Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

IMG_2076It is hard to believe that this book was published in 2012. The borders it crosses are at once of some imagined tomorrow and emphatically of now, now, now. Opening in a bleak near-future Vermont landscape, the novel introduces the reader to young Radley. She arrives home from a service trip to Haiti, only to find that the American People’s Party has won the election and is in power in the United States, and her parents have gone missing. After hunkering down for a while, terrorized, in her home, hiding from police who, she believes, are after her, she decides to head north.


Just take a look at the concluding passage on this page–the escape to Canada, the metal guardrail, the relief of the crossing. It could be about border-crossings today, northward crossings we never thought we’d see in our time.

The realities of 2017 have at times had the effect of making me feel utterly useless. I’ve questioned whether there is anything to be gained by the work I do, even questioned my belief that somehow, in my small way, I can try to make the world a better place.

One could quibble that the plot in this book turns too easily, or that allies show up a little too readily, or even that Rad’s greatest loss is a touch predictable. But Karen Hesse‘s Safekeeping gave me a little jolt of something completely necessary and vitally important. A kind of sweetness, like that of the girl she writes about, hungry for human contact and learning to trust her own best instincts. It reminded me of the strange and mysterious power of fiction to speak to reality. And in the end, it’s the remarkable prescience in the storyline that kept me turning the pages.


On Constitution Day

wethepeopleSeptember 17 is Constitution Day in the United States of America. The blessings of liberty. A more perfect Union. You know, those rather remarkable ideals.

This year marks the 230th anniversary of that famous original signing.

In 2017, oddly enough, the time seems ripe to revisit that venerable document, given that justice, freedom and the rest of those tropes have been, to put it mildly, under siege lately.

wethekidsIn the year of its publication, 2005, David Catrow‘s picture book rendition of the Preamble, We the Kids, seemed mildly amusing. Today, the satirical pointer of its cartoon-style illustration, combined with the actual words of the Preamble, sheds a light on very current events. Its small domestic picture book scope can be turned onto what we hear in the daily news. It seems weirdly prescient.

The question is, of course, are enough grownups worrying?


Just Get on a Slope

The lessons may have gotten off to a rare and beautiful start, but my (real-life, not fictional) bike-riding saga then proceeded to run into all kinds of setbacks this summer–travel, houseguests, plummeting self-confidence, dead household appliances, no time, questioning the sanity of the endeavor, and so on. The rest unraveled at the speed of a piece of writing coming apart at the seams. The bike sat in the garage, its presence only serving to lower my belief in the entire project.

Does this sound like writing to you?

Today I forced myself to put the helmet on, because once I have done that and wheeled the bike out into the cul-de-sac, there is no going back. It’s akin to turning the computer on and forcing myself to look at yesterday’s draft of the nonfiction work I’m in the thick of at the moment. Then I walked the bike down to the park. I confess I thought it best to get in the saddle a couple of blocks away from home, where I’d be making a fool of myself in the presence of strangers rather than neighbors.

I got on, and managed to navigate a more or less straight line to the end of the paved trail. Great, I thought. I’ll just ride back and repeat. But back was ever so slightly uphill and somehow my best efforts tanked. Several wobbles later, it was perfectly plain that things were not going well. Breathe. Handlebars. Focus. Brakes at the ready. Kick off. Nope-nope-nope. All I got for my pains was a lot of tipping and stalling.

Then the woman bagging her recycling in the house across the road called out, “It’ll be easier if you just get on a slope and ride down.”

Oh. It sounded logical. Why couldn’t I see that on my own? For the same reason, perhaps, that I can’t see the forest for the trees in my own writing.

“Let the bike roll down on its own,” she said. “Really.”

I did. It worked.

I walked the thing back to the other end. Piece of cake. Well, almost but almost was good enough. Walked up. Rode down. Again. And again. It wasn’t always perfect. Twice, I ended up on the grass. But I put in my half-hour. Ten repeats, and I felt halfway capable of doing it all over again tomorrow.

Getting back to the work in progress, I decided to apply the lessons of the day. I read my partial chapter from yesterday looking for a slope to ride down. I found the single paragraph that I knew instinctively would give me momentum. I began writing there, keeping that energy going, pedaling through while keeping my eyes on the horizon of the chapter’s vision. It worked. I made it to the end. It’s not perfect, but it’s moving along. And more to the point, rolling to the end in this way leaves me feeling capable of tackling the work again tomorrow.

