Raksha Vasudevan on Personal Choices and Mani Ratnam’s Films

The first Mani Ratnam film I saw was Roja, filmed in the Nilgiris, the same mountains I would later idealize in my middle grade romp of a novel, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. But the movie is set against the backdrop of another place altogether–Kashmir, a place too dangerous to film in, a place whose tragic history lives on in ever stranger and more explosive twists and turns. Beneath the sheen of Bollywood in a Ratnam’s films are the events of contemporary India, hard to confront in the headlines but essential to examine. He crosses borders as well, defining an India beyond the limits of its regional languages.

So Raksha Vasudevan’s article on Ratnam and his films struck many chords for me.


My disorientation was made worse by conversing in the language of my childhood, in which I hadn’t developed any self-protective filters, just as I had no emotional distance from the people I used to speak it with. Every story of loss recited in my mother tongue hit me as if told by my own mother.

Ah yes. Probably why I return to those films from time to time to reconnect with a lost place, a language incomplete in my competence but lodged securely in my heart.

The Juvenilia of Katherine Mansfield

Back in the last century, when I was a teenager devouring whatever literature I could lay my hands on, I read a short story by New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. It was called The Life of  Ma Parker, and it was about sadness and regret and the aging of parents, things that I, at fourteen or fifteen, couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around but they made me cry anyway. I loved it so much I looked for Katherine Mansfield’s work and some years later I read a couple more of her books: The Garden Party, Bliss and Other Stories.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7861.jpgI haven’t thought about that story in a long time, but here is what I came across last year on Lambton Quay in Wellington, New Zealand.  The tall and elegant figure by sculptor Virginia King, Woman of Words, features lines from Mansfield’s short stories, diaries and journals carved into her clothes. Alas, we couldn’t stay to see the statue lit up at night from within, but I can feel those words winging their way through the decades.

It turns out that Mansfield was a child writer, and her first published story was discovered in 2017  in Wellington City Libraries’ archives. “His Little Friend” is reprinted in full in Redmer Yska’s new book, A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903. It is an odd little tale, its voice carrying that strange precocity characteristic of so many young writers. She was 11 years old at the time, writing under her given name, Kathleen M. Beauchamp. Here’s how the story begins:

In a quiet little village in S- there dwelt an aged couple whose names were John and Mary Long. They had a small cottage standing far back from the road, with a large garden in front, both of which were scrupulously neat and tidy. Mary had married John when she was nineteen, and they had lived in the same little cottage ever since. Now she was past sixty, and he was seventy-three. Mary took in sewing while John sold fruit and vegetables to the villagers.

The voice is confident, taking joy in its ability to establish a place, people, circumstances, to reel out a story, play with its possibilities, and then bring it all to a tragic finish. What’s remarkable, as the story progresses, is the child writer’s ability to conjure up a decaying marriage, the fading of youth and memory and a friendship across generations. Even the dabs of sentimentality are charming because they are from an 11-year-old. In these words, I can almost hear the writer this child would grow to be–a writer who would die too young, whose bohemian life would whirl through many scandals, but whose startling clarity and careful use of detail would be considered to have revolutionized the English short story.

Let ‘Er Buck: Congratulations, Vaunda Nelson!

“Ask any cowpoke…”

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a fellowship of readers who get to see a gifted writer’s work in progress.  This cowpoke’ll tell you, boy howdy, did she ever learn from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson! Over several months, Vaun shared versions of Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion with our writing group, in which I am the long-distance member who Skypes across time-zones and borders.

We read and loved and questioned the text. Over and over. We quibbled over words and sequence, over where the story began, where it should end. We watched in admiration as the story grew stronger, took root, grew into itself as its subject grew into himself.

And in the end, here is that beautiful book. Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of African American cowboy George Fletcher. In brief, voiced text, it reveals layers of history, while raising questions about meanness and generosity, about competition and what it means to win.


Interior page, Let ‘Er Buck. Image source:  http://vaundanelson.com

Look at this sample page. Young George’s playful determination is captured in the rousing illustration by 2018 Caldecott honoree, Gordon C. James.  Here are the words that point to this soaring image: “It was plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.”

