Must-Read Children’s and YA Books by Alumnae Authors
It’s been a big year for Wellesley’s alumnae authors who write for young people. Malinda Lo ’96, Andrea Wang ’92, and Cynthia Levinson ’67 all won major awards for their recent work. And all three say skills they learned at Wellesley College helped them write these incredible books.
“Be prepared. Do your research. Know what you’re talking about before you open your mouth. And go for it—you can do it. That’s what Wellesley taught me,” Lo said in an interview with Wellesley Underground. Wang feels strongly that Wellesley made her a better writer. “In biology, especially in ecology, I became interested in how everything is interconnected,” Wang says. “And that’s something that I really take with me into my writing.”
Lo’s novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club is a New York Times bestseller and the winner of multiple awards, including the prestigious National Book Award, the first young adult novel starring an LGBTQ+ protagonist to be so honored. The book focuses on Lily, a Chinese American teenager growing up in Chinatown in 1950s San Francisco, as she comes to terms with her sexuality. It has become a darling of TikTok book reviewers and book clubs alike, in particular because of its portrayal of queer people of color. “I always write for myself first, and then I want to reach readers who are like me, so I’m really interested in reaching readers who are queer women and girls, queer Asian women and girls,” Lo told Lambda Literary.
Wang’s Watercress, illustrated by Jason Chin, won the 2022 Caldecott Medal, given to the most distinguished picture book for children, and was a Newbery Honor book. It’s about a young girl who learns the importance of her family’s Chinese heritage while collecting watercress on the side of an Ohio highway. Food and nature are integral to the book, in part because Wang studied biology at Wellesley and in part because, as she says, “I’m kind of food obsessed.” Watercress is based on Wang’s own life; she hunted for watercress on the side of the road just like her story’s heroine. “It was one of those memories that kind of haunted me, that wouldn’t let me go,” she says. “And what I do is I write about stuff so that I can understand it.” The story started out as an essay for adults, then became a longer picture book written in third person, and finally, eight years later, Wang found the story’s final form. After all that hard work, she says, the incredible recognition the book has gotten has been particularly sweet.
Levinson’s book The People’s Painter is also based on a true story—that of the Jewish artist Ben Shahn, who used his work for activism. As a child, she was drawn to his artwork: “I loved his work, I loved the accessibility of it. It was understandable from a child’s perspective.” Many of her stories describe history to a young audience (one is a biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69 for middle schoolers). Her work has won a number of awards, including multiple Bank Street Best Children’s Book awards, which she says she finds “exhilarating.” The People’s Painter won the 2022 Sibert Medal, which goes to the most distinguished informational book for children; she says that award has touched her the most.
All three authors are currently working on new books. Lo’s A Scatter of Light, a companion to Last Night at the Telegraph Club, will be published this October, and Wang’s Luli and the Language of Tea is now available. Levinson has three nonfiction books coming out in the near future.