Arushi Raina on When Morning Comes

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Photo © Nidhi Raina

Meet Arushi Raina, Canadian author of When Morning Comes, a YA historical novel set in South Africa at the time of the Soweto student uprising. I had a chance to trade emails with Arushi about writing in multiple voices, fiction vs. life, and the power of the children’s and YA writing community.
[Uma] What made you choose to tell this story the way you did–in multiple voices, and aimed at young readers?
[Arushi] More often than not, these artistic choices emerge when I realize the story I want to tell, in a pretty organic, or intuitive way. Some of this choice traces back to my growing up in South Africa, living with the narrative instability of a place that had just come out of apartheid and the diverse, often conflicting perspectives that different racial groups, genders, had in South Africa in the late 1990s. I grew up in a time when South Africa, and its people were trying to make sense of what, indeed Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” would be, and what to make of this country’s traumatic past.
 
And so no story I could tell of South Africa, could have one “true” narrator. At every point Jack, Zanele, Thabo and Meena’s perspectives interact, conflict, and grow from eachother. The plot, if you look closely, is solely based on the characters interactions from eachother, and the tensions between their different perspectives.
whenmorningcomes[Uma] You have said about this book, “To make it real, emotionally, I needed to fictionalize it.” Tell me what that means to you—what power does fiction hold for you?
[Arushi] I learned about the Soweto Uprising in Grade 10 History class in Johannesburg. At that time, that was maybe what I needed, understanding the facts, the first hand accounts, trying to put the timeline together, connect it with our school visits into Soweto, the Apartheid Museum. At the same time, however, non-fiction can have the affect of distancing us from the story. We are concerned about facts and objectivity – but sometimes these aspects cannot be experienced or felt. We are not following the path of a living, breathing person, in the way we typically access non-fiction. There are some exceptions, of course. Fiction, though, is very freeing. I am not trying to stick to the facts, only, to be objective. Instead, I’m trying to hit on a far more difficult thing – the emotional truth of the story, of the different stories and points of view that are in this story. How can I come to this emotional truth, with the tools I have in my hands?
[Uma] Grade 10 history class. That’s quite a timeline. Thank you for sharing that.
[Arushi] Thank you so much, as a writer yourself, for showcasing and supporting other writers. Its a small but mighty world, and I so appreciate your time, thoughtfulness and perspective.
[Uma] It’s my delight! But your comment leads me to another question. Generally, in the marketplaces of the real world, we think in terms of competition. Businesses that produce similar good or services compete with one another. In some ways, of course, that is true of writing and publishing as well. But writing is also an art and it’s a solitary pursuit. We spend quite a lot of time, let’s face it, talking to imaginary people. We’re at the mercy of our own minds! In that context, what does that notion of community mean to you? How do we participate in our literary marketplaces while still viewing other writers as community rather than competition?
[Arushi] For me, one of the most magical things that happened when I got published, was getting to meet other writers, and experiencing the kindness and generosity of writers, particularly children’s writers. I cannot even count the number of authors who have shared so much of their time, and supported me through my debut year. Some shout outs would include: RJ Anderson, Robin Stevenson, Adwoa Badoe, Rachel Hartman.
What I realized, really early on, is that writers are the best support for writers. And there’s a business rationale for this too: we live in a world where the literary marketplace is shrinking and consolidating. There are now a smaller percentage of diehard readers who read a lot. There are fewer publishing houses. You realize very early (particularly if you’re with a small publishing house) that other writers are going to be your biggest supports, your encouragement, the ones that shout out your work. In this way, they draw their readers to your work.  As a collective of writers, we’re trying to get everyone to buy and read more books, not to compete for a reader’s specific attention. The advice I give to writers who haven’t published yet is to build that support system of writing friends early on.
[Uma] Very true. I’m grateful myself to my book collective. Good luck and good writing, Arushi Raina!

“Espacio between my pigtails”: Language and Laughter in Juana and Lucas

JuanaandLucasOne of the challenges of writing across cultures is how to include languages other than English in your text without having to pause the narrative to explain what all those foreign words mean. As a writer, I don’t tend to think of my audience as primarily American or Indian, and I’ve sometimes had to deal with puzzled editorial comments. Of course, it’s the job of editors and copyeditors to aim for clarity, so the default solution in many books (not mine, I hasten to add) has often been the parallel, parenthetic translation.  Or the glossary. Or both. Not ideal. Parenthetic translations tend to make even a good text didactic, and they can manage to  edit one with potential right into oblivion. It’s enough to give anyone a headache in the espacio between their pigtails.

