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Susan Tan is in her fourth year as a postdoctoral research fellow at UMass Boston.
March 18, 2018

UMass Boston postdoc wins national children’s literature award


  • Boston
Susan Tan received a national award for her debut novel

Susan Tan, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in UMass Boston’s English Department, just received a national award for her debut novel, a book she fine-tuned on the subway and shuttle to UMass Boston. Tan, in her fourth year teaching children’s literature and young adult literature, won the American Library Association's Asian/Pacific American Honor Award in Children's Literature last month for the book Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire.

Tan sought to tell a story of a mixed-race heroine (like Tan, Cilla is part Chinese) that has themes of family and identity. Tan explains that 8-and-a-half-year-old Cilla decided to introduce herself as a future author extraordinaire because she kept getting asked a question she herself gets: “What are you?”

“I really wanted to write a confident girl who has ambitions and just wants to take the world by storm,” Tan said. “Cilla has just found out that she’s getting a new younger sibling. She’s really unhappy, and she decides that the only thing to do is to write her first-ever bestselling novel now before the baby’s born so no one in her family can forget that she’s the best.”

Tan has already had feedback from librarians, teachers, and her readers; she spoke via Skype to several third- and fourth-grade classes on World Read Aloud Day on February 1 and saw a lot of different faces on her computer screen.

“That’s important to me,” Tan said. “Books are primary sources to teach empathy and compassion and to show commonalities so it was really important to me that Cilla could be there for mixed-race kids in a way that I never had. There was one book that I had growing up about a mixed-race kid, and I cherished it and treasured it.”

Tan started working on Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire while getting her PhD at the University of Cambridge. She wrote the second book in the series while at UMass Boston. Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic takes place a year after the first book. As Cilla’s aunt prepares to get married, Cilla wonders if she is Chinese enough. Meanwhile, Tan is at work on a third and final Cilla book, which will take place two years after the second book.

“I’m open to all kinds of stories, but I think right now I’m really into writing stories about really confident, capable young women,” Tan said.

Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire comes out in paperback on March 27, the same day Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic is released in hardcover. Both books will be available online and at local bookstores, including Porter Square Books and Harvard Book Store.