As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, author Lisa Yee would go to the library and check out as many books as she could carry. Many Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) gifted and talented students agree that they can relate.
“Have you ever been reading a book and you’re so into it, you don’t know time has passed,” Yee asked during recent Zoom meetings with CCPS gifted and talented middle school students. “Someone has to write these books.”
Students recently read one of Yee’s works, “Millicent Min: Girl Genius,” a story about a gifted 11-year-old who is already in high school and spending her summer taking a college course for fun. Reading a book about a girl who is known for her smarts is something the students can latch onto, Christina Trest, a learning resource teacher at General Smallwood Middle School, said. “This story shows Millicent’s personal growth,” Trest said. “It shows that just because someone is smart in school, this does not mean that the rest of their life is fabulous.”
“I think that Millicent Min: Girl Genius is one of my favorite books because of the story line,” Killian Rupard, a sixth grader at Piccowaxen Middle School, said. “I feel like most books kids enjoy are about people their age or around their age, and Millicent Min was different because Millicent is in college, so it gives you a different experience, but is still enjoyable because it is still about a kid around my age.”
Yee didn’t start out writing books. “A writer can write anything,” she said. “Anywhere there is words.” She worked for the Walt Disney World Co., writing scripts for the theme park’s parades. She wrote menus for Red Lobster. “Golden fried shrimp. I would write stuff like that,” she said. She came up with the “Pass the Old El Paso” slogan for the brand. But the lure of writing a book, like the ones she devoured as a child, still pulled at her.
“I was a hypocrite,” she said. “I told my kids they could be anything they wanted, but I wasn’t doing what I wanted.”
She reached out to Arthur Levine, the U.S. publisher and editor of the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series. Turning in her first manuscript wasn’t an overnight process. Yee said it took her six years to write “Millicent Min.” It started as a novel about a child psychologist aimed for adult readers. Edits and suggestions eventually evolved into a story about a gifted student and the people around her. Additional books in the Min universe include “Stanford Wong Flunks Big Time,” “So Totally Emily Ebers” and “Warp Speed.” Yee has written additional books in the Young Adult and middle grade genre, including those in the DC Superhero Girls collection.
She was invited to meet with students and teachers by Ann Taylor, content specialist for gifted and differentiated services. Taylor saw Yee at a conference last year and sent her an email asking if she was interested in participating in virtual meetings with students.
Before COVID-19, Yee would visit schools to speak with auditoriums filled with students. Right now, those events are held virtually. She said it took some getting used to, but chatting with students over Zoom has been fun. “Zoom used to creep me out, but I’m enjoying it now,” Yee said. “It’s much more informal, but interesting.”
Trest said it is beneficial for students to see that authors are just “normal” people, who have to fight against writer’s block or other obstacles. “This makes writing more realistic to our students,” Trest said.
Students have mentioned to Trest that they were a little taken aback by Yee’s admission she has thrown out previous drafts of her books and she writes in a toy-cluttered office. “She was very fun and really engaging with the students,” Trest said, adding that it was eye-opening for students to learn adults have some of the same concerns they have. “They see that published, award winning authors sometimes struggle,” she said. “She helped them to see that writers are people too and this career can be attainable for them.”