The facing page, not shown here, picks up the rest of the text in an unpredictable manner, and seems to foreshadow what’s yet to come with the turn of the page. Those illustration choices raise questions of their own–why one action and not another? Grist for a whole discussion on picture book text and how emotional tone can be employed to invite illustration rather than to dictate its specifics.

More about Nelson’s beautiful new picture book on her beautiful new web site.

Illustrator Magic

I will confess it. I have illustrator envy.  As a picture book writer teaching other writers to write picture book text, I am painfully aware of knowing only half the form. So it’s always like seeing magic unpacked when I watch writer-illustrators in action.

Square+-+DebbieOhi-PhotoAnnieTruuvert-201807-flat500.jpgLast month at VCFA’s picture book workshop, Debbie Ridpath Ohi was a joy to behold. She was energetic, funny, honest, passionate about the picture book form, and more than generous in sharing her experience and knowledge with us.

And she was an empath! She managed to get at the heart and soul of what each student was trying to reach in every single manuscript, yet offered clear perspective on what was needed (or not needed) in each work in progress.

The questions flew. Light-bulb moments flared into being. We laughed a lot, talked a lot. It hardly felt like work to be digging this intensely into the form we all loved.

The day after I got home from residency, this arrived in the mail.


What joy! My very own portrait, swirling yarn in the thought department, or maybe ideas, or both? I’ll treasure this gift.

And there will be more. Watch this space for a guest post from Debbie on thinking visually, the form of the picture book, and anything else that strikes her dancing visual and storytelling mind.

New Translated YA Book Prize winners

Thank you to David Jacobson for letting me know about these books, newly recognized by the Global Literatures in Libraries Initiative.

Here is the announcement from the GLLI press release: 

My Brother’s Husband: Vol. 1 & 2, by Japan’s Gengoroh Tagame (translated from the Japanese by Anne Ishii; Pantheon Books) is the winner of the inaugural GLLI Translated YA Book Prize. Administered by the Global Literatures in Libraries Initiative, it is the first prize to recognize publishers, translators, and authors of books in English translation for young adult readers.

mybrothershusbandUnknown.jpegMy Brother’s Husband is a two-volume manga that gently but effectively guts homophobia in Japanese society. When Mike, the Canadian husband of Yaichi’s late brother shows up on his doorstep, Yaichi is courteous but standoffish, while his young daughter Kana is thrilled to meet her gay uncle.

“The committee loved this sweet, nuanced story of coming to terms with one’s own prejudices and embracing a truly modern family,” said committee member Annette Y. Goldsmith.

Books in translation have received greater attention in recent years, thanks in part to the National Book Foundation’s new prize for translated literature, but they still amount to a paltry three percent of all books published.

“Books in translation for young adults remain a tiny fraction of even those in translation,” said GLLI Director Rachel Hildebrandt Reynolds, “There is an urgent need for greater international understanding and cross-cultural empathy among our young people. Reading books can help bridge those gaps.”

Three honor books were also selected. They include: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel (Feminist Press) – EQUATORIAL GUINEA

Piglettes by Clémentine Beauvais, translated from the French by the author (Pushkin Children’s Books) – FRANCE

Wonderful Feels Like This by Sara Lövestam, translated from the Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg (Flatiron Books) – SWEDEN

The winning books were selected from a field of titles translated from 13 languages and representing 13 countries, as far afield as Equatorial Guinea, Bangladesh and Norway. Works published within three years of the submission deadline were considered. The prize will be presented at the American Library Association’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., June 20-25, 2019.

Members of the prize committee include Annette Y. Goldsmith, international youth literature specialist; Gene Hayworth, University of Colorado; Kim Rostan, Wofford College; Laura Simeon, Kirkus Reviews; and Elaine Tai, Burlingame Public Library. They were assisted by GLLI Director Rachel Hildebrandt Reynolds.

The Global Literature in Libraries Initiative brings together translators, librarians, teachers,editors and others dedicated to helping librarians identify and raise the visibility of world literature for children, teens, and adults. Our activities include creating pan-publisher catalogs; maintaining a database of translations; sharing ideas for selecting, evaluating, using and promoting world literature for all ages; and administering the GLLI Translated YA Book Prize.

Hurray for these books without borders and for the publishers who have now brought them to new readers and markets.

Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

From Sea to Sea to Sea: Celebrating Indigenous Picture Books

I began reading this newsletter from IBBY Canada with interest. I noted titles to pass along to students in the winter/spring 2019 VCFA picture book intensive. I read about authors and illustrators. And then, to my delight, I began to recognize names and titles and to find my own connections.

mancalledraven-233x300First, this passage on Tlicho First Nation writer Richard Van Camp‘s books. The story of Children’s Book Press and of Harriet Rohmer’s mission to give voice to many cultures and peoples is part of the history of children’s books in the United States. Two of my own picture books have remained in print thanks to Lee and Low’s acquisition of CBP’s list. But back to Richard Van Camp. Look at this account of what ensued when Harriet called Richard asking if he had anything to send her:

Richard said: “Yes, I do have something …” and pulled out the manuscript for The Man Called Raven, which he had written at a workshop. Richard sent it down to San Francisco page by page from the fax machine at Home Hardware in Fort Smith — at a cost of $4.20.

Page by page. A fax machine. Richard’s creative response to Harriet’s next invitation is well worth reading as well.  Laughter and inventiveness surely lead to the building of bridges.

In comments reported from Project Co-Chair & Author Dr. Jenny Kay Dupuis (Nipissing First Nation) I found yet another connection:

One of the first children’s books that Jenny remembers liking in her early days as an educator was Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2000), published in the US. Jingle Dancer is about a young girl who wants to dance in the upcoming powwow, and how the strong women in her life — her aunt, her neighbour, her cousin and her grandmother — each contribute a row of jingles to her dress. Jenny says about the book: “The imagery and lessons of Jingle Dancer showed the dignity of the characters — and really portrayed a positive community experience. It was a story that I often shared with young people whose history was fractured due to acts of colonization. This story offered children an opportunity to reflect on history and begin their own journey to heal and reclaim their culture.”

It has been my delight over many years to cross writing and teaching paths with the multi-talented Cynthia Leitich Smith who has been my writing and teaching colleague for years and whose work has shaped our field in important ways.

From board books to picture books for older readers, From Sea to Sea to Sea is a catalogue of 100 of the best picture books created over the past 25 years by Indigenous authors. The full catalogue is available here. What an opportunity for young readers everywhere to find and make connections.


The Unnatural Beauty of Flowers


Lupins blooming near Lake Tekapo, South Island, NZ

“Lupines” are a collection of several annual or perennial herbaceous plant species belonging to the pea family. They are native to North and South  America and the Mediterranean basin. One species, the Oregon lupine, is threatened in its upland prairie habitat.

But the lakeshores of New Zealand are not the natural home of these dramatically beautiful flowers. In New Zealand, the flower does more than drop the “e” from its name. Lupins burst into explosions of bloom along the shores of New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo and on the lower slopes of Mt. Cook. They provide feed for the ubiquitous sheep. They look glorious and few travelers would even stop to think if they belong there, let alone wonder what native plants they’re crowding out.

I am reminded of the iconic children’s picture book, Miss Rumphius, among whose charming elements are those lupines. I’ve had a few quibbles with other elements of the book, especially with the spreads in which Miss Rumphius travels the world and meets the “Bapa Raja” of an unnamed tropical isle. Why exactly, I wonder, did he take her into his house and serve her himself? Why did he give her a shell on which he’d painted the words, “You will always remain in my heart?” Would the king of a tropical island do this as a matter of course for some foreign lady who walked up and down his beach pocketing the shells? Honestly, study this closely and it could be a 4-page history of the colonial experience!

But I’ve never wondered about those lupines. Until today.

It turns out that scattering the seeds of gloriously prolific flowering plants is only one way in which we humans have shaped the planet, and not always for the better. There’s a whole science now of invasion ecology because “biological invasions impact everything from ecosystems to commercial enterprise and human health.”

The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains that thick stands of invasive Russel lupin negatively impact the “habitat of threatened braided riverbed birds such as wrybill/ngutu parore, black stilt/kakī and banded dotterel/tūturiwhatu.”


Sorry, Miss Rumphius. The lupines are beautiful, no question. But was that a good idea? And what grew on that bare hill that those flowers choked out?

