“It’s how I imagine crowdsurfing over a mosh pit would feel. Terrifying, and maybe even fun.” That’s what Stacey Lee had to say when asked how she felt knowing her debut YA novel Under A Painted Sky was in the hands of readers.
If you were to ask Lee’s characters Samantha and Annamae how they feel about their journey, you’d likely get a similar answer. These two young women embark on the trek of their lives, as they take to the Oregon Trail in the mid 1800s, disguising themselves as young men heading west for the California gold rush. The stakes are certainly different for Samantha and Annamae as their lives are on the line but that’s what makes it terrifying – the journey is what makes it fun.
If you’re familiar with historical fiction in the YA bracket, you know that the Oregon Trail isn’t the most popular time period. But for Lee it was an obvious choice.
“I wanted to write a book about what it was like for the first Chinese Americans in the United States. Many of them came during the California Gold Rush, which coincided with the western expansion of the United States via the Oregon Trail.”
While the Oregon Trail was an easy choice, Lee’s research showed her that life on the trail was anything but.
“What I learned was that every day brought challenges, from boredom, to life-threatening situations like cholera. And even when you reached the end, there were more challenges, like clearing the land and building a home. People back then were made of strong stuff.”
Life was hard for everyone but it’s hard to imagine to young women making that journey, especially when most people associate middle aged-men with the Gold Rush. But the reality is that there were women there as well, even if history often overlooks them and their contributions to the past.
“Our population is almost 40% diverse, and of course, 50% female. We need books that reflect those realities.”
In the context of YA novels these stories guide and encourage readers to accept and embrace differences but also realize that for every difference, there are even more similarities. When it comes to Lee’s novel, she hopes that her readers will be able to see past the differences and pick up on one of the most amazing characteristics people share.
“I would like them to come away feeling the things I love to feel after a good book – a sense of yearning to reenter that world, and an appreciation for the indomitability of the human spirit.”