When we heard that thirteen-year-old activist Melissa Shang—who you might remember from her viral American Girl campaign—was publishing a middle grade novel, we happily reached out for an interview. Kayla Whaley talked with Melissa about her activism, the writing process, and what’s next for her; we’re so excited to share that conversation now.
Kayla Whaley: Can you tell us a bit about your American Girl campaign? How did it start and what was the response like?
Melissa Shang: I’ve always loved American Girl, my favorite doll company. In 2013, when I was 10, I started a petition for American Girl to release a disabled Girl of the Year doll when I realized that there were no dolls like me in the line. My petition got almost 150,000 signatures and was featured in Oprah Magazine, CBS, USA Today, and many other news outlets. Unfortunately, despite massive amounts of support, American Girl did not release a Girl of the Year with a disability.
Although I was disappointed in American Girl, I still wanted the story of a young girl who has a disability to be told. So I decided to write my own book. And that’s how Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School was born.
Melissa: Well, I have a disability and use a wheelchair myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a form of Muscular Dystrophy. And when I was growing up, I just never saw anyone that looked like me in the movies that I watched or the books that I read. Or if they existed, they were just a sidekick or someone the main character had to be nice to. I wanted to write a book where a girl in a wheelchair was the star.
That’s what I think makes Mia Lee so special. She has a disability, but she’s not just in a wheelchair. She’s a regular girl who loves making videos, meeting new friends, and wants to run for Video Production Club president. The book is about her adventures in middle school, and not about her disability.
I started a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the book’s release, and raised over $6,000 from 146 people. Then, I wrote the first two drafts, signed with a literary agent, hired a collaborator to finetune it, and self-published it via Amazon.
Kayla: At Disability in Kidlit, we’re always eager for more disabled characters in children’s literature. What would you like to see more of in terms of disability representation?
Melissa: It’s incredibly important to me to see more books or movies with disabled girls as the main character. I never had any role model to look up to who had a disability. When I started the petition to American Girl, I just wanted one character who could be the hero of her own story who looked like me.
Kayla: Do you have any words of advice for other young disabled writers? Is there anything you’ve learned during the writing or publishing process that would have been helpful to know when starting out?
Melissa: Just follow your dream! If you are a young disabled writer, don’t let your disability or age stop you from writing or publishing. My main tip for starting out is to just come up with a story that you want to tell, and write it down.
Kayla: Are you working on anything new right now? Or are you focusing on ushering Mia Lee into the world?
Melissa: Right now I’m focusing on releasing Mia Lee into the world. We just hosted a book launch in Washington, DC at the National Youth Transitions Center, and a lot of cool people, including people in the disability community, came. But I’m planning some other fun ideas for sequels that might happen in a few years. For now, I just want to survive 8th grade.