Juana Medina bursts through this challenge with uncommon entusiasmo. Her irrepressible child character, also named Juana, lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her parents and her canine best friend, Lucas.

The fictional Juana in this cheery chapter book loves fútbol, eating brussels sprouts, drawing, and Astroman. Math is a bit of a challenge, and as for The English, that takes our young hero completely by surprise. She finds the language mind-bendingly difficult—nada de fun! It isn’t until a family trip turns the linguistic tables yet again that Juana applies herself to English, and discovers that she can habla it just fine.

JuanaandLucas2.jpgMedina’s lighthearted first person text and lovably wacky illustrations topple the accepted parameters of familiar and foreign and make the reader laugh all the way to understanding. No glossary exists to suggest that reading this book is an academic task, and in fact none is needed. Every single Spanish word is completely comprehensible in the context of the carefully wrought sentences and paragraphs. By the time you take a breath to ask, “Now what did that mean?” the answer breezes into view like a charm.

Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award. Published by Candlewick Press. These comments are based on a copy borrowed from my local library.

Jacqueline Davies on Invisible Women Illustrators

The names we don’t mention matter as much as the names we do. Many of us know the feeling. A book conversation, and the names of the illustrious are among them. And after a while you start thinking, wait, something is wrong here. There are a lot of missing names.

Unknown.jpegIt’s especially ironic when the missing citations are of work that depends on its visibility, on being recognized on the page. It’s why the realization of writer Jacqueline Davies (The Boy Who Drew Birds, Nothing But Trouble) is worth paying attention to. She was at a lecture about illustration during which she had an experience, she says, similar to being infested by bed-bugs. An ickiness at an unpleasant realization:

About the presenter, she says:

He went to an elite art school. He studied. He learned. He graduated with distinction. He was consciously taught by the best of the best. And what he came away with after four years and $200,000—the knowledge he absorbed down to his cellular level—is that male artists matter and female artists hardly exist at all.

It’s an old story, right? Think about all the women missing from history as it’s typically been taught, their talents, when acknowledged, seen as inferior to that of the men they worked with.

Think of the missing women artists at MOMA.

The women whom science forgot.

But that was then, we might say. This is now. Where’s Wanda Gag on that list, and Beatrix Potter? Marla Frazee and Melissa Sweet and Suzy Lee?

If you made a list of gifted children’s book illustrators, who would be on it?

 

What I Learned from TeachingBooks.net

teachingbooks-logo-bookmark-smallTeachingBooks.net is a terrific resource for teachers, offering all kinds of information on books for young readers and the authors and illustrators who create them. They’ve been doing this for years. They started when the Internet was new and relatively uncluttered. One of the really useful tools they provide is a set of audio-recordings by authors and illustrators on how to pronounce their names. As someone with a long last name, one that may seem like an obstacle course to someone unfamiliar with it, I’ve been grateful for years to have my own little audio pronunciation guide on TeachingBooks.net.

And now I have new reason to be grateful to the good people at TeachingBooks.net, for inviting me to record brief audio about some of my books.  Listen! Here I am talking about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Book Uncle and Me, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Sure it’s nice promotion for my books. But there’s more to my gratitude that this. I expected I’d just take this on as a promo task, one of things you do because you know it’s good for your books but really, you’d rather be working on your new favorite book, the next one! But in preparing for the recordings, I found out something about writing and reading.

I’ve known for years how to write so that a book sounds credible when it’s read out loud. But in my mind, reading out loud has usually meant reading an entire picture book or a chapter or two of a novel. It’s easy to pick out passages from novels that work well for, say, a bookstore  reading or a reading at a VCFA residency, where I have anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

But TeachingBooks requested me to talk a little about a book, and read an excerpt–all within three minutes.  That meant the excerpt needed to be no more than 2 minutes long.

The picture book, naturally, posed no problem. The chapter book and the novel were another matter. All the passages I considered were either too long, or depended on the reader already knowing the background and context, or didn’t have a balance of dialogue and narrative, or didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. I realized that I needed all that for a reading of under two minutes. The opening scenes of both books came in at a little over three minutes so that wouldn’t do either.

I did manage to find a few passages that worked and was happy with the ones I ended up picking, but it made me think about how limitations of time and words can really push a writer not only to pick the best, strongest words possible but also to bring the underlying strength of a story to the surface.

The next time I revise a draft, I’ll keep this two-minute challenge in mind. I suspect it will help me spot and delete my more self-indulgent passages more efficiently.  Not that every scene needs to make the two-minute cut. But the prospect of reading a passage out loud within a limited amount of time isn’t a bad way to remain aware of the need for energy in a work in progress.