It’s all in the mind, but when you harness the gravity of your own draft, you’re letting the words carry you along the natural slope of the work’s landscape. As with a swale that channels flowing water, downhill is sometimes the best way.

It is Time to be Alarmed

Last week I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I thought I’d be depressed. After all, I’ve seen the Al Gore charts in the original movie. I know the facts. I feel helpless to do anything about them.


NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS imagery from NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory

But I watched this one with Houston and the Caribbean fresh in my mind, along with the uncomfortable awareness that while North American eyes were first on Texas and then on Florida, 45 million people were affected by floods in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. And I felt a curious consolation that Gore, in his journey to understanding, somehow gets this global perspective. The image of the blue marble, Earth, made me think long and hard. When are we going to get beyond boundaries of nationality and language, politics and borders? What will it take to make us quit flag-waving and nationalistic jingoism? How many floods will it take? How much drought? How many climate change refugees?

Last year saw the publication of a nonfiction book about climate change for teens. In It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Past, Present and Future of Climate Change, Bridget Heos tackles the issue of global warming head-on for a teen audience. In a review of this title from last year, Publishers Weekly says:

Heos (Stronger than Silk) doesn’t mince words in this self-described “call to action,” as she clearly and effectively details the greenhouse effect, the ice ages and mass extinctions of Earth’s history, the scientific evidence behind climate change, the ways human activities contributes to it, and the politicization of the topic.

So there. Talk to your politicians. Talk to each other. Get the dirt on oil in your neighborhood and your community. Find out who’s blocking alternative energy. Find an environmental NGO to support. At the very least, go to the United Nations site and offset your carbon emissions for the last year. It is time to be alarmed.




Swale: A Word for and of the Land

Years ago, an uncle of mine, D.V. Sridharan, started the crazy, impossible, madcap project of restoring a wasteland in a rural area near the city of Chennai in India, and turning it into a sustainable farm. The reason this has anything to do with my own crazy, impossible, madcap occupation, writing books for children, is that his endeavor too had to do with words.


Oxford, England

Words like “swale”: Roll it on your tongue. How round and beautiful it is. How it creates a resonance in the air. Swale. A low tract of land contiguous with higher ground, a swale follows the contour line, so it catches water when it rains. Holding the blessing of spring rains or the rush of a monsoon shower, the swale in turn recharges underground water sources. Streams flow. The slope grows green.



Mesa, AZ

In the tropics or desert, during the dry season, aquifers and wells can remain refreshed from the renewal made possible by the shape of the land.

Swale. The thing is as magical as its name.

The name of that restoration project was “point Return.” The capitals were intentionally placed, intentionally withheld. The point, Sridharan said, was to return. To come back again and again to the places and the ideas that give us sustenance and hope, that are generative and regenerative in nature, that keep us going, that lead to a larger sense of who “we” are.

The project went through its own cycles of success and experimentation, setbacks and failure. Today there is a school on the land and the original hope has been handed off to others. This is the way with story as well. Consider this narrative report my uncle posted about the effect of Gandhi’s teachings on one man’s life.

Thinking of story as cyclical in nature rather than linear, with a beginning, middle and end, changes everything. The swale may run from Point A to Point B, but the way the water follows it anything but linear. The possibility of returning reminds me to stop rushing after answers, grabbing the first one that comes along. It allows me instead to live with questions.

I am happy to say that I have managed to make a modest career out of living with questions.

Goodbye, Dayton Bookings and Hello, Artglass

IMG_9675Jean Dayton has been putting authors and illustrators together with their audiences for a whopping 18 years! I had the good fortune to work with her for ten of those years. Jean booked me gigs in places as varied as Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, California, Hong Kong, Singapore, and India. She made it easier for me to travel to schools and communities and to present at conferences. She took care of all kinds of details that my mind could not wrap itself around–travel and itineraries, time commitments and audience size, contracts and payment. She sent me emails and texts along the way to make sure all was well.

Now Jean Dayton is closing her business, Dayton Bookings, and retiring. I got to talk with her about this transition in her life.

