Author Spotlight: Christina Li
January 1, 2021
We are thrilled to feature author Christina Li and her debut middle grade novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE (Quill Tree Books Jan. 12, 2021).
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|Jacket Design: Ji-Hyuk Kim and Erin Fitzsimmons
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Hi! Thank you for having me here! I'm a college senior from California and a kidlit author. I always loved books growing up -- my Mom and I would have always read to each other before bed when I was younger--I was learning how to read, and she'd wanted to pick up more English words (her native language is Mandarin). I was one of those kids who would show up to a library and spend all day there reading and checking out books, and luckily I had the most wonderful middle school librarian that nurtured my love for reading and creative writing (shout-out to you, Mrs. Cronin!) And somewhere along the way I started thinking of writing stories as well, and when I did, I gravitated toward writing children's literature, because children's books were always the most formative to my own childhood, and I wanted to recreate that magic for others.
Congrats on your debut MG novel, CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE! Tell us about the book and what inspired you.
Thank you! It's still so surreal that it's a book that's like, actually going to be on shelves and everything. CLUES TO THE UNIVERSE is a historical MG novel set in 1983, in which 12-year-old aspiring rocket scientist Ro, who is grieving the death of her father, forms an unlikely friendship with 12-year-old introverted artist named Benji, and together they set out to build Ro's model rocket for the science fair and to search for Benji's long-absent father through a trail of his famous space comics.
It's a book about how art meets science, the big questions that come up during the process of growing up, and about love and loss and grief. It was actually partially inspired by my own experiences in my 8th grade science fair--my peers who did the science fair and I actually all got really close, and we'd always watch this one particular rocket science movie (October Sky). I then thought about writing a book about rocket science and the science fair, but the idea didn't really come to me until the summer after my high school graduation, when I was thinking of this girl who was trying to logically process her grief over her father's death. The girl became Ro, and soon after I couldn't stop writing thinking about Ro and then Benji and the characters.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
It was something in between, I'd say! I started writing novels around 2011, started querying in 2014, and ended up signing with my lovely agent, Jess Regel, in 2015. We subbed around a YA manuscript that ended up not selling, and it was back to the drawing board for me. The idea for CLUES came to me the summer after my high school graduation in 2017, sold two summers later, and now it's coming out in January or 2021. There's a Stephen King quote out there, I think, that says that in order to master something you have to work at it for 10 years. While I didn't know how long my journey to publication would take, it has coincidentally been pretty much almost exactly 10 years (and around 5 different manuscripts) between when I first started writing books and when my debut will come out. :)
What projects are you working on now?
I'm currently working on my second middle grade novel! It's a book set in San Francisco, about a 12-year-old girl feeling estranged from her family who, after losing her grandfather and her friend group the same year, gets closer to her grandmother and her grandmother's quirky group of friends the summer after her sixth grade year. I've described it as a middle grade "Joy Luck Club meets the Farewell," and it deals with themes of family and loneliness and connection and memory and loss. The subjects of this book are super personal to me, so it's been really fulfilling writing it so far.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring authors?
The advice I'd give to my younger self is just to tell myself that no writing is ever wasted. I think I had this idea when I was younger that I had to write and draft the perfect book on the get-go, and that all of the books I'd trunked were just failed manuscripts. But my writing became so much stronger as a result of those manuscripts that didn't work out or were unfinished or were abandoned because through the times I'd "failed" in my writing, I was actually learning what I wanted to write and what I was good at writing.
Through writing awful, one-dimensional characters, I learned what not to do and was able to flesh them out later. Through writing a book without an ending, I learned to plot my novels. I've also retrieved things from my previous manuscripts to include in the later ones. This is definitely the advice that I'd give both to my younger self and to aspiring authors as well--that no writing is ever wasted, and that it all either comes back to you or makes way for new growth.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I love taking on new hobbies all the time! One of the ones I've taken on this year is jewelry-making, and I love making earrings for my friends.
Where can people find you online?
Christina Li is a student studying Economics at Stanford University. When she is not puzzling over her stats problem set, she is daydreaming about characters and drinking too much jasmine green tea. She grew up in the Midwest but now calls California home. You can find her online at christinaliwrites.com. Clues to the Universe is her debut novel.