The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

kiranmala-reveal-cvrBefore its publication, I did my best to get my hands on a copy of The Serpent’s Secret. I don’t know why it should be so complicated to get a review copy from New York to a Canadian address! Between mailing issues and the promise of a copy via Scholastic Canada, and the failure of the e-galley to open….let’s just say it’s taken me half a year to open the book and start reading.

I was hooked right from the first words in the dedication:

To immigrant parents and children everywhere–who imagine an idea called home into being through the telling of stories.

I was hooked by the character, twelve-year-old Kiranmala of Parsippany, New Jersey. Ordinary girl, right? Maybe not. Because Kiran’s swiftly sucked into a spiraling story in which everything she knew to be reality is upended. Her parents are gone. There’s a demon, a rakkhosh, eating everything in her kitchen. And who are those guys dressed in funny Halloween costumes? In short order, she’s charged with no less a responsibility than saving the world. Each character is delightfully and lovingly crafted. Narrated in the first person,  the book hums with Kiran’s personality, every scene infused with purpose, sly humor, and an unerring sense of the middle grade character on the brink.

And I was hooked, finally, by the underlying worldview in Sayantani’s book. This is a world in which immigrant identity isn’t the issue, and one in which the cultural particulars not only ring utterly true but are regionally specific, going beyond the all too common representation of the entire subcontinent as one monocultural space. And there’s the girl at the center of the story. She’s the one who must be in control, even (maybe especially) when the ground under her feet has just given way! Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is. We’re all in it together, if we just let ourselves ride into a destiny waiting for us to take charge of it!

Every girl at that puzzling, promising, in-between age of 12 ought to read this first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Look for Book 2, The Game of Stars.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

When Morning Comes by Arushi Raina

whenmorningcomesTeenaged Zanele plots secretly against the apartheid-era South Africa, government on the brink of the Soweto uprising. Her best friend, Thabo, has joined a gang and extorts protection money from a local Indian store owner. The store owner’s daughter, Meena, keeps a wary eye on the world outside the door, her curiosity gradually turning to sympathy for the protesters. On the other side of town, in the wealthy white suburbs, Jack lives in comfort, insulated from the troubles of black South Africa.

Arushi Raina‘s book brings 1976 South Africa to young readers in a fresh and engaging way. Each first-person narrator has a distinct voice, and the perspective of each is, unsurprisingly, defined by race–at least initially, that is, until their stories start to intersect. That is where heartbreak lies, and revelation as well. There are no easy happy resolutions, the book suggests. All happiness comes at a cost, love and justice mixed with regret and loss. What the ending gives us, however, is a sense of life continuing, of the stories going on even after the last page has been turned. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Raina’s characters manage to linger in the memory.

Carefully crafted and lovingly detailed, this novel in multiple voices honors the past while drawing subtle meanings for readers here and now.  Published by Tradewind Books.

 

Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
 
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 
 

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Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

 
Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
  
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
 
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
 
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

Tamara Ellis Smith on the Road to Publication

Tamara Ellis Smith was my first student at VCFA. She was Student One, Packet One in my Semester One on faculty, back in 2006. I had to set aside everything I thought I knew about teaching and writing and pay attention to this low-residency experience–it was nothing like any of the teaching I’d ever done before. Packet One was also Test One for me.

Tam taught me a lot. She wrote a wonderful critical thesis on the picture book triangle of reader, text, and child listener. She pretty much taught me how to advise a critical thesis. She read furiously and passionately and wrote annotations as if the words had wings. In everything she did she tried to make meaning of life and writing and how they came together. Sometimes I’d tell her to just quit trying so hard and let the work take its own shape, always an easier thing to say than to do but I’d say it anyway.

And then there was the novel. It was beautiful, the story of two boys, loss, and a big, big storm. It reached deep and wide–maybe even wider than Tam was ready to reach at the time but she did it anyway. And now…fast forward.

How many years, you say? Seven. It took seven years from then to now, but I am beyond delighted to hear that my first student in my first packet, my first semester teaching at VCFA, before it was even VCFA, has just sold her first novel. Marble Boys will be edited by Ann Kelley and published in August 2015 by Schwartz and Wade.

