Award-winning author CB Lee is at Dragon Con for the third time this year, and she’s a big fan—in part because the first book in her Sidekick Squad series debuted here in 2016. Lee spoke to the Daily Dragon in advance of the con with information about Sidekick Squad, her favorite books, and her thoughts on diversity in publishing.
Daily Dragon (DD): Thanks so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us!
CB Lee (CL): Hi! It’s such an honor to be interviewed for the Daily Dragon. I love Dragon Con so much!
DD: To start off with, tell our readers a little about your Sidekick Squad series. The first two books are out, with the third coming in 2019 and a fourth on the horizon. Can you give us a quick description of the setting and of each book? Maybe a little preview of the forthcoming titles?
CL: Actually, Dragon Con was the very first time readers—and myself!!!—got to see Not Your Sidekick in print. The novel launched officially in September 8, 2016, but as I was attending Dragon Con as an author and also selling books in the vendor floor, my publisher did a special early release just for Dragon Con! It was such an experience getting to hold my book for the first time.
The Sidekick Squad series is about a group of queer teens who learn what it means to be a hero in a world that seeks to define it for you. The adventure is set in a world after a catastrophic solar flare sparked the beginning of a series of worldwide natural disasters and political upheaval, but also catalyzed a latent gene present in humans that would present itself in the form of extraordinary abilities. The series opens with Not Your Sidekick: Jess Tran, whose parents are heroes and yet Jess has yet to develop any abilities of her own. Seeking to stand out on her college applications, she applies for an internship that turns out to be working for the town’s supervillain. Working with her crush, Abby, they uncover a huge conspiracy set upon by the Heroes’ League of Heroes. Not Your Villain picks up the story with Bells, who has been framed as a villain and he and his friends set out to find the Resistance and clear his name. Not Your Backup and the fourth and final in the series whose title has not yet been released continue as our heroes fight back against the corrupt government and the sinister League it had created.
DD: How did you originally develop the series idea?
CL: I’ve always loved comic books and those larger-than-life stories, especially the X-Men. Not only were they fantastic characters and stories, they also tackled a lot of great issues about identity, about people who were different and just were that way and were fighting for acceptance in their world. There’s a very poignant scene that was brought to life beautifully in the 2000 Marvel movie, when Bobby tells his parents he’s a mutant for the first time. His mother responds with, “Have you tried… not being a mutant?”
It was such a parallel to coming out and it resonated with me so much, and many comic books and fantastic media were able to interpret issues and draw parallels to them to the time. I think comics have come a long way and we’ve seen so many amazing works that continue to inspire, but for many stories these metaphors remain what they are—metaphors. I wanted heroes whose identities weren’t a metaphor, but clearly on the page. I developed the Sidekick series because I wanted to give voice to characters from marginalized backgrounds who usually, if they were seen at all in other media, would be relegated to the supporting role as the friend, the sidekick, the background. I wanted to write stories where kids could see that they were valid and deserving of being a hero in their own story.
DD: Not Your Sidekick was a 2017 Lambda Literary Awards Finalist in YA/Children’s Fiction and a 2017 Bisexual Book Awards Finalist in Speculative Fiction. How did you feel when you found out about finaling in those contests?
CL: It was such an incredible honor to be a finalist among so many incredible and inspiring books. I had the opportunity to attend the Lambda Literary Awards ceremony and the Bisexual Book Awards ceremony in New York City and meet so many people in the LGBTQ+ community and the literary community who have been heroes to me, and it was a wonderful experience I will never forget. I think having these awards and continuing to recognize writers who strive to create these stories is incredibly important and I’m so glad that these organizations exist to honor and inspire the next wave of stories to come.
DD: Your fantasy novel Seven Tears at High Tide was also a finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards in the YA and Speculative Fiction categories and won the Rainbow Award for Best Bisexual Fantasy Romance. Do you have plans to write more in that world, or other fantasy?
CL: I definitely haven’t closed the door on that world; I love love love writing fantasy. I don’t have plans at the moment for more in the Seven Tears universe, but I’ve definitely had a few ideas and the possibility is always there. I also have another fantasy project in the works that I’m incredibly excited about!
