Barbie Gets a Hijab and Other Good News

In the midst of the world spiraling into chaos, Christina Brinkley’s New Yorker article on the new Barbie made me smile.

And in the good news department, the young people’s climate change lawsuit is moving forward. There’s a story for our time, taking shape in the real world.

In another space, the kind that exists in real time but places the mind somewhere between reality and story, I am revising like a maniac. This is necessary in practical terms, on account of the project at hand that calls for manic revising. In the weird world of what we call writing process for lack of any better term, it leaves me exhausted while simultaneously tapping unknown reserves of enthusiasm and energy.

IMG_2144But in between bursts of revision, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s glorious new book, The Book of Dust #1: La Belle Sauvage. It’s right there on the little rug next to my treadmill desk, where I can snatch it up and indulge as needed. At the moment, the hard part is putting it down. It will likely go on my rereading list in the future. Pullman’s fictional world at once closes in on human frailties and offers hope in the form of its smallest, most seemingly instinctive acts of empathy.

History from Within in Under a Painted Sky

paintedskyA different kind of western here, with two girls pretending to be boys, heading out to the great beyond, following the trail of hopeful Argonauts. Each is after her own escape. “Chinaman’s daughter” Sammy is fleeing from the law after she has fought off and accidentally killed a would-be-rapist. Andy, her black friend and companion and sister in outlawhood, is fleeing enslavement.

Stacey Lee handles all kinds of subtleties with great grace in this novel. Stereotypes get turned on their heads. Andy tells a story and everyone listens with rapt attention. Sammy can hardly wait to ask her, “Was that a story from your ancestors?” Sure, yes, the ready assumption. And then Andy shakes her head and laughs it off, saying, “Nah. I made it up.”

Stacey Lee Headshot.jpg

Photo courtesy of Stacey Lee

In all, what blew me away is how this book mixes darkness with humor, despair with hope. It takes a gritty part of history and gives us a fresh look at it. Humor, clever characterization, lively writing, and the clearly drawn female perspectives lift this book above the usual western staples of plot and adventure. Under a Painted Sky switches up perspective and tells an untold narrative of the west in the same way as do books like Vaunda Nelson’s Bad News For Outlaws or Susan Krawitz’s Viva, Rose!  In doing so it fills out and enriches the history, and gives young readers more complete look at the past than previous generations of books have done. And it works because the narrative stays clear and true to the main character’s vision of the world.

About the author: Stacey Lee is an award-winning author of historical and contemporary young adult fiction. A native of southern California and fourth-generation Chinese American, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall.  After practicing law in Silicon Valley for several years, she finally took up the pen because, she says, “I wanted the perks of being able to nap during the day, and it was easier than moving to Spain.”

More on Kindness

Consider the Philip Larkin poem, The Mower, in which the poet unwittingly runs into an animal in the grass:
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful


Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

We should be kind. When I was just beginning to declare myself, timidly, to be a writer, many people were unexpectedly kind to me. They didn’t have to be. I didn’t expect it. But they were. They invited me to workshops, to gatherings of writers and teachers, to conferences. They