Freedom is a Constant Struggle

I’ve been writing historical fiction and working on my historical nonfiction project at the same time as the unfolding of the most bizarre political events of our time. It’s all given me new windows into what the past means to me, personally, and why it matters. Growing up in India, I always had the sense that the American civil rights movement was a natural, inevitable validation of peace and justice. Of Gandhi. Of everything I grew to hold dear. Freedom. The end of colonialism. Human rights. Equality. You know. Those kinds of things. The things all human beings ought to be be able to take for granted.

Now, in the 21st century, I’m finding a new reason for why history matters. It matters because you can’t ever feel you’ve won the battle against human meanness, insularity, cruelty, and injustice. Look at this page from John Lewis’s heartbreakingly beautiful graphic memoir, March: Volume 3.  img_1167It is indeed. Last week I spoke to kids on the BC mainland about voting and rights and taking a stand–for trees, for people. It matters more than ever.

Resistance at Standing Rock 

All story is personal and all story is political. Here is a real life story of resistance playing out in our time, but really, it’s not a new tale.

lastingechoesI am reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s Lasting Echoes, his eloquent compilation of Native voices that carried the story of endurance, suffering, and resistance into the twentieth century and made it accessible to young readers.

Keeping this history alive has always been important. But knowing it and understanding its significance is, sadly, much more relevant today. Instead of taking the road toward healing the planet and communicating with the indigenous people of the continent, we have taken quite a different trajectory.

Meanwhile the protests continue against the Dakota Access Pipeline.



Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.


Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.

March, John Lewis, and Hope

March Book Three is every bit as compelling as the first two in the trilogy. And the timing of this award couldn’t be more apt. If there is hope to be had in the world it is here in Lewis’s words and in his memories, captured in this three-volume graphic memoir by  John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell. Complex and beautiful, and necessary for today.

In Trumpistan

trumpWhen I last posted about A Child’s First Book of Trump, it was a joke. A funny, smart, insightful joke. A joke that was a little bit pleased with itself.

Now Americus Trumpus, a creature who “thrives in the most contentious conditions,” is in charge. No joke.

Only in America, it seems, is it possible to rage against the establishment by voting into power a man with inherited (that is to say unearned) wealth who doesn’t pay his taxes. Who mocks minorities of all sorts, denies climate change, and gets the support of the Ku Klux Klan. If this is a wake-up call, then we’re all reeling from the giant bucket of ice-water thrown in our faces. It’s like Reconstruction all over again or as if the entire Civil Rights movement has been ripped up and thrown away.

Meanwhile, in Trumpistan, the children’s literature community tries to pick up the pieces.

A Declaration in Support of Children

From The Brown Bookshelf, A Declaration in Support of Children

faceofhope Illustration by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Children’s literature may be the most influential literary genre of all. Picture books, chapter books, middle-grade and young-adult novels all serve the most noble of purposes: to satisfy the need for information, to entertain curious imaginations, to encourage critical thinking skills, to move and inspire. Within their pages, seeds of wisdom and possibility are sown.

Therefore we, the undersigned children’s book authors and illustrators, do publicly affirm our commitment to using our talents and varied forms of artistic expression to help eliminate the fear that takes root in the human heart amid lack of familiarity and understanding of others; the type of fear that feeds stereotypes, bitterness, racism and hatred; the type of fear that so often leads to tragic violence and senseless death.

Our country is deeply divided. The recent election is a clear indication of the bigotry that is entrenched in this nation, of…

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Diversity Within Diversity: Guest Post by Margarita Engle



Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of numerous highly acclaimed verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.  Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others.  Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award.  Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.


lion-islandI invited Margarita to write about her newest historical verse novel. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words is the story of a little-known figure in Cuban history. It’s set against an astonishing intersection of cultures and resonates with notes of courage and resilience, yearning and hope. Here is what she wrote:

