The Birth of Devil’s Revolver

I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.

In 2010, I was zealously playing an action-adventure Wild West video game called Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games.

The game follows ex-outlaw John Marston, on a quest to atone for his past and save his family from a shady government agency during the early twentieth century. It is deep, moving, engrossing, and a helluva lotta fun…everything I wanted my own stories to be.

I’d just published my debut contemporary romance under my other pen name, Vicki Essex, when the thought came to me: Why weren’t there more fantasies set in the Wild West? Why were so many magical worlds set in feudal fairytale kingdoms with castles and kings and wizards?

And so The Devil’s Revolver was born. I’d always been a reader of YA fantasy and aspired to publish in the genre. Fueled by hours of playing through bloody gunfights and long horseback rides across a seemingly endless, beautifully rendered landscape, I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.


I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.

The question was, would anyone want to read a Western, even if there was magic in it? Despite the number of successful cross-genre stories like the Joss Whedon show Firefly (another inspiration) and Cowboys vs. Aliens (who doesn’t love Daniel Craig?), I realized that getting an audience hinged on two things: characters and world building.

I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was hardworking, family-centered, hard-headed—a product of her sometimes harsh surroundings with both boots planted firmly on the ground. She was “mundane,” bearing no magic gift of her own, and her only concerns for the future were ensuring the safety and security of her parents and little sister, Abby. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.

And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.

When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was.

Building the magical world around Hettie was more challenging than I’d anticipated. The world of The Devil’s Revolver started as one that was basically turn-of-the-century American, “but with magic.” History happened as it had, “but with magic.” Science and technology kept pace with real-life timelines for the most part, “but with magic.” It wasn’t a tough stretch—when you can imagine a spell to make something happen, you can imagine a counterspell to stop it from happening.

I kept the use of magic sparse and practical. When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was, but also life-altering in the same way indoor plumbing might be in a rural household.


I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.So began my own journey to decolonize my writing.

What I hadn’t really considered until well into the first draft was just how complex the system of magic would be in this world, and what it would mean to various characters and cultural groups. I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.

So began my own journey to decolonize my writing. As a result, “magic” in Hettie’s world, as I conceived it, couldn’t be a single overriding tradition, nor could it necessarily all come from one single source as more rigorous standards for world building might require. Every culture has its own forms of magic, whether it’s fortune-telling, prayer, conversing with otherworldly beings, healing, manipulating others…the list goes on and on. In short, “magic” allows us to trust in what is and what can be achieved through various customs or rituals without qualifying its value. Some people call this faith.

The journey’s a long one, for myself and for Hettie. I hope you’ll enjoy The Devil’s Revolver and come back for the rest of the series, coming soon from Brain Mill Press.

And to think it all began with a video game.

The Many Different Loves of “Let’s Talk About Love”

When people think of love, romantic love comes to mind. It is often tied with sexual attraction and the act of sex, seemingly inseparable.

As a result, asexual people who experience romantic attraction but not sexual attraction have a hard time explaining their identity to potential romantic partners as well as friends and family. In Claire Kann’s debut young adult novel Let’s Talk About Love the main lead is a Black biromantic asexual girl named Alice who is learning to redefine and appreciate the several types of love she experiences.

When it comes to asexuality, it is important to note that it exists on a spectrum that consists of a lack of sexual attraction as well as a lack of romantic attraction. Let’s Talk About Love features only one facet and experience of asexuality and should not be treated as a definitive text. However, there is no denying that it’s a notable book in more ways than one. Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.

Unlike most teen coming-of-age stories, this one is set in college during summer. This allows for a realistic, easygoing plot that focuses on self-discovery.

When the novel opens, Alice has just been dumped by her girlfriend Margot because she doesn’t understand Alice’s asexuality. Alice is especially hurt because Margot thinks that Alice doesn’t want to have sex with her because she doesn’t love her. Since Alice is already uncomfortable with being open with her asexuality, this breakup makes things worse. As a result, she has a hard time recognizing her feelings for her new library co-worker Takumi and dreads coming out to him.

With the help of a therapist, Alice starts to get in touch with her feelings, becomes closer to Takumi and her friends Fennie and Ryan, and starts moving out from under her parents’ career expectations. As she does this, she comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations. A fun aspect of this is Alice’s love for pop culture.