 

 

 

A 15-year-old Book and Menstrual Hygiene Day 2018

Yesterday was Menstrual Hygiene Day.

In among all the royal wedding hoopla, few remember that before she married into royalty, Meghan Markle wrote this piece for Time magazine on the need to combat the stigma of periods. Excerpt:

Imagine a world where the female leaders we revere never achieved their full potential because they dropped out of school at the age of thirteen. In the Western world this is challenging to fathom, but for millions of young women globally, this remains their harsh reality for a staggering reason. From sub-Saharan Africa to India, Iran, and several other countries, the stigma surrounding menstruation and lack of access to proper sanitation directly inhibit young women from pursuing an education.

Puberty is universal, and embarrassment is no reason for a girl to quit on herself.

periodpiecesOn my shelf is a middle grade short story collection titled Period Pieces: Stories for Girls. The stories were selected by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Embry Litchman. There are thirteen in all, among them “White Pants” by Linda Sue Park, “The Gentleman Cowboy” by Cynthia Leitich Smith, “A Family Sandwich” by Jane Kurtz, and my  own story, “The Gift.” I haven’t looked at this book in many years. Here’s an excerpt from Kris Litchman’s piece:

“All girls bleed. You can’t stop it.” Madeline certainly sounds positive.

“Don’t the boys have to bleed?”

“No.”

“That’s not fair!”

“That’s the way it is.”

Fifteen years later, this rather surreal short Hindi film from India poses that very  question: What if boys had periods? How would society handle them then?

If it’s uncomfortable viewing, that’s intentional. At long last, the world is being forced to deal with the inequities surrounding what should be a normal developmental life event.

Hannah Moderow on writing Lily’s Mountain

 

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All photos courtesy of the author

When Hannah Moderow was my student at VCFA, she worked on a novel about a girl, a missing father, and a mountain. Not just any mountain but the iconic Denali, the tallest in North America. Her early draft contained striking elements of truth and beauty. It was difficult and moving. It is always hard to use a novel close to your heart as the vehicle for learning how to write a novel, but Hannah was one of those students you dream of, the kind who never flinches from hard work.

author photo-smallerI asked Hannah to write a guest post on the writing and publication of Lily’s Mountain. Thank you and congratulations, Hannah!

My dream to publish a middle grade novel began when I was a middle grade reader. In elementary school, I fell hard in love with books like Charlotte’s Web, Summer of the Monkeys, and Tuck Everlasting.

I knew then that I wanted to be able to create this kind of magic: words on pages that had the power to take readers into an imaginary world that could hold them and captivate them, if only for a few enjoyable hours.

Brilliant teachers throughout my life told me to keep writing… that I could become a published writer someday.

Thankfully they didn’t tell me just how hard it is to get a book published.

Flash forward to my early 20s. I’d finished my undergraduate degree in English and I had a big fat middle grade manuscript sitting on my desk. I went to a few writing conferences, and editors encouraged me to submit work.

This was back in the early 2000s when you still had to mail manuscripts to publishing houses.

LilysmountainAfter a few rejections that took months to arrive, I decided on a very cold day in Denali that if this dream to publish a book would come true, I needed to know more. I could read books and revise my manuscript a million times, but I felt like I needed more instruction… more feedback, more lessons, or more of something.

That’s why I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

I’d always known there was magic in middle grade novels, but I never could have imagined how much magic I’d find at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For two years while pursuing my MFA, I was given the rare opportunity to indulge in the magic of writing. I worked with four different advisors over that time—including Uma!—and I read dozens of books each month while writing dozens of pages.

This was the one time in life where I was being told to play with words, play with stories, and revise, rewrite, and re-envision. Sometimes, my teachers told me my work was brilliant. Sometimes they told me to throw away everything I had just written and start over.

The best part was feeling that everyone in the program—teachers and students alike—seemed just as captivated by stories as I had always been, since those early days as an avid reader.

IMG_2154I started Lily’s Mountain while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). From first draft to publication, the book took eight years to write.

Eight years spanning crazy milestones in my life. When I started the novel, I lived with two girlfriends in a house—our first attempt at being grown-ups after college. Midway through my MFA, I met Erik, the man I would later marry. Not too long after that, Erik suffered a spinal cord injury throwing a major mountain in our life.

We pressed on, and Lily was a constant companion while we were living in Seattle for a few months when Erik was in the hospital. For me, Lily became not just an imaginary girl in my imaginary story. She was a fellow traveler in this journey called life. Lily’s character morphed over eight years, and so did I.

