Accent on an Apology

Apu of the Simpsons was a thorn in my side for years. That fake Indian accent made my skin crawl. What was worse, my white colleagues and friends seemed to think it was hilarious and then they’d suddenly grow thoughtful and say, “Hey, so how come you don’t have an accent?” What layers of that was I supposed to take on? I have the vocabulary ofr it in 2021. I didn’t back then.

I do have an accent. Everyone does. Mine is a chameleon. Its American overlay, grown over years, slips easily away when I travel to India, so my consonants flatten out and my vowels deepen and widen. I’m watching myself these days to make sure I don’t suddenly find myself narrowing my “o” and “u” together in the Canadian manner of saying “about.” I can’t help myself. I absorb the sounds around me. My accent, however, is mine, with my particular slices of experience layered into it.

Hank Azaria’s Apu came from another space altogether, as Mellini Kantayya makes clear in her Washington Post opinion piece, and as comedian Hari Kondabolu did in his documentary, The Problem With Apu. He was also the only representation of Indians in popular culture for 20 years!

This apology, which Azaria made in the Armchair Expert podcast, moves us into another domain altogether.

Maybe its children’s lit analogy is the Seuss estate pulling a few titles that feel, to say the least, dated, not to mention unkind.

Like Mellini and the Azaria apology, I’m good with that.

A Story About–What? Everything?

Yes. Everything. “A Story About Everything” is how this professor, Arti Dhand, describes The Mahabharata in her pandemic project, a podcast with 15-20 minute episodes that herds listeners onto the convoluted trail of this ancient story.

For another take on the story, see The Mahabharata: A Child’s View by Samhita Arni, a text that has clarity and candor and a kind of touching freshness. That’s because the writer was 10 years old when she began this project, so as a reader I have to come to this with an openness to that truthful child’s heart.

But I will say, Arti Dhand’s is the treatment I’ve been waiting for all my grownup life. Delivered orally, contextually, and in small bites. What I really like about this podcast is that it treats the Mahabharata as a literary text and not a religious one. So often in my Hindu upbringing, it was no more than the frame story for The Bhagavad Gita.

Why do I find this avowedly secular approach comforting? I think because it absolves me of having to draw moral conclusions every few minutes, or resist the ones the storyteller’s pushing. I was never very good at accepting canned morality, whatever its source.

Finally, I wanted to learn about the art of this epic tale rather than tie myself into internal knots of conscience, because, you know, who needs more of those during a pandemic?

I’ve listened to 20-ish of the 40-something-and-still-ticking episodes. Let’s just say I’m finding Arti’s podcast as irreverent, pragmatic, and wildly imaginative as the story itself. And it’s a lot of fun to hear the resonances between its parts, the repetitions of names and themes, and the casual tossing in of great philosophical questions left deliberately unanswered in a manner that seems familiar and relevant in the 21st century.

Process Notes: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Sisters of the Neversea

This is not the first time my gifted VCFA colleague and longtime friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith, has held conversations with the literary canon. Her Tantalize series is an ongoing bestselling heart-to-heart over several volumes with Dracula by Bram Stoker.

In Sisters of the Neversea, Cyn brings this confab habit to a middle grade audience, and in the process creates a joyful reinvention of an old, revered standby!

J.M. Barrie’s Tiger Lily and Wendy had better step aside for these sisters. It’s their saga, a telling of their truth. The characters have been brought smartly forward into contemporary time, to present-day Oklahoma. They’re part of a blended family in which Lily’s mother is a member of the Creek Nation and Wendy’s father is a British expat contemplating a return to England. I was captivated by the narrative voice, the big sweep of story, the tiny details of character and above all, the loving embrace of family. 

And I was bursting with questions for Cynthia, so I’m happy to say she was kind enough to answer a few of them.

[Uma] The narrative voice in this book feels like a kindly presence throughout, keeping an eye on everything, anticipating readerly questions, and conveying the magic of the setting or the quirks of characters through droll asides. Can you talk about how this voice developed for you? Was it there from the start or did it settle into place somewhere along the way? And how do you see its role in the book? 

[Cynthia] Why do fairy tales still beckon us? Why have they endured? Retellings like SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA may infuse the characters with three-dimensionality, but certainly, the tradition’s foundation is built on archetypical paper dolls.

Certainly, it’s not that they’ve always been pleasant forms of escapism. Even upbeat musical adaptations are rife with child kidnapping and captivity, murderously dysfunctional families, and hefty parental death tolls.