Although it’s not a major part of the book, Alice’s passion for pop culture is such a quirky and charming part of her character that you can’t help but smile. Thinking of love and passion in terms of how much you enjoy a thing is valuable; to see Alice do this so naturally is wonderful. She jokes about getting a degree in watching Netflix and Hulu. She cosplays as Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo. It’s amusing and nice because it becomes something she shares with her friends and Takumi out of love for them.

She comes to realize the various types of love she is capable of experiencing and enjoying without giving in to heteronormative expectations.

In fact, Alice’s love for her friends Feenie and Ryan are just as powerful as her feelings for her love interest Takumi. In the book, she finds herself becoming a third wheel to Feenie and Ryan, slowly drifting apart from them as she spends more time with Takumi. After an incident where she feels her friends abandoned her, she and her friends become estranged until they have a talk about how they need to balance their relationships with each other.

It’s important to note Alice’s friendships.

Some young adult books focus on romance more than friendship, especially when romance is a major part of the plot. When a girl gets a love interest in a book like The Fault in Our Stars or Pushing the Limits, it feels like the girl’s entire world revolves around them. Another notable factor in this book is the rarity of having a Black female teen dealing with things like romance and friendship instead of extreme hardship. Although Alice does deal with microgressions, her personality is that of a carefree Black girl trying to happily live her life.

Meanwhile, Alice’s relationship with Takumi is notable because it evolves from friendship to romance. In fact, ninety-five percent of the book involves friendship. While this caused the romance scenes to be rushed at the end, having their friendship grow to romance works in Alice’s favor. Alice is allowed to figure out what exactly attracts her to Takumi, what type of attraction she feels for him, and how much she likes him versus how much she is attracted to him. Takumi is allowed to do the same and his relationship with Alice is all the better for it.

Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual.

All in all, Let’s Talk About Love is a wonderful exploration of love in various forms. Alice’s coming-of-age story is entertaining and thoughtful because it shows that friendship, romance without sex, and personal passions are filled with just as much love as anything sexual. It forces the reader to consider what makes love special to them and why certain types of love are given a higher value than others. Let’s Talk About Love both entertains and starts a conversation; more people should be reading and talking about this book.

top photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Behind the Bamboo Screen

I have been reading for as long as I remember.

My mother claims my reading accelerated my short-sightedness, and I’d like to think that my ability to read a book while walking has allowed me to flourish when it comes to texting or tweeting when I’m on foot. I read and reread my mother’s collection of Enid Blyton books, lived through the release of the Harry Potter series, and devoured as many high fantasy novels I could get my hands on. I then become enamoured with the classics, before settling comfortably into a diet of literary fiction.

Somewhat ironically, I never really read much Australian fiction. I was convinced that most, if not all Australian literature waxed lyrical about the outback and the bush, and that really wasn’t something I was willing to spend my time on. I subconsciously resisted reading anything that identified as Australian literature until I was forced to – in the second semester of my fourth year at university. By a strange twist of fate, I had to take two Australian literature courses, and I was mentally preparing myself for a boring semester.

There are snippets, here and there, of cultural commentary – innocuous to those who don’t know of their significance, but monumental to those who do.

Boy, was I wrong.

Hsu Ming Teo’s Behind the Moon was the first text on both of my reading lists that caught my eye. Quite honestly, I was probably just excited to read a piece of writing by an Asian-Australian author. Indeed, Behind The Moon turned out to be the first novel containing characters I could truly identify with. Justin Cheong is the son of Singaporean-Chinese parents, and Tien Ho the daughter of a Vietnamese mother who fled her home country during the Vietnam War. There are snippets, here and there, of cultural commentary – innocuous to those who don’t know of their significance, but monumental to those who do.

Justin’s father, Tek, doesn’t speak of his son’s transgressions. In reciprocation, Justin is the very embodiment of filial piety, afraid of disappointing his father any further, a hotbed for problems to come. Tien, enamoured with the film The Wizard of Oz, always “felt as if there was a Tien-shaped treasure box inside her that she could never quite manage to open” (24). Their friend, Gibbo, to his friends’ chagrin, desperately wants to be Chinese. It is a novel about identity, about family, about desperate attempts to just belong.

