“Friends have your back,” said Christina Li about the bond between two seventh-graders in her first novel, “Clues to the Universe.”
Li felt the same way about her best friend, Katia, whom she met in fifth grade. Her characters Ro and Benji are fictional, but Li drew on her feelings about her friendship with Katia to develop the close friendship in her book.
Like friends everywhere, Li and Katia enjoyed just spending time together in their hometown of Northbrook, Illinois, close to Chicago. In middle school, they hung out at each other’s houses, went to baseball games and bought ice cream in the town center. They talked – a lot.
They continued to keep in touch when Li moved with her family to San Diego, California, after graduation from high school.
Li even dedicated this novel to Katia because “she and her family have supported my career so much,” Li said.
Li also mined her memories about another middle school experience: the science fair.
“I was not a science kid,” Li said with a laugh. She signed up for the fair on a whim but ended up loving the chance to study wind turbines.
“It turned out to be a defining experience and really boosted my confidence,” she said.
That’s true, too, for Ro and Benji as they work on a rocket for their project. Rockets – and science, in general – are Ro’s passions. Benji would rather be drawing, but he needs the extra credit to improve his science grade.
Soon, though, Ro’s excitement kickstarts Benji’s curiosity. Then Ro decides to help Benji with his secret quest: to find his long-absent father – who may be the creator (under a different name) of a popular comic titled “Spacebound.” The novel is set in the early 1980s before internet research was a possibility.
But the science fair and their search bring unexpected conflict with bullies, secretive parents – and each other.
As a kid, Li loved reading, especially the Percy Jackson series and “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead. She started writing fantasy when she was in middle school.
The summer before college sparked the idea for “Clues to the Universe.”
“I had always wanted to write about a scientist and an artist, but that was also a challenge,” she said. “I had to make the voices (of Ro and Benji) really distinct.”
Li wrote the book while studying economics at Stanford University and completed it before her junior year. This year has been a big one for Li, with the book’s publication in January and graduation next week.
Summer plans include working on another middle-grade novel and getting ready to start a master’s degree program this fall at Stanford.
She’s also enjoying the connection with her young readers.
Recently, Li heard from a girl who was thrilled to read about a main character, Ro, who is Chinese American, like her.
Li remembers feeling that way as a kid about Minli, the Chinese protagonist in the fantasy “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” by Grace Lin.
“Representation is so important,” she said. “And now it’s wonderful to be able to share that in my book.”
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