Phoenny, the young protagonist of Andrea Wang’s Summer at Squee (Kokila, March  5), is looking forward to returning to summer camp after a lonely seventh grade year. Camp is predictable and comforting—a place where for years she has enjoyed being with other Chinese American kids like herself, engaging in traditional camp activities as well as Chinese cultural classes. This year, though, she’s facing friendship issues, rivalry over boys, and an influx of new girls who aren’t all that eager to immerse themselves in Chinese culture. Wang’s knack for capturing the insecurities and hopes of a middle grader makes the story feel utterly relatable. Her book is also striking for highlighting the complex array of identities that can exist within a given community. We spoke with Wang, who received a Newbery Honor for Watercress in 2022, by Zoom from her home in Denver; the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you draw inspiration for Summer at Squee?

It largely came from a Chinese heritage camp that my children attended. I grew up in a rural part of Ohio where there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me—in fact, I was the only Asian American student in my class. Later, when I had kids and was living in the Boston area and found out about this cultural camp, I thought, My kids have to go here. I wanted them to have peers that looked like them. It really did turn out to be a safe space for them where they didn’t have to go and explain anything about their parents or their culture.

As I got more involved in committees, I realized that there were more girls at camp than boys, and that these kids didn’t have Chinese last names. I saw that on the committees there were white parents, too, and then realized they were parents of adoptees. I became friends with some of them and became interested in how they viewed themselves and how their kids did, and what they identified as, because that’s something my own kids also struggled with.

Your book is compelling in how it calls to mind the concerns of middle-grade kids.

I remember so vividly and mortifyingly my middle school years, and I think that’s why I write for middle grade. Those were some of the hardest years of school for me, and so much of that experience has stuck with me. The insecurity that comes along with being the only Asian American in your grade, as well as the fact that I’m just an awkward person!

Any favorite responses to your writing?

I think my favorite response came from a teacher who posted on Twitter about her second grade student. She had read Watercress to the class and the second grader said something like (I’m paraphrasing here), This is a life lessons book: to be proud of who you are and grateful for what you have. That is something it took me 40 years to realize and he’s only 7 and I was just so moved by that.

Speaking of Watercress, one of its most beautiful messages is that there are people with personal stories that they hold close, when sharing them might be healing. And yet this can be hard when one is living in an immigrant family, such as the one you depict, where this is not at all the cultural norm for the older generation—in fact, it goes against the norm.

I think it’s a really fine line to walk. There’s so much trauma among that generation that they don’t really want to talk about. And I totally understand that. But as a child, I didn’t have the knowledge of that history and what was going on in that part of the world or in their lives. I felt unsettled by what I didn’t know. You don’t know what you don’t know, but it still affects you.

I tell kids to start with lighter memories, and then sort of delve deeper, or to start by sharing their own stories and hope that the people they’re talking to will respond with something that happened in their own past. I really wish I had done a lot more of that with my own parents.

What is the story behind Watercress? How did you get started writing about your family and your past?

Since I was young, I kept a diary to process my feelings, but it wasn’t until I was at Lesley University [in Massachusetts] for my MFA that I heard someone talk about writing personal essays and started thinking about actually doing it. I took a class in it for a semester and found it incredibly rewarding and cathartic. I had lost my mom at this point, and my dad was in a nursing home, and it was a way for me to keep in touch with them—it sort of evolved from there.

Watercress actually started out as one of those personal essays. But it wasn’t working in that format because I just couldn’t figure out the ending. Also, I think I was still too caught up in being angry and resenting my parents, so a lot of the personal essays I was writing were all about I have been wronged. So I turned it into a picture book in third person. And it still wasn’t working, so years later I took it out and rewrote it using some of the things I’d learned in that class. I made it first person again, very raw and honest.

One of the aspects of Summer at Squee that I found quite realistic was the way that language proficiency, culture, and identity are bound together in the eyes of so many.

For my parents, things were all about assimilation—blending in and not standing out, so they didn’t seem to really mind that I spoke to them in English. In fact, I helped proofread their English when needed. In rural Ohio there were no Chinese weekend schools available. It wasn’t until we moved to Boston, when I was in eighth grade, that my brother and I went to Chinese school for the first time. We struggled, but we made do, and since then there’s been this tension: I’m reluctant to learn more, but I know I should. My in-laws live in Shanghai, and when we go back to visit it’s expected that we know the language by everybody we meet on the street.

I have struggled and probably still am struggling with my identity as a Chinese American. Phoenny, the main character of Summer at Squee, reflects a lot of me and my journey toward understanding who I am and my place in the world. I keep writing about these themes of identity and culture because middle schoolers especially are grappling with all this. It’s harder with social media not to compare ourselves to others. But instead of thinking about all the ways that we’re not like others, let’s consider how alike we all are, despite our backgrounds. These are books that I need to write to keep processing my childhood. Hopefully, it’s helping readers as well as myself.

Christine Gross-Loh is the author of Parenting Without Borders and The Path.