Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Fighter for the Everglades

Marjory Stoneman Douglas–a school, as far as most people knew. The school that crashed into the news because a 19-year-old acquired an automatic weapon and went on a shooting rampage, killing 17 kids.

Amidst the grief and the political hypocrisy, and the shame of unchecked gun ownership that is killing America’s kids, it’s worth remembering the woman for whom the Florida school is named. Douglas was a writer, an editor, a journalist who died twenty years ago at the age of 108. She was known as the Defender of the Everglades, and  a large swath of the park is named for her. Among her works are two novels for young readers, Alligator Crossing and Freedom River Florida, 1845.

The writer of this Chicago Tribune article, Mary Schmich, met Marjory Stoneman Douglas when she was 95. Her profile is both revealing and relevant. Excerpt:

“What does it matter if I’ve been discouraged or encouraged over the years?” she said, brusquely. “This thing’s got to be done. It’s not a question of how I feel from moment to moment.”

“Not a question of how I feel.” Words to live by.

We don’t know how Douglas would have felt about gun violence. It wasn’t an issue of her time. But here’s an example of how she dealt with authority figures. Once, when she was giving a speech addressing the practices of the Army Corps of Engineers and how they endangered the Everglades, a colonel in the audience dropped his pen on the floor. He bent to pick it up, and Douglas stopped her speech and said to him, “Colonel! You can crawl under that table and hide, but you can’t get away from me!”

We could use that razor-sharp tongue right now. I like to think that she’d tell the young activists of today to do the thing that has to be done. Like her, they’re not afraid to call out the people in charge.

Sayantani DasGupta on Identity, Resistance, and the Personal Rakkhosh

kiranmala-reveal-cvrHow do you create celebration out of despair? Someone whose work and thinking I’ve been privileged to follow over the years, physician, teacher, and now children’s writer Sayantani DasGupta explores these overlapping terrains in her article, Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther


…when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

Small, quiet, and nearly invisible no more. Racism and intolerance are the demons in our world. Supernatural solutions are the tools of fantasy but the real stuff? For young Kiranmala as for all of us humans, that comes from within. From resistance and community and a refusal to be silent.

Congratulations, Sayantani, on your beautiful new book. May your voice ring many bells among young readers and the  people who care about them.

Karen Rivers on A Possibility of Whales

IMG_2134Karen Rivers writes:

When I began writing A Possibility of Whales, I had an idea that I wanted to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for a new generation of kids, taking into consideration both all that is different about being twelve-going-on-thirteen in 2017 and all that is, in fact, still the same.

Nat loves her mother. Well, okay, she loves some tenuous idea of her mother. The truth is that her mother left Nat and Nat’s famous superstar dad, soon after Nat was born.

Yes. It’s complicated.

A Possibility of Whales (see my ARC, festooned with sticky notes) is a complicated book, its beautifully drawn young protagonist a collector of words in multiple languages, with deep interior longings and a generous, surging heart. I asked Karen to tell me more about how this book grew in her mind and on the page.

[Uma] Nat’s facility with words, her lively imagery, the synesthetic quality to her perception—these are delightfully eccentric traits and they make her entirely memorable. How did Nat grow into her particular kind of quirkiness?

[Karen] Nat’s childhood is unusual.   Her dad is famous and also very particular about what he believes – not owning “things” is a big part of that, he follows an experiences-not-stuff philosophy.  Nat is naturally synesthetic – something I also have but didn’t know had a label until very recently – but I also think her upbringing lends itself to a heightened interest in the intangible.   Her “collection” of words, for example.


Photo courtesy of the author

[Uma] I was struck by how much you normalize the trans character, Harry. You pull the reader along so that after a while the issue of gender becomes secondary to the growth of the friendship. Talk about how where and how Harry’s character emerged and grew.

[Karen] My son has a very close friend who is trans and I’ve been observing from a distance how his journey has unfolded.  One thing that I notice in particular is that amongst the group of friends, he is just who he is, a boy like them, without question.  There were some decisions on the part of the school that I still question profoundly, which must have been terrible for him, which were traumatizing even from an arms’ length.   But afterwards, the kids just moved on.   They didn’t give the fire (started by misguided adults) any air.  It gives me hope for a future where people are simply able to be who they are, period.

[Uma] I was fascinated by the sheer wackiness of Nat’s phone calls to The Bird, and how they turn into something tender and important in ways we can’t understand until the end. No plot spoilers here, but tell me how you made the entirely improbably scenario of an impulse/prank call feel so plausible?
[Karen] I think the call in the book works because The Bird can tell that Nat is nervous and that she isn’t setting her up as a punch line for a laugh. As an adult who happens to not be in a hurry, The Bird behaves in a compassionate way – she pauses, she listens, she waits to discover what the call is really about.  (What would it be like, I wonder, if everyone were to be like that all the time?  We’re always in such a hurry, always angling away from situations that feel as though they might demand something of us. I think the fact of listening–the impulse to NOT hang up, to not avoid someone else’s needs–that’s when we are the most human, when instead of rushing away from something uncomfortable or awkward, we pause and give it space.) The Bird listens, listening is a form of love, and love is all that Nat needs, that all of us fundamentally need, don’t you think?

