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Author Spotlight: Joan He talks Descendant of the Crane

I'm so happy to feature Joan He on today's blog! As a recent grad of the University of Pennsylvania, Joan majored in Psychology and minored in East Asian Language and Cultures. Her debut YA fantasy, DESCENDANT OF THE CRANE (Albert Whitman Teen) has been named:

A Book of the Month™ Selection

Seventeen Magazine Best YA of 2019

Epic Reads Must Read Fantasy

A Publisher's Lunch Buzz Book

B&N's Top 20 YA Debuts of 2019

A Most Anticipated Fantasy of 2019

Spring's Must-rEad YA Sci-Fi & Fantasy

A Goodreads Most Epic YA Book

Check out the synopsis below!

Tyrants cut out hearts. Rulers sacrifice their own.

Princess Hesina of Yan has always been eager to shirk the responsibilities of the crown, but when her beloved father is murdered, she's thrust into power, suddenly the queen of an unstable kingdom. Determined to find her father's killer, Hesina does something desperate: she engages the aid of a soothsayer—a treasonous act, punishable by death… because in Yan, magic was outlawed centuries ago.

Using the information illicitly provided by the sooth, and uncertain if she can trust even her family, Hesina turns to Akira—a brilliant and alluring investigator who's also a convicted criminal with secrets of his own. With the future of her kingdom at stake, can Hesina find justice for her father? Or will the cost be too high?

In this shimmering Chinese-inspired fantasy, debut author Joan He introduces a determined and vulnerable young heroine struggling to do right in a world brimming with deception.

And now, here's my chat with Joan!

Hi, Joan! Welcome and congrats on Descendant of the Crane. Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?

Thank you Megan! So excited to be on the blog.

Descendant of the Crane is about a young princess-turned-queen investigating her father’s death during a politically volatile time. The story was ostensibly inspired by my love of Chinese palace dramas and their complex relationships, where “villainy” is often a matter of perspective, arising due to conflicts of interest. But what compelled me to stick with this story over the course of five years was probably the fact that it was inspired, at its heart, by my experiences as a second generation Chinese-American and especially my teenage years, when I reconciled what my parents wanted for me with what I wanted for myself.

I’m always interested in character development and Descendant of the Crane has been called a Chinese Game of Thrones! How did Hesina’s mounting uncertainty of those around her help shape her character?

As a result of her upbringing and the responsibilities that her future holds, Hesina starts off with a lot of self-doubt. She might compensate by being overly stubborn and headstrong, but her character fundamentally values the decisions and wisdom of the people she respects over her own. When she willfully disregards advice, regret is never far from her mind. If things don’t pan out, she has no one to blame but herself. That’s a scary thought for someone so insecure.

It’s only when she starts seeing more than what she simply wants to see of a person, that she realizes the people who love her have shortcomings too. It is possible to act with someone’s best interests at heart and hurt them, to impose your will onto them and take away their agency. By the end of the book, Hesina is still learning to have more trust in herself. It’s not an easy dichotomy, especially for someone coming from a collectivist culture.

What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it ?

Revision for sure. I usually prefer drafting, and try to plan as much as I can to avoid tearing up the floorboards in revision. But when it’s time to revise, I start by memorizing my edit letter. I know that sounds weird, but I really try to avoid the idea of checking off a list when I revise. I find that I make less superficial revisions when I can fully internalize what’s working/isn’t working with the story. Also, storing the edit letter in my brain allows me to brainstorm solutions wherever I am, whenever. After that, it’s just execution, which involves a lot of teeth gnashing, coffee, and butt-in-the-chair.

Your world-building for the kingdom of Yan is so intricate—what was your approach for this book? Did you keep a story bible?

Oh, no. World-building is probably my least favorite thing to write, along with descriptions of scenery, food, and clothes. My first drafts are usually littered with [insert description here] because I find that I can develop the story and characters just fine without that stuff in the immediate moment. I think if I did keep a story bible, it’d hold me back. It’s already hard enough to keep mental tabs on how much essential info to weave in, and where, that throwing world into the mix would probably make the process paralyzing.

So when it comes to world, I approach it as I would with a painting. Plot and character form the under-painting—the composition, the broad colors and gradients. World—beyond the basic elements that make the premise tick—gets overlaid in at the very end.

I'm a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Descendant of the Crane teach you?

So much. It taught me how to revise. How to rewrite. How to plot and outline. Most notably, it taught me how to judge the viability of my own premises and book ideas. To be honest, with everything I know now, I’m not actually sure I would have tackled writing DESCENDANT. It’s a story that has a seemingly simple, even tropey premise that promises very basic things, leaving all the heavy-lifting to the execution.

What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?

Well I just watched the documentary FREE SOLO and now I am completely obsessed with Alex Honnold. His attitude toward life and setting goals for himself, even when no one is watching, really spoke to me, though writing is hardly as high-octane as scaling a sheer, 3200 ft cliff-face without a rope.

And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?

Too many to list, and all “the most important” at different stages. It’s all too easy for me to say “write the next thing.” But it’s precisely because I did write the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing while waiting for DESCENDANT to get an agent, to sell, that I’m now able to not be writing the next thing at this juncture, and just focus on promoting the book. Some people may frown at that, and insist that our jobs as writers is to write, not to advertise or sell. But in my particular circumstances, giving my all to book promo has been the right choice for me. I’ve had certain advantages, like my wonderful cover, but also face very unique odds. It’s always going to be like that—everyone’s journey is different, and it doesn’t do to compare, not because it’ll make you feel sad (though it will) but because you can’t see behind the scenes, can’t see everything a writer is dealing with or the hand they’ve been dealt. Just…you do you.

Many thanks go out to Joan for taking the time to tell us more about Descendant of the Crane! Be to sure to add this fierce and intricate fantasy to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy (WRITE) NOW from retail sites like Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, or request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!

For more information, follow Joan on Twitter, and visit her author website at

And, as always,


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