If we are not Australian enough for Australians, and not Asian enough for Asians, then who are we? Where do we fit?

At their very core, isn’t this what all novels are about?

I love the slips of Chinese, secrets shared in plain sight. After years of British and American popular culture references, there is an uncanniness in seeing references to Woman’s Day, the shortening of McDonald’s to “Macca’s”, the HSC. But perhaps most importantly of all, Behind the Moon verbalises the internal struggle of being Asian in Australia – of not being seen as Australian by white Australians, in addition to not being seen as Asian by Aunties and Uncles, of the older generations.

If we are not Australian enough for Australians, and not Asian enough for Asians, then who are we? Where do we fit?

Teo has also written about the amputated self, of an identity where “the intellectual, cultural, social, spiritual, familial, emotional and psychological do not align. There are awkward gaps everywhere” (“Amputations of the Self” 137). These gaps may be uncomfortable, but arguably, necessary. They facilitate a fluidity of identity that is freeing and confusing, all at the same time. These gaps are the places in which our true selves – whatever they may be – lie.

These gaps may be uncomfortable, but arguably, necessary. They facilitate a fluidity of identity that is freeing and confusing, all at the same time. These gaps are the places in which our true selves – whatever they may be – lie.

Encouraged by my experience with Teo’s novel, I eagerly set out to find writing from other Asian-Australians – in particular, South-East-Asian-Australian women. This enthusiasm was doused when I realised this would be no easy task. The Australian fiction section in my local Dymocks store took up a whole aisle, and yet I could only find The Boat (Nam Le) and Questions of Travel (Michelle de Kretser). Call me cynical, but I’m pretty sure the only reason they were even in Dymocks was because they had won awards. I ended up resorting to an Australian second hand online bookshop – even the Book Depository didn’t have most of the titles I wanted. I looked for one particular novel, Simone Lazaroo’s The World Waiting to be Made, for a whole year, even emailing Lazaroo to ask if she had any spare copies. I finally found it on a dusty shelf in a second hand bookstore in Sydney while I was on holiday.

The scarcity of Asian-Australian writing is frightening, and for me, deeply upsetting. When the 2011 census was conducted, 2.4 million people, or 12 percent of the population, identified as Asian-Australia. More up to date figures will be available after this year’s census, but I would not be surprised if this number is now even higher. Most importantly, there is no way this figure was, or is reflected in the percentage of Asian-Australian novels in the market. Behind the Moon didn’t just introduce me to characters with whom I felt a strong cultural connection – it also gave me some kind of confidence that there was space in Australian dialogue for people with names like “Hsu-Ming Teo”. It was something of a guiding light amongst the murky waters of my parents’ quiet disdain at the career I had chosen to pursue.

Promotion and reviews of Asian-Australian writing often fall into the trap of Orientalism, of exoticising the author, their characters, or possibly even both. These books might not sell well, perhaps because they are attached to an author with a “weird looking name”, or because they confront issues people don’t want to read or think about.

Peering behind the bamboo screen, or indeed, completely tearing it down, presents its own unique set of issues. Promotion and reviews of Asian-Australian writing often fall into the trap of Orientalism, of exoticising the author, their characters, or possibly even both. These books might not sell well, perhaps because they are attached to an author with a “weird looking name”, or because they confront issues people don’t want to read or think about. It is easy to be ensnared by stereotypes, especially if they have been framed as part of everyday life. And then there are the slight but significant differences between Eastern and Western cultures, especially as they pertain to the value of education, obedience, and racism.

Australia seems awfully well versed in the practice of ignoring or denigrating anything that would tarnish our rich, just-over-200-year-old history. Doing so doesn’t do our country any favours. It simply gives us licence to repeat previous mistakes, over and over and over.

In spite of such obstacles, there needs to be space in the Australian literary vernacular for Asian-Australian writers. We have stories to tell. These are our stories, and our parents’ stories. They may be painful and disconcerting, but they are just as important – if not more important – than those written by middle aged, middle class white men. Australia seems awfully well versed in the practice of ignoring or denigrating anything that would tarnish our rich, just-over-200-year-old history. Doing so doesn’t do our country any favours. It simply gives us licence to repeat previous mistakes, over and over and over.

