Not So Simple

Contributed by Susan Tan

“It’s simple, Susan.  Just pick one. Which would you rather be?”

It was my first day of first grade at a new school, and we were playing a getting-to-know-you game that doubled as a class-demographics survey. We had divided ourselves into groups based on favorite ice cream flavor, age, favorite animal, and zip code, laughing over shared interests.

Then came a question on race. I thought seriously for a moment as the other kids sorted themselves into groups. But I quickly found my answer and carefully chose my spot—halfway between the group of students who identified as white and the group who identified as Asian. I was proud of my creativity, and excited to share my answer.  

So I was shocked when my teacher disciplined me in front of the class, first asking why I hadn’t chosen a group, and then, when I explained that I had chosen a group—half one, and half the other—chastising me for choosing two groups when her survey allowed her to tick only one box.  

Which is when she demanded that I choose between the two.


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Industry Q&A with author Crystal Chan

Tell us about your debut and how you came to write it.         


Bird is a story about a 12-year-old girl named Jewel who was born on the day her brother John died. Jewel’s grandfather had nicknamed John “Bird”, and Bird thought he really could fly – at five years old, he jumped off a cliff. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Jewel is mixed race – Jamaican/Mexican/White – living in rural Iowa, and on the night of her 12th birthday, the anniversary of her brother’s death, she finds a boy in the tree she climbs. And his name is John. There are a lot of different beliefs in the Jamaican and Mexican cultures about what happens when you die, and this mysterious friend certainly upsets the silence in her house.

As for how the story started: I had just finished reading Keeper by Kathi Appelt, and was sick at home from work. I had also finished my first manuscript and was fretting that I might not have another idea for another novel. Ever. I was thinking about this for hours, and finally I got so sick of myself that I said, Crystal, either you get up out of bed and write your next book, or you go to sleep because you’re sick. But you’re not going to lie in bed thinking about not writing your next book.

And then I started thinking more about Keeper, and how I loved that story; it’s about a girl who thought her mother turned into a mermaid and goes out to sea in search of her. And I thought, A girl who thinks her mother was a mermaid - that’s such a great idea – but what if… there were a boy who thought he was a bird? What would he do? And immediately I saw this little kid, arms outstretched, jumping off a cliff because he thought he could fly. I remember gasping as I saw it play out in my mind. Then the voice of the protagonist, Jewel’s voice, started speaking – like started narrating to me – and I got out of bed and wrote down what she said. That’s how I wrote the first chapter of Bird.

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