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PART OF THE Sanctuary ISSUE

‘I wanted to pay homage to Strictly and all those production companies that were in bubbles and sacrificed to make content.’

Glasgow-based Maisie Chan’s second novel, Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu was released on 9 June. The book follows 12-year-old Lizzie, who lives in Glasgow with her granddad. The two of them move through grief together as Lizzie starts to care for him while also dealing with school, homework and friendships. They love Strictly Come Dancing and set off on a road trip to try and make it to a special dance event in Blackpool. A celebration of love, community and dancing, Lizzie Chu is a treat for child readers and adults alike. Nasim Asl spoke to her about her latest book.

 

Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu
By Maisie Chan
Published by Piccadilly Press

 

Why a book about dancing, why so much Strictly?

During the second lockdown in 2020 Strictly was all that kept me going. We’d say ‘okay, it’s nearly Saturday. We can sit down as a family, we’re not going anywhere, no one’s going anywhere, but we can have this family time together.’ It was just the most joyful thing that we had going on and I felt so emotional watching it every week. They put so much effort into making the production happen, so I wanted to pay homage to Strictly and all those production companies that were in bubbles and sacrificed to make content.

 

The cha-cha features heavily in the book as the favourite dance of Lizzie’s grandparents. Did you have to learn a lot about dancing and the cha-cha to write the book?

I did watch videos, like Lizzie. I spoke to one family – a Chinese-British dad with three children that danced ballroom and Latin. He sent me photos of them at Blackpool, and he said waltz is a good dance for memory, so I considered that, but the cha-cha is fun! Even though the grandma’s not there, her spirit’s there, so I stayed with it. I can’t dance. I was thinking about learning to do it for book promotion, but I’m not good with choreography!

 

The relationship between Lizzie and her grandfather is pivotal to the book, and your earlier novel, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, also focused on a grandmother and grandson. Why do you write about those specific dynamics?

I’m adopted and my English parents were quite a bit older when they adopted me. Even though they were my parents, I thought of them as grandparents too. I spent a lot of time in care homes, nursing homes, hospitals. I was a carer for each of them at points in my life. I think that’s why there’s old people in my books, I like them and hanging around with them. I met my own grandmother when I was 29 and couldn’t communicate with her, so that’s where the Danny Chung character came from. But Wai Gong, who’s in Lizzie, is sort of based on my dad who had dementia. He would see this character called Angel and sometimes he would mistake his carer for her when he was in his 70s and 80s.

 

I saw my grandma go through the same journey with dementia as Lizzie sees her grandad experience. It’s hard. What was it like writing that from the perspective of a 12-year-old and from your own experience?

I struggled at the beginning because I was watching videos of young carers and it was just so sad. When I first started sitting down to write I was like ‘oh my god, I can’t write this book. It’s too emotional’. I had to think about how to make it uplifting. I decided maybe it’s not about the dementia or going into care or foster homes, it’s about the time that they’ve got together. Their road trip is an internal journey for her moving through phases of her life. Reframing the story helped me deal with it, and the other secondary characters did too.

 

It feels like Lizzie moves into an early stage of adulthood on that journey, even though she’s so young. 

Yeah, young carers have to be very mature. They’ve got to do the shopping and some of them physically have to clean their parents, which I did a few times. That journey’s also really special to me because after my mum passed away I took my dad to Dublin, just the two of us. He’d never been on a plane. I took him to the Guinness factory, which was his favourite drink. I was trying to recreate that feeling with this book, that one day together.

 

There are other serious issues touched on in the book too – racism, bullying, poverty. Why put such sad realities into a book for children?

I grew up in a council house with my family on benefits. I write those things because it comes from my own experience. Then more recently with austerity, Brexit, the pandemic, people just don’t have food. People are relying on food banks even though they’ve got jobs. It’s terrible. My books, even though they’re for children, there’s always a political viewpoint behind them. This is about fuel poverty and kids going hungry. That’s today’s reality. I write the kids I knew and grew up with, the kids I see in schools I visit.

 

As someone who stays in Glasgow, I loved all the times places like Byres Road popped up in the story!

The first part of the book takes place in Glasgow, which was an easy decision because I live here! I wanted to pay tribute because it’s such a welcoming city. We moved here five years ago – people on the street or in shops talk to you, which they never did when we lived in London or Birmingham. The book is about the kindness of strangers, and I’ve experienced that here.

 

One thing I loved about Lizzie Chu were the mythological stories told by the grandad, and the trip to Comic Con.

I used to be a Guan Yin storyteller, and dress up when telling Chinese stories, so that inspired that! I used to feel like her power was coming through. I like dressing up, so I wanted the characters to do it too. In the last few years there have been more Asian actors in Star Wars and Marvel, so it was nice to mention that, to say how important representation is on TV as well as in books and popular culture.

 

On that note, what’s the reaction been like from readers of Danny Chung?

I did have British Chinese boys contact me to say that he was like them, which was nice, but I’ve also heard from a lot of non-Chinese boys too who don’t like reading read Danny Chung, which is great. It helped reluctant readers get back into reading, and it helped British Chinese children see themselves, a lot of them for the first time, in a book. Some people say they also hate maths, some love the grandma. It’s been well-received, better than I thought it would ever be.

 

It has definitely been well received – you’ve just won the Jhalak Prize! Congratulations!

When they announced it on the night I just started crying! I got a custom piece of artwork but couldn’t take it on the train because it was too big, so I’m looking forward to getting that through the post soon!

 

Keep Dancing Lizzie Chu, by Maisie Chan is published by Piccadilly Press, priced £6.99.

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