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.
Manu Patel, Mars to everyone, is one of a motley crew of outsiders at H.G. Wells Middle School in the Seattle area. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is the first of a three-book series by Sheela Chari, based on an award-winning podcast from Gen-Z Media.
Sheela Chari’s opening title is charming, engaging, spot-on for middle grade voice and eccentricity. I asked Sheela if she’d tell me more.
[UK] You’ve ventured to the borders of the known world in this project. How does one go about novelizing a podcast? What parameters did you have to stick with and what was the extent of your creative freedom?
[SC] The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is an original podcast that spans 3 seasons, created by Gen-Z Media. The Mars team did a fantastic job of bringing their story to life in podcast form, with kids around the world tuning in to find out what happens next as Mars and his pals search for their missing friends while encountering the mysterious billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt.
When I first came on board to novelize this popular series, I asked myself the same question — how do I take a high-action audio drama and turn it into a book? Some lucky things I had going for me: I had the entire plot laid out, season to season. The other lucky thing is that I had support from the Mars Patel team to take the story and make it my own. This meant I was free to explore these characters, their backstories, and even make adjustments to the storyline to make the novel work.
Still…I had some choices to make: where does the story start in time? How do we hear the voices of these characters who are so strong and distinct in the podcast? And how does Oliver Pruitt, who narrates the podcast, play a role in the novel? Eventually, I wrote the story in third person and I gave everyone a chance to tell some of the story, though we stay mainly with Mars. I also relied on texting messages, podcast transcripts, and comments to give us a flavor of how the characters speak with each other and over social media. This was hands down, the most fun I had in writing this book! I loved writing the group texts between Mars, Caddie, JP and Toothpick — with just a few lines I was able to show how they think and communicate. I also loved the sections where podcast fans could leave comments for their hero, Oliver Pruitt. As the novel progresses, their comments gradually change form adoration to suspicion as it dawns on them that Oliver Pruitt might not be the person he says he is.
In terms of the plot, I tried to stay as faithful as I could to the original story. Fans of the podcast who pick up this book will recognize all the key moments. This way the reader and the listener will arrive at the same place by the end of Book 1 and Season 1. But I also wanted to give readers something extra — the backstories of the core characters, to show us why Mars, JP, Caddie, and Toothpick do what they do, and why they remain so fiercely loyal to each other. Lastly, it was a joy to set the book in Washington State, where I’m from. People who live or have visited the area will recognize elements of the Puget Sound in Mars’ fictitious hometown of Port Elizabeth.
[UK] What came easily to you in writing this first series title? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate?
[SC] Any mystery writer will tell you that the hardest part in writing a mystery novel is the plot. I didn’t have the problem! The whole plot was given to me from start to finish. Which really allowed me focus on the characters and the storytelling. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create the character of Oliver Pruitt on paper.
In the podcast, Oliver Pruitt is the narrator. Listeners will realize early on that Oliver Pruitt is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling the story but he’s also part of it, and he’s constantly disrupting the lives of the main characters. Also, part of his charm is that you never know if he is a good guy or not. In the novel, Oliver Pruitt is not the narrator, but his podcasts are an integral part of the story. In the transcripts, not only do we get a flavor for Oliver’s personality, but I weave in clues that he’s signaling to the reader. Which is why it’s important to read the podcast sections carefully along with the rest of the book!
[UK] It’s so great to see this mystery/adventure for kids with a South Asian American protagonist. Your thoughts on representation? How did you feel bringing Mars Patel to the page?
[SC] When I sat down to write my first mystery novel, VANISHED, it was very important to me that the mystery involved an Indian-American in the chief detective role. Which is how Neela, the main character, operated throughout the book. Her Indian heritage was important but remained in the background of the mystery. In the Mars Patel novel, I had similar ideas in mind. I was very drawn to Mars because he shares my South Asian heritage: his mother is from India. On the other hand, it was important that his heritage did not overshadow the plot. As one of my daughters said to me recently, she wants to be able to see Indian-American characters in movies and books who get to do all the same amazing things that their white counterparts do without focusing so much on cultural and ethnic differences. That’s how I see this book — showing us all the ways Mars is like any other American child growing up. His mother, Saira Patel, occasionally speaks in Hindi, she lights a diya in prayer, and some of the foods she mentions are Indian. She plays a larger role in the subsequent books, and in her, I see important moments that reveal her cultural heritage and how it shapes her character. To me, that strikes the right balance between Indian and American.
