We’re HUGE fans of Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths here at My Book Corner, and so Sarah Broadley jumped at the opportunity to ask her some GREAT questions. The result is a fascinating interview. Grab a cuppa. You’re going to love this…
1. Danny and Nai Nai are the main characters in your fantastic MG novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, one being a stroppy eleven year old and the other someone well past retirement age. Did you need to plan their character arc out considering the huge age gap and life experiences they’ve both had?
The simple answer to this question is no. I am a fairly organic writer, which is another way of saying – unorganised. I am not one of those writers who plan every last detail before they start to write. I have a rough idea of the structure and then I just start writing to see what happens. I knew the character of Nai Nai because she is a mixture of many ‘grannies’ that I know. My own grandmother, my friend’s grandmother who arrived in Birmingham aged 92 and my Spanish mother-in-law. And I guess my own mum. So I didn’t have to work too much on her character at all. Writing her character came very easy. Danny, was much more difficult. He has a few struggles to overcome in the book and with each new draft I had to find out something new about him. There was no maths or drawing in the very first draft which have both become a big part of the structure and plot. I wanted Nai Nai to be in some ways ‘child-like’ and have a sense of wonder about her but also wisdom, and so does Mrs Cruikshanks who wants to keep busy. And Danny being so young has a few responsibilities that he doesn’t really want to have for someone his age.
2. I was grinning away at Auntie Yee as I think everyone has a member of their extended family just like her. Did you need to tap into any of your own family experiences to get all the amazing personalities across?
Well yes. It’s based on a few mums I know from the Chinese community, but also the non-Chinese parents in my old suburb who were often very much into school ratings and would want to know what school your child was going to. It was the hot topic. My own family wasn’t like that at all. My parents didn’t push me academically, I just liked to learn stuff and do the work. The book touches on the ’Tiger Mum’ stereotype but I think actually it’s very common amongst many types of parents not just the Asian ones. My editors were great and wanted me to add nuance to Auntie Yee and I’m glad they did, as she is a more well-rounded character with a backstory of her own – she just wants to belong too. One of my cousins did go to Catholic school, then grammar school and then become a doctor. Which was very unlike my upbringing, so the book is looking at different types of British Chinese people.
3. What would you say where the hardest themes to tackle in your novel? Disruptive fake friendships, racism, unconscious & conscious bias, among others?
The book isn’t about overt racism but there are incidents of mircoaggressions which I think are more common for people of colour. One of the bigger themes is about ‘belonging’ to certain groups and I think part of the immigrant or diasporic experience is hoping you will fit in or find your group. That is woven through for most of the characters in one form or another. I didn’t intentionally write it consciously but I noticed it some way through the drafting process. Nai Nai wants to belong to this new family she now has, Danny wants to be in the cool boy crew, Ravi wants to be best friends and even Aunty Yee wants to be part of something, and Danny’s mum needs a friend. The bingo hall was a symbol of the divide of Brexit and the notions that these ’seats’ belong to us and you are not welcome to them, even though there are loads of bingo seats. I guess that was the hardest part to write because I wanted children to read it and understand that some people were mean to others because they saw the other person as ‘different’ but I wanted them on Danny and Nai Nai’s side. It was important not to replicate some of the things I’ve seen in books with British Chinese characters in – I didn’t want internalised racism or portraying British Chinese culture as ‘other’ – it’s not, it’s centred in my book. Danny loves Chinese food and this is apparent. When he’s annoyed at something, it’s not because he’s Chinese it’s because he’s an eleven year old boy. I wanted a majority Asian cast of characters too because I think being one of the very few books with British Chinese characters for children I wanted to do a few things consciously, such as show a humanity often missed out, that Danny is a regular boy with normal eleven year old boy thoughts. He knows he’s not a ‘geek’ but he’s wondering why people keep thinking he’s good at maths because he’s Chinese. So the book gently looks at the model minority myth too. And I guess art is an act of protest in the book as Danny uses it to vent his frustration. The difficult part was weaving all of that into a book where the main story is about a boy who has to look after his newly-arrived granny.
4. Who was your favourite character to write? Nai Nai really inspired me and Danny’s parents were so supportive of him as he worked out what he wanted to do and be…
Nai Nai, of course! She’s so much fun. Writing her parts always made me laugh or smile to myself. I got so much enjoyment visualising her actions as I wrote and that comes through in the novel as everyone loves Nai Nai. The tricky part, I guess, was writing her character without having her speak English or be able to communicate with Danny verbally. A lot of her interaction was physical mannerisms or actions. The tricky thing was really trying to not overly infantilise her, even though in many ways I felt she was one of Danny’s crew. She needed to be relatable to a young reader even though she was an old woman. The young readers who have read the book seem to love her. My own mum had that same energy, children (especially ones from abroad who couldn’t speak English) would gravitate to her, she was a dinner lady for a few years and I saw how she made those children feel welcomed. With Danny’s parent’s personalities changed over the course of drafting. I have to thank my editors again for that. I started off writing quite harsh Chinese parents, ones that were based on the Chinese parents I had seen in my youth. But that wasn’t right for this current readership and I was asked to bring the parents into the modern age. I’m so glad I did, the British Chinese parents I see nowadays are doting, they hug and kiss their kids, they want them to do well in school but are much more communicative and loving than a lot of other representations of Chinese parents.
5. What would you have done for the maths project? Can we add rapper to your long list of talents?
I probably would have done something like geometry as you can draw the shapes and colour them in. I quite enjoyed area and volume when I was at primary school. I was actually good at maths when I was at school but I wasn’t really INTO it if you know what I mean. Now I can barely add up! My primary school Year 6 teacher Mr Bowen would have times tables tests every week and the winning table would each get a Cadbury’s Cream Egg. He had boxes of them in his office.
I wanted to be a rapper when I was younger but alas it’s not a vocation for me. I have a fairly hefty hip hop and rap collection from he late 90s, early 2000s…I did attempt to write Ravi’s rap and I gave up. Any children out there who want to give it a go are very welcome! I know most of the words to ’Scenario’ by A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School which is probably the only song I could rap to!
6. You write screenplays and have a number of published children’s titles out there, what’s next for Maisie Chan?
I am working on book two for Piccadilly Press and Abrams Kids. It’s going to be a similar humour to Danny Chung but have a totally different set of characters and a modern day quest. It will have dancing, cosplay and a new old person as I can’t not have an older person in my stories. I’ve also been working on the story for The Very Merry Murder Club which has been a lot of fun to write, although I realise that I need to work on my crime and mystery writing skills which are very plot driven. I’m waiting to hear if I get to write on a new Cbeebies show, but if not, then I always just keep on looking for new opportunities. I have a lot of ideas of things I want to write or collaborate on but not enough time. I would really like a holiday too. I haven’t been away since last August. And we want a dog!