VCFA did not save me from rejections. Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there. I remained hopeful that someday this story about a girl and her missing father, and the mountain that stood between them, might offer a little magic to young readers.

47 editors might have rejected Lily, but the 48th said “yes.” That “yes” made the dream to have a published book a reality.

I always thought life would feel different once I had a published book. It’s not as different as you might think. I love writing just as much, and I love reading just as much.

For me, the best part of being a published writer is imagining kids out there, even if it’s just a few of them, who open the pages of Lily’s Mountain and get to experience a few hours of magic that made me so sure that I had to grow up to become a writer.

I’m forever grateful to my teachers and fellow writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts for telling me and showing me that it’s worth it to keep on writing…and bringing magical stories to life.

 

 

 

Ten Years of Magic with The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath coverTen years ago when I first read The Underneath, the narrative voice lifted me up and carried me off on a kind of story tide, irresistible and primal. I asked Kathi to talk to me about that voice that moved and stirred and haunted me.

 

[Uma] Where did the narrative voice in The Underneath come from? What did it take to bring it to the page?

 [Kathi] Uma, you ask the best questions. But they are also hard questions. I wish that I could say that the narrative voice for The Underneath came to me in a dream and I was able to channel it directly to the page. But oh my, that would be a big, fat lie.

For me, the voice always begins with the landscape. Each place has its own inherent sound, and what creates the sound for me is the mixture of voices that arise from it. When I was working on The Underneath, I paid attention to how the wind in the trees made a kind of baritone harmonic hum that created a basis for the other sounds to pop up and reflect against. There were the sounds that the various animals contributed—purring, howling, growling, screeching, hissing, etc. And then there were the deeper sounds of those who had once lived in those marshy lands—the Caddo and Hasinai. I listened for their footsteps, for their campfires, for their laughter and sighs. And of course, there was also the sound of their absence, maybe the most heartbreaking of all. I also paid attention to what I think of as regional sounds—the music of the bayou for instance, a kind of zydeco beat—as well as my own southern dialect, the one I grew up with, with its soft extensions of the vowels and its tendency to mush consonants together and expand one syllable into two. And over all of those came the bird calls, with their wings beating against the air—also a kind of thrumming, humming sound.

So, all of this together creates what musicians would call a “sonic landscape,” or maybe a “soundscape.” (I think a great example would be Aaron Copeland’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” Listening to it always takes me right to the Canyon).

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the voice that encapsulated that landscape and its denizens. And one of the things that occurred to me is that there was no real hurry there, so I slowed down the rhythm of it and allowed the pacing to reflect that lumbering slowness. This gave me room for repetition and chanting and at least a little background humming.

I hope this makes sense. I really do believe that place, and all that it holds, is where we find the voice of a story. Of course, each character will have his or her voices, but they are overlaid against the setting. My flat, grassy backyard sounds very different from that mountain in your backyard.

[Uma] So true. And like the rocks and trees in a yard, there are stories within stories in this novel—the naming of a creek, lovers separated, a lost child, and more—stories of sacrifice and betrayal and redemption, anger and grief and through it all the small, insistent journey of a kitten. How did all these threads come together for you? What existed in early versions and what fell into place along the way?
[Kathi] This whole book started from a short story that I had written about a boy (who very much resembled my older son Jacob) who rescued a kitten from a creek. I kept going back to that story, and it just seemed like there were more to tell. The snake was there already. The hummingbird was there, and all along, the kitten—Puck.
The story was fine as it was, but it kept calling to me, and so I began to pull at it. I’ve often used the simile of taffy. The story felt like that, like taffy, and I just kept pulling at it. And as I did, another strand would appear, and then I’d pull some more, doubling the length, tripling the strands.
The ironic thing is that at the end of it all, it was that boy, that original boy, who was taken out. That was heartbreaking, really. He reminded me so much of Jacob, and he had brought the story such a long way. So, I had to think of him as a kind of navigator, as the book’s director in a way, and once the larger story made its way to shore, the boy was done with his part. Sometimes I think maybe I’ll return to that boy, but in a million ways I believe his story is somehow underneath it all, and he’s completed his job.
[Uma] These words from the book just got me straight in the heart back when I first read them. A decade later, they still get me:
“Who would look out for them? Who would stand watch?”
Kathi Appelt photo 2015_credit Igor Kraguljak

Photo © Igor Kraguljak, 2015

You, that’s who, I’m thinking. Is that a fair read? Can you talk about how you as writer stand watch and bear witness?