[Uma] Listening is a form of love. There’s a thought for the impatient among us–that would, I must confess, sometimes be me–whose first instinct is to make the connections, complete the thought, move on with the conversation. Thank you for this book, which tells me instead to stop, to breathe, to listen. 


Music Carries an Orphan’s Story in The Flute by Rachna Gilmore


From The Flute by Rachna Gilmore, illustrated by Pulak Biswas. Tradewind Books, 2011

The flowing lines and strong contrasts of the late and much-beloved Pulak Biswas‘s illustrations dramatize this orphan tale from Rachna Gilmore.

Gilmore first brought stories of an Indian immigrant family to young Canadian and American readers with her Gita books. Biswas, a veteran of Indian publishing and an associate of the legendary cartoonist, philanthropist and publishing guru K. Shankar Pillai, illustrated the wonderfully playful Tiger on a Tree by Anushka Ravishankar. So for me, The Flute is a continuation of familiar rhythms, echoes of a lifetime spent crossing from India to North America and back again.

In many ways, it’s a classic orphan’s tale. When we meet her, young Chandra is a baby, delighted and soothed by the sound of her mother’s flute.

She played of shimmering hot days and the richness of the earth. She played of the cool evening sky and the growing promise of the moon.

But Chandra’s parents are swept away in a flood, and she’s taken in reluctantly by a cruel aunt and uncle. The flute, worn smooth by her mother’s hands, represents her only connection with happier times.

Gilmore turns the flute into a magically endowed object, so that its music and the river seem to blend, channeling the emotions of those who listen. When the flute is lost, Chandra is plunged into truly bleak times.

She did her best to keep her mother’s songs alive by whistling the tunes, but sometimes she couldn’t remember them.

The season shrinks the river to a trickle, compounding the loss and serving as an artful metaphor for Chandra’s own hunger, pain, and grief. It’s deftly executed, so that when the magic turns longing to hope,  the story turn is light and mirrored by the blue renewal of the river on the right hand side of the spread.

I found a nicely Indian sensibility as well in the omission of a final, omniscient delivery of justice to the evildoers–which is, after all, what one might expect from a story with some motifs similar to those of European Cinderella stories. Instead, the aunt and uncle are simply distracted and move right off the page, leaving Chandra to proceed, surviving still greater dangers in her path, until she arrives at a final, happy resolution. The lyrical text is imbued with energy by the sweeping illustrations, much as the river bestows magic upon the music of the flute.

Ashokan Farewell at the VCFA Graduation

Graduations at VCFA are always touching and beautiful, but the one on January 20, 2018 was made particularly poignant by a haunting piece of music played by graduates Allison Ritchie on violin and Jillian Fox on piano: Ashokan Farewell.  It’s the tune that Ken Burns made famous in his PBS Civil War documentary. It tugged at the heart, background to the reading of the letter from Union officer Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife. Ballou knows he will die, and his anguish shows. The letter itself was found on his person and delivered to his wife after his death.

…”with my own joys,” Ballou wrote, “I lay down nearly all of yours…” He said that when his last breath escaped him, it would whisper her name.

It’s a complicated story, as is the story of the composition of that piece of music by folk musician and composer Jay Unger. The piece is titled in honor of a music and dance camp that Unger and his wife and musical partner Molly Mason have run in the area since the 1980’s. It’s also a tribute to the place in the Catskills where a dozen towns were flooded to create reservoirs, the Ashokan among them, to provide drinking water to New York City.

About composing this piece, Jay Unger writes:

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could affect others in the same way.

Unger calls it “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”

Purely by the kind of coincidence that you can’t make up if you try, the word Ashokan reverberates in quite a different way for me. It’s an adjective derived from the name of an emperor, Ashoka, who ruled almost all of present-day India in the 3rd century BCE. In the words of University of Hawaii history professor Jerry Bentley, following a bloody conflict, “Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around 200,000 deaths.” Fron that moment, the legend goes, he gave up war, and dedicated the rest of his long reign to peace and the welfare of his people. Is that legend or reality? It was so long ago that the boundaries become permeable.

All those geographies and histories overlap and coalesce in this one tune. War and peace, sacrifice and the conflicting needs of people, and always time, stretching onward and over continents, all of it finding expression in stories.

Welcome Aboard the Spaceship: More on Ursula K. Le Guin

I remember when I spent a couple of weeks in a writing  residency at a cottage on the beautiful grounds of the Hedgebrook Foundation. The notebook on the table contained entries from writers who had stayed there before me. On one page, Ursula Le Guin had drawn a little lizard and commented on its presence, signing the entry, UKL. I was in awe of who had been there before me, and yet, somehow, I felt invited to the great party of writing and life. I felt as if I’d been allowed to shape the two in my own way.

