Thu 12 Jul 2012
When I read Flying the Dragon, the new middle grade novel by Natalie Dias Lorenzi, I was impressed from page one.
On the surface, the story shares how two cousins — Hiroshi and Skye — build a relationship even though one has grown up in Japan while the other lives in America. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on — kite building and flying, soccer tryouts, finding friends, learning new languages, deciding how important family and traditions are, and learning what it means to lose people and things that are loved.
All these pieces come together so perfectly and satisfyingly that, when the book is over, readers might just want to flip back to page one and start this story over again.
I am thrilled that author Natalie Dias Lorenzi is joining my blog today to talk about how this book came to be.
Take it away, Natalie!
Your book combines soccer, Japanese kite making, flying and fighting, cancer, and the ins and outs of learning a new language. How did you think to combine all these elements? What came first?
The kite flying and fighting definitely came first. Even though I’d lived in Japan for two years, I had never heard of this sport until I read Khaled Housseini’s novel The Kite Runner. I was completely fascinated by the idea that this seemingly relaxing, low-key hobby was actually a rather strenuous, sometimes dangerous sport in many countries around the world. In doing some digging, I found that it’s also got quite a following here in the U.S. I thought it would be an interesting topic for kids, so I originally brainstormed possible picture book plotlines.
I was taking an online course on writing for children through Writer’s Digest at the time, and one assignment was to write a 500-word exchange that featured dialogue between a protagonist and antagonist. I wrote a school scene on Hiroshi’s first day of school where he’s reaching out to a Japanese-American boy and trying to start a conversation. The boy is completely embarrassed to speak in Japanese in front of his American classmates, so Hiroshi is left friendless for the day — that’s where the ins and outs of learning a new language emerged. From there, I realized that what I actually had was an idea for a novel, not a picture book, and things built from there. The boy in Hiroshi’s class became a girl named Susan, who eventually became Skye, Hiroshi’s cousin.
I needed a way to get Hiroshi to the US from Japan, so I came up with Grandfather having cancer and the family deciding to go the U.S. for a last-hope treatment.
Soccer came last; Susan didn’t play soccer at first, not until I revised and added her as the second main character. At that point, I made her into Hiroshi’s cousin, and I needed a conflict that would make her resent the arrival of her extended Japanese family, yet remain sympathetic to readers. Thus, Skye the soccer star was born.
Which parts were the easiest to write? Which were more difficult?
For me, Skye’s chapters were probably easier to write than Hiroshi’s. Once I let her share the spotlight with Hiroshi, she really won me over. Considering that she’d started as a boy, then a girl, who wasn’t very nice to Hiroshi, I enjoyed getting to know who she really was. Since she was born and raised in America, this made her easier for me to figure out. In the scenes where she’s in the hated Saturday Japanese lessons, I drew heavily on my 10-year-old daughter’s experiences in Saturday Italian classes, where most of the kids are only here for a few years and have to reenter Italian schools. They’re at a much higher level with the grammar and vocabulary, whereas we just wanted our daughter to feel more comfortable talking to her Italian relatives when we go to Italy for the summers. My 13-year-old daughter plays on a travel soccer team, so I was in my comfort zone when writing Skye’s soccer scenes.
Hiroshi was harder to write. He reminds me of many former students who came to me with little to no English, were very reserved, and eager to impress their teachers. The scene where he wants to tell his ESL teacher all about Grandfather being ill and the move and missing the kite battle back home, yet doesn’t have the words—that scene is one that still touches me whenever I go back and read it, because I’ve seen this happen with many of my students. The biggest challenge in writing Hiroshi’s point of view is that I wanted to create a character to whom American readers would relate, yet it was important to me to stay within the parameters of Hiroshi’s culture. For example, there’s one scene where Hiroshi becomes angry with Grandfather, but instead of yelling and stomping out of the room, as an American kid might, I had to paint his anger in a different way, while still getting the intensity of Hiroshi’s emotions across to the reader.
What kind of research did you do for this book? How did you approach it and how long did it take?
