Spotlight: Kindred Spirits
Children’s book series inspired by SPS experiences of Henry Lien ’88
Jana F. Brown
Henry Lien ’88 calls his first year at St. Paul’s, as a Fifth Former in 1986, the hardest of his life. He sported orange hair, an earring, and a war-drobe inspired by the flair of 1980s Los Angeles. One year later, as a Sixth Former, he experienced the “absolute happiest year of my life.” For Lien, a student of Taiwanese descent, openly gay as a teenager, and self-described as “pretty flamboyant,” it was all about finding his place at the School. He eventually made a group of friends that represented a “microcosm of the best of St. Paul’s” and found the happiness he was seeking. Despite the hardships of feeling out of place at first, Lien considers his time at St. Paul’s a highlight of his life. For that reason, he has written what he calls his “love letter to the School.”
Holt/Macmillan recently published Lien’s first novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword. The first in a middle grade series, Peasprout Chen is an Asian-themed fantasy novel about a 14-year old girl who comes from her rural home to a prestigious academy on the island of Pearl to study a sport that combines figure skating with kung fu. Lien says it was inspired by his time at St. Paul’s. By description alone, the comparison is not an obvious parallel to Lien’s life at boarding school. That is, until Lien explains that figure skating and kung fu pair as awkwardly as he himself matched with his environment when he first arrived at SPS. The world inhabited by Peasprout Chen is one inspired by what Lien knows of Taiwan – mostly from his family, as he moved to the U.S. at the age of four. But everything about Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword is foreign to the book’s title character, from the names of buildings to the cuisine to the customs.
“I was doing the flip side as an Asian kid coming to an Episcopalian school,” explains Lien, who graduated magna cum laude from SPS, before attending Brown University and UCLA School of Law. “The main character realizes she has so much to learn, and that very much tied into my experience. At SPS, I was required to learn things I never knew existed; I didn’t know the difference between Christianity and Judaism, for example. It was like coming to learn something as crazy as a sport that combines kung fu and figure skating.” At face value, continues Lien, Peasprout Chen’s world is vastly different from that of Lien’s reality at St. Paul’s, but he, too, lived his first months as “an alien on strange soil.” Even something as mundane as learning the difference between a sauce and a soup at Seated Meal presented a challenge. But Lien now compares his own experience to that of fictional Harry Potter character Hermione Granger – a (non-magical) muggle who comes into a world where everyone has inherent knowledge that she does not possess. Hermione overcompensates by trying harder than everyone else. In that sense, Lien says his novel’s “main character is absolutely me; it’s thickly veiled autobiography. Her experience is very personal in that way. The school in my book is not a perfect place – that was my experience at St. Paul’s. But my book is about recognizing a place might have flaws, but loving it nonetheless.”
Less thickly veiled are the references to boarding school that helped inspire some of the details in Lien’s novel. There’s the map of Pearl Academy that Lien created with an artist, one modeled on the map of St. Paul’s School’s grounds included in the admissions materials he received as a new student. Lien would pore over the map and imagine what adventures he might have on campus. There’s the wink to the SPS tradition of coffee hour after Seated Meal, reborn as tea anemone hour in Peasprout Chen, where students have a chance to try on adulthood. Then there’s the hymn Lien composed for Pearl Academy, inspired by the Last Night Hymn and the history that tied Lien to those who came to St. Paul’s before him. Lien was paying homage to the music of the School, which he says instantly enchanted and comforted him. At the April 20, 2018, launch of Peasprout Chen, he performed his original composition (“The Pearlian New Year’s Song”) with Tony- and Grammy-winning star Idina Menzel (Frozen, Wicked, Rent, Glee).
While many, including Lien’s publisher, refer to his book as Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – on ice, Lien is quick to remind that his story also touches on immigration and cultural difference. “One of the things the book explores deeply is that cultures are not monoliths; neighboring countries with immigrants influence each other,” says Lien. “Histories mingle, people mingle. St. Paul’s ended up being that for me. I ended up finding my place, not by becoming like everyone else, but by being myself.”
Book two in the series, Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, is due out in January 2019. For more, visit www.henrylien.com/peasproutchen.