Wresting the pen away from white males will always be an uphill battle. Awards for female writers like the Stella Prize are beginning to make headway in the industry, but there is still a long way to go. Australia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, has only been awarded to a writer of Asian descent once in its 59 years. Of course, these issues cannot be resolved by a single person or organisation, let alone a young student with a considerable lack of credentials to her name. At the same time, I don’t want my children growing up in a world where they are 20 years old before they are even aware that they have access to stories with characters and stories to which they can truly relate.

I might not be able to influence a whole country, but if I go about it one person at a time, maybe – just maybe – I might be able to start the process of tearing down the bamboo screen.

The Australian arts industry is currently under a huge amount of stress, what with the threat of parallel importation restrictions and increasingly drastic cuts to funding. However, Asian representation in many, if not all forms of art in Australia has been considerably lacking for an even longer period of time. The conversation has only recently shifted seriously to tackle such issues, and I can only hope that we will continue on such a trajectory. Until then, I will be doing all I can to champion Asian Australian writing, both old and new. I might not be able to influence a whole country, but if I go about it one person at a time, maybe – just maybe – I might be able to start the process of tearing down the bamboo screen.

top photo by Eugenie Lai on Unsplash

War Rooms

It is probably inevitable The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, a new book about a large family living in New York City, is about real estate.*

Karina Yan Glaser’s charming middle-grade contemporary opens about a week before Christmas when the Vanderbeekers learn that they are about to be kicked out of their beloved Harlem brownstone apartment. The Vanderbeekers are a biracial family—Asian and white—composed of two harried parents, a trio of eccentric pets, and five children. The eldest are twelve-year old twin girls—thoughtful violinist Isa and impulsive engineer Jessie—followed by nine-year-old basketball playing Oliver, shy six-year-old Hyacinth, maker of crafts, and four-year-old Laney.

The Vanderbeekers have deep roots on 141st Street. Père Vanderbeeker has always lived on the block, and the children have solidified the clan’s presence.

The Vanderbeekers’ home—a humble red brownstone with a weathervane that spun on windy days—sat in the exact middle of the street. The brownstone stood out not because of its architecture, but because of the constant hum of activity that burst out of it. Among the many people that visited the Vanderbeeker household there was quite a bit of disagreement about what it was like, but general agreement about what it was NOT:

Calm

Tidy

Boring

Predictable

The Vanderbeeker household is, in its way, a hub of community life. While the parents scramble to pack up and find housing, the children devise several strategems to convince their reclusive landlord, whom they call “the Biederman,” to allow them to stay. Each ploy, each scheme, makes use of a Vanderbeeker’s particular talent and character; it showcases their place in the world, but also provides a snapshot of life in their larger community.

I loved it. I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting. For the next few weeks, I started looking for children’s books about big families who live in rambling houses.

I was happy to find a realistic, warm book about a close-knit biracial clan living in a multiethnic New York City. I was delighted that the Vanderbeekers could reflect something of my daughter’s experiences growing up in Manhattan. And, well, I found the novel tremendously comforting.

The stories I wanted to read had a few things in common: The families in these novels were almost always made up of one responsible sister—usually the eldest—an artistic sibling, a scientific one, and a young sibling who didn’t understand everything that was going on but arrived at simple solutions for ongoing family problems. The books were all written in the third person, with each section closely following one child as they pursued their talents and were allowed to ramble about making music or constructing elaborate structures unheeded and unsupervised by adults.

I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.

I read the Vanderbeekers, I read Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks, I read Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays and The Four-Story Mistake, about the Melendy family. I just started Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, and of course, I have on hand Sydney Taylor’s portrait of a turn-of-the-century New York Jewish household in All-of-a-Kind Family.

As I went through—go through—these books, I have tried to think about why they are so familiar and comforting. I did not grow up in a knock-down house. I didn’t run wild. I never called secret meetings with my sisters and brothers to figure out how to manage my clueless parents or our problems. The feelings these books evoke could almost be mistaken for nostalgia—until I remind myself that I didn’t grow up this way at all.

There is a magical quality to the spaces that the children in these books inhabit. The Vanderbeeker children, for instance, creep out of their windows to meet on the brownstone’s roof:

The tiles made the rooftop welcoming and soundproof. Nevertheless the kids knew to tread in the same manner they did when visiting one another’s bedrooms late at night without waking their parents. They were certain the Biederman could not hear them, because he would definitely have said something about it. And not in a nice way, either.