Reality, Fiction, and Why I Keep on Writing

The post that follows first appeared on author-illustrator and long-time e-mail friend and colleague Elizabeth Dulemba‘s blog. I got to meet Elizabeth in person when I spoke at Hollins University’s Francelia Butler Conference last year.

I’m reposting this piece here because I need to keep these things in mind as we embark upon a new year and the world seems to be plunging into ever greater chaos and cruelty. 00-01-ladyliberty

(More about Elizabeth Dulemba’s Lady Liberty poster here.)

It’s not always easy being a writer. A lot of people don’t get what I do. Many confess they’d love to write a children’s book. What they mean is that they don’t think it’s that difficult and so they’d love to be, not writers, but the authors of published books. It’s the product they’re after—the bright, glossy picture books, the cute middle grade jackets with smiley kid faces on them. Who wouldn’t want their names on books for young readers?

I’ll bet those same people would retract their wishes double-quick if I offered them a day at my desk. Working alone—four hours at a stretch without another human being to speak to face to face. A day spent writing 1,000 words and throwing out 500 of them. Facing the 15th revision of a novel and knowing I’m not there yet. Tossing out the picture book idea that has no traction, after spending months trying to wrangle it onto the page. And we’re not talking yet about fielding rejection letters.

So why do I write, other than for the inescapable reason that if I didn’t, I’d be unemployed?

I write because I have to. Because as a child growing up in India, I didn’t see myself in any of the books I read, so it took me until I was thirty-one and a new mother to figure out that real, live people could write children’s books. I write because the stories keep bubbling up. I only write the ones that won’t leave me alone, and there are still enough to keep me going for the rest of my days.

Sometimes I write in order to tell clear and simple truths. Out of the Way! Out of the Way! is the picture book story of a boy who takes a single, simple action, enables a tree to grow, and becomes witness to his changing community. No action, no tree.

Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh came from my interest in the stories of so-called “Mexican Hindu” families of California’s Yuba City and Imperial Valley. It began as an intellectual exercise and only became a story when I gave up authorial control and let the character lead the way. For example, I didn’t plan at first for the story to involve softball, but as I wrote successive drafts, that became inevitable. What sport would a girl pick, when what she longed for, above all, was to be recognized as American? I didn’t have a choice. That story led me to meet with descendants of those early Punjabi immigrants in Yuba City, to walk around Yuba City with a 1945 map in my hand, trying to see the place as it might have been.

In Book Uncle and Me, nine-year old Yasmin means to read a book a day for the rest of her life. When her supplier is threatened, she needs to take her nose out of her book and do something. There’s an election going on—isn’t that how things change in the real world? But wait—kids can’t vote. But then again, they have a voice. And they should use it, because sometimes grownups just can’t see sense.  I don’t say that last part in the book but I sure hope that kids get that subtext. I hope the readers of this book will grow up to be adults who vote, who keep an eye on their communities, who care about fixing corruption and unfairness in the world.

Let’s face it, the world is as beautiful or cruel a place as we humans make it. These days, there are times, especially when I turn on the news, that I’m just about ready to give up on humankind—our collective indolence, fear of powerful bullies, refusal to stand up for what’s right, the instinctive refuge we take in self-interest and self-preservation. But I also see stories of people who are brave and kind and generous and refuse to accept that cruelty and injustice are inevitable—people who put their own lives on the line for freedom and justice, or who volunteer their time and expertise in dangerous places, to help those who need it most.

And me? I write. And maybe, through my writing, I work on conveying a worldview that values hope and justice and fairness. If a book of mine validates child readers, if it helps to make them believe that a tree matters, if it shows them to speak out against unfairness, or imbues them with the will to make a difference—well then, I’ve done my job. I may not live to see that new and improved world for myself, but my readers might. Maybe some of them will even be instrumental in creating it.


A Wordless Dance of a Picture Book

waltz-of-the-snowflakes-cover.jpgIf you’re a fan of wordless picture books, Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes lends itself to conversation with a child reader.

Or to a cozy turning of pages with a grownup page-turner and an attentive child listener, set to the  music of the titular waltz itself.

Layers of story, the gradually shifting emotions and the progression of color in the book give writers a way to access the illustrator mind–an essential kind of thinking if you want to write a picture book.