Lake Placid-based book ‘The Comeback’ tackles figure skating, racism and belonging

E.L. Shen (Photo provided)

A new children’s book by a New York City author explores the world of competitive figure skating, racism and bullying, friendship and finding a sense of belonging — and it’s all set in Lake Placid.

The book’s narrator is Maxine, a confident and spunky 12-year-old determined to one day get her hands on the Olympic gold in figure skating. She has to skate through multiple challenges in the book on her way to a sectional skating competition, and as she stumbles along the way, she’s faced with figuring out how she wants to make her comeback.

E. L. Shen will be signing her debut book “The Comeback” at the Bookstore Plus on Main Street from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5.

From ice to page

Shen, 25, decided she wanted to figure skate as a young girl after she watched the 2005 movie “Ice Princess.” She wasn’t very good, she said, but she continued learning from ages 9 through 15. Even though she eventually moved on to pursue other interests, Shen said she has maintained her love of the sport throughout the years.

Shen was interning at a publishing company in 2018 during the last Winter Olympics when her skating fixation paid off. Shen said she was talking about figure skating “nonstop” at work and an editor overheard her. He said he’d always wanted to work on a middle grade figure skating book and asked Shen if she’d consider writing it.

“At the time I was like, ‘What? I’m trying to get a job, I don’t know what’s going on,'” she said. “I couldn’t even tell if he was serious.”

A year later, when she circled back to the idea, the offer was still open. Shen said she combined her love of figure skating with some of her own experiences to create Maxine’s world. She said Lake Placid felt like the most natural setting for the novel because of the village’s Olympic history, and that’s where the book came to life.

‘There’s more than one way to win’

Maxine and “The Comeback” were partially born from Shen’s experiences in middle school. She said that growing up in Albany, she was one of five or six east Asian kids at her majority-white school. She didn’t think she was different until other kids told her she was.

“I was definitely bullied,” she said.

To take some control of the situation, young Shen sat down and created a list of comebacks she could use in response to the insults that came her way at school. Years later, after a friend told Shen that the comeback list sounded like something a book character would come up with, her wheels started turning. When she started writing a book about skating, she decided to fold her experiences with bullying into the mix.

Shen said that Maxine’s experiences with racially-motivated bullying and wanting to be an Olympic figure skater for the U.S. create an interesting tension in the book. Her bullies claim that her skin color doesn’t fit in with their idea of what’s traditionally American, all while she’s trying to represent her country in sport. Maxine is reminded of that conflict every time her mom drives her down Lake Placid’s Main Street that’s lined with American flags and shoppers and tourists who are mainly white.

To young women of color who are going through racially-motivated bullying, Shen says she empathizes.

“That’s really where your support system comes in,” she said.

Whether it’s family, friends, a book character or a figure skating role model, Shen said that finding your center and understanding you’re not alone in your experiences is important. You don’t have to carry everything by yourself, she said, and that’s something Maxine had to figure out in “The Comeback.”

“I feel like that’s something that she learned, that … it’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to tell people, it’s OK to feel vulnerable,” she said. “And I think that those are all things that I certainly learned in my own life, and I hope that every child and adult, no matter if they’re being bullied for their race or ethnicity or something else, knows and understands deeply.”

Shen said she always looked up to figure skaters like Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, and Asian American skaters act as a source of strength for Maxine in “The Comeback.” Those skating superstars are often the reason young women decide they want to skate, Shen said. But lately, as more figure skaters have raised awareness about mental health, Shen said there’s less emphasis on winning and more emphasis on getting back up when you fall.

“Knowing what to do when you fail is a huge part of skating and of life,” she said.

That’s the real comeback, according to Shen.

Conversations and reverberations

Shen’s signing at the Bookstore Plus will be her first, and she said she couldn’t start anywhere better. Shen had a virtual book release with Bookstore Plus last year, and Bookstore Plus owner Sarah Galvin said more than 80 people attended over Zoom.

Galvin found “The Comeback” before it was released, when she was scanning the book market for new kids’ books. Galvin said the book’s focus on figure skating in Lake Placid caught her attention. She eventually got her hands on a draft of the book, which she read aloud with her daughter every night until they finished it. The book gave them an opportunity to discuss racially-motivated bullying, Galvin said.

“As far as the bullying and the racism, it both made us upset and … empathize with Maxine and what she was going through,” she said. “It let us have some good conversations and just know that we were on the same page about it.”

Galvin also noted that Shen “hit it out of the park” with the Lake Placid setting by capturing the figure skating world and the issues that come with the lack of diversity here.

Shen said she’s heard from some young women of color who have seen themselves in Maxine. One preteen girl emailed Shen to say that she had read the book and appreciated it. The girl had been experiencing bullying in the wake of increased hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, according to Shen, as more people felt strongly that Asian Americans had ties to the start of the pandemic. The young woman told Shen she felt “powerless.”

Shen responded and sent an autographed book to the girl, who later wrote Shen saying that she’d started an anti-racism club at her school. Shen said it was sweet to see how the young reader had “gone forth and done her own thing.”

“That was just like everything I wanted,” Shen said. “… That will stay with me for a while.”


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