[Uma] First of all, happy retirement! You’ve been booking speaking gigs for writers and artists for quite a while. Tell me about what you see yourself doing in your newly found leisure time.

[Jean] Thanks, Uma, for your good wishes on my retirement!  I’ve been toying with the idea for a year or two and finally decided that the time was right to leave my booking days behind and begin to pursue some of my other interests.  I’ve been a Rotarian for 16 years — almost as long as I’ve been a booking agent.  And, in fact, it was my job as a booking agent that opened doors for me in Rotary International.  For years, I’ve given an annual holiday talk to service groups suggesting great book gifts for ages 2 through 92.  Following a talk that I gave to a group in Stillwater, MN, the president stepped up and asked me if I’d like to join them.  Rotary is a group that encompasses many of the things most important to me:  literacy, world peace, health and wellness, and international exchange.  It was a perfect fit!  I’ve been as active as my work schedule would allow me to be for 16 years.  Now that I’m retired, I’ve taken on a role in my district as  Foundation educator which will entail speaking to 36 clubs throughout central and southern Indiana about the important work that Rotary does around the world and at home.  I’m just delighted to have the time to do this and to give back to an organization that has meant so much to me over the years.

[Uma] Sounds great! But you’re also starting to create art of your own. Talk about that if you will. You spent years exploring other people’s creative impulses—linking people with the organizations who know or want to know their work. What does that experience mean to you now as you explore your own artistic abilities?

IMG_9067[Jean] Yes, I established a new business as I retired my old one.  I’m now an entrepreneurial artist working under the name “Lakeside Artglass.”  During a trip last spring, I discovered a wonderful mixed-media format of using broken glass shards on painted canvas and sealing it all with resin.  Although I’m incapable of drawing so much as a stick figure, I’ve always had a keen sense of color and design and this format allows me to play around with broken and recycled glass as well as fossils and rocks from our lakeside property.

For years, I worked with wonderful authors and artists as I booked them into schools and libraries around the world.  Story has always been important to me and linking students and educators with fine stories and storytellers was extremely rewarding.  Through my artwork, I feel like I get to join the community of visual storytelling.

[Uma] Of course, story is in everything we live and imagine. Can we talk about the process of creating and developing it? I know how that can work in writing–drafting, revising, and finally letting the work go into the world. How does that work when the materials are glass and natural found objects?


Passionflower vine by Jean Dayton

[Jean] I find myself looking for images everywhere now that I can create in glass and stone.  Because I live on a beautiful lake in southern Indiana, I am surrounded by woods and water and have the opportunity to take in the lake beauty daily.  Many of my pieces are of sailboats on the water, trees and flowers from around Lake Monroe or butterflies and dragonflies that thrive in our garden.  Since I’m using broken glass as my medium, I piece things together as though they came from a puzzle — although it’s a puzzle with no concrete solution!  I just shift the pieces until they suit me before sealing it all in artist’s resin.


Seagarden by Jean Dayton

[Uma] You were a part of nurturing the community of writers and artists who work in children’s and YA publishing. Many of us who worked with you also became colleagues and friends over the years, in other contexts. Do you have an arts community now?

[Jean] I was very fortunate to establish a partnership with a local gallery owner last year.  Gabe Colman from The Venue in Bloomington, Indiana is displaying my work in his downtown gallery.  He’s an enthusiastic supporter of local work and sponsored an exhibit called “The Art and  Soul of Bloomington” in July of this year.  It was my first experience in a juried art show and I was so grateful to have been accepted into the local community of artists.  Gabe will host a solo show for me in October with a gala opening on Friday, October 6.  I’m honored to be able to display my lakeside stories in his gallery.
[Uma] Thanks for all the years of advocacy and promotion, Jean, and good luck!

When Prejudice Becomes Normalized

When I was a neophyte writer, I was cautious and careful. I tried really hard not to offend anyone. I tried to be polite. I thought that if I took the high road, the low-roaders would give up. I believed the market place was big enough for me, and them, and a lot of others besides. I ignored inappropriate behavior, like the woman (whose name I have now mercifully forgotten) in a writing group in Maryland who asked me why I didn’t just write about “normal” kids, instead of these Indian ones with weird names whose families ate strange foods. Well, okay, I cried and left the group, never to return. But I figured that I wasn’t taking real abuse, just feeling a temporary sting from someone else’s ignorance. It wouldn’t kill me.

