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Taiwanese teenager publishes English fantasy novel in US, becomes bestseller

First novel in Hermione Lee’s trilogy hits bestseller list on Taiwan’s largest online bookstore

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Teen author Hermione Lee poses with her novel "In the Name of the Otherworld." (Hermione Lee photo)

Teen author Hermione Lee poses with her novel "In the Name of the Otherworld." (Hermione Lee photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A teenager born and raised in Taiwan has published a young adult fantasy novel in the U.S., which has become a bestselling new book on books.com.tw, Taiwan’s largest online bookstore.

“In the Name of the Otherworld” follows an orphaned teenager named Alexandria as she and her classmates are transported into a magical world through their school’s mysterious fountain. In the fantastical “Otherworld,” Alexandria fights monsters and discovers the truth about her parentage, embarking on a journey of self-discovery.

The protagonist of the story is very much like her creator, Hermione Lee, a 17-year-old student from Taoyuan who chose to be homeschooled shortly after enrolling in senior high school. “Of course, I don’t have any magical powers and never traveled to a magical world,” she said with a laugh, “but Alexandria’s journey of realizing her own potential and self-worth is very much like my own.”

Lee said she was once not confident about her own writing, especially after getting multiple rejections in writing competitions. However, her experience of participating in all kinds of competitions since a young age forged her ambitious personality, and trained her to not give up easily.

“When I completed the manuscript for ‘In the Name of the Otherworld,’ I became too confident instead, and thought I was the only person in Taiwan capable of writing a novel in English,” Lee said. However, when she shared the first few chapters with her aunt, the blunt criticism she received brought her back to reality.

“I’m really so thankful for that, because without the criticism that made me realize my weaknesses, I would never have revised my work to make it better, and my book would never have been picked up.”

Taiwanese teenager publishes English fantasy novel in US, becomes bestseller
"In the Name of the Otherworld" is the first book in a trilogy. (Hermione Lee image)

When asked about how she balances being humble and confident, Lee said she tells herself, “I’m doing well, but there’s always room for improvement.” She believes people should never limit themselves, whether it be by not daring to take the first step, or by being caught up in one’s own success.

Lee completed the first draft of her novel at the age of 14, and drew inspiration from an actual fountain in her school’s courtyard. She had initially planned to write the story in Chinese, but ultimately decided that English suited the story better.

Her fluency in English comes from developing a reading habit early in her childhood at around three or four years of age, during which her parents would read children’s books to her in English. By the time Lee was in elementary school, she had taken to reading the “Magic Tree House” book series on her own.

With the additional habit of listening to audio books and conversing with her father at home in English, Lee’s command of English far surpasses her peers. Yet she has discovered during interviews with Taiwanese media, that her English-learning journey is all they seem to care about, which seems tied to the way Taiwan views English education.

“It’s a systemic problem. Too many people think English is a tool and force it on children,” Lee said. “Schools need to stop testing students so much. They ‘murder’ kids’ interest in English with them.”

Taiwanese teenager publishes English fantasy novel in US, becomes bestseller
Hermione Lee aspires to change how Taiwanese schools teach English. (Hermione Lee photo)

Lee, who aspires to teach English in the future, sees language as an art form. She believes parents should spend time reading in English with their children even if they are not fluent, as the point is not about teaching children perfect English, but helping them develop the habit of reading actively.

“I had to be independent and take the initiative to publish my novel,” she said, recalling her experience of researching publishers and submitting her work to writing contests.

She found herself planning the plot of her story as she prepared for the Comprehensive Assessment Program for Junior High School Students. When everything seemed to be put on hold during Taiwan’s COVID-19 outbreak in May, she decided to spend the extra time at home working on her manuscript.

“It’s important to follow your own pace and not let the outside world affect you,” said Lee.

Taiwanese teenager publishes English fantasy novel in US, becomes bestseller
On the day of its debut, "In the Name of the Otherworld" tops books.com.tw's bestseller list for new releases. (Hermione Lee image)

Now, aside from topping the bestselling list for young adult books on books.com.tw for a month straight with “In the Name of the Otherworld,” Lee has signed another deal to publish its sequel, “Marvels of the Underworld.”

Her third novel and the final installment to the trilogy has also been completed, and she has begun writing a new novel that is its own story.

Lee said she found support within the writing community, where fellow authors help each other without asking for anything in return, sharing knowledge and even holding workshops simply because they are passionate about the craft. The atmosphere within this community is unlike anything she’s known in Taiwan, where students obsess over tests, scores, and academic ranking, seeking only to beat others in their performance.

“They don’t care if you are their ‘competition’ in a writing contest,” said Lee. “Some of them are in their 50s, some have the skill to make New York Times Bestsellers; they taught me to pay it forward.”