By Nancy McCabe
Like many parent-writers, my interest in writing for children heightened as I read picture books, then early readers, then middle grade and YA novels with and later alongside my daughter Sophie. She particularly loved it when I wrote stories about her: a picture book about Sophie who imagined her mother partying in the kitchen when she was banished to her room at bedtime; an early reader about a girl named Sophie who has a single mom and decides she also wants a pet, a sibling, and a dad. Because I was making a lot of stuff up, I eventually changed the name of the main character. My daughter is now 25 and still put out with me for that one.
While most of those manuscripts remain unpublished, I had published adult nonfiction books and essays about China adoption. As long as I gave Sophie veto power, she was pleased to let me tell our stories. But there are also potential drawbacks to having a writer parent. I was worried that my vision of our lives would intrude on her efforts to shape her own vision of her experience. And so more and more I turned to fiction.
In my new YA novel ‘Vaulting Through Time‘, I was no longer writing about us—or was I? Sophie was a competitive gymnast for eight years, and as one of very few nonwhite kids growing up in a very white town, she experienced a lot of identity struggles. My protagonist, Elizabeth, is, as Sophie was, a YMCA gymnast who doesn’t fit in and has become increasingly uncomfortable throwing her body through the air backward, which is affecting her ability to tumble and vault.
But this is where the story departs radically from real life: Discovering that her mother has withheld significant information from her about her origins, Elizabeth time travels to the past to find answers.
“Are you going to tell her she’s adopted?” people used to ask me when Sophie was little. We both hooted at such questions, as if I, tall, pale, and blonde, had to reveal to my petite Chinese daughter that she was not born to me. Sophie and I have uncanny amounts of things in common: same blood type, overlapping allergies, same Myers Briggs personality type, similar interests, and, in the sometimes regrettable influence of nurture over nature, sometimes unproductive ways of dealing with stress. But there are also ways in which we are very different.
And while the character of Elizabeth borrows some of her traits from me, most of them are based on Sophie’s outspoken, fierce, funny personality. Elizabeth and her mother relate to each other much like Sophie and I do, and Elizabeth inherits my daughter’s ability at quick comebacks. For instance, when her mother says, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Elizabeth replies, as Sophie once did, “You notice how you keep saying that and nothing ever changes?”
Elizabeth’s identity questions are a little bit different from Sophie’s. I couldn’t make Elizabeth 100 percent Chinese, because then her mother’s deception wouldn’t make any sense. But I couldn’t in good conscience make her white when being Chinese is such an important part of who my daughter is. So I gave Elizabeth a strand of Chinese heritage.
Overwhelmed with the sudden need to process the mysteries around her adoption, Elizabeth is also just starting to try to understand her complicated background. In the course of the story, she meets both of her birth parents and makes connections to her origins that will go on beyond the end of the story.
Elizabeth may need a sequel to fully embrace and understand these parts of herself. I learn daily from the way my own daughter processes these issues and works on finding ways to tell her own stories. I know that she won’t be put out that Elizabeth’s name is not Sophie, because I can’t possibly tell Sophie’s stories for her. But I hope that she will recognize the best parts of herself in Elizabeth, and the best parts of our relationship in Elizabeth’s connection to her mother.
Nancy McCabe is the author of nine books, most recently the young adult time travel adventure ‘Vaulting through Time’, out July 25, 2023, which you can pre-order by clicking HERE. Learn more about Nancy’s work at https://www.nancymccabe.net.