Tributes are pouring in now, some formal and respectful, others more personal, remembering moments and insights and connections, human to writer, with no difference between the two.

Here’s one on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Excerpt:

Ursula K. Le Guin helps me know where I am.

She is not gone.

And this beautiful account of friendship and of a child’s glimmering insights from William Alexander. Excerpt:

Ursula died at the age of eighty-eight–a multiple of eleven. I wish she could have waited for ninety-nine instead.

She collaborated a few times with my youngest daughter Iris. Together they told stories about monkeys and cats.

And that in turn reminded me of the time I read Catwings to my son back when he was five. We read it many times. We read the sequels. The very notion of cats with wings gave rise unfailingly to delighted laughter and to the anxious turning of pages.IMG_2220IMG_2219 2

And then there was wonderful Alexander, lost and treed, cold and terrified by a wandering owl, who was then found by a stranger and discovered an entire family of most unusual cats.

Of course, back when I read these out loud, over and over again, I had no idea that many years later I would meet a wonderful Alexander who was a friend of Ursula’s. There’s that invitation again, a kind of magic that we ought to make the effort to pass along.

“I Am a Man.” Change as Wrought by Ursula K. Le Guin

“Rest in peace” doesn’t quite fit a writer like Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, who died yesterday at the age of 88. Her imagination was fierce and wide-ranging. Her essays stoked the confidence and energy of generations of writers, especially women. She bent and questioned assumptions of race and gender in ways that feel fresh and necessary today. Her books were way ahead of their time.

IMG_2216The best thing I could think of to do in her honor was to reread the opening piece from my well-thumbed copy of her collection, The Wave in the Mind.


…if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground…. Models like the Austin and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Hard to beat those words. Le Guin was a force in the world. Who’s stepping up to take her place?

Tell Them We Are Nothing Without Our Islands


By Stefan Lins from Tokyo, Japan (Laura beach n’ tree) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The Marshall Islands were settled by master navigators three thousand years ago, fought over by European powers, Imperial Japan, and the United States of America, then bludgeoned during the cold war by the infamous US Bikini Atoll atomic explosions. I’d venture to say most people in North America still have no idea where they are. But we should care, because these islands are the canaries in the mine where we all find ourselves, like it or not.

Here, from Marshall Islands poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, chronicler of her fragile homeland, is an eloquent plea:

What’s Your Problem? by Bali Rai

IMG_2125.JPGWhat’s Your Problem by UK writer Bali Rai was published in 2003, yet it still rings true today.

Jaspal’s family has just moved from Leicester to the country, and he finds himself having to cope with racism that is more brutal and direct than any he’s dealt with before. The novel is a quick read, and fascinating on many levels. It’s absolutely what we used to call a “problem novel,” driven by a single storyline related to a social issue. The first person narrative is direct and unadorned.

The story arc ends without much resolution at all, just a huge and somehow inevitable loss, paired with a terrible stroke of justice. It’s a seemingly hopeless and abrupt ending, and yet Jaspal’s relationship with Jemma redeems the gloom. The mother is a wraith of a character. We barely even see her, and yet she matters intensely in the end.

What’s saddest of all, of course, is that this kind of racism ought to be a thing of the past, but of course, on both sides of the pond, that is far from being the case.

A Second Look at Aliens

aliensonvacationWhen I first read Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith, it felt like a funny romp of a book—a middle grade novel with a lovable protagonist, a cast of eccentric characters, and a terrific premise. I turned to it again more recently when I was looking for funny books to include in my Highlights workshop lecture. To my pleasant surprise, I found the delightful story and funny passages that I remembered but I also found more. This is something that is always enjoyable, but it’s especially gratifying when you’ve had the privilege of working with the writer.

In this first book of the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast series, David (“Scrub”) goes reluctantly to his grandmother’s B & B for the summer. He encounters some pretty weird visitors, as well as a grouchy sheriff and his wackily appealing daughter. Grandma is a hippie grandma like no other. And yes, on the surface, this remains a fun tale about middle-grade anxiety, family and social relationships—and aliens.

But look more closely. You will find compelling layers that bring us in touch with our own knee-jerk reactions to those whom we don’t understand. Suddenly I found myself recalling how, as an immigrant living in the United States for three decades, the term “resident alien” always made me squirm. Substitute “foreigners” for “aliens” and this little book becomes a fable about xenophobia.

A satisfying resolution emerges with the aid of the Intergalactic Police—where are they now, I want to know, in the real world? Wouldn’t you love to call them up?

All kinds of other subtleties lurk still deeper, including questions of Scrub’s own family history and possibly even his identity. It’s a lovely way to open up a funny, quirky world, but don’t miss the mirrors in this book. They reflect our own human foibles.