Jessie Vanderbeeker has also equipped the roof with a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption that allows the children to pour water down through a series of seesaws, wind chimes, and spokes, to create a soft melody. It’s a nice touch, both beautiful and whimsical, and it reinforces the feeling of an old-fashioned kind of childhood.

One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment.

When I try to pinpoint what I find reassuring about this book—all of these books—I consider that it is this image of the siblings meeting secretly in the spaces that they’ve created. Even if the kids struggle to find a place in the larger world, there is at least assurance of a place within a family—where the crushing fights get resolved, where adolescence shakes up certain assumptions but one’s birth order and the love of one’s brothers and sisters stays more or less constant. The structure of family is ballast.

And that is further reinforced by the physical spaces of the kids’ covert meetings. One reason I find the Vanderbeekers and the Penderwicks and Melendys so compelling is because these books also show the ways that children have power in their environment. The four Penderwick sisters can, after all, help their friend James, who wants to go to a prestigious music school. The Vanderbeekers can lure their reclusive landlord back into the community. The Melendys even discover a secret room in their attic, in the children’s space.

“Look how it goes: up to here, and then across to there, and then down again. And look, there’s a kind of a bulge on that side. Like a hinge!”

“Like a hinge,” repeated Rush, light dawning. “Creepers, Ran! Do you suppose it could be a door?”

In dream interpretation, they say that discovering a hidden room in one’s home is a sign of untapped potential—it’s the subconscious’s signal there is more to find within oneself. In The Four-Story Mistake, that extra room is real; the Melendy kids keep news of the room from their father and their housekeeper, Cuffy. It is a place they can hide and plan fierce campaigns. Similar spots—in crawlspaces, in enormous garden urns, in attics and in trees—and covert meetings exist in the books I’ve been reading. From these locations, the siblings effect change, and their grown-ups have no idea that these childhood war rooms exist.

When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. And yes, there is a charm in reading about “simpler times,” in kids playing in treehouses and adopting strange dogs from the street—charming, that is, for certain classes of white, straight, cis people.

But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.

When people talk about having things go back to the way they were, I think sometimes they have in mind the portraits of family life found in these books. … But for me, I think that the appeal of these books lies in the fact that the children are allowed to be powerful, and where the books themselves serve as a childhood space; the pages are the secret room.

Because despite outward appearances, the larger setting of these novels isn’t all sweetness and charm. The Moffats, by Eleanor Estes, published in 1941, is essentially about the Great Depression and its effects on a widow’s children. Enright’s The Saturdays was published in 1939, and that book contains uneasy mentions of Hitler and strife in Europe. By The Four-Story Mistake (1941), Enright’s Melendys have moved to the country and are actively raising money for war bonds. So much for nostalgia.

I can’t think it a coincidence that both Estes and Enright first published these kinds of stories during these fraught years. And I find it interesting that The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, about a mixed-race family—a family whose existence could be considered political—who are not many steps from homelessness and economic ruin—is being released now. They are sunny books, but their optimism is tempered. They are hopeful books, but there are good reasons why these characters need hope. When there is a larger world of dark, adult issues, these novels remind readers that there are still problems that can be solved by the youngest, smallest, most overlooked people.

***

* I received an ARC of The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street via Netgalley.

top photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Sweet Valley and Canby Hall Revisited

Sweet Valley High and The Girls of Canby Hall were the two teen novel series I read and re-read from grimly and determinedly in my 80s and early 90s adolescence.

Sweet Valley High, the storied Random House series, featured blonde twins, Elizabeth (the “good” one) and Jessica (the “not-so-good” one) Wakefield, living in the small Southern California town of Sweet Valley. The concept was created by the mysterious Francine Pascal, whose name graced the covers. Beginning in 1983, Pascal oversaw a team of ghostwriters through over 152 books, through prequel and sequel series, and even a television sitcom. But although the franchise has gone through revivals and updates, the original stays in the popular memory. The great Roxane Gay has written about her love for the series, and Pascal herself has occasionally emerged from the south of France LIKE THE GLAMORPUSS WE ALL SUSPECTED SHE WAS to offer new books, such as Sweet Valley Confidential, which chronicles the adult lives of Elizabeth, Jessica, and the Sweet Valley gang.

