MANHATTAN — A 2014 Shaker High School graduate has released her first book.
E.L. Shen, who is currently living in Manhattan, released “The Comeback” on Jan. 21. The work, geared toward middle schoolers, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“The Comeback” is a story of redemption and finding your place. Figure skater Maxine Chen, 12, is tasked with balancing her life as a gifted skater while dealing with the pits and perils of middle school. As Maxine is dealing with bullying from a peer over her Chinese heritage, she’s facing another talented skater, Hollie, in the rink, whose abilities threaten Maxine’s place in her upcoming competition.
“Much of Maxine’s story was based on a very exaggerated version of my own childhood,” Shen said. “I did figure skate as a kid, but I was nowhere near as good as Maxine is. Also, I was bullied for being Asian and short. While the book is a super fictionalized version of my own journey, Maxine and I deal with some of the same hurdles.”
Shen was a short story writer before digging her heels into fiction. One of her biggest inspirations was a “comeback list” she would write as a kid; she would write down the mean things people said to her, come up with witty comebacks and then force her friends to practice with her. Her friends eventually said the idea would make a fantastic book, as the journey of middle schoolers through bullying and the pressure to stand up to bullies can become insurmountable.
Shen added she wanted Maxine to have a full voice, as she felt many characters aimed toward middle-grade students are passive. Because Maxine is dealing with adult issues, including microaggressions over her heritage, she’s forced to take a definable stance against the people trying to tear her down.
While the talk about race relations and microaggressions couldn’t be more timely in our political climate, Shen said the recent spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans did not contribute to “The Comeback”’s storyline. Shen started working on her book in 2018 and was putting on the final touches in 2020 when hate crimes started spiking due to the rhetoric around the coronavirus. While the release’s time turned into a very fortunate coincidence, Shen wants to convey to middle-grade students the importance of embracing diversity and weeding through adversity.
“I want children of color to understand they are valued and needed in our society,” Shen said. “I spent a lot of time plotting out Maxine’s character growth and figuring out ways to convey the message I hope people take from her story. When people act out on you, it’s a reflection of them, not you. Maxine is able to face these struggles because she has such a strong community around her; everyone has a community around them to ease their struggles, even if they don’t feel like it.”
To purchase “The Comeback,” visit elshenwrites.com.
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