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With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei: A Conversation with Justina Chen

Island Books is delighted to host our longtime friend and author, Justina Chen, for the release of her brand-new middle grade novel, With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei, on Tuesday, May 7th at 6:30pm. Not only is this inspirational and heartfelt book set in Seattle, but it's also filled with characters that bring home the issues of our times.

I loved this book from start to finish. Dessie Mei has always known she's adopted from China. When her family has to move to Seattle to help a grandparent with memory issues transition into assisted living, she is uprooted in the middle of the school year to a new school. Hopeful that making a new friend in 6th grade won't be too hard, imagine Dessie Mei's surprise when she walks into her first classroom and finds a girl who looks EXACTLY like her. Donna is also adopted, and the two form an immediate bond. They look so much alike that they can't help but wonder... are they twins?

With that intriguing start I was completely hooked, and I’m so glad Justina Chen was able to take the time to sit down with me and talk about her wonderful new book!

Lori: Welcome Justina! I absolutely loved With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei. Can you tell us about the inspiration for your book?

Justina: My beloved Mama—who we lost a few months ago—was such a beautiful force of community. I saw that in the way she embraced my two stepdaughters who were adopted from China into a white family. She scooped them to her heart. So when one of my dear friends told me in close conversation that she and her daughter—both adopted, one from Korea, the other from China—had never felt welcome in the Asian American community, well, that was a dagger in my heart. With the rise of anti-Asian violence, the need to write this story became urgent. We’ve become so good at calling people out at a time when we must be exceptional at calling people into community. That’s the heart of this book. I hope that every reader who picks up With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei knows with utter conviction at the Mama-level that: YOU BELONG.

L: I love that, “calling people into community.” I really saw that as I read. You are delving into quite a few challenging topics. What was the hardest part to write?

J: I knew I was handling the most sensitive material in my entire writing career: adoption and adoptees. So I listened intently to the people I love most in the world who are adopted. I found a counselor who’s adopted and who works with a number of adolescent adoptees. She gave me an incredible reading list, and from there, I dove into abandonment and belonging, complex PTSD and attachment theory, identity-formation and community-building. It was important to me that adoptees were represented in my entire team: my agenting team to my editorial team, including my authenticity reader.

L: As a reader, it was so rich to see the contrast between Dessie Mei and Donna’s adoptions, in a way that made clear everyone has a unique experience; there’s no one “right” way. So, what was the easiest part to write?

J: The story itself came to me in a flash: I knew the emotional throughline. I heard the characters and I saw the plot so clearly, I wrote the first draft in an eight-day fever dream. Aside from North of Beautiful, words have never poured out of me that fast. So fast, my fingers could barely keep up with the paragraphs that were falling out of me fully formed. Of course, the second draft took a good year to write. In that draft, I had to make sure that every word was nuanced, every sentence finessed, every idea stood on solid research. L: The care you took with your polishing really shows. I loved that you said in your author’s note that this was the book you wrote for your 10-year old self — I've read your YA and wonder if you could talk about the difference in voice between writing YA and writing Middle Grade?

J: Such a good question! In my mind, the YA voice can be snarky, but the MG voice is sassy. There is a delightful indomitability in that middle grade voice that I relish—and as a grown woman who is still growing, I strive to recapture and live that middle grade spirit. L: That is a good distinction! I can see that in Dessie Mei: she really has a willingness to try to find a way, no matter the circumstances. The title of your book is so distinct, can you share how you came to it and the meaning of "with twice the love"?

J: It took forever and a day to come up with the title, and that phrase represents so much. The long-lost twins. The love of all their different families. The expansiveness of love itself. And of course, for Dessie, it is the perfect sign-off to an important and brave open letter she writes.

Thank you so much Justina!

Join us on Tuesday May 7th at 6:30pm to see Justina Chen in conversation with Shari Leid and celebrate the publication of With Twice the Love, Dessie Mei!

— Lori