The Girls of Canby Hall series, published by Scholastic, was less popular and less ubiquitous. (I could find and could read an entire Sweet Valley High while standing in the supermarket while my parents shopped.) Nevertheless, Canby Hall had a healthy run of 35 books starting in 1984, all bearing the author name of the fictional Emily Chase.

Canby Hall followed the lives of three girls attending an exclusive New England boarding school. Roommates (#1) opens with Dana, the big-city girl, enjoying a last run through the through the streets of New York. She zooms past Goldman’s Dry Cleaners, “which was really owned by a Pakistani family,” and asks herself how she’ll survive without the “Mandarin Chinese take-out place.” (I’ve . . . never actually heard the term “Mandarin Chinese” applied to food, but I guess it’s the cuisine of Beijing?) We then meet Faith, who is from a black neighborhood in DC and worries that she’ll be among only white peers. And we finally encounter farm girl Shelley, who has been sent to Canby Hall to expand her horizons—ostensibly beyond her boyfriend Paul. On arrival, however, Shelley finds not just her horizon but her entire world rocked when she discovers she will be rooming with an African American student.

Faith picks up quickly on Shelley’s discomfort and asks what’s wrong, resulting in this:

“Oh no. I don’t know many black people, but” —Shelley thought for a second about how to finish the sentence— “but I’m sure they can be as nice as anyone else.”

She knew the words had come out all wrong as soon as she said them, but it was too late to take them back.

The moment is interesting and familiar, and moreover highlights the fact that race is an important issue in the series. After Shelley, Faith, and Dana graduate, they’re succeeded by Toby and Jane—two white characters—and Andy, an African American student—in Making Friends (#18).

In Sweet Valley, race is the major problem in the books that deal with characters of color. After it’s treated, it goes away. At Canby Hall, awareness of race is something the girls live with, but race is not the only event of their lives.

This insistence on centering race is the most significant difference between these two contemporaneous series. Canby Hall deliberately makes an African American girl one of the main characters in a setting—an upper-crust private girls’ boarding school in Massachusetts—that sounds pretty gosh-darn white. The original Sweet Valley High novels, on the other hand, center on white characters in a setting and at a time that could very easily and realistically include, say, characters of Latino or Asian descent—a Southern California public school.

And yes, Sweet Valley does have drop-in characters of color. In Rosa’s Lie (#81), Rose Jameson/Rosa Jimenez attempts to pass as white to pledge a sorority, while in Out of Reach (#50), Jade Wu just wants to dance! But her father is strict! Her father is a doctor and her grandparents run a laundry! Jade will bring dishonor! I’d call it Asian American character bingo, but is it really bingo when you cover all possible spaces? In Sweet Valley, race is the major problem in the books that deal with characters of color. After it’s treated, it goes away. At Canby Hall, awareness of race is something the girls live with, but race is not the only event of their lives.

Often these novels are written by ghostwriters. More precisely, it falls to teams of invisible—often young—women the task of series maintenance, because, I guess, anonymous maintenance is what women do.

Let’s take a moment to talk about novel series aimed at girls.

Francine Pascal is a person, but Carolyn Keene, the name on the Nancy Drew books, and Emily Chase are not. Still, whether or not the author credited on the cover is real, often these novels are written by ghostwriters. More precisely, it falls to teams of invisible—often young—women the task of series maintenance, because, I guess, anonymous maintenance is what women do. (One notable writer for Canby Hall was romance legend Julie Garwood, who penned What’s a Girl to Do? [#14].)

Books in these kinds of series can be uneven and sloppy, with terrible, implausible plots. Some are written with flair. Most of them can be very comforting in their familiarity. I can still recite the stock epithets applied to Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield through every book—their blue-green eyes the color of the Pacific, their matching lavalier necklaces, their perfect size-six figures. And because so many books keep coming out, they gave the illusion of letting the characters grow with readers over time. For readers of Canby Hall, that meant growing up with at least one African American character.

Of course, just because Canby Hall acknowledged race didn’t mean it was perfect—far from it.

Of course, just because Canby Hall acknowledged race didn’t mean it was perfect—far from it.

