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Lisa Yee Talks with Roger

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lisa-yeeKnown mainly for her expert (and comic) takes on realistic middle-grade life, Lisa Yee moves into superhero territory with the DC Super Hero Girls series, part of a franchise designed to bring more girl power to the generally andocentric atmosphere of superhero comics. You go, girl! (Do we still say that?)

Roger Sutton: I’ll start with the question our audience wants answered most: Who is your favorite superhero?

LY: My favorite superhero is probably Batgirl.

RS: You know, I’m sensing a lot of empathy for Batgirl in these first two volumes [Wonder Woman at Super Hero High and Supergirl at Super Hero High].

LY: A lot of the other superheroes were born with superpowers or came into them. Batgirl is everygirl. She’s every girl who’s like me when I was young. I was kind of nerdy and loved to read and had a lot of questions. Anybody could be Batgirl.

RS: Is the Batgirl origin story being developed by you in these first two books the same one that’s in the comic-book universe?

LY: Somewhat. DC has been great in letting me develop some of the canon, some of the origin stories. Batgirl is going to be the third book in the DC Super Hero Girls series, and you’ll find out a lot more about her in that one.

wonder-woman-at-super-hero-highRS: I was confused when I read your Wonder Woman, and she can fly. The Wonder Woman I remember had an invisible plane.

LY: Right. She had an invisible jet, and later she will have one in my books, but yeah, there are some changes. Before I started writing, I immersed myself in everything Wonder Woman — the comics and Jill Lepore’s Secret History of Wonder Woman. But then I realized they didn’t want me to write the same old story. I was supposed to be writing the lives of these superheroes when they were teens.

RS: Right. And I did find out that, in fact, Wonder Woman did acquire flying powers in later issues of the comic.

LY: It’s interesting — if you go back through all the comics and everything that’s been written about these superheroes, there’s a constant evolution. They’re always changing.

RS: I would think that would be intimidating.

LY: I was terrified at first. When I started going to comic cons, I was like, Oh God, I’m going to get beaten up. These superheroes are people’s icons. But then I realized that if DC was okay with what I was doing, hopefully the readers will be too.

RS: We know that fans are not always the most forgiving of people.

LY: You’re absolutely right. What I have found, though, is that people are saying, “I didn’t think I would like this, but I was surprised that I do.” These books provide an entrée into the superhero world for young readers who don’t read comics and who might not know these characters. I’m finding that a lot of adults are reading these books and then sharing them with their kids.

RS: Were you a comics readers as a child?

LY: I was a comics reader, but not necessarily just superheroes. I read some superheroes, but I was really into Archie.

RS: I knew it. (Me too.)

LY: I got into superheroes through television. I loved the Batman series. I wanted to marry Robin. And then when Wonder Woman came on, I was going to be her.

RS: Lynda Carter.

LY: Yes, oh my God. I had that hair. You could shoot bullets at my hair and it wouldn’t move. And I did the twirling.

RS: What brought you into this particular project?

LY: It was really strange. I was being considered to write the series and didn’t even know it. I had written a book called Warp Speed that had a lot of Star Trek, Batman, and Star Wars in it — DC had read that, and also Millicent Min, Girl Genius. What they were looking for was a middle-grade writer who could tell a story, not necessarily someone who was entrenched in the superhero world. When my agent called, I just started screaming, I was so excited. Later I asked my editor, Dennis Shealy, “Why me?” He said, “Because you are just the right amount of geek. You’re geeky, but you’re not too geeky. You get it.” I was thrilled.

RS: What was it like to find yourself writing what is, in some aspects, science fiction? Was that a hard transition?

LY: I thought it would be, and then when I started writing it was very liberating, because most of my work is contemporary realistic fiction.

RS: Right.

LY: It was all a mindset. At first I was thinking of it as superheroes who happened to be teenagers. Then I realized, no, I’m writing about teenagers who happen to be superheroes. Thinking like that changed everything for me. I started approaching the stories through the characters’ core emotions, rather than leading with the superpowers.

RS: And with this series, you’re also part of a larger franchise. I was looking on Amazon. There are dolls and shields, action figures.

LY: It’s all kind of symbiotic. A couple of years ago DC started this project to figure out ways to get young girls into the superhero world, because everything was boy-centric. They realized, for example, there had never been female action figures. They interviewed girls who were saying, “We don’t want sparkly; we don’t want pink.” Now there’s an animated webseries and television specials, which skew a little younger than the books. They’re aiming for all different age levels with this franchise.

RS: The books remind me in a way of Nancy Drew, in that although the characters are in high school, the intended audience is middle and elementary schoolers.

LY: It can go really young, with parents reading to their kids, and on up to upper elementary level. Plus, a lot of teens and adults without kids are reading the series. I get letters from adults saying that they love the books because they are more in-depth with characterization than the comics. The luxury of writing a whole novel is you can really explore who the characters are.

RS: How many do you think there will be? Or do you know?

LY: Hundreds. We’d like this to go on forever. I’ll be starting the fifth book soon. I just love this. My job is to think of evil ways to destroy the world and save it. What could be more fun?

RS: How much of the plot do you come up with and how much is given to you?

LY: I come up with all the plots. The publisher gave me a bible — this huge volume of all the DC super heroes and everything. I was also given information about what’s going to happen in the movies, the TV series, and the webisodes. With Wonder Woman, that being the first one, animation had already started. But at this point I’m writing faster than they can animate. The deal has been that I could complement the canon but not contradict. I could come up with my own storylines as long they won’t throw off everything else in the DC universe.

supergirl-at-super-hero-highRS: I’m hoping that Supergirl and Batgirl might get together.

LY: Anything is possible in the superhero world.

RS: They just seem so right for each other. It could be like a new Annie on My Mind.

LY: That’s a really good point, because I remember my first comic con — it was New York Comic Con a year ago, when I was kind of panic-stricken. Someone asked me something like “Who are you to write this? Why do you think you can do it?” What I said was, “Okay, who knows what the moon looks like?” I had everybody raise their hand, and I said, “That moon is going to be your moon. Whatever you think of the moon, that’s it. I am doing my version of the moon. It doesn’t change what the moon is to you, but it’s another version of it.” That’s what I think about in terms of these superheroes. They’re your superheroes. They are whatever you want them to be. I’m just doing my vision of it. If you want whomever to be together, they can be together.

RS: How do you see integrating your superhero stories with your other writing work?

LY: It’s going to be fine. I also have three American Girl books out this year, so last year was just crazy. Writing five novels in a year and having just moved to the East Coast — I never went outdoors. But now that I’m only doing two a year, I’m going to try to revisit my own original work. Right now the superheroes are the priority, though.

RS: And Batgirl is up next for us, correct?

LY: Batgirl’s up next, January 3rd.

RS: And who’s the fourth?

LY: I cannot tell you that. You’re very sneaky.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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