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I asked Tam what she learned as a writer from this long journey to publication. Here’s what she said in her reply:

I have learned a tremendous amount about longing.  Wanting something so deeply and for so long was new to me, and when I would get discouraged (another rejection, another revision) I would ask myself the same question: Do I want to stop writing or do I want to continue to work at this?  The answer was always the same.  Keep on.  And so I did.  And as I did, my understanding of longing, as well as my relationship to it, changed.  Sitting with it became a practice.  Which, I think, taught me to sit with other feelings.  Which, in turn, taught me to sit with my characters and their feelings too.  It is not by chance, I believe, that as I got better at being with my own feelings I was able to write better characters.

Here are a few things I wrote on my blog about this:

I’ve been contemplating this longing for the last few weeks.  I have noticed that there is a tendency to do one of two things with longing.  One is to try to push it away. And I think the most common way to accomplish that is to transform it…so maybe, let’s say, you turn it into jealousy (she got that and I was supposed to get that and I’m probably entitled to that more than she is, damn it…) or into denial (I never wanted that, and even if I did, which I didn’t by the way, but even if I did, I certainly don’t want it now…) The other is to allow it to consume you (I feel this longing so badly and so deeply that I think I, in fact, AM this longing…where are my hands and feet and heart and mind?…they have been taken over by the body-snatching longing monster…)

But what about just letting it…be?

I used to think that desiring something for more than a minute was a sign that I wasn’t meant to do the thing, or have the thing…because it meant that I had tried to do it, or have it, and had failed. Failure the first time meant that the desire was off the table. Quite a fixed mindset, eh?

But now…

But now…

My New Year’s post, the one about last year being a cocoon year for me, is about exactly this. In all ways, but especially in terms of my writing. I have never worked so hard and so long at anything. I have never made effort and perseverance as much of a ritual as I have with the process of writing. This is key, I believe. The ritual of effort and perseverance. 

And I would add to that, now that I sit for a moment and think about it. The ritual of effort and perseverance and longing.

Work hard, keep at it, and always, always honor the longing.

The work itself has taught me so much.  Living with a story for this long, and revising it so many times (I think I counted something like 25 drafts), I became intimately connected to it…my characters, their journeys, their emotional landscapes, the arc of the story.  I am guessing the goal is to be that intimate with all of the stories we write.  (But maybe not take so long to get there?!!!!)  But for this story, for me, for this first experience at seeing a novel through from idea to offer, this long process allowed me to not only become intimately connected but to become conscious of what that looks like.  So I learned, for example, that it really helps me to talk through my characters’ emotional journeys; to map out where they start and where they end and how, step by step, to get there.  What emotion comes after the first?  What is the subtle difference?  Where is the growth?  What does that look like in terms of gestures and scenes and moments in time?  I also learned that it helps me TREMENDOUSLY to take a big step back from the writing after a good few solid drafts and not write, but talk…A LOT…about the story.  Have someone ask me questions.  Tell the story to people and see what I remember, what I leave out, what is confusing.  And then after synthesizing that taking-space/talking experience, I can go back and write with a much stronger understanding of the story.  And there are other specific things I learned like this too. My hope is that I can take this consciousness into my next novel-writing process.

My advisors…you, Uma…oh my gosh.  You have taught me all of this.  All that I have already mentioned has come from you.  Truly.  You have asked me to be persistent, you have asked me to keep working hard, you have asked me, specifically, to re-vision my story (remember that amazing critique you gave me that allowed me to get Henry to New Orleans?  he was stuck in Vermont until you suggested that…)  You have taught me how to revise, and edit and cut.  And then you have been such a support.  You have believed in me.  There were times when I couldn’t believe and you would do it for me.

Here is what I wrote to Erin (agent) a few days ago in response to some of the congratulations and support I have gotten about this book deal:

 I wish, of course, that this book had sold all those years ago, but, Erin, all that I have learned, and all the amazing friends and colleagues I have made, and all of the gratitude it all makes me feel…that is possibly the best, biggest, shiniest silver lining I have ever ever experienced.

I don’t quite know how to articulate that clearly enough, but I really mean it.  The outpouring of love, the ongoing support, the net of safety that I have created and that was created for me, has made me a better writer.  A bolder one.  A more vulnerable one.

Congratulations, Tamara Smith, for walking the path with integrity and persistence.