About This Blog

Writing With a Broken Tusk began in 2006 as a blog about overlapping geographies, personal and real-world, and writing books for children. The blog name refers to the mythical pact made between the poet Vyaasa and the Hindu elephant headed god Ganesha who was his scribe during the composition of the Mahabharata.

It also refers to my second published book, edited by the generous and brilliant Diantha Thorpe of Linnet Books/The Shoe String Press, and still miraculously in print since 1996. Over the years, the content of this blog has coalesced around themes of keeping promises, crossing borders, and forging relationships in the service of story. 

Sarah Ellis is in a Flap

My friend and former VCFA colleague Sarah Ellis is in a flap about words. That is to say, a BookFlap mini-masterclass, BookFlap being a new collaborative site launched by four Canadian writers and authors of books for young readers–Vicki Grant, Teresa Toten, Marthe Jocelyn, and Kathy Kacer.

In Sarah’s brief video, titled The Power of a Word, we’re invited to pay close attention to three words. Just three, from the pages of these three books:

No introduction needed to this one nor to the two words it has contributed to children’s literature.

And Feed by M.T. Anderson could serve as a master class in making a futuristic dystopian language utterly clear without a smidgeon of translation needed.

And is Thomas King’s brilliant spoof a retelling or a comical unraveling of the Columbus discovery myth? That’s a conversation for another time. For now, I’ll just note that the word from this book is “relations.”

Sarah takes us on a cheerful little guided tour of those three words, as they’re used in these three books. She turns them over, tosses them around, unpacks them for their sound, sense, and a quality that she calls “charge.”

This, I must admit, is the kind of thing that I would happily spend a day doing–pulling books off the shelf and finding myself a small universe of something friendly and absorbing to consider. It’s the kind of comfort that Pooh finds in honey pots. If there’s one thing I would like to pass along to young readers, it is this sense that Sarah conveys so well, that words can be your friends.

She concludes with an incitement to rebellion:

Push back against the conservative forces that would have you privilege sense over sound, the point of view that the young reader needs everything spelled out as simply as possible, in bland words they’ve already encountered. Don’t stand for this. Choose your words with authenticity, care, and joy, and then be their ally.

A flap worth getting into!

On Canada Day and the Fourth of July

I can’t imagine such a thing happening in the US but the city I live in now, Victoria, British Columbia, has canceled celebrations this year for the day that commemorates Canadian confederation, the day that is often thought of as “Canada’s birthday.” It marks a call to make reconciliation become something real, something more than just saying the right words.

In the USA, the Smithsonian kicks off a new summer tradition that feels past due. Because real patriotism relies on critique. What’s the point of democracy if you can’t talk about longstanding injustices in the country you love? How else can we make a genuine effort to solve them?

Books can help:

48 books by Indigenous writers to read to understand residential schools, curated by David Robertson

Meet the Amplify Black Stories Storytellers

In a nice cross-border collaboration, the Civic Season’s themes were determined through a series of Socratic dialogues with young people and educators and then visually expressed in this graphic by Canadian artist Corrina Keeling – Love Letters for Everybody

Excerpt from the web site of the New Civic Season, running from Juneteenth through the Fourth of July:

The first Civic Season is about expanding the lens, making space for more stories from the past, more voices from the present, and more input on what an annual tradition for civic participation could look like.

Virtual Conference on Access to Books

Coming soon:

End Book Deserts is a nonprofit group advocating for children who don’t have access to “age-appropriate books, high-quality reading materials, and book culture.” I see myself more as a grateful ally than an expert in this area, but I do feel strongly enough about kids needing books that I wrote a chapter book about such a kid. And in some ways, I was that kid, growing up in India at a time when children’s books were few and far between. For all those reasons, I’m delighted to be on a panel during this virtual event.

In similar vein, Read On Canada! has put thousands of books and literacy activities into the hands of Canadian children. Here’s a promo video by Margaret Atwood!

Channeling Fear

What happens when fear for a place you love moves you enough that you’re willing to give your life for it?

In 1979, Mark Dubois chained himself to a rock behind New Melones Dam in the USA’s Stanislaus River Canyon and threw away the key. His action focused national attention on a place and a cause in a way that hadn’t happened before. Mark and the community lost the Stanislaus River in the end, through a combination of big money from the agricultural lobby and the use of dishonest campaign tactics. But his action launched a movement and gave voice to wild rivers and the ecosystems they nourish.

Mark went on to co-found many environmental non-profit organizations, including International Rivers, dedicated to protecting rivers and defending the rights of the communities that depend on them. In his words, “Overall, the lesson I got from the river is, we’re one and the same. We’re connected. By trying to protect that place, I was helping protect me.”

Many of us are afraid for the planet these days, in the very same way that Mark feared for that river and its beautiful canyon. This short film raises the question of what we are willing to do about it.

In related vein, in a very different yet engaging voice and style, look for Plasticus Maritimus: An Invasive Species, by Ana Pêgo and Isabel Minhós Martins, a middle grade nonfiction title published in an North American edition by Greystone Books.

In 2015, marine biologist Ana Pêgo decided to name the plastic trash she’d collected along shorelines—she called it “plasticus maritimus.” There is much in this book to reflect upon and discuss, but its greatest strength lies in its clever, persuasive invitation to take action. Originally published in Portugal.

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.