Many North Americans assume that all Latinos are similar, and that all Latin American countries share the same cultural background.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even the Spanish language is not uniform, with indigenous and West African words varying from region to region, and in certain countries, a mixture of Chinese words as well.  Chinese?  Yes, specifically Cantonese.  As the result of a mid-nineteenth century treaty between the empires of Spain and China, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers were shipped to Peru and Cuba.  On the island of my ancestors, they were treated like slaves, and housed with slaves, feeding the plantation owners’ insatiable craving for imported laborers to plant, harvest, and process sugarcane.  Within a few decades, so many Chinese men had married Congolese and Yoruba women that an entirely new culture took shape, creating a unique linguistic, spiritual, and musical blend.

antonio-chuffatfullsizerender-3Lion Island is not only an introduction to the Chinese-African blend within Cuban culture, but also a tribute to Antonio Chuffat, a messenger boy who became a translator and diplomat.  His extremely rare memoir documented the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers.  Their petitions to the Emperor of China might be history’s largest mass use of written freedom pleas, and perhaps one of the most creative as well, because many of the petitions were written in verse.  Interwoven with the arrival in Cuba of five thousand Chinese Californians who fled anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s and early 1870s, I hope my historical verse novel will inspire young readers to explore writing as an approach to seeking justice.


I love this post from the gloriously gifted Julie Paschkis. I cannot add a thing to it so I am simply lifting it (lovingly) and reposting it here.

Books Around The Table

Last Friday Margaret wrote about the richness that comes from limitations  and the happy accidents that occur in printmaking: the beauty of imperfection.

I looked around my studio. I have lots of postcards and posters and other images pinned up and so many of them could be described as imperfect. I am drawn to those images; they have vitality.

This is the computer corner in my studio.

Eve is pinned to the left of  my computer. (We are both tempted by Apples). I love her huge arms and little head. She was drawn by John H. Coates in 1916.
When I draw people I go to great pains to get them to look accurate in some way. But accuracy is rarely what I love.
This image by anonymous is pinned to the side of a bookshelf.
When the artist got tired of painting the sky she or he just stopped…

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Despair for the World and the Peace of Wild Things

Here is Marion Dane Bauer, quoting one of my very favorite Wendell Berry passages:

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the…

via Despair for the World — Just Thinking

img_0972I love the fact that Berry deals in ambiguities. He makes me think. I am not always certain about the peace of wild things. It’s a more appealing concept than Nature, red in tooth and claw but some days it seems as improbable. But then I go out into the garden and see how the fenugreek seeds I scattered weeks ago have grown in the new rain. I hear the flickers in the forest and the pileated woodpeckers drilling holes with the efficiency of carpenters,  and at once, if only for a moment, I feel part of the beauty.

I’m just finishing revisions on a novel whose story plays out against the backdrop of World War II. Soon I’ll be trying to decide which new project to focus on, and conflict will be front and center because that is how story is. In between, I find that I am badly in need of the peace of wild things.

The Rejection Tug-of-War


The gods and demons churn the ocean of milk, with Vasuki the serpent as the rope. Angkor Wat, 2016

Writing and rejection go hand in hand. Writers are an odd lot. We spend hours, months, even years of our lives on work that reflects our very souls. Then we send that work out into the world inviting, even seeking, rejection. When it comes, we brood. Was that editor or agent right? Is the work dead? Is is any good? Is there something there worth salvaging? What can I do with it? What next? It’s an endless tug-of-war between yourself and the work.

“No.” “Not right for us.” “Not quite there.” Rejection doesn’t come as often now as it used to, but it still stabs to the heart. The only way you can avoid it is not to send any manuscripts out, and what’s the point of that?

There’s a remarkable bas-relief on one of the walls of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. It shows the Sagar or Samudra Manthan story from Hindu mythology, the churning of the ocean of milk, with the gods and demons pitted against each other. Vasuki the divine serpent serves as the rope that spins the mountain Mandara, which is the churning post. The serpent spits poison. The world is at risk. But the prize is the nectar of immortality.

Is there a better prize in all the universe? In the end, even in some small way, isn’t that what we’re after?

As Marion Dane Bauer says:

What do you do when the answer is “No”? You listen.

You rethink. You re-envision. You revise. You keep on churning. Because maybe, just maybe, the nectar of immortality will rise up from that ocean.