Did you know that Jupiter has 79 moons? Could you outline the ‘scientific method’? Perhaps… but seven-year-olds will certainly be able to – as well as know how to make perfect dumplings – after reading Space Blasters: Suzie Saves the Universe by Katie and Kevin Tsang. Michelle Pauli interviewed them for Books for Keeps about their out-of-this-world new series.
Space Blasters: Suzie Saves the Universe is the first in a new series from Katie and Kevin, already bestsellers with the Sam Wu and Dragon Realm series, and fans of Sam Wu are sure to recognise the setting. Space Blasters is Sam’s favourite TV show, featuring Captain Jane and his idol Spaceman Jack roaming the universe. But whereas Sam only watches the show, fearless inventor Suzie Wen transports herself into it with her Super 3D TV Gizmo and finds herself exploring new planets, meeting aliens and, of course, saving the universe.
Tween Suzie is a fabulous new heroine who believes ‘every problem has a solution – you just have to figure it out!’ and has a passion for fixing and inventing things, often with catastrophic consequences. The Space Blasters world is equally full of gloriously wacky ideas, from smelly Planet Cheddar populated by alien Babbits to Planet Topsy-Turvy filled with Floptopuses. TUBS – The Universe’s Best Spacecraft – also counts among its crew a grumpy and insecure alien, Five-Eyed Frank. The Tsangs clearly had a ball writing it.
‘Sam Wu was grounded in this world, but with this book we were like, “we’re going to space, we can do anything!”’ says Katie.
For Kevin, it fulfils a childhood dream: ‘I have always been interested in space, a bit of a self-proclaimed nerd in that I wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up, or a scientist.’
And as a self-confessed science nerd, he was in his element with the STEM focus of the story. The book is packed with ‘fun facts’ about science the couple researched, whether it’s the size of the Earth’s circumference, why nails rust or the fundamental empirical method of acquiring knowledge, aka the scientific method.
‘As a kid I always loved asking why, and I still do,’ explains Kevin. ‘And I loved having a proven framework that’s used everywhere by real scientists for answering that question “why”’.
‘Kevin’s definitely a wannabe scientist – an author slash wannabe scientist,’ says Katie, laughing.
Suzie is the epitome of the young scientist, developing hypotheses and experiments to get the planets back where they should be. But, despite her self-reliance, at the start of the book she’s also feeling lonely. Her older brother and sister are busy doing teenage things, her best friend has moved to New York, and her beloved grandparents have also moved away and are in Hong Kong for the summer. She dreams of their dumplings and, indeed, a hefty portion of the first chapter is concerned with dumplings (‘We really super love dumplings!’ enthuses Katie), which not only acts as an introduction to Suzie’s innovation skills with the exploding Automatic Dumpling Maker but also her heritage.
‘I would love for kids to be able to see themselves in books. I want our two little girls when they’re reading books to see themselves in books. It was important for us to represent the world as we see it in the books we write,’ says Kevin.
It’s a thread that connects all their joint work, as Katie explains.
‘The books we co-write always have a character of East Asian heritage – and we wanted to show that there is diversity within that. You would never think twice if you had three different series and the main character was white in each of them. We want to show that you can have different series and different books and the main character is East Asian and that is just as diverse an experience as different white child characters. But it’s never heavy handed, either. It’s never about Suzie being Chinese – she’s having an exciting space adventure and it’s part of who she is.’
Katie and Kevin Tsang certainly have an international background. Katie, who also writes YA as Katherine Webber, is from California and met Kevin – whose family is from Hong Kong and who was born in Denmark and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia – when they were both 20-year-old exchange students studying in Hong Kong. Now 35, they have been living for nine years in London because Katie ‘wanted to live in a bookish, publishing city, which is New York or London’. She worked at the reading charity BookTrust before writing full-time, while Kevin still holds down an ‘intense day job’” working with healthcare technology.
It means that most of their joint writing is done late at night, at the kitchen table, while their 11-month-old and three-and-a-half-year-old daughters are asleep. They brainstorm on big sheets of whiteboard paper pinned up around the kitchen and, once they have a firm outline, they work on the first chapter sitting next to each other, ‘going back and forth to make sure we’re getting the voice that we want’. Then it’s a genuine knitting together of the words between them: ‘we’ll often have one laptop and put it up on the screen and literally pass it back and forth or we’ll work in a Google Doc simultaneously. So we’re reading what one person is writing and jumping in saying, oh, that’s not working, let’s try this. Oh, I love that. Let’s build on it.’
It’s a method that clearly works, having produced six Sam Wu books, five Dragon Realm books and now the Suzie Wen series.
It also means that 2022 was busy for the Tsangs with five books published (including Katie’s own YA and the books she co-writes with Catherine Doyle) and 2023 doesn’t sound like it will be much quieter. Not only will the next two Suzie Wen books be published but in March there will be a Dragon Realm World Book Day book – ‘a real author dream come true’ says Katie – and another YA collaboration, Cursed Crowns, coming in April. Then, in September, a new dragon series called Dragon Force.
‘It’s a really exciting time to be writing through this age range,’ says Katie. ‘I feel very, very lucky to be reaching lots of different kinds of audience. Basically, from age six and up, whatever you’re into, I got a book for you!’
Michelle Pauli is a freelance writer and editor specialising in books and education. She created and edited the Guardian children’s books site.
Space Blasters: Suzie Saves the Universe is published by Farshore, 978-0755500161, £6.99 pbk.