Yet, while SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is a reinvention—not retelling—of PETER AND WENDY (AKA PETER PAN), I agreed with J.M. Barrie’s decision to use of a storyteller’s voice.

It’s been said that the most powerful magical words are once upon a time and the most satisfying are and they lived happily ever after. Without the journey in between, both phrases are meaningless. Yet they speak to the age-old tradition that has most unified humanity: Story.

My novel invites both Native and non-Native kids into the storyteller’s circle, much in the way that all of our ancestors, on every continent of Earth, gathered around fires to listen in community. The narrator makes a promise to young readers—perilous though it may be, you are not alone in this adventure. Take my hand, and let’s experience it together.

It’s a tremendous responsibility to retell any classic children’s book, especially one with well known, problematic aspects. I approached the task from a place of tremendous respect for young readers and young fictional heroes as well as with a heightened sensitivity to those kids whose identity elements had been stereotyped in Barrie’s original. I approached it with an understanding that healing was necessary. I approached it from a place of hope and love.

[Uma] That shows. I think that’s why this reinvention feels very natural, because of course it’s past time for it to step forward in time, to update its fairytale self.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Smith, author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint, is standing in front of the flag of the Muscogee Nation. Photo by Christopher T. Assaf. Image courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith.

[Cynthia] One of my favorite films is Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation of “The Princess Bride,” with a screenplay by the modern fairytale’s author William Goldman. While my approach skews more earnest and theirs more farcical, my narrator’s voice was probably influenced by how Peter Falk’s character, the grandfather, drew on an omniscient voice, a conversational voice, by how he engaged in direct address, offered empathy and reassurance, nudged toward growth, and concluded his reading with the story’s catchphrase—as you wish, meaning I love you.

All that said, the voice came naturally to me. I imagined myself, playing pretend, putting on fancy airs as a storyteller to entertain beloved children around an imaginary campfire. I leaned into the wonder, into the love, into the magic, and into the fun.

[Uma] Love leads me to how you treat Peter’s character. It’s a clear-eyed portrayal but it’s also compassionate—we learn why he’s the way he is, we see him in vulnerable moments. Some of that, as in Lily’s conversation with Daniel, almost feels like historical reference. I smiled at Peter’s reliance on yellowed storybooks for comfort! But then there’s the horrific impact he has on everything around him, the endless taking. Sometimes he seems a metaphor for us, human beings on our only Ever-earth. So I’m curious, what does Peter represent to you?

[Cynthia] For over a century, Peter represented limitless potential, clinging to callousness. Arguably, he embodied the long history of children’s literature itself, one in which the marginalized were erased or maligned. And yet, he’s still a child, and Neverland was not without its diversity.

Barrie’s instinct to bring together white British and Indigenous characters wasn’t the problem, it’s that the latter were dehumanized in the process. And like the body of children’s literature, Peter Pan is now tasked with redeeming himself, with opening his mind, with recognizing that all the world isn’t his alone for the taking.

By welcoming characters like Lily and her little brother Michael into his heart, by welcoming blended and bicultural families like the Roberts-Darlings into his Home Under the Ground, Peter will finally—with effort—be able to grow into all he was meant to be.

[Uma] I think you’re right, he did embody the literature of our field. Our reverence, like his, for yellowed storybooks shows a kind of nostalgia for a time that may not really have existed. But you’re saying the solution lies in being generous, opening our minds. That’s wonderful. It feels like a way to be hopeful even in this hope-constricting age we seem to be in. Related to which, what made you happiest about writing this book?

[Cynthia] Worldbuilding! You might think that crafting a retelling meant that it was simply a matter of slipping into an already fully realized world. That was far from the case here.

Fantasy writing demands an internally consistent, coherent execution, one that hopefully further illuminates the themes and informs both the internal and external arcs of the story. That requires intellectual rigor, but it’s also an elaborate exercise of the imagination, of play on the page.

Because they’re the most striking, readers tend to pay heightened attention to my re-envisioning of the female and Native characters, and certainly, I centered both of those identity elements. But it was a delight to bring three-dimensionality to the fairies, Merfolk, and crew of The Jolly Roger—a sense of their histories, sensibilities, cultures and ways in which they’d evolved over time. What an honor to give Belle more agency and nurture her growth on the page! How magical to consider how the lives of the Native people on the island and Merfolk in the water might have intertwined! Meanwhile, gone is disability as a shorthand for high-seas villainy; these Neverseas welcome every child who longs to talk like a pirate and sail away!