I knew from the start that I’d have to do some heavy researching on kite fighting and kite making. I initially did research on the history of kite fighting for a children’s magazine called Learning Through History. In the meantime, I read Linda Sue Park’s middle grade historical novel The Kite Fighters, and I noticed that in her acknowledgments, she thanked a man named David Gomberg, president of the American Kitefighters Association. I sent him an email, and he was incredibly helpful and generous with his time. Over a period of a month or so, he eventually read over all the kite flying and kite fighting scenes and offered invaluable input. He also put me in touch with Harold Ames, who has won the Smithsonian Rokkaku Kite Fighting Competition more than once. That competition is now called the Cherry Blossom Rokkaku Kite Battle, and the same one that my main characters, Hiroshi and Skye, enter at the end of the book.
For the Japanese phrases and cultural details, I relied on my two years living in Yokohama, Japan as I wrote the very first draft of the story. But living in Japan for two years certainly did not make me an expert in Japanese culture, especially when it came to the everyday lives of a typical Japanese family. Once I had the final draft finished, two teachers who were raised in Japan and now live in the U.S. agreed to take a look at the manuscript, and hoo-boy, am I glad they did! They caught lots of little things that needed tweaking, and hopefully now the story will feel authentic to readers who are familiar with the Japanese language and culture.
Writers are always told to make things difficult for their main characters. I think you did that admirably with Skye and Hiroshi. In fact, several times when I thought things had gotten as bad as they could get, they got even worse. Was it hard on you making their story so hard on them?
It was hard, actually. I really debated with myself about the fate of Grandfather, because I love him! And I know how dear he is to both Hiroshi and Skye. I talked it over (via email) with my critique group, and there were pros and cons for both avenues, but I think the one I ended up with was the right one. Both Hiroshi and Skye had to navigate some tough times in order to become the people they become by the end of the story—both individually and as cousins in the same family. But during the writing of many scenes, I found myself cringing and apologizing to Hiroshi and Skye!
What was this book’s path to publication? Quick and easy? Long and tortuous? Somewhere in between?
Definitely long and tortuous, but well worth the path it took. In its early stages, I received an offer from a small house with an equally small distribution radius. I had submitted the manuscript to this publisher before signing with my agent, and she advised me to let her submit the manuscript elsewhere, and I’m so glad I did. After some minor revisions (which included the addition of Skye’s English Tips of the Day for Hiroshi), it went out on submission. We had a lot of no’s, most of which said that the writing was lovely, but the story was too quiet for the market.
After about a year of this, we pulled back to reassess and started taking revision. At the time, the story was only told from Hiroshi’s point of view, and Skye was a girl named Susan in Hiroshi’s class who wasn’t all that nice to him. I’d mentioned earlier to my agent that if the manuscript sold, I’d eventually love to write a book from her point of view, because she got a bit of bad wrap in Hiroshi’s version, and maybe she could tell her side of the story. In that phone conversation with my agent, she said, “I think Susan is dying to tell her side of the story … now.” So we settled on a revision where the chapters would alternate between the two points of view. Susan became Skye, Hiroshi’s cousin, and I instantly fell in love with her! She added some much-needed levity to the story and to Hiroshi’s personality.
Once the revision was finished, it went back out and we had interest from Charlesbridge within a couple of months.
Now that your book is out, what’s the nicest thing someone has said about it?
The very first review that Flying the Dragon ever had was from a boy named Erik who has his own book review blog called This Kid Reviews Books. When he emailed to say that his review of my book was up, I was so nervous! Here was a well-read kid who was part of my target audience. Would he like my book? It turned out that he did, and ended his review by saying that, “It is definitely a book I would read again.”
Another thrill for me was when I found out that Kirkus had given Flying the Dragon a starred review. The last line reads, “A quiet, beautifully moving portrayal of a multicultural family,” which gave my agent and me a chuckle; the original manuscript had been rejected so many times for being “too quiet,” and here was the word “quiet” being used as a positive!
Based on your experiences with this book, what’s the most important thing you learned?
That revision can sometimes mean rewriting. I always keep a file of the various versions of my manuscripts, so cutting entire chapters isn’t as painful. I used to be much more reluctant to cut words and phrases that made me swoon, but I’ve learned that story trumps even pretty words.
What advice would you give to fellow writers?
What are you working on now?
As a teacher, summer is my most productive time, but my writing to-do list is always longer than what I’m able to accomplish! Right now, I’m working on another middle grade novel and tweaking a picture book manuscript. Wish me luck!
Thanks so much for hosting me on your blog, Pat!
Thanks for stopping by, Natalie!
If you’d like to learn more about Natalie, visit her website.