It didn’t. Some 20-odd books later, until quite recently, I’d managed to convince myself that things were getting better in our little corner of the publishing universe.

Maybe not so, it turns out. Admittedly, I wasn’t part of the original Twitter debate (too old, too slow, too much writing energy needed for actual writing) but it’s been impossible to ignore all the discussions and counter-arguments, calls for greater insight and understanding, and more. Surprisingly, some commentators admit to not having read the book that sparked the whole thing.

In light of all that, and particularly in light of Charlottesville now make an eloquent case for more debate, not less.

dimplerishiThey quote Sandhya Menon, author of  When Dimple Met Rishi:

“When people who’ve historically held positions of privilege feel their privilege threatened, or like they won’t get a ‘free pass’ anymore, they can sometimes perceive that as reverse discrimination rather than an evening out of the playing field.”

And so it is in reality. Only now there’s another factor at play. Prejudice has become normalized in the United States of America. That is the truth–no other sides to this reality. And the world of YA books, it seems, is not so tidily sheltered from the real world, after all.

Through a Stranger’s Eyes

I am revising a draft this month. It took me a long time to settle into it and I can see why I had so much trouble. I’d taken a break from it. It was a necessary break but the time away affected my ability to see the work as I needed to.

I am of the Peter Elbow school in this regard, believing that you “can’t possibly revise without stopping and thinking hard about what you really mean, about what you are trying to accomplish–even if you think you already made those decisions.” What this means is that I can’t go back to the work with my tidy, organizing mind in place, looking only to tie up loose ends and fill in the gaps. This work calls for something deeper. I have to read as if I were someone else. A stranger to the work.

Just as music superimposed on a picture changes our experience of it, that stranger’s mind, cultivated deliberately, allows me to see what I could not before. I revisit my own words, mostly scanning them silently but reading them out loud if I find myself speeding up too much.

longhand1In between, I stop and write questions to myself in a notebook, using a fountain pen with its ink chosen with obsessive care. This pacing, in turn reading, writing, and thinking, is important. It’s not a waste of time. It’s part of a practice that needs to become purposeful and meditative if it’s going to produce any results at all. It’s circular. I may forget in between projects that I will need to return to this kind of intense revision more than once in the life of every work.

Slowly, over several days, I find I’m becoming aware of each sentence, weighing it for meaning, the way I would do if it were not my own. At the same time, I’m looking beyond the sentences. Looking for where the work seems to be pointing. To the gaze within it, as it were. Who is looking where in the pictures that my words are trying to create? How am I, the writer, looking back?

It’s a tiring process. Sometimes it seems opaque and irrelevant. I have to keep telling myself that this is the way I work.

It’s not for everyone. But it is my way. Remember the words of the Billy Collins poem, First Reader?

Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.

Every time I revise I have to relearn how to look–beyond the words to the beating heart of the story underneath.

Consider the World

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes:

I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.

eclipse2A major celestial event like today’s solar eclipse should give us all pause, should make us “consider the world” in this way. It should make us a little uneasy, with a persisting sense of how small we are and how very big the universe is, and how easily we could throw it all away. eclipse3


Images of the solar eclipse through a pinhole, a little south of the line of totality.







Wendy Mass’s characters in her middle grade novel, Every Soul a Star, grapple in this way with their places in the world. It’s an interesting novel to read now, because it was published back in 2008 when the dilemmas facing the world were rather different from today. And because the entire storyline leans forward, way forward, all the way to August 21, 2017. everysoulastarTo now, this day, the day of the Great American Eclipse.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of three teenaged characters–Ally, Bree, and Jack–the novel is set in a place that is close to nowhere, the Moon Shadow Campground in rural Oregon, a home as transitory as the eclipse itself and as loaded with meaning. A home that is smack dab in the path of totality. The skies are “dark and wide” here, a suitable home for a girl whose soul is tethered to the sky, a latter-day comet-hunter.

Some things have changed since the book was published–texting was still new back then, for example, and both the lure and the tyranny of social media were yet to come. Gender roles have been challenged since then and the challenges threatened all over again. All of which leads the text to travel quite well beyond its original time, in my opinion. There is much to consider here–the family history that ties Ally to the place, the lucid dreams that offer Jack, struggling with weight and family issues, an escape from reality. Even Bree, whose shallowness is initially annoying, acquires an emotional corona of sorts by the end.