[UK] Every book teaches the writer something. What did writing this book teach you?
This project involved inheriting characters I knew nothing about. They were given to me and I met them like you might meet a stranger at a party. Which means I had to really spend time getting to know them inside out. In a strange way, it forced me to become more empathetic, to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had to dig deep to imagine their backgrounds and memories, and even, to figure out how they speak.
I think it’s important for all writers to find new ways to enliven our craft. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing the same stories or thinking about characters in the same way. In her ground-breaking book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron speaks of filling the well, of finding activities and experiences that reinvigorate us as artists. Writing this series was definitely an invigorating experience for me. I know I will carry the ideas I learned from this book— on dialogue, on making my characters more inclusive, and thinking outside the box when it comes to finding missing things.
[UK] Thank you, Sheela! Happy trails to you and Mars and his pals!
I try to take a class every couple of years, maybe just to prove that my aging brain can still handle new ideas. And I happen to be struggling with a new novel that, despite my best efforts to turn it into prose, seems insistent on showing up in the form of mostly free verse mixed in with a range of poetic forms. So I signed up, and asked Cordelia if she’d talk to me ahead of the class.
[UK] What led you to the verse novel as a form?
[CJ] What led me to the verse novel was the instruction of our mutual friend, Coe Booth. Coe was my first advisor at VCFA. I had arrived my first semester with a Middle Grade camp story I was very excited about…and then…well…Coe was, um, let’s just say far less excited about my camp story than I was! I got frustrated and sent her a series of “family poems” I had worked on for years, ever since my father died of AIDS in 1994. I sent her 5 of these.
She said, “Oh my gosh Cordelia! This is what you need to be writing. Have you ever heard of a YA verse novel?” I had not. She changed the course of my career—and my life—because she introduced me to this form. I then worked on my first published verse novel—Skyscraping—for the rest of my time at VCFA. It was bought by Penguin less than a year after I graduated from the program. I fell head over heels in love with the form and I then went on to publish two more—The Way the Light Bends, also published by Philomel/Penguin—and a hybrid prose/verse novel I co-authored with fellow VCFA grad Laurie Morrison, entitled Every Shiny Thing (Amulet/Abrams.)
[UK] What led you to teach the form?
[CJ] I have taught creative writing in a variety of settings—at a bookstore with kids and teens, with undergrads at Bryn Mawr College, with high schoolers at Germantown Friends School, with adults at The Writing Barn and now Highlights—in each of the setting I either incorporate verse novels in one lesson of the semester or focus an entire class on verse novels. I teach the form not just because I love to write it though; I teach it because it is experimental and complex and asks readers (and writers) to rethink how stories can be told.
[UK] For myself, I don’t always know how a form will limit a story or free it up until I’ve dug into it for a while, turned the compost heap a few times, so to speak. What’s your approach to teaching writers to open their minds to the nature of the verse novel?
[CJ] I think verse novels challenge the author with very specific limitations—such as, how do I create three-dimensional secondary characters with much less access to dialogue? How do I show action when so much of verse is internal? How do I create a cohesive plot from a series of strung together snapshots of moments? Many authors have come up with creative solutions to the limitations of this hybrid form. There are also a lot of liberations found in the form—like using white space to create story tension or font play to emphasize certain emotions or words which can help develop character. There are parts of writing in verse that can be really freeing and fun and experimental. Most people who take a verse novel class are already excited about the form and ready to play!
[UK] I’m fascinated by your framework of image systems. In fact, as you know, I signed up for your class, hoping to use its energy to help me think through a work in progress that shall remain lovingly unnamed for now. What can you tell me about images and their power in driving a verse novel?
[CJ] I’m so honored you’re taking my class! I don’t want to give too much class content away, but I will say that I do think that because poetry spotlights imagery, if you change the way the character reflects or interacts with the same kind of image through the course of the story, you can reveal character growth in a more dramatic way I think than regular novels can. This, I believe, is what helps to make successful verse novels feel so emotional. My favorite example of this is the image of the papaya in Thanhaa Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again. There are also specific factors to consider when you choose an image system for your main character, including age, worldview, and psychosocial development.