DD: Your bio describes you as a bisexual Chinese-Vietnamese American, and your books feature characters covering a range of marginalized identities. Clearly, diversity in genre fiction is important to you. What do you think of the current state of diversity in publishing, and particularly in YA?
CL: I think young adult fiction is moving publishing towards a more inclusive literary landscape. It’s been incredible to watch even just in the past few years, more and more voices being uplifted, books being published, and especially readers getting to see themselves in fiction. I’ve seen a few times in publications or interviews where people will call it a “trend” and I would very much disagree. Diversity is not a trend; it reflects the reality that has always been here. It’s become more and more visible in the past few years, but that is a reflection of the change of publishing to become more inclusive, not a reflection of who we are and who we have been and who we will become. A trend implies something that is ephemeral, something that will come and go, like bell-bottom jeans. I think young adults in particular, especially with the increasing connectivity of the Internet and the rise of many different social media platforms, have become much more aware of their power as readers and as people in their influence, and are using their voices to speak up about what they want and what they support. I think it’s amazing that now more than ever we have the ability to find projects, to find and support indie authors, to find and support books that you might have never have heard of before.
DD: When it comes to diversity, what would you like to see more of in future books—your own, or others’?
CL: I’m looking forward to all the books to come that celebrate who we are as people. I would love to see more books with characters of color, books that feature protagonists with mental health issues, disabled protagonists, protagonists who are not neurotypical. I’d love to see more characters who identify as aromantic and asexual and on those spectrums. I’d love to see more representation of the LGBTQ+ community in general. It’s also especially important to me that we see these characters as nuanced, human beings who aren’t defined by solely their identity; it’s just part of who they are, and to see intersectional identities as well on the page.
Oftentimes I feel like it’s easy for people to just think of identity as this one, singular thing, but it’s really the intersection of multiple experiences and communities, and everyone is different. People of color have specific experiences and stories to their sexuality, to their mental health, to their life experience that are unique to them, and I hope as more writers and readers start to create and consume more stories that we will be able to see these intersectional experiences.
DD: When you aren’t reading in your genre, what kinds of books do you like to read?
CL: I love this question because I had to first think about what my genre was—young adult? Science fiction and fantasy? Which are all things I love to read, so it actually does help a lot. Outside of young adult fiction and science fiction and fantasy, I love reading romance. I think the romance community is incredible and has been a leader towards more inclusive stories and characters, and everyone is so talented. I could read romance all day; a few favorite authors include Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Alyssa Cole. I also love comics and graphic novels! I think it’s such a great medium and I’m so excited to see more and more stories out everyday—a recent favorite is The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. Some of my favorite recent characters include Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales, and Silk.
DD: What’s your favorite format for reading: print, ebook, audio?
CL: I love all these formats; I think they’re all great for different needs. I have so many print books: I love the feel of them in my hands, the smell of them, having a library and sharing them with friends. I think ebooks are fantastic and I love how they’ve made books accessible on so many devices; I have a tablet that I always read on when I travel, and also—I know it’s terrible, but I read in the dark. One of my favorite things to do before I go to sleep is to cuddle up and read, and I don’t always have access to good lighting, so having a tablet that lights up the book for me is great. Also I can carry so many books easily! I love that. I’ve just recently gotten into audiobooks, I think they’re fantastic as well, because it also makes the story so much more accessible! Two of my novels in the Sidekick Squad series are audiobooks now, and I think the narration totally brings a whole new level to the story.
DD: What are your personal favorite recent books? What future releases are you looking forward to reading?
CL: I have so many favorites! In addition to the books I’ve talked about earlier, some recent reads I’d highly recommend Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myths and Magic by FT Lukens, Anger Is A Gift by Mark Oshiro, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, and The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding.
DD: Where can our readers find you at Dragon Con?
CL: You’ll be able to find myself and my books at Tairen’s Author Lair on the first floor of the exhibit hall, booth 1321. I’ll also be on four panels: “Join the Resistance,” Friday at 2:30 PM, Chastain F–G (Westin); “LGBTQIA+ in YA,” Saturday at 1 PM, A707 (Marriott); “The Importance of Platonic Relationships,” Saturday at 4PM, Chastain H (Westin); and “Do Gender and Sexuality matter in Writing?” Sunday 2:30 PM, Inman (Hyatt).
DD: And where can we find you after Dragon Con?