Wendy Wan-Long Shang ’94, an award-winning children’s book author, has stories to tell about being of Asian descent. One of them is that of Corrine Tan, American Girl’s 2022 Girl of the Year.
American Girl is a juggernaut of the toy industry, producing 18-inch dolls that come with rich personal histories and challenges, along with extensive wardrobes and accessories. Responding to the rise in violence and discrimination against Asian Americans over the past two years, the company determined that its 2022 Girl of the Year would be Asian American, and that Shang was the writer to tell her story.
Although surefooted and brave, Corinne must find her balance as she adjusts to her new blended family and finds the courage to speak up when faced with xenophobic comments. A boy at the local skating rink picks on her, telling her she has “kung flu.”
“When I was a kid and I 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 every snappy comeback that I didn’t have as a kid.” Shang also views 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 only a half-dozen Asian American students in a large public high school.
She then came to UVA as an undergraduate, an Echols Scholar double-majoring in psychology and government, and found community.
“Undergrad was the first time I had an Asian American community of my own choosing,” Shang said. “The Asian Student Union built friendships and showed me what we had in common.”
At the time, Asian characters in the books and movies with which she was familiar were the supporting cast, not the stars. Shang said a showing of “Red Sorghum” in the basement of Newcomb Hall came as a revelation. The 1988 film tells the story of a young woman married off to a much older man who owns a winery. When he dies, she finds herself taking over the business and standing up to Japanese invaders. It marked the screen debut of Gong Li, who went on to become one of China’s best-known actresses.
“Seeing Gong Li’s face flit across the screen finally affirmed 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, that epiphany led Shang to a career writing children’s books that have as their protagonists young Chinese Americans struggling with cultural identity, family, xenophobia and bullying. Her first book, “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu,” came out in 2011. The book won the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, Children's Literature Award, and is on the official reading lists of nine states.
In June, she will publish her ninth book, “The Secret Battle of Evan Po.”
Her track record landed her the gig of writing two books about Corinne Tan. The books are based on an American Girl doll who “lives” in Aspen, Colorado, with her mom, sister and stepfather, loves skiing and ice skating, and is training her puppy to become a search-and-rescue dog. “Corinne” and “Corinne to the Rescue” were published in January, coinciding with the debut of the doll.
She was brought into the project early enough to contribute to the creative process of making the doll itself a reality. American Girl designers consulted with Shang and an advisory committee on several features, including Corinne’s hair style and color, skin tone and eyes.
But the pandemic kept Shang from leaving home in Northern Virginia and going to Aspen for the book’s geographic research. Fortunately, two of the advisers helped fill in the details.
“One had grown up in Aspen and the other had raised kids in Aspen,” Shang said. “Otherwise I might not have known that Corinne’s school could have a ski lift right outside.”
Before coming to UVA in 1986, Shang hadn’t intended to go to law school. But undergraduate courses on the Supreme Court with UVA government professor Henry Abraham changed her mind.
“I loved his classes, loved learning about Supreme Court cases and what they meant to the United States,” she said. Abraham, who died in 2020 at age 98, taught in what is now the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics for 25 years.
Shang took a year off after graduation and, inspired to go into law, applied to several schools. UVA Law was always her top choice, because “you get spoiled when you live in Charlottesville.”
“I was an unusual student at the time,” she said. “There was very much more emphasis on law firm jobs, and I figured out pretty early on that’s not how I wanted to use my law degree.”
She became a research assistant to Professor Elizabeth “Buffie” Scott ’77, whose focus at the time was the decision-making rights of minors in medical situations.
Shang got an internship at the National Center for Youth Law and became more focused on the rights of children. At the time, she said, job prospects for law graduates weren’t great, so she took some time off, trained as a CASA — or Court Appointed Special Advocate, who represents the interests of abused or neglected children in legal proceedings — and worked for an attorney in Arlington. She went on to serve as an attorney for the American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, focusing on the representation of children in juvenile proceedings.
She also married David Harrington ’94, a fellow Double Hoo, now with the U.S. Department of Justice. “We were both working and started having kids,” Shang said. She left her work at the ABA to raise their children full time. The couple has three children.
When she was invited to her 20th high school reunion, she asked herself, “What have I not done that I always wanted to do?” And the answer was: Write a children’s book. She took a class starting in 2006, began writing and won a new author’s grant based on the first 50 pages of “The Great Wall of Lucy Wu.”
“That 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 went back to her legal roots in 2016, working part time at the Baltimore-based Pretrial Justice Institute as a research and communications associate. As part of her work there, Shang has been working on racial equity in pretrial systems.
“I would say that that my work at PJI has empowered me to write the stories I’m writing now,” she said. “Talking about race and racism in a thoughtful way has become an important focus in the children’s literature world. I’m grateful I have jobs that enrich each other.”
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