All in the Family

Author Andrea Cheng leads a discussion as her mother looks on.
Author Andrea Cheng leads a discussion as her mother looks on.

It’s not often that high school students have the chance to meet the author of a book they are reading in class. Even more rare is the opportunity to meet the person whose life story inspired the book. So the students in Ann Cheng’s 9th grade humanities class hit the jackpot last week when both the author and the subject of Marika, the historical novel they have been reading, visited their classroom.

Marika just happens to have been written by Ms. Cheng’s mother, Andrea, about her mother, Mary Kartal. Hungarian Jews, the Kartal family lived in Budapest during World War II, and as a girl Mary (“Marika”) was sheltered and hidden by a Christian family, while her parents were sent to Nazi concentration camps. They survived, but other relatives and friends depicted in the novel did not. Mrs. Kartal later immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Cincinnati, where Mrs. Cheng grew up and raised her own three children, of whom Ann is the youngest.

An English teacher herself, Mrs. Cheng talked about her writing and editing process, and both she and Mrs. Kartal answered questions about the real-life events and family members that inspired the novel. Although she has been writing stories since she was a small child, Mrs. Cheng did not publish her first novel until she was over 40. She showed students a few examples of the hundreds of rejection letters she has received from publishers over the years. Bottom line: along with talent, it takes a lot of persistence and resilience – what teachers at CCSC would call “grit” – to be a successful writer.

Ms. Cheng remembers the day when her mother’s luck changed. “Both my parents came to school to pick me up,” recalled Ms. Cheng. “So I knew that either something really bad or really good must have happened.” Fortunately it was the latter.

Published in 2000, Marika was Mrs. Cheng’s debut novel, and although she since has published 20 books, Mrs. Cheng cheerfully admitted that, so far, no publisher has accepted the sequel she has written. Mrs. Cheng and Mrs. Kartal first visited CCSC last year, and maybe when they return next year, the story will be different, and a new group of freshmen will be able to read both books. We hope so.

Three generations together: author Andrea Cheng, Mary Kartal and teacher Ann Cheng
Three generations together: author Andrea Cheng, Mary Kartal and teacher Ann Cheng

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