Then there’s the eclipse itself. By giving us many ways to look at the lives of people leading into this single event, Mass manages to convey a whole worldview. Here’s a peek:

“…comparing what you see during an eclipse to the darkness at night is like comparing an ocean to a teardrop.”

and another:

I get to my feet and walk into the sun dial. “Show me where I stand.”

and a few more:

The pockmarked face of the moon stares back at me, enormous and bright. It doesn’t look anything like it does hanging above us in the sky. It’s so beautiful and mysterious and powerful. This enormous rock controls so much of whathappens on our planet. The tides, for one, and indirectly, the weather. I’m struck by the perfect way the universe fits together…

Now, in five hours, barring the end of the world, the moon will obliterate the sun.”

The pearly white corona suddenly streams out from behind the dark moon in all directions, pulsing, looping, swirling, glowing, a halo of unearthly light. I feel like I could die from the beauty of it.

There it is again–mystery and unease all wrapped up in one. As Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem unread during her lifetime:

It sounded as if the Streets were running
And then — the Streets stood still —
Eclipse — was all we could see at the Window
And Awe — was all we could feel.

Lean in to Kindness

When terrorist planes attacked the Twin Towers and the United States shut down its airspace, tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland stepped up and did its part. The Canadian airport opened its runways, managing to accommodate 38 wide-body planes on transatlantic routes.

But what about the 7,000 passengers? Nobody knew who exactly was on those planes. Rumors abounded. There could be criminals among those passengers.

Nonetheless, the people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages took them into their schools and community spaces, their churches and their kitchens. This, of course, is the inspiration for the musical, Come From Away, about to embark on a major North American tour.

It’s easy to fall in love with the warmth and generosity of the characters in the show. As the CBC episode points out, what conflict there is in the show is external to the main storyline.

The show…hinges on the incomprehensible brutality of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the theme of Come From Away is kindness, and the richness of human interaction when generosity is reflexive. It’s all about the opposite of conflict, thus breaking the law of dramatic tension.

All of which leads me to think about kindness in children’s books. John Frank’s collection of poems, Lend a Hand, explores generosity and giving in a child-sized world. From sandwiches to seats, puppies to trees, the poems speak of children sharing, giving of themselves through acts of kindness.

invisibleboy.jpgTrudy Ludwig’s The Invisible Boy, illustrated by Patrice Barton, is another gentle rendering of a small act of kindness with large consequences. One of the loveliest elements in the book is how the boy Brian changes from one spread to the next, slowly becoming more real with the increasingly visible use of color in the art.

It’s true. Kindness grows us. It allows us to be and to become. Unkindness belittles those who give it and those who receive it.

samesunhereAnd finally, here is an epistolary novel that is even more relevant today than when it was first published a few years ago: Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. The fictional correspondence between Meena, an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, and River, a Kentucky coal miner’s son, points the way to how two young people can take small, incremental steps toward each other, finding common ground against all odds. Here is the opening of Meena’s first letter:

Dear River,

I cannot tell from your name if you are a boy or a girl so I will just write to you like you are a human being.

and here is an honest and curiously touching passage from River’s reply:

I have never met anybody from New York City before. I’ve always heard that people from up there are real rude and will not hold the door for you, and you’ll get mugged if you walk down the street. Is this true? My mamaw says it is probably a stereotype, which I looked up in the dictionary and it means “an oversimplified opinion.” She also said to remember the Golden Rule, which she says a lot. She is real big on the Golden Rule, which is from the Bible, I guess. I don’t have time to look it up right now. Do you believe in the Bible? Since you are an Indian, I don’t really know.

Since 2013 when Same Sun Here was published, much has changed in the United States. Where the Gander story indicates there is a kinder, gentler worldview to be had in the north, the election in House and Vaswani’s book is altogether different from that of today’s reality. If River and Meena were real people, could they even bear to write to one another today?

But they are not real, and therein lies the power of a book. Within its pages, we can recreate the world and right its wrongs. And perhaps too, we can learn (or relearn) to lean in to kindness.