[UK] The verse novel is an ancient form (think Homer and Beowulf) and it’s still evolving! What advice would you give to writers wanting to try it out, see where it might take them?
“Within these definitions of ‘novel’ and ‘verse,’ there is flexibility. The form doesn’t change book to book, but each author’s interpretation of the form creates a wide range of word and page counts. Authors are often playful in using a combination of poetry forms and devices interchangeably with free verse… In a sense, it is up to each author to forge a path with their verse novel…Verse novel authors, who are at the forefront of their own evolving genre, are really the ones who best understand what their work represents and where it’s going.”
[UK] Thanks, Cordelia! I look forward to your October class so I can find new ways to see the story I seem to have on my hands!
Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. “We don’t live in silos,” she says. In this interview with journalist and radio show host Nahlah Ayed, Ahenkora talks about her childhood reading, the challenges faced by publishers in African countries and her wake-up moment after reading Nancy Drew and confessing to well-meaning adults that she’d decided then and there to become a detective.
Ahenkora speaks of a book famine in Africa. She asks:
What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?
And when the marketplace is flooded with free book donations from the developed world, all glossy and beautifully finished, how can local entrepreneurs hope to compete? In 2008, she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children’s literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.The interview raises great questions and showcases the voice of a woman with an important and necessary vision.
Years ago, I came across a YA novel titled Rama: A Legend by a writer who called himself Jamake Highwater. Even back then, in the 1990’s, I wondered how come someone with a Native American-sounding name, writing about mostly Native subjects in an authoritative sounding voice, would choose to turn his attention to a retelling of the Ramayana. I didn’t know any Native writers personally at the time, but it seemed odd, somehow.
What gave this man, I wondered, the authority to fictionalize the Ramayana? Still, he seemed to bear the stamp of approval from the publishing world. The book was published by Henry Holt. Publishers Weekly called it “an authentic adaptation and abridgment of the original for an American audience,” so who was I to quibble? Anyway, over the years, I became preoccupied with other subcontinental story tropes being hijacked and hopelessly hacked, to great approval in the very market I was trying to submit to. Who had the time to worry about Jamake Highwater?
Later I heard there was something scandalous about him, something to do with his lack of authenticity, but I didn’t pay too much attention. Hoaxes of this kind had been in the air for decades, it seemed, witness The Education of Little Tree.
Then recently, pottering around the Internet, while avoiding the novel that has been beating me over the head, I stumbled upon this article in Indian Country Today. Excerpt:
In 1984, Hank Adams (the Native American activist) sent an astounding exposé on the “Indian expert” Jamake Mamake Highwater that we published in the pages of Akwesasne Notes. (Vine Deloria acted as a go-between to get it published and Suzan Harjo did some research.) What Hank Adams had uncovered was that the Native American author (who claimed Blackfoot/Cherokee heritage), a noted intellectual, a recipient of Ford Foundation grants and major publishing contracts, was not a Native American at all, but a writer named J Marks (J, Jay or Jack Marks, born Jackie Marks).
Adams’s exposé was published in 1984. A decade later, in 1997, I may have been seeing the shapeshifting efforts of a man who was trying to retool the focus of his authority from Native traditions to Southeast Asian ones with a fictionalization of the Ramayana. Was it based on sources from Java or Bali, or maybe on the Thai Ramakien? I don’t remember and none of the reviews still available saw fit to mention a source.
A cautionary tale, this. A reminder that fakery has been with us for years. In our children’s book industry, it can leave long lasting footprints.
A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.
I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:
Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.
A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.
Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion,terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.
At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.
It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.
Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.
When lightning killed 323 reindeer in a remote region of Norway, the park left them in place where they’d fallen, allowed decomposition to set in, so scientists could study it and see how it might change the arctic tundra ecosystem. One element of the Guardian article surprised me, and that was the use of the term, “landscape of fear.” The researchers talked about how solemn it felt to approach a place where so many lives had been snuffed out all at once.
Over the years scientists observed the bloated, fly-infested bodies turn into dry skeletons. The latest paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in June, looked at the creation of a “landscape of fear”, as top predators such as wolverines, golden eagles and arctic foxes took advantage of the carrion.
