2018 College graduate Joan He released a young adult novel on Tuesday that she wrote while she was a student at Penn.
He's first young adult novel, "Descendent of the Crane" was released on April 9. He described it as "a Chinese Game of Thrones" which draws inspiration from Chinese historical dramas and follows the female protagonist, Princess Hesina, as she searches for her father's murderer. He said she started drafting the book as a high school senior and rewrote it during her junior year at Penn while drawing inspiration from her coursework.
At Penn, He studied Psychology and completed a minor in East Asian Studies. She said she took only one creative writing class, "Fiction for Children," and did not pursue an English major because she thought she would not have time to write both for classes and for herself.
He said what she learned in her psychology courses helped inform her approach to her characters and her readers. She recalled a class on obedience taught by psychology lecturer Edward Rozyman, where she learned that situational factors such as deference to authority can greatly influence individual values.
“The thing I love most about marrying psychology and YA is there are so many situations and societal factors that go against you,” He said. “I like to explore that in my writing of fantasy and sci-fi where I can play with the situation the characters face."
He also said her East Asian Studies minor helped her develop the novel's Chinese setting.
She initially set the book in a half Chinese and half Roman world, because she worried that an entirely Chinese setting would be too "foreign" to readers. As she was rewriting the novel, however, she began incorporating more Chinese elements from her classes.
"It was when I was rewriting the book that I was taking the 'Introduction to Chinese Civilizations' course," He said. "As I was making the world more Chinese, I was taking the class."
Debby Chih-Yen Huang, a fifth year student in the East Asian Studies Department who was He's teaching assistant for the "Introduction to Chinese Civilizations" course, said He had an impressive ability to read a text and understand the author's assumptions.
“She got a A+, and all my fellow TAs were impressed by her,” Huang said. “I’m looking forward to reading her book.”
He added that taking Chinese language courses as part of the minor helped her learn to use the language in her book.
He's Penn roommates recalled her spending a lot of time writing the novel both outside their room in Harrison College House and around campus.
"She kind of lived at the Starbucks on 39th and Walnut," then roommate and College senior Lyndsi Burcham said. "She was always there writing."
"She inspired us," fellow roommate and 2018 College graduate Jamie Lee said. "I studied certain things but I never had a specific thing I was obsessed with — she was obsessed with writing."