to be chatting with you about your debut middle-grade novel, The Comeback! I really enjoyed reading it. Why did you decide to write a book about figure skating?
I’m so excited to be chatting with you, too! I’ve loved figure skating since childhood; when I was in fourth grade, I watched the movie, Ice Princess, and decided that I was going to become an Olympic figure skater. Spoiler alert, that did not happen (ha). But I did train for several years which gave me a foundation in the sport and allowed me to dive deeper into the world of competitive skating. Now, I skate casually (I’m just getting back into lessons again) and watch religiously. During the 2018 Olympics, I was constantly talking about figure skating to anyone who would listen. A brilliant editor, Wes Adams, overheard me and chatted with me about my background in skating. He floated this great idea that I should write a figure skating novel for children while weaving in middle school drama and antics. So I tried my hand at it, and fell in love with Maxine and her story. The rest is history!
Maxine is a vibrant, insightful girl who is truly passionate about being on the ice. I loved the way she and her parents handled her ice skating and the mixed bag of emotions being in a competitive sport can stir up. Why was it important for you to show Maxine dealing with the jealousy, anxiety, and more of performing — as well as her parents being supportive in every way?
I wanted Maxine to be as authentic of a character as possible, and I think all those feelings — jealousy, insecurity, pressure, performance anxiety — come with the territory of figure skating, and really any activity that tweens and teens do outside of their traditional academic schedules. I also hoped to show the work behind those exquisite, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it programs that you see skaters perform on television. There’s an incredible amount of detail, stress, and love that go into each millisecond of their performances. With all these moving parts, it was important to me that Maxine’s parents were supportive of her dreams while also realistic about her time and energy. They were the strongholds as Maxine blossomed into a more confident skater and person.
I really liked seeing the difference between Maxine and Hollie’s feelings about skating and I enjoyed their friendship. Did you have any friendships that inspired theirs?
Yes! The comeback list that Maxine and Hollie created was actually directly inspired by a list that I made with my friends in elementary and middle school. I even forced my friends to insult me so I could practice my comebacks on the spot. (As you might expect, they were not thrilled about this activity.) I view Hollie and Maxine as yin and yang; Maxine is spunky and loud while Hollie is more introspective and imaginative. One of my best friends and I have a similar dynamic. When she’s feeling down, I lift her spirits and when I’m upset, she reels me in. I like to imagine that as Maxine and Hollie grow older, they’ll continue to lean on each other in the same way.
A huge part of this story is the racism Maxine endures, especially the bullying because of her monolids. It broke my heart to read about that and to see how tough it was to speak up about it. Why did you want to write about that?
Racism and bullying, however subtle, are things almost all children of color experience. My goal was to gently depict these experiences while shedding light on their impact. There are no easy solutions to micro and macro aggressions but I hope that readers come away realizing that they always have teachers, friends, and loved ones they can turn to when they need help.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Ice skate, of course! Haha. But I also love singing opera and musical theater, performing in community theater productions (when the pandemic is not occurring), baking, listening to every narrative podcast under the sun, and binge-watching murder mystery shows with my family.
Which wonderful middle-grade and adult books have you read recently?
So. Many. I absolutely adore Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina and shed many tears while reading Emily X.R. Pan’s exquisite novel, The Astonishing Color of After. In the adult space, I am *obsessed* with If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha. And Know My Name by Chanel Miller was a powerful and unforgettable read.
Can you share anything about your next project? Will it be another middle-grade novel?
I’m working on a young adult manuscript right now about three Asian American best friends and one life-changing, New York summer. I am also hoping to write more middle-grade and constantly have ideas scribbled down in my Notes app that I aim to one day bring to life!
What do you hope readers take away from reading The Comeback?
Joy, love, and the inspiration to follow their own dreams. <3
Thank you so much for your time!
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About E.L. Shen
E. L. Shen is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. Her debut middle grade novel, The Comeback, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers (Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group) in January 2021.
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