[Uma] I rejoiced to see that–and I thank you too for lifting the stigma off stepmotherhood! I suspect there will be more to love in this book each time I read it. Mvto, Cyn!

Guest Post: Nandini Bajpai on Sister of the Bollywood Bride

Nandini Bajpai was my student years ago when I taught classes on writing for children on writers.com. (Aside: I’m happy to see that VCFA graduate Kelly Bingham teaches there now.)

Anyway, all this to say that Nandini’s new book, Sister of the Bollywood Bride, published first by Scholastic India in 2013 under the title Red Turban White Horse: My Sister’s Hurricane Wedding, and out this year in the US and Canada from Little, Brown, is a funny, sweet romp. Life in an affluent Indian American community is drawn with humor and loving care in this story of teenaged Mini who finds herself stepping into the role of her sister’s wedding planner.

I aked Nandini to tell me something about where the dualities in this book came from.

She wrote:

The immigrant story often talks about alienation from the dominant culture. Of feeling like a stranger and having to learn to fit in and assimilate with the mainstream. But sometimes the learning has to go in reverse when a child of immigrants feels at a distance from their parents’ culture, especially after the loss of a parent who could have been a link back to the ancestral culture for them. And never more so than at big life events like a wedding in the family.   

Mini isn’t thinking about any of this when her older sister decides to get married. She just wants Vinnie’s big day to be perfect because she loves her sister, and seeing the jewelry their mom left for Vinnie’s wedding, and the hopes and dreams it represents, prompts her to dedicate her summer to making it happen. It’s probably good that she doesn’t really know what she’s getting into until she’s actually taken it on!

That starts her journey from comfortable American spaces like her suburban neighborhood and high school friends, to uncomfortable and mostly Indian ones. From Zoom calls to Mumbai with her flaky and successful Indian aunt, to chats with the helpful Indian moms at her tutoring center, to reconnecting with family friends like a sought after local wedding decorator, trading traditions with the groom’s South Indian family, returning to the local temple they stopped attending after losing her mom, managing various vendors of wedding services and more, Mini jumps headfirst into a steep learning curve with nothing but a tight budget, a used car, a faithful dog, and friends, old and new, to help her navigate it all.

When things run into a hurricane sized obstacle every part of Mini’s community, American and Indian, has to come together to save the day, and Mini is finally able to knit back all the scattered pieces of her emotional world and get closure on the grief of losing her mom all those years ago. 

I really wanted to upend some notions of the classic immigrant story with this book, like the idea that immigrants are always better off than the people in the old country, which in the time before Crazy Rich Asians (this book was first published in 2013) was pretty unheard of. I wanted to write ordinary, everyday American spaces and glamorous Indian ones without sacrificing authenticity. I wanted to show a protagonist who is comfortable and confident in her Americaness but uncertain of the Indian part of her identity. Another departure–the marriage at the center of this Indian wedding book is definitely not arranged. Also, the loss of a grandparent in the old country is oftentimes the loss immigrants deal with, but I decided to reverse that too, with Mini’s Indian grandfather and aunt mourning the loss of her immigrant mom. Yes, there is pain in this book but it’s more personal than the trope of immigrant identity and assimilation, and there is purposefully a boatload of celebration and joy!   

Sometimes a different perspective can shed new light on a story we think we know, and that’s what I tried to do. Given all the things this book has backwards it’s probably fitting that it was published in India first before finding a home in the US. I am thrilled to have it in the hands of readers in the US now!   

I love that this book was first published in India, since my own Book Uncle and Me was also published first by Scholastic India and then by Groundwood Books for the North American market. Nice to see Nandini’s Mini making that same journey.

Nandini is passionately devoted to rescue dogs, and her (sadly late) beloved Yogi plays a role in this story.

Wordplay and Profiteering: Fran Wilde on The Ship of Stolen Words

The Ship of Stolen Words blends humor and wordplay with eccentric magic. How about this for starters? A group of goblins steals a boy’s ability to use a magic word: “sorry.” And we’re off on an adventure involving goblin technology, miniature pigs, a couple of friends temporarily at odds, a Little Free Library, and more.

I asked the author, Fran Wilde, if she’d tell me more about her charming book.

