Meet the UVA Alum Author Behind the 2022 ‘Girl of the Year’
Wendy Wan-Long Shang, author of award-winning children’s books and Double Hoo, has stories to tell about her Asian background. One of them is Corrine Tan, American Girl’s 2022 Girl of the Year.
American Girl is a juggernaut in the toy industry, producing 18-inch dolls that come with rich stories and personal challenges, as well as extensive wardrobes and accessories. In response to the increase in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans over the past two years, the society determined that its 2022 Girl of the Year would be Asian American and that Shang was the writer who would tell his story.
Although confident and courageous, Corinne must find her balance to adapt to her new blended family and find the courage to speak up in the face of xenophobic comments. A boy at the local rink lashes out at her, telling her that she has “kung flu”.
“When I was a kid and had to deal with comments…you’re just in shock,” Shang said. “Part of the reason I became a writer is that I wanted to have all the quick feedback that I didn’t get when I was a kid.” Shang also sees her books as an opportunity for readers to think about how they might respond to similar situations.
Shang, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, grew up in Northern Virginia. Before college, she was one of half a dozen Asian American students at a large public high school.
She then came to UVA as an undergraduate, an Echols scholar with a double major in psychology and government, and found a community.
“An undergrad was the first time I had an Asian American community of my own,” Shang said. “The Asian Student Union made friends and showed me what we had in common.”
At the time, the Asian characters in the books and movies she was familiar with were the supporting actors, not the stars. Shang said a screening of “Red Sorghum” in the basement of Newcomb Hall was a revelation. The 1988 film tells the story of a young woman married to a much older man who owns a winery. Upon his death, she finds herself taking over the business and standing up to the invading Japanese. This marked the screen debut of Gong Li, who went on to become one of China’s best-known actresses.
“Seeing Gong Li’s face scroll across the screen finally confirmed to me the beauty of my own people,” Shang told an interviewer a few years ago. “I was finally able to enjoy fully realized women taking charge of their own lives.”
In a roundabout way, this epiphany led Shang to a career writing children’s books that center on young Chinese Americans struggling with cultural identity, family, xenophobia, and bullying. Her first book, “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu,” was released in 2011. The book won the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Children’s Literature Award and is on official reading lists in nine states.
In June, she will publish her ninth book, “The Secret Battle of Evan Po.”
Her track record earned her the job of writing two books on Corinne Tan. The books are based on an American Girl doll who “lives” in Aspen, Colorado with her mother, sister, and stepfather, enjoys skiing and ice skating, and trains her puppy to be a search dog. and rescue. “Corinne” and “Corinne to the Rescue” were released in January, coinciding with the doll’s debut.
She was brought into the project early enough to help in the creative process of making the doll itself a reality. American Girl’s designers consulted with Shang and an advisory board on several features, including Corinne’s hairstyle and hair color, skin tone and eyes.
But the pandemic prevented Shang from leaving his home in Northern Virginia and traveling to Aspen for the book’s geographic research. Fortunately, two of the advisers helped fill in the details.
“One grew up in Aspen and the other raised kids in Aspen,” Shang said. “Otherwise I might not have known that Corinne’s school might have a ski lift right outside.”
Before coming to UVA in 1986, Shang had no plans to go to law school. But undergraduate courses on the Supreme Court with UVA government professor Henry Abraham changed his mind.
“I loved his classes, I loved learning about Supreme Court cases and what they meant for the United States,” she said. Abraham, who died in 2020 at the age of 98, taught in what is now Woodrow Wilson’s politics department for 25 years.
Shang took a year off after graduation and, inspired to become a lawyer, applied to several schools. UVA Law has always been his first choice because “you’re spoiled when you live in Charlottesville.”
“I was an atypical student at the time,” she says. “There was a lot more focus on law firm jobs, and I realized pretty early on that wasn’t how I wanted to use my law degree.”
She became a research assistant to Professor Elizabeth “Buffie” Scott, who at the time was focusing on the decisional rights of minors in medical situations.
Shang got an internship at the National Center for Youth Law and focused more on children’s rights. At the time, she said, job prospects for law graduates weren’t great, so she took time off, trained as a CASA – or special advocate appointed by the court, which represents the interests of abused or neglected children in legal proceedings – and worked for an attorney in Arlington. She then served as an attorney at the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center, focusing on the representation of children in juvenile proceedings.
She also married law school alumnus David Harrington, also a Double Hoo, now in the US Department of Justice. “We were both working and started having kids,” Shang said. She left her job at the ABA to raise their children full time. The couple have three children.
When she was invited to her 20th high school reunion, she wondered, “What haven’t I done that I always wanted to do?” And the answer was, “Write a children’s book.” She took a course from 2006, started writing, and won a new author scholarship based on the first 50 pages of “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu.”
“It gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “It took me a year to write the first 50 pages and six months to write the next 100.”
While continuing to write, Shang returned to her legal roots in 2016, working part-time at the Pretrial Justice Institute in Baltimore as a research and communications associate. As part of her work there, Shang worked on racial equity in state systems.
“I would say my work at PJI allowed me to write the stories that I write now,” she said. “Talking about race and racism in a thoughtful way has become an important goal in the world of children’s literature. I am grateful to have jobs that enrich each other.