But then, another surprise. Fear opened up to opportunity for other lives: first scavenger birds, then rodents, then insect-eaters–meadow pipit, northern wheatear, common reed bunting, bluethroat and lapland bunting.
And I loved the term they used for the insects, such as blowfly, that came to life on the carrion. A “bloom” of arthropods.
We don’t like to see rotting carcasses, do we? And yet, there are questions to be pondered in this event. What’s to be gained from letting nature take its course? What have we lost in a couple of centuries of hiding death away, refusing to see what we might learn from it?
In a way, this picture book about rewilding raises similar questions. It reverses the roles of humans and wild animals in a humorous fracturing of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. As in the field of dead reindeer, there’s a very real moment of fear, and it’s equally well earned.
The delightful resolution lies, as it should, in human hands. Wouldn’t it be great if we humans could step up as the child in this story does? If we could only do what’s necessary? Too me, it’s particularly gratifying that the joy of Grey’s book lies in her deliberately “de-composing” an old fairy tale trope, and then re-composing it to create newly possible realities. Slender ones, but still, blooms of possibility.
The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.
[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?
[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.
I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.
[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?
Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen
[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!
As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.
[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?
[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.
The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.
[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).
Growing up in India, I sensed, long before I had words to express it, that caste and its realities were at glaring odds with the secular, liberal democratic society the country seemed on the way to forging. I used to think that if I ignored caste, it would somehow go away. As a society, in my lifetime, we would surely come to see what a terrible thing it was, how unjust, how divisive. We would, I imagined, outgrow it.
How wrong I was.
Now Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is nudging me to think of caste, the concept, to use it as a lens for looking at power and privilege, oppression and history, in the country to which I immigrated back on 1979.
“So much of the history that we have received, as Americans, has been from a singular perspective, and we are only now beginning to hear the voices of people who have been in the shadows–not seen, not heard. And that means we have not had the full history. We have not had the full experience of knowing what the complete picture is of our country…”
She looked at India, and at Nazi Germany, trying to understand how institutionalized hierarchy uses the language of oppression. No coincidence that the Nazis studied Jim Crow laws, or that Martin Luther King, Jr., on his famous visit to India in 1959, suddenly found himself thinking that he himself was a kind of untouchable in his own country.
Wilkerson says, “This is the house that we have inherited.” I am presuming, then, as a woman who left India for America, to lay claim to more than one house. They are both crumbling structures, and Wilkerson has convinced me that caste has been foundational to them both. She, however, sees “caste” as a more useful term than race, because to her, it’s simply descriptive. It doesn’t come loaded with emotional baggage. Me? I think that long-lasting damage wreaked in the name of caste and caste divisions, the crimes committed–all of it still exists. At this moment, one of my countries is waking up to the existence of this wound upon its being–the other, alas, is leaning into the structure of caste. That structure may, in fact, be more adaptable, and therefore more malleable and capable of manipulation, than Dr. King could have foreseen in 1959.
Here is the debut offering from an exciting new press—Levine Querido—notable in contemporary children’s and YA publishing for the minds behind it and for its focus on building a platform for previously underrepresented voices.
Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri is autobiographical. It’s fiction. It’s history. It’s memory. It’s truth. Spanning three continents and carrying influences from a 6,000-year old history, it is told in the sharp yet tender voice of a young narrator and his adult self. Sad without being sentimental, this is no memoir about becoming American. Instead, it elevates complexity, hunts it down in past and present and makes us look it in the eye–family history, the personal traumas of being a refugee, the experiences of generations who have lived in an ever-changing world, and the intricacies of inherited myth. Truth? Lies? Where does memory fall?
But this isn’t an intellectual exercise in pushing the limits of a memoir, either. The story grabs readers and tosses them into the narrator’s life, starting at three with the slaughter of a bull, a normal family, and a larger than life grandfather, Baba Haji. But also Scheherazade and an entire mythic history and poetry and politics and a thousand sensory images. You, reader, suggests Nayeri, you’re the king, and these are tales of marvel. Then he upends the expectations, switches time and place, and we’re hanging on for the ride. Poop stories, God (or not), what it feels like to be sutured without anesthesia, a toy sheep weighted with the longings of childhood, Pringles chips as symbols of welcome. As welcome as is this book, with its multiple layers and its fierce refusal to accept a hyphenated American status for its characters, choosing instead to embrace their humanity.