Tension over Shelley’s racist remark fuels the conflict for the first half of the first Canby Hall book. Dana ends up mad at both parties for making her feel so uncomfortable, to the point where the roommates make that classic move of dividing up their room with masking tape. But the fact that this is a three-way conflict is where Roommates really breaks down for me.

I remember as a kid wondering why Dana didn’t take Faith’s side. After all, big-city Dana has supposedly lived in harmony with all of her fellow creatures across the melanin spectrum. But although she’s annoyed with Shelley, she blames Faith for making things unpleasant—unpleasant for her.

In the book, Dana frames Shelley’s remark as a faux pas. Shelley’s shock, her discomfort, and her actual words really don’t come off that way to me. But let’s go with it as a social misstep: maybe it is a minor blunder—and if so, why doesn’t Shelley apologize? Why doesn’t Dana even attempt to step in with her? It’s pretty easily rectified. But it’s Faith who is taken aside by Dana. Faith is faulted for being Too Angry.

As a kid, I was irritated by Dana’s giving Faith the cold shoulder. But now I realize the doubleness of my reaction, because I’d never have done what Faith did to begin with—I would never have called Shelley out because I knew—I already knew at age twelve—that that would have social consequences. I would have never dared make Dana feel awkward.

The onus seems to be on the person of color—the person who’s just been insulted!—to smooth things over, to make it right.

Let me emphasize that African American experiences of racism are vastly different from my own experiences as a girl of Asian descent growing up in Canada, but this one moment in Roommates bore similarities to my experiences at that time, and later in life.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially because my re-reading of the first Canby Hall novel took place at about the same time that this excellent piece by my editor, Nicole Chung at The Toast, came out. In “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism,” Chung describes her reactions at a dinner she attended where a woman remarked that Chung, who is of Korean descent, looked like the entire cast—the entire Asian American, male and female, child and adult, cast—of the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

Chung describes her indecision—her desire to issue a crushing retort warring with her fear of making the rest of the people at the dinner uncomfortable, and her sadness that no one else says anything. In this, as in the fictional incident described in Roommates, the onus seems to be on the person of color—the person who’s just been insulted!—to smooth things over, to make it right. Faith doesn’t smooth things over—not at for a long time. In fact, in the first half of Roommates, she gets in some good zingers.

For instance, in a getting-to-know-you chat, the new roommates end up talking about Norman Rockwell. Shelley starts raving about his work, saying, “His paintings are so true.”

“Not my truth,” Faith retorts.

As a kid, I barely knew who this Rockwell guy was. (I’m Canadian, okay?) Reading this exchange as an adult, I am simultaneously delighted by Faith’s answer—It’s just like Twitter!—and dismayed by the fact that Shelley’s love of Norman Rockwell seems implausible for a fifteen-year-old girl.

Re-reading as an adult is a funny thing. Sweet Valley High #1, Double Love, really is terrible. Roommates has great lines.

I’m glad that young me got to grow up with Faith, but I wish she’d had a more sympathetic writer—nowadays, these books would not be enough.

As an adult, I also can finally figure out that writer Emily Chase of the Canby Hall series is not real. I know that the books were conceived in a New York publishing house and kept up by a troop of young New York women. That most likely, the character they had the most in common with—the character that comes off best in the series—is Dana, the white New Yorker running through the streets of Manhattan, past the Pakistani dry cleaners and a Chinese takeout place. That the writer was probably someone who told herself that because she shared a city with people who were not white, she was cool with the whole race thing.

Reading this with mature eyes, I enjoy having it confirmed that Shelley is indeed, the very worst.

And I recognize now that Faith gets a slapped with an Angry Black Woman label, but that my opinion still stands: her moment of anger is entirely justified. I don’t like what happens to her in the first half of this book, but there will be other novels. Because this is a series, we get to see Faith as far more: she gets to be practical, cool, and funny. She becomes a photographer for the school newspaper. She gets a boyfriend who she worries about because he wants to be a cop. She goes to college. She has a story.

I’m glad that young me got to grow up with Faith, but I wish she’d had a more sympathetic writer—nowadays, these books would not be enough. Even if I don’t like the outcome of this particular episode—even if I don’t like the frame—I can acknowledge that much of it is true to life.

Top photo by elen aivali on Unsplash