Yes. Everything. “A Story About Everything” is how this professor, Arti Dhand, describes The Mahabharata in her pandemic project, a podcast with 15-20 minute episodes that herds listeners onto the convoluted trail of this ancient story.
For another take on the story, see The Mahabharata: A Child’s View by Samhita Arni, a text that has clarity and candor and a kind of touching freshness. That’s because the writer was 10 years old when she began this project, so as a reader I have to come to this with an openness to that truthful child’s heart.
But I will say, Arti Dhand’s is the treatment I’ve been waiting for all my grownup life. Delivered orally, contextually, and in small bites. What I really like about this podcast is that it treats the Mahabharata as a literary text and not a religious one. So often in my Hindu upbringing, it was no more than the frame story for The Bhagavad Gita.
Why do I find this avowedly secular approach comforting? I think because it absolves me of having to draw moral conclusions every few minutes, or resist the ones the storyteller’s pushing. I was never very good at accepting canned morality, whatever its source.
Finally, I wanted to learn about the art of this epic tale rather than tie myself into internal knots of conscience, because, you know, who needs more of those during a pandemic?
I’ve listened to 20-ish of the 40-something-and-still-ticking episodes. Let’s just say I’m finding Arti’s podcast as irreverent, pragmatic, and wildly imaginative as the story itself. And it’s a lot of fun to hear the resonances between its parts, the repetitions of names and themes, and the casual tossing in of great philosophical questions left deliberately unanswered in a manner that seems familiar and relevant in the 21st century.
In Sisters of the Neversea, Cyn brings this confab habit to a middle grade audience, and in the process creates a joyful reinvention of an old, revered standby!
J.M. Barrie’s Tiger Lily and Wendy had better step aside for these sisters. It’s their saga, a telling of their truth. The characters have been brought smartly forward into contemporary time, to present-day Oklahoma. They’re part of a blended family in which Lily’s mother is a member of the Creek Nation and Wendy’s father is a British expat contemplating a return to England. I was captivated by the narrative voice, the big sweep of story, the tiny details of character and above all, the loving embrace of family.
And I was bursting with questions for Cynthia, so I’m happy to say she was kind enough to answer a few of them.
[Uma] The narrative voice in this book feels like a kindly presence throughout, keeping an eye on everything, anticipating readerly questions, and conveying the magic of the setting or the quirks of characters through droll asides. Can you talk about how this voice developed for you? Was it there from the start or did it settle into place somewhere along the way? And how do you see its role in the book?
[Cynthia] Why do fairy tales still beckon us? Why have they endured? Retellings like SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA may infuse the characters with three-dimensionality, but certainly, the tradition’s foundation is built on archetypical paper dolls.
Certainly, it’s not that they’ve always been pleasant forms of escapism. Even upbeat musical adaptations are rife with child kidnapping and captivity, murderously dysfunctional families, and hefty parental death tolls.
Yet, while SISTERS OF THE NEVERSEA is a reinvention—not retelling—of PETER AND WENDY (AKA PETER PAN), I agreed with J.M. Barrie’s decision to use of a storyteller’s voice.
It’s been said that the most powerful magical words are once upon a time and the most satisfying are and they lived happily ever after. Without the journey in between, both phrases are meaningless. Yet they speak to the age-old tradition that has most unified humanity: Story.
My novel invites both Native and non-Native kids into the storyteller’s circle, much in the way that all of our ancestors, on every continent of Earth, gathered around fires to listen in community. The narrator makes a promise to young readers—perilous though it may be,you are not alone in this adventure. Take my hand, and let’s experience it together.
It’s a tremendous responsibility to retell any classic children’s book, especially one with well known, problematic aspects. I approached the task from a place of tremendous respect for young readers and young fictional heroes as well as with a heightened sensitivity to those kids whose identity elements had been stereotyped in Barrie’s original. I approached it with an understanding that healing was necessary. I approached it from a place of hope and love.
[Uma] That shows. I think that’s why this reinvention feels very natural, because of course it’s past time for it to step forward in time, to update its fairytale self.
[Cynthia] One of my favorite films is Rob Reiner’s 1987 film adaptation of “The Princess Bride,” with a screenplay by the modern fairytale’s author William Goldman. While my approach skews more earnest and theirs more farcical, my narrator’s voice was probably influenced by how Peter Falk’s character, the grandfather, drew on an omniscient voice, a conversational voice, by how he engaged in direct address, offered empathy and reassurance, nudged toward growth, and concluded his reading with the story’s catchphrase—as you wish, meaning I love you.
All that said, the voice came naturally to me. I imagined myself, playing pretend, putting on fancy airs as a storyteller to entertain beloved children around an imaginary campfire. I leaned into the wonder, into the love, into the magic, and into the fun.
[Uma] Love leads me to how you treat Peter’s character. It’s a clear-eyed portrayal but it’s also compassionate—we learn why he’s the way he is, we see him in vulnerable moments. Some of that, as in Lily’s conversation with Daniel, almost feels like historical reference. I smiled at Peter’s reliance on yellowed storybooks for comfort! But then there’s the horrific impact he has on everything around him, the endless taking. Sometimes he seems a metaphor for us, human beings on our only Ever-earth. So I’m curious, what does Peter represent to you?
[Cynthia] For over a century, Peter represented limitless potential, clinging to callousness. Arguably, he embodied the long history of children’s literature itself, one in which the marginalized were erased or maligned. And yet, he’s still a child, and Neverland was not without its diversity.
Barrie’s instinct to bring together white British and Indigenous characters wasn’t the problem, it’s that the latter were dehumanized in the process. And like the body of children’s literature, Peter Pan is now tasked with redeeming himself, with opening his mind, with recognizing that all the world isn’t his alone for the taking.
By welcoming characters like Lily and her little brother Michael into his heart, by welcoming blended and bicultural families like the Roberts-Darlings into his Home Under the Ground, Peter will finally—with effort—be able to grow into all he was meant to be.
[Uma] I think you’re right, he did embody the literature of our field. Our reverence, like his, for yellowed storybooks shows a kind of nostalgia for a time that may not really have existed. But you’re saying the solution lies in being generous, opening our minds. That’s wonderful. It feels like a way to be hopeful even in this hope-constricting age we seem to be in. Related to which, what made you happiest about writing this book?
[Cynthia] Worldbuilding! You might think that crafting a retelling meant that it was simply a matter of slipping into an already fully realized world. That was far from the case here.
Fantasy writing demands an internally consistent, coherent execution, one that hopefully further illuminates the themes and informs both the internal and external arcs of the story. That requires intellectual rigor, but it’s also an elaborate exercise of the imagination, of play on the page.
Because they’re the most striking, readers tend to pay heightened attention to my re-envisioning of the female and Native characters, and certainly, I centered both of those identity elements. But it was a delight to bring three-dimensionality to the fairies, Merfolk, and crew of The Jolly Roger—a sense of their histories, sensibilities, cultures and ways in which they’d evolved over time. What an honor to give Belle more agency and nurture her growth on the page! How magical to consider how the lives of the Native people on the island and Merfolk in the water might have intertwined! Meanwhile, gone is disability as a shorthand for high-seas villainy; these Neverseas welcome every child who longs to talk like a pirate and sail away!
[Uma] I rejoiced to see that–and I thank you too for lifting the stigma off stepmotherhood! I suspect there will be more to love in this book each time I read it. Mvto, Cyn!
Anyway, all this to say that Nandini’s new book, Sister of the Bollywood Bride, published first by Scholastic India in 2013 under the title Red Turban White Horse: My Sister’s Hurricane Wedding, and out this year in the US and Canada from Little, Brown, is a funny, sweet romp. Life in an affluent Indian American community is drawn with humor and loving care in this story of teenaged Mini who finds herself stepping into the role of her sister’s wedding planner.
I aked Nandini to tell me something about where the dualities in this book came from.
The immigrant story often talks about alienation from the dominant culture. Of feeling like a stranger and having to learn to fit in and assimilate with the mainstream. But sometimes the learning has to go in reverse when a child of immigrants feels at a distance from their parents’ culture, especially after the loss of a parent who could have been a link back to the ancestral culture for them. And never more so than at big life events like a wedding in the family.
Mini isn’t thinking about any of this when her older sister decides to get married. She just wants Vinnie’s big day to be perfect because she loves her sister, and seeing the jewelry their mom left for Vinnie’s wedding, and the hopes and dreams it represents, prompts her to dedicate her summer to making it happen. It’s probably good that she doesn’t really know what she’s getting into until she’s actually taken it on!
That starts her journey from comfortable American spaces like her suburban neighborhood and high school friends, to uncomfortable and mostly Indian ones. From Zoom calls to Mumbai with her flaky and successful Indian aunt, to chats with the helpful Indian moms at her tutoring center, to reconnecting with family friends like a sought after local wedding decorator, trading traditions with the groom’s South Indian family, returning to the local temple they stopped attending after losing her mom, managing various vendors of wedding services and more, Mini jumps headfirst into a steep learning curve with nothing but a tight budget, a used car, a faithful dog, and friends, old and new, to help her navigate it all.
When things run into a hurricane sized obstacle every part of Mini’s community, American and Indian, has to come together to save the day, and Mini is finally able to knit back all the scattered pieces of her emotional world and get closure on the grief of losing her mom all those years ago.
I really wanted to upend some notions of the classic immigrant story with this book, like the idea that immigrants are always better off than the people in the old country, which in the time before Crazy Rich Asians (this book was first published in 2013) was pretty unheard of. I wanted to write ordinary, everyday American spaces and glamorous Indian ones without sacrificing authenticity. I wanted to show a protagonist who is comfortable and confident in her Americaness but uncertain of the Indian part of her identity. Another departure–the marriage at the center of this Indian wedding book is definitely not arranged. Also, the loss of a grandparent in the old country is oftentimes the loss immigrants deal with, but I decided to reverse that too, with Mini’s Indian grandfather and aunt mourning the loss of her immigrant mom. Yes, there is pain in this book but it’s more personal than the trope of immigrant identity and assimilation, and there is purposefully a boatload of celebration and joy!
Sometimes a different perspective can shed new light on a story we think we know, and that’s what I tried to do. Given all the things this book has backwards it’s probably fitting that it was published in India first before finding a home in the US. I am thrilled to have it in the hands of readers in the US now!
From my friend of many years and one-time park ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument, Terry Nichols, here’s a delightful middle grade that Kirkus called “linguistically rich and frequently humorous.”
From Kinkajou Press, The Dreaded Cliff. It’s the story of a packrat, Flora, and her journey through a magical landscape of prickly-pear and yuccas, junipers and towering sandstone cliffs.
The setting sings in this book, so I asked Terry if she’d write about how her real-life high mesa setting (she lives in an adobe house surrounde by this very vegetation, with those very cliffs looming beyond) plays into her story of Flora the packrat and her journey.
Here’s what she wrote:
At the story’s beginning, Flora’s experience of the Southwest landscape is similar to a human’s—though on a smaller scale. Her world centers around the jangly-crate, stashed with her packrat nest of treasures. Like a real packrat who stays within a 160-foot radius of its nest, Flora wanders as far as the prickly pear cactus, the munch mound, the yucca grove, the big juniper tree. Venturing to the other side of the bloated burrow is closer to the dreaded cliff, but there she finds sublime eggplants to nibble. And learns the truth about the ancestral packrat home, jammed in a dark crack in the cliff.
But for Flora, the packrat home’s history is a little too big for her to process. Packrats are like that.
Flora’s physical world needs to expand before she can confront and embrace the dreaded cliff. When the jangly-crate rumbles to unfamiliar territory, her universe stretches to slick rock, sudden thunderstorms, a deep canyon, puzzling creatures, pressing dangers. She’s catapulted into a fantasy world of sorts, where she must learn to interact with animals who behave oddly. Her predicament challenges her to think and feel and act in big ways, defying ordinary behavior of a high desert packrat.
Although Flora’s journey is deadly serious, this is a children’s story, after all. If I laughed when I wrote, I knew I was on to something. I didn’t deliberately plan Flora’s character. She poked her head into my life, and I found myself writing about this plump, cactus chomping, word-mangling rodent who tumbled into a canyon and discovered all these quirky friends. Ideas for the characters and plot grew not from my scheming mind, but from another place—maybe I’d call it my heart. Whatever the source, ideas popped, and I wrote. If I tried to plan or work at writing, it took forever, yielding a forced, flat result. Then I’d stop writing for months. Thankfully, Flora and I completed our journey in the remarkable Southwest landscape.
And then of course there’s the wordplay that the Kirkus reviewer mentions.
Flora wasted no time gorging on an eggplant-blob. She snipped purple blossoms for decorating her nest, stuffed them in her mouth, and hopped from the box. “Thank you for sharing. I feel sublimated. Bits of delicate petals flow from her mouth. The “sublimated” word didn’t sound right, but the packrat etiquette felt perfect. “I must be going now.”
It’s a lovely little book, full of heart, where even the villain turns out to play a part in the big picture of the unfathomable desert. Congratulations, Terry!
Years ago, I wanted to write a children’s book about the Chipko movement, an astonishing story of love and clarity. In the story, 18th century people of the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan in northern India, led by their women, hugged their trees to prevent them from being cut down, because they knew the value of that forest and didn’t want it to be sacrificed to a king’s ignorant ambition.
In the 1970’s, a woman named Gaura Devi in the area now known as Uttarakhand brought the ancient story to life in her own village to protest the cutting of trees by contractors. The 45th anniversary Google doodle commemorating that event includes a soundbyte history. The movement is credited with the passing of the Indian Forestry Act of 1980 and other measures related to biodiversity and conservation.
As history marches on, Gaura Devi’s Uttarakhand, like much of the lower Himalayan region, is threatened by fast-melting glaciers. No one’s been listening to local activists, or paying attantion to the findings of the special committee ordered by the Supreme Court of India after the last (2013) severe floods. Excert from the CNN report:
Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, was part of that committee and advised the government against building back-to-back dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, high in the Himalayas. They discovered that the run of the river dams, which operate by digging large tunnels into the side of the mountain, actually “weakened the mountain by introducing fractures and fissures,” increasing the risk of landslides.
Chopra said nothing much came of the committee’s recommendations. Dam building continued. And now another Earth Day is behind us. Time will keep moving and so will the planet. Yes, planting trees is a good thing, but it’s not enough.
With Earth Day appoaching, on my reading list is The Properties of Perpetual Light, a new book by Julian Aguon, founder of Blue Ocean Law, an international law firm based in Guam, specializing in human and indigenous rights, self-determination, and environmental justice in the Pacific. The book addresses the history of colonization and militarization of Guam — and how Indigenous people have resisted U.S. influence.
Made me think–do I even know a single children’s writer from Guam? I don’t, so I thought I’d go browse the Regional Chapters list on the SCBWI web site. Guess what? No SCBWI Guam chapter.
I did find a couple of small presses:
Taiguini Books, an imprint of the University of Guam Press, committed to expanding its collection of cultural literature to include novels, collections of short stories, poetry, and children’s books written about and for the people of Micronesia.
And the Guam Bus, with books in CHamoru and English.
Which led me to this article about–what else?–the damage of colonial occupation and the U.S. Army’s efforts to stamp out the CHamoru language. Another fascinating rabbithole. I discovered that newer references spell the language CHamoru, with two uppercase letters “C” and “H.” I got why they’d change the spelling from the colonial era “Chamorro,” but why the caps? An arctiel in the Guam Daily Post gave me context. Here’s an excerpt:
The CHamoru language, also known as Fino’ Haya, does not have the letter “c” in its alphabet. Sounds associated with the letter “c” in English are represented in CHamoru with the letters “k,” “s” and in the case of the “ch” or “tze” sound, that letter in CHamoru is written as “CH,” which represents the one sound. It constitutes one letter in the CHamoru alphabet, not two. Therefore, when representing that sound at the beginning of a proper noun, the capitalized letter CH is used.
And there’s Nihi! a group that defines itself as “a small but growing indigenous production house based in Guåhan, committed to uplifting indigenous voices and stories from our home and all across our region.” Partnering with the Seventh Generation Fund, the Micronesia Conservation Trust, and Oceania STEM. Guåhan! It’s a name with a musical sound and a distinctive look on the page.
Islands in the sea, with something important to say to the rest of us. I’m looking forward to reading Julian Aguan’s book.
[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?
[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.
[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?
[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.
The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.
The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.
[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?
[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.
I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…
[Uma] That would be me.
[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.
I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”
By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.
[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?
[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.
After the book is published the arc continues.
When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.
[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.
This Thursday will be National Grammar Day in the United States, designated by none other than my colleague Martha Brockenbrough. I almost said “founded” but you can’t found a day, or find it, for that matter, can you?
Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.
To which Rampell writes:
Initially, this exactitude felt constricting. But once we mastered Mr. Greco’s rules — learned who from whom, and whatnot — they were liberating. He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked. I remember realizing, at age 12, how awesome it was that words and sentences could do my bidding.
I get that! I do. My 12-year-old self was thrilled to pieces when she understood the distinction between “who” and “whom.” Mind you, “whom” will probably fall off the language map in my lifetime–I found myself striking it out of a draft recently for sounding, well, stodgy. But the neural pathway the distinction wired for me–that’s the point of finding joy in the company of words.