[Kathi]  Story is the only way I know how to bear witness. Or maybe I should say it’s the best way I know how. I realize there are other ways.
When I wrote The Underneath so long ago, I think my concern then had a lot to do with the way we treat others in our world, particularly animals. I’ve gotten plenty of comments that are pointedly disapproving about the treatment of Ranger in particular. I always respond that there were no animals harmed in the writing of the book. But it’s interesting to me that most of the concern for my characters is directed toward the animals. Not so much for the singular human. Granted, my villain is a dedicated villain. There’s not much that is redeemable about him. However, he was treated badly as a child, and yet I’ve never had anyone bemoan his fate.
[Uma] Oh, that is very interesting. Do we not care about humans who are treated badly?
[Kathi] In some ways, we are more empathetic towards animals than we are towards children, which is a sadness for me.
But it’s also a call to action. I think this disregard for our children shows up in school shootings, in overburdened foster care systems, in underfunded schools. In a law passed because a puppy died on an airplane flight, only days after that flight. But here we are, almost twenty years from Columbine, and no significant laws about gun control. It’s so infuriating.
Ten years ago, a mistreated dog set my fingers on fire. Today, I look at those kids in Parkland, and my heart says “go there.” Bear witness, as you say. And I’m so happy to have you and so many of my colleagues going there with me. Namaste, Uma. Namaste.

 

[Uma] It’s a privilege to walk this road with you, Kathi Appelt. Namaste.

 

Kathi talks to Cynthia Leitich Smith about surviving and thriving in the long haul as an actively publishing children’s and YA author.

Einstein’s Dreams

EinsteinsDreamsAlan Lightman‘s brief novel, published in 1993, begins with a prologue in which a distant clock tower calls out six times and then stops. A young man slumps at his desk. In his hands are twenty crumpled pages, his theory of time which he will mail today to the German journal of physics. The rest of the novel is a series of vignettes unfolding in incandescent prose, playing with time. In some of the dreams time is circular, in others it is frozen, in yet others people cling to it, thereby stalling their lives. The final poignant scenario takes place just before the distant clock tower strikes eight, reminding us of exactly how much time has really passed.

Excerpt:

… this flock of nightingales is time. Time flutters and fidgets and hops with these birds. Trap one of these nightingales beneath a bell jar and time stops. The moment is frozen for all people and trees and soil caught within.

In truth, these birds are rarely caught. The children, who alone have the speed to catch birds, have no desire to stop time. For the children, time moves too slowly already. They rush from moment to moment, anxious for birthdays and new years, barely able to wait for the rest of their lives.

Lightman is a physicist by training and the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia and the developing world, specifically through housing, education, and leadership training. In this book, he is really after the nature of the mind. Each short vignette is written from an omniscient and rather distant point of view, yet each is able to tap the inner needs and longings, dreams and failures of the people inhabiting its dream world, as well as the young Einstein himself. Time is infinitely variable, the novel tells us. The whole thing is an impressionistic meditation on what makes people tick, and a reminder of how very small we are in the greater scheme of things.

Shapeshifting Facts

L1070098In Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, this year, I saw grey whales from so close that when one of them spouted, a great fountain of moist air and, shall we say nostril contents, showered over all the people in the boat. What astonishing life-forms they are! Their size puts us humans in our place. The pangas, fishing boats that work for the whale watching tour companies, take visitors out into the lagoon, then shut their engines off and wait. The whales appear. It’s a humbling experince.

baja grey whaleThis one came up under the boat and surfaced on the other side. If it had intended to tip us over, there is no doubt it could have. From the panga, we could see the barnacles encrusting the rubbery, marbled skin. We could even spot the tiny eye before a sudden dive rocked the boat and the whale, seeming to laugh at us, slapped its tail-fluke and was gone.

So I started thinking, how do we portray whales in books for young readers? It turns out that if you look at children’s nonfiction over the years, the public misinformation of generations shows up. This Hakai Magazine article plots the delivery of inaccurate science to kids. Excerpt:

In a 2016 article called, tellingly, “Cetacean Frustration,” four British scientists surveyed picture books that feature whales and other cetaceans. Of 116 books, 74 had errors. The rate was higher in fiction, but almost half of the nonfiction books also contained errors.

Part of the problem, of course, is that children’s books often hang around for generations. Parents tend to buy their kids the books that they themselves loved as children. But with nonfiction, those books get dated really fast. And in a world where these giants of the ocean are seriously endangered by our irresponsible behavior over the centuries, don’t we owe young readers the facts as best we know them, in all their beautiful complexity?