[Uma] I was struck by the comparison early on in your book between the loss of a word and the loss of a tooth—it was such a perfect evocation of a universal childhood experience. What are the sources you credit for the magical, eccentric child mind that you channel so well in this book? 

[Fran] Thank you! It is something I’ve thought about for a long time — how language acquisition develops in phases, and how usage and understanding drops out and emerges in different ways for different people, at different ages (even for adults!), but mostly I got caught up thinking how surprisingly different your mouth feels when that first (or second) tooth falls out and what a big, new, tangible sense of something missing that is!

I’ve been so lucky to have opportunities to both teach and work as a summer camp counselor for children at many different ages, and I have a very magical kiddo of my own as well, so I’m around that magic a lot. At the same time, I kept a diary when I was a kid, and some of the things that fascinate Sam, Bella, and Mason (magical doors and monster traps, to name a few) were absolutely on my list as well! Lastly, I love to read — and I think books like The Phantom Tollbooth, Greenglass House, and Sal and Gabi Break The Universe, When You Trap A Tiger, hold so much of that wonderful magic in them.

(Kickstarter Creators, photo by Bryan Derballa, used courtesy of Fran Wilde)

[Uma] I am a Little Free Library fan with connections to the book exchange theme in a book of my own, so of course I was captivated by the notion of a Little Free Library as a portal between worlds. Can you talk about that element of your setting and how it came to play such a crucial role in the story? 

[Fran] The idea that neighbors all over the country and the world are building and keeping up these beautiful, whimsical outdoor spaces as places of connection and exchange warms my heart every time I see one. They’re all so different! And yet the goal is the same: reading and community, accessibility and sharing. That’s kind of like a portal between strangers, isn’t it?

The Little Free Library in The Ship of Stolen Words is something of a larger-scale woodworking project by the owners of the largest house on Sam’s block. They’re intimidating people, and Sam somehow has gotten on their bad side (something about Sam’s baseball wrecking the daffodils below the Little Free Library, I suspect)  a few times. The fact that this Little Free Library is a bigger, ornate structure, and that it just happens to be very close to a tree where a previous generation used to leave messages for each other, is of course part of what attracts Tolver and his grandmother, the word-stealing boglins, to it!

[Uma] This is a cautionary tale in the best traditions of The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wonderful O, but it’s also much more lighthearted than Riverland, which was also, I want to say, beautifully imagined and written. What drew you to this wacky mix of kids and goblins, wordplay, and the unraveling of order through greed?

[Fran] I love that you mention The Phantom Tollbooth! It’s a favorite. And I’ll be checking out The Wonderful O! When I first came up with this story (which is related, and I mention this in the dedication, to the fact that I myself sometimes apologize too much, and a friend once took all my sorries for a whole month (!) which was really hard to manage without, but taught me a lot about the way I use that particular word!) I wanted it to be filled with joy and discovery — kind of the way summer is. 

[Uma] Ha! I should really spread the word about your book here in Victoria, BC, where “sorry” is practically a greeting and there’s a Little Free Library in just about every neighborhood! But I digress. Back to portals.

[Fran] Portal fantasies are among my favorite ways to tell a story — whether it’s going through a wardrobe, traveling in time, or driving a mysterious toy car into a world filled with puns, in each case, the characters are traveling to a different place to solve a problem that they can’t yet manage in the real world. For Peter Pan, it’s growing up; in Narnia, it’s World War II. In Tolbooth, it’s boredom. I think, for me, this is all about problem solving, and learning to solve problems — much as wordplay is. 

The unraveling of order through greed is a whole different problem, and that one let me build a reverse portal fantasy where Tolver must come to the human side of the world to figure out his problems too! I loved being able to tell both stories, and show each character growing and changing because of their interactions. 

[Uma] Yes, and we can see ourselves in the goblins as much as in the humans, which is of course the best kind of fantasy fiction magic. BONUS: Fran is happy to take questions, so consider this a call to fantasy fans and wordsmiths to join this conversation.

Process Notes: Rita Williams-Garcia on A Sitting in St. James

Once in a while you find a book that makes you stop and reread passages for the power of their words.

Or a book whose characters make you weep because they have the tenacious courage to hope, to claim their own humanity and agency in the face of horrific odds.

Or where a pair of characters whose love appears doomed seem to be leading you toward a trope that sank your heart, only to have the story chuckle at you and exclaim “gotcha!” before leaping off its own cliff to a far, far better outcome.

And then sometimes, you get all of these at once and you know this story has walked off its pages and has come to reside in your heart. That’s how I felt when I’d finished reading A Sitting in St. James by my dear colleague and friend, Rita Williams-Garcia. I read it in one big gulp, unable to stop, and at the end of it, I was bursting with questions.

What follows is a pared-down version of an hour-long conversation with Rita about her book, which the Kirkus reviewer saw as an example of “taking contemporary inspiration into the archives to unearth sorely needed truths.”

[Uma] A Sitting in St. James made me feel the past was in the present, raising questions about history but also about race and society in the here and now. How did you end up writing it in this way?

[Rita] Let me just say where it came from. The first thing was a daydream. I had this image of a boy, a white teen, grooming a horse, and I realized that I was back in time and that the boy was a West Point cadet. By the way he was grooming the horse, I thought, Oh, he’s thinking about someone he misses, longs for. Right away, I thought, Wait. He’s thinking about another West Point cadet.

Two boys in love in 1860-something? Hmm, I said to myself, it’s just an idea. Not every idea is going to become something. So I put it away, and every once in a while, I’d think about it. Later, I woke up from a dream, and in the dream was joyful, joyful music. It was African. I could hear a woman singing, instruments, all of that. But the scene didn’t match the joy. The woman was running with a baby. She had made it down to the shore and she threw the baby into the ocean. She was rejoicing and then she was in chains.

I got it. Many of us during the Middle Passage, if we could jump overboard, we did that, knowing that we would die. To her, death was better than captivity for her child. I told Kathi about it, and every once in a while she’d ask me what I was doing with those images. I didn’t know.

[Uma] That would be Kathi Appelt, who we know has magical story-whispering powers.

[Rita] Yes. She said, “You’ve got to do something with this.”

Meanwhile, I had pitched that other story, two West Point cadets in love, to my editor. So I started reading a lot about West Point culture. I came upon a diary of a Black cadet. I was just reading, reading. Then I was at a screening for a documentary I was in, about the Black Panthers, and at the end there was a panel. After seeing all the images of police brutality, this young boy asked, “Why do they hate us?” I was there for the children’s literature part of the panel, and the woman next to me said, “Okay, you’re here for the kids. Say something.”

I felt so badly for him, but what I said was something like “When they see us, they don’t see a human being.” What I remember is that I did not elaborate enough. I just kept thinking about that afterwards, and that’s when I finally realized that I wasn’t going to write that story I thought I was going to write. Instead I was going to write this whole big story to answer that boy’s question.

Stories always build over time for me, while I’m still reading and thinking it through. I knew it was going to be a North-South story, and my mother had always been fond of Louisiana, so at some point I knew I’d set it there. But then I knew Louisiana wasn’t the beginning. We always get this sense that whatever state we’re in, in the United States, that is its origin–but no, it’s not. The land was there long before Europeans came–the people there were not exactly crying out for European help. And the European story in Louisiana has to be French. I also knew I wanted to talk about the boy’s personal freedom to be who he was. So to get at the bigger picture of freedoms I went back to the French Revolution. And then of course, we’re going to go to the Haitian Revolution, because you had Haitians who then came to Louisiana.

Yet another daydream–I remembered a time when I was chopping cabbage. I had this thought about Hegel and something he had said about the cabbage and the blade. So I turned that into a kind of fractured fairy tale of a maiden who is given a cabbage by a lord, and she will then go off with him. It’s Madame’s fairytale of her origin, why she became who she was.

[Uma] I will never forget that scene, I want you to know. The cabbage head hacked off and the message behind it.

[Rita] The copyeditors had a hard time believing that a cabbage could cause someone to cut herself, so I had to take a picture of a cabbage cut that way to show its firm, hard surface and that clean edge. But because of the bloodthirsty mobs of the day, young Madame would have been able to make that connection, because of what was in the air.

To show all those different aspects of that history, I had to step away from the story of the boy and create this whole backstory for the place we now call the state of Louisiana, to show how it came to be. And I had to show this great mixing of people from all over the place, and the codifying that went with that. It wasn’t going to be America as we know it or even as we think we know it.

[Uma] I was very struck by who you chose to give voice to, and how. We have all these white people–and certainly all of them carry their own longings and their own horrors–but then we have Thisbe, who’s given voice by not having voice at all. I fear and hurt for her all along precisely because you build her presence through every silence, every urgent flinching, every word she chooses not to say. Can you talk about that?

[Rita] It was kind of a risk. We are in a time now when our voice is everything. We are extremely vocal, so much so that I think it’s hard for us to imagine what it is to be entombed in silence. Especially because oftentimes that silence is saving your life. There is a kind of lore that the house slaves had it better than those who worked in the fields. And in many ways that was true, the hard labor and so forth. But because you were in close proximity to the family, you had to be self-protective, and how can you be self-protective if you have no rights? I think enslaved peoople have always found ways to protect themselves and their children as much as they could, just operating on those margins. Your everything is subject to someone else’s whim or desire or whatever it might be. So that is where I started. I didn’t want to have the sassy slave that talks back. I wanted to dramatize the tightrope that so many enslaved people had to walk.

Thisbe is bright, she absorbs a lot, and she understands so much on so many levels. So that means that she has to know how to react for each situation and sometimes that means thinking fast and reacting fast. She’s not active on the surface but she’s so involved in her own struggle. She has had to navigate her life through many times when it looked as if there was no path to navigate. This is how she’s able to divert Madame when she has to. This is how she’s escaped the grasp of the son, Lucien. As much as silence is a prison, it’s also a weapon. So when someone demands that she speak, they don’t know that they could be causing harm to her.

[Uma] And there are the undercurrents between Thisbe and the sisters–Marie and Luisa.

[Rita] Yes, even though the white people are in the forefront, you get the undercurrents, tensions, and even to some degree the alliances, in the household. Marie and Luisa resent Thisbe–all she does is stand all day! And the skin color plays in as well. They are Creole mulattos, so-called at the time. Thisbe is definitely of African parentage so there is that tension as well. There is an alliance between Thisbe and Lily the cook, but Thisbe knows better than to speak any kind of Creole in Lily’s presence. So there is a hierarchy and then there are cultural differences among these people, even though they are all people of color. And then of course, Rosalie, fairskinned as she is, resents Thisbe for being so close to her grandmother. You’d think Rosalie would have greater privilege because of her skin color, but the one privilege she longs for, she can’t have.

[Uma] What about now? Why do you think it’s particularly important to give this history an unflinching look now?

[Rita] Because that boy still has to ask that question, you see, “Why do they hate us?”

Because why are we still asking who has rights in this country? Are we allowed to be citizens like everyone else? It’s all an outgrowth of the past. You think about the patrollers who used to look for runaway slaves, and we can see a clear line drawn from that all the way down to policing today. How police work with a presumption of guilt when they’re on the street or in homes in Black neighborhoods. So even though there are supposed to be laws on the books for fairness and all that, we’re still engaged in that fight.

[Uma] So what about the white people in the book who are engaged in suppressing their own? There’s the queer pain of Pearce and Byron, of course, but there’s also Jane, who proves to be irrepressible.

[Rita] I didn’t intend to write her in that way, but she just kind of came forward. The moment that she charged the postman with her horse, I understood how focused and centered she is. She’s not typically rebellious or anything, she is simply who she is, and she truly doesn’t see why she has to be something else. She is part of the issue of personal freedom that I wanted to talk about. Even though there are times we’re not sympathetic toward the white people they are subject to the laws of their society. Byron is expected to marry and be the heir. It doesn’t even occur to him to defy that expectation. That too I think is very much a part of the time. People looked the other way as long as you fulfilled your social obligations. But Jane is different. Today we might recognize her as being on the autism spectrum.

[Uma] She is complete within herself. They’re all that way, your characters, even the dislikable ones. Rosalie’s a good example, all her complications and longings.

[Rita] I hope so. To me they’re all human and I want us to see their humanity. I’m decided at some point I’m going to do for the characters–all of them, Black and white–what racist white people wouldn’t then, and won’t now, do for us. I’m going to infuse humanity so we can all see it and identify with it.

Rosalie is quintessentially in between worlds, a mixed-blood girl. She loves her Black brothers, even though they tease her, but it’s not until she’s older that she realizes what her mother means when she says Rosalie’s tears will kill them. Her black stepfather despises her–she’s a constant reminder of humiliation. She loves Byron, but she also knows her place. She is property, so she is subject to whatever the whim might be. She has taken the time away, and has learned to better herself–that is why I gave her the dressmaking skill, and societal norms given her through the books the nun gave her. And then there’s the torment between friends and siblings, also feels very real to me. We will fight for each other but we also torment and tease mercilessly. Even the Victor Hugo quote she uses with Laurent. It’s a little jab at him, as if to imply he won’t ever be able to have such elevated conversations. But she knows too that in losing him, she will be bereft of a partner as well.

To me the book is about personal freedom but you can’t escape what it means for that larger sense of freedom that we all cry out for.

[Uma] A book of the 1860s and also a book for the moment.

[Rita] Yes. But that’s why I knew early on the kind of book this wasn’t. I wouldn’t have any Harriet Tubman moments, you know. No grand rescues, no heroic figure at the center, nothing like that. Instead, I had to immerse myself in Louisiana Creole culture. That’s fascinating in itself, because the first definitions of Louisiana Creoles are the descendants of European settlers. And later you had this mixing of cultures and that became Creole identity. I found a book of Creole houses, in which I was able to see all kinds of details that were essential to my scenes. That’s how I found out what goes on the dining table or what Madame’s salon would look like. The prie-dieu where she would kneel to pray, but then I thought, Wait! At her age, she’d want to avoid doing that so she must get Thisbe to do the kneeling for her. And when I saw the garçonniere, it made my story of the boys and their relationship possible. These houses were all quite open then–not too many private spaces. But the garçonniere–there, you have a tradition of providing separate quarters for boys after the age of thirteen or so. So that would work perfectly.

[Uma] Wow. So historic architecture gave you something that worked for the architecture of your story. Rita, the research you did for this sounds pretty formidable.

[Rita] Yes, I guess it was, but I learned so much. It gave me all the intimate details that help to solidify character and set them in place. We also visited plantations. That really helped to make it all much more real. Richard Follett’s The Sugar Masters helped me develop Lucien. It helped me shape Lucien’s concerns, gave me a sense of all the things that can go wrong during planting and harvesting. But this book also detailed the cruelty enacted upon enslaved people and I needed that. Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana by Roger Shugg–the postman came out of this book. Shugg’s work gave me insights into a group or social class of people I wouldn’t necessarily like. I also got a lot of the background to slavery as an institution.

[Uma] Thank you Rita. What a gift your book is, and this conversation as well!

Guest Post: Terry Nichols on Real-life Setting in The Dreaded Cliff

From my friend of many years and one-time park ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Terry Nichols, here’s a delightful middle grade that Kirkus called “linguistically rich and frequently humorous.”

From Kinkajou Press, The Dreaded Cliff. It’s the story of a packrat, Flora, and her journey through a magical landscape of prickly-pear and yuccas, junipers and towering sandstone cliffs.

The setting sings in this book, so I asked Terry if she’d write about how her real-life high mesa setting (she lives in an adobe house surrounde by this very vegetation, with those very cliffs looming beyond) plays into her story of Flora the packrat and her journey.

Here’s what she wrote:

At the story’s beginning, Flora’s experience of the Southwest landscape is similar to a human’s—though on a smaller scale. Her world centers around the jangly-crate, stashed with her packrat nest of treasures. Like a real packrat who stays within a 160-foot radius of its nest, Flora wanders as far as the prickly pear cactus, the munch mound, the yucca grove, the big juniper tree. Venturing to the other side of the bloated burrow is closer to the dreaded cliff, but there she finds sublime eggplants to nibble. And learns the truth about the ancestral packrat home, jammed in a dark crack in the cliff.

But for Flora, the packrat home’s history is a little too big for her to process. Packrats are like that.

Flora’s physical world needs to expand before she can confront and embrace the dreaded cliff. When the jangly-crate rumbles to unfamiliar territory, her universe stretches to slick rock, sudden thunderstorms, a deep canyon, puzzling creatures, pressing dangers. She’s catapulted into a fantasy world of sorts, where she must learn to interact with animals who behave oddly. Her predicament challenges her to think and feel and act in big ways, defying ordinary behavior of a high desert packrat.

Photo courtesy of Terry Nichols

Although Flora’s journey is deadly serious, this is a children’s story, after all. If I laughed when I wrote, I knew I was on to something. I didn’t deliberately plan Flora’s character. She poked her head into my life, and I found myself writing about this plump, cactus chomping, word-mangling rodent who tumbled into a canyon and discovered all these quirky friends. Ideas for the characters and plot grew not from my scheming mind, but from another place—maybe I’d call it my heart. Whatever the source, ideas popped, and I wrote. If I tried to plan or work at writing, it took forever, yielding a forced, flat result. Then I’d stop writing for months. Thankfully, Flora and I completed our journey in the remarkable Southwest landscape.

And then of course there’s the wordplay that the Kirkus reviewer mentions.

Excerpt:

Flora wasted no time gorging on an eggplant-blob. She snipped purple blossoms for decorating her nest, stuffed them in her mouth, and hopped from the box. “Thank you for sharing. I feel sublimated. Bits of delicate petals flow from her mouth. The “sublimated” word didn’t sound right, but the packrat etiquette felt perfect. “I must be going now.”

It’s a lovely little book, full of heart, where even the villain turns out to play a part in the big picture of the unfathomable desert. Congratulations, Terry!

Unheeded Warning: The Village Where the Chipko Movement Began

Years ago, I wanted to write a children’s book about the Chipko movement, an astonishing story of love and clarity. In the story, 18th century people of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan in northern India, led by their women, hugged their trees to prevent them from being cut down, because they knew the value of that forest and didn’t want it to be sacrificed to a king’s ignorant ambition.

Deborah Lee Rose beat me to it with her beautiful book, The People Who Hugged the Trees, so I never completed that project, but the story remains vivid in my mind.

In the 1970’s, a woman named Gaura Devi in the area now known as Uttarakhand brought the ancient story to life in her own village to protest the cutting of trees by contractors. The 45th anniversary Google doodle commemorating that event includes a soundbyte history. The movement is credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980 and other measures related to biodiversity and conservation.

As history marches on, Gaura Devi’s Uttarakhand, like much of the lower Himalayan region, is threatened by fast-melting glaciers. No one’s been listening to local activists, or paying attantion to the findings of the special committee ordered by the Supreme Court of India after the last (2013) severe floods. Excert from the CNN report:

Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, was part of that committee and advised the government against building back-to-back dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, high in the Himalayas. They discovered that the run of the river dams, which operate by digging large tunnels into the side of the mountain, actually “weakened the mountain by introducing fractures and fissures,” increasing the risk of landslides.

Chopra said nothing much came of the committee’s recommendations. Dam building continued. And now another Earth Day is behind us. Time will keep moving and so will the planet. Yes, planting trees is a good thing, but it’s not enough.

Guam, Past and Present

With Earth Day appoaching, on my reading list is The Properties of Perpetual Light, a new book by Julian Aguon, founder of Blue Ocean Law, an international law firm based in Guam, specializing in human and indigenous rights, self-determination, and environmental justice in the Pacific. The book addresses the history of colonization and militarization of Guam — and how Indigenous people have resisted U.S. influence.

Made me think–do I even know a single children’s writer from Guam? I don’t, so I thought I’d go browse the Regional Chapters list on the SCBWI web site. Guess what? No SCBWI Guam chapter.

I did find a couple of small presses:

Taiguini Books, an imprint of the University of Guam Press, committed to expanding its collection of cultural literature to include novels, collections of short stories, poetry, and children’s books written about and for the people of Micronesia.

And the Guam Bus, with books in CHamoru and English.

Which led me to this article about–what else?–the damage of colonial occupation and the U.S. Army’s efforts to stamp out the CHamoru language. Another fascinating rabbithole. I discovered that newer references spell the language CHamoru, with two uppercase letters “C” and “H.” I got why they’d change the spelling from the colonial era “Chamorro,” but why the caps? An arctiel in the Guam Daily Post gave me context. Here’s an excerpt:

The CHamoru language, also known as Fino’ Haya, does not have the letter “c” in its alphabet. Sounds associated with the letter “c” in English are represented in CHamoru with the letters “k,” “s” and in the case of the “ch” or “tze” sound, that letter in CHamoru is written as “CH,” which represents the one sound. It constitutes one letter in the CHamoru alphabet, not two. Therefore, when representing that sound at the beginning of a proper noun, the capitalized letter CH is used.

And there’s Nihi! a group that defines itself as “a small but growing indigenous production house based in Guåhan, committed to uplifting indigenous voices and stories from our home and all across our region.” Partnering with the Seventh Generation Fund, the Micronesia Conservation Trust, and Oceania STEM. Guåhan! It’s a name with a musical sound and a distinctive look on the page.

Islands in the sea, with something important to say to the rest of us. I’m looking forward to reading Julian Aguan’s book.