The Battle of the Books Heads to Space with Author Jack Cheng
By Anna Faller | March 5, 2022
Jack Cheng didn’t want to be a children’s book writer. A University of Michigan alumnus with a degree in communications and media studies, Cheng worked in copywriting and design — and co-founded a tech startup — before his nightly journaling practice provided him with the path he never needed. didn’t know he needed.
“One evening, I had nothing to write about my day, and this story scene came to mind,” Cheng said. “The next day, another scene, and after a few days, I thought, ‘there’s something here.'”
These scenes laid the foundation for Cheng’s first book. Released in 2013 by Cheng himself and a successful Kickstarter project, These days recounts his own experience as a servant of technology in his twenties in New York. “It wasn’t a children’s book,” he says, “but it was this process that launched my career as a writer.”
Go for the launch
Cheng’s first mid-level novel, See you in the cosmos, also features a launch, although this one sends an iPod into space. And it all goes back to his little brother’s library: “[We] were hanging out in his room, [our] childhood home in suburban Detroit,” says Cheng, when a particular book title caught his eye.
It was Carl Sagan’s Pale blue dot. “I remember hearing about Sagan and the gold record through the Radiolab podcast,” he says. A 2020 “Space” episode highlights Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and the love that emerged while collecting audio clips for the creation of Voyager Golden Records, which featured “The Sounds of Earth” on board Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft from 1977.
The next morning, Cheng woke up with a story falling into place. “It was almost like the remnants of a dream,” Cheng says. “I had this premise of a boy and his dog trying to launch an iPod into space. I was so excited about the idea that I started working on it right away.
That enthusiasm eventually translated into teenage protagonist Alex Petroski. Accompanied by his dog, Carl Sagan, Alex embarks on a space quest to share life on Earth with extraterrestrial beings. The story is told through the transcriptions of Alex’s recordings because, as Cheng says, “pairing the story with the medium is very interesting for me and [good] stories fit the form [they’re] said in.
In the case of See you in the cosmos, this shape dates back to a golden iPod. “In design, we talk a lot about the constraints that allow you to come up with creative solutions,” says Cheng, “so finding the right vehicle for a story is very important. I have already [had] this golden iPod in the story, so I thought, why not just tell the whole story like the transcripts that Alex was doing?
As Alex and Carl Sagan (the dog) travel across the country, they try to record what life on Earth is like decades after the Golden Record was created, but they also try to find a place where they belong. For Cheng, the issue of belonging – “the feeling that you’re not as connected to a person or a place as you should be” – characterizes the arc of Alex.
“His father died when he was very young,” Cheng explains, “so he tries to fight against [this] experience that he doesn’t really understand, but which obviously impacts the rest of his family.
The theme of integration is one that Cheng himself can relate to. Based in Detroit, but born in Shanghai, Cheng sometimes feels like his heritage is unfamiliar to him. “I have the same feeling about my homeland,” he says. “[China] looks like this place I should know more about but which is [sometimes] unattainable… Over the past decade, I’ve thought more about what it means to be Chinese-American. Just that feeling of coming to an identity, or an understanding of what makes you who you are, is something that’s recurring. [for me].”
Cheng’s work is sure to inspire readers of all ages to take stock of their own place in the world, which can be particularly powerful for middle-level audiences (8-12 years old).
“Meeting readers over time has been such an unexpected gift,” Cheng says, “and that’s what makes me want to keep writing for kids; you meet them at a time in their lives when you can really make a difference. It’s really special for me.
About Battle of the Books 2022
Battle of the Books (presented by the National Writers Series) is a quiz-based book competition that engages over 300 students in the Grand Traverse area each year. Award-winning children’s author Jack Cheng will be a special guest at Battle of the Books on Sunday, March 13 starting at 2 p.m.
On the day of the Championship Battle and All-Team Finals, Cheng will crown the 2022 Championship Team and talk about his critically acclaimed novel, See you in the cosmos. The virtual event is free, while BOTB participants, family and friends are invited to join in person at the City Opera House.
See You in the Cosmos is available for purchase through Horizon Books with a 20% discount on the National Writers Series. For more information, virtual reservations and registration, please visit nationalwritersseries.org.