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Chanel Miller's new children's novel follows lost socks in New York City

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Chanel Miller has always wanted to write books for kids.

CHANEL MILLER: Adulthood took me on a pretty intense detour, but I feel like I'm back. It's been quite emotional, actually - like, ah, like settling into myself again.

RASCOE: Her first book was titled "Know My Name." It was an acclaimed memoir about her sexual assault and the very public trial that followed. But now, like she said, she's back with a new chapter book, "Magnolia Wu Unfolds It All." It follows a little girl and her friend as they travel New York City looking for the owners of lost socks. Miller told NPR's Andrew Limbong that it's a book about relying on the kindness of other people, which was something she had to do, too.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Chanel Miller moved to New York City in April 2020. She'd heard that the city was this big, intimidating place where you can end up invisible, even more so that early into the pandemic. But even in a new city, during a massive world-changing event, there are still errands to run.

MILLER: Post office, grocery store, laundromat - and for the first year and a half, that's really all that I did. And so I became hyper visible to those people. And not only was I recognized. Like, when I came in, they would delight in seeing me. Like, my presence was not only noted. It was, like, celebrated.

LIMBONG: The laundromat she went to had a sock board, a place where they pinned up loose socks, forever separated from their partners.

MILLER: And every year they cleanse it. They dump all the socks away. And I felt so sad, like there were all these unclosed loops just hanging there that would never find their way home. And so I created this protagonist who is able to successfully return them.

LIMBONG: Magnolia Wu is 9 years old. She's loud. She's brash. She's sometimes quick to judge. In the illustrations, Miller depicts her with a wide mouth and arms constantly flailing about.

MILLER: I really love her. She - the way she navigates the city is very open and unguarded, and I'm someone who is not like that. I'm more of a hunched shoulders and shuffle kind of person.

LIMBONG: Magnolia's parents run a laundromat where they have a sock board. And after one very bad day, Magnolia and her new friend Iris decide to return the loose socks to their original owners, one by one. Their adventures take them to the barber shop, the pizza place, the subway, the diner, and Magnolia is constantly surprised at who wears what kind of socks.

MILLER: That's the other thing I love about a sock - is that you can hide it, but then it's a subtle hint at somebody's personality or some kind of backstory. And it's happened where you can talk to a very serious person in a suit, and they're wearing polka dotted socks. You're like, oh, that's nice, you know? And I think it allows her to peel back these layers to people that she thinks she knows. And that happens all the time. Like, as an author who's written very personal stories, people are always presenting the deepest pieces of their insides to me. And it's such a gift that I get to see these things. And I just - I'm always coming home with this feeling of like, wow, I really don't know what people are going through. And I am - I will always be surprised and moved by it.

LIMBONG: Yeah. What's your sock sitch (ph) right now? What are you rocking?

MILLER: OK, you want to see?

LIMBONG: Sure.

MILLER: So sad that listeners cannot...

LIMBONG: Just so...

In the interest of fairness, I showed her mine first. They were blue, wool - boring compared to hers.

MILLER: These are my socks. They are sheep. They're cherry red, covered in white sheep. And you know what? Even though sheep are sheep, I still believe they're individuals.

(LAUGHTER)

MILLER: They all have their little stories too.

LIMBONG: There's a fearlessness with which Magnolia and Iris traipse around the city, which was important to Miller after she came out as a victim of sexual assault. She felt shamed for not taking better care of herself.

MILLER: And I thought, well, to one degree, yes, it's important to keep ourselves safe. But I don't want to shed the part of me that is so excited to meet and encounter the world every day and the things it'll bring me. I don't want to live in constant anticipation and fear of the worst happening. And honestly, in my life, like, the worst kind of did happen, and I survived it because of the kindness of so many strangers who stepped in and communicated their support to me. Like, people in the world have held me through the last decade.

LIMBONG: In the author's note, Miller writes, (reading) I created Magnolia and Iris and let them roam freely. In their version of New York City, fear is not the driving force of their lives, and they are led solely by their curiosity and desires.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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