The protagonist of Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All (Philomel, April 23) is a 10-year-old Chinese American girl living in New York City whose parents own a laundromat. During summer vacations, she stays in the city while her classmates go to summer homes or on vacation. This year, though, she meets a Vietnamese American girl her age, Iris Lam, and together they decide to search for the owners of all the stray socks that have accumulated at the laundromat. Miller’s charming illustrations add dimension to Magnolia and Iris, the people they encounter, and the lively, riotous city environment that surrounds them. This is Miller’s debut middle-grade novel. Her first book was the award-winning memoir Know My Name (2019), a powerful account of her sexual assault—and its aftermath—while a student at Stanford University. Kirkus spoke with Miller via Zoom from Los Angeles; this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to write this story?

I was living in New York during the pandemic and was always excited to run errands, because it was my one opportunity for social interaction. I remember how exciting it was when people at the post office, at the laundromat, or at the grocery store started registering my reoccurring presence and asking my name. Something about experiencing that while living in a big city was so existence-affirming, because these people made me feel like I was not just an ant—that they cared about my well-being and wondered where I was when I wasn’t there. I wanted to emphasize how life-sustaining these interactions can be.

I love how you write about the wonder to be found in the ordinary.

I really want to encourage kids, especially, to pay attention to their daily lives, to learn that adventure isn’t out there, far away. You don’t have to wait until you’re grown up for adventure. Your daily life is extremely rich. What I love about this story is that Magnolia doesn’t go on a grand adventure; [instead] she unlocks a new layer of all these people she already knows. She’s still in her ordinary life at the end, but it’s transformed, and that’s the reward.

Which characters did you relate to most, if any?

Magnolia embodies some of the characteristics I love most about my younger sister. She has this decisiveness, and as soon as she decides to do something, she acts on it. Whereas for me, I really marinate and dwell and think about all the options; it takes me a really long time to take action. I identify more with Iris. I love that Iris is the supporter while Magnolia is really willing to make decisions and go. Iris is not as vocal; maybe when you meet her for the first time, you won’t get a clear read on her personality. But it’s very clear that she’s paying attention. It shows through little details, all these little gifts she accumulates because she cares a lot for people but has a quieter way of communicating that care. I think that’s me.

Your talents are so broad, both as an artist and as a writer of creative nonfiction and children’s fiction. When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist and a writer?

Ever since kindergarten, I’ve loved writing and drawing. We had to make postcards, and I drew a postcard of a poodle surfing. There it was, a poodle in the water, and I wasn’t copying that from anything. I remember how impressed [the other] kids were, and I thought, I can do this. I was also drawn to stories. I was always writing, and I still have so many notebooks from my childhood. I was repulsed by math.

Since [that time], I’ve just been plotting: How do I draw and write more and do less math? Then my grandma took me to a book signing by Remy Charlip, who wrote Arm in Arm, and that was the first time I understood that human adults were creating these books. Until then, books had seemed like something that just existed, like apples, like objects I just got to interact with. That was unbelievable for me. Suddenly [I saw] a human form that I could embody someday; I would just have to grow up a little bit more.

My second grade teacher, Mrs. Thomas, also encouraged us to write books, and then she laminated our covers. These were legitimate books she was producing, books that we could read, that my parents came in and read. I think that’s when I was growing into my own consciousness that I really could become a writer full time.

How did working on your memoir figure into your development as a writer?

Writing the memoir was a product of responding to life. [Sometimes life] is so intense that the only way I can move forward in my own existence is to process what’s happened. And when I look back, my favorite part about writing the memoir was being able to highlight really miniscule moments from my daily life.

I had a scene where an older man shared a bell pepper with me on a park bench. The scene is about trust. But because I was [involved] in this public case that was in the news, it felt like so many people had an idea of what moments were most important and formative in my life—dramatic moments, those were the moments [that were] reported on. But I actually had so many sacred, private, nourishing moments of my own that I wanted to highlight.

I think it’s important to bring attention to the everyday and ask kids—I ask a lot of university students this, too—"What moments are most important to you? Really sit down and reflect on what feels monumental to you—not just external milestones like your graduation. When do you feel the most successful—and not just when successes are imposed upon you?”

I’d always thought I’d have to be much older and more seasoned to write something like a memoir. But that’s not true. [Anyone’s] experiences are so rich, and people want to hear about them.

What did you love most about Magnolia’s story?

What I love is that the story ended up being about the combination of effort and chance. It was all about Magnolia’s willingness to go out into the world; all she needed was one sock to begin the journey. Like Iris said, you don’t need the answer; you just have to begin.

That applies to writing, too. I don’t know where this project is going to end. I don’t know how many copies will be sold. All I know is that I had this idea. And I wanted to begin. It began with a penguin sock I saw in my laundromat. And I love that it started so small. [The story shows] motivation and desire, but there’s not a lot of attachment to outcome. Outcome is determined by the natural propulsion of the universe and is a result of different relationships and conversations happening. I love that combination between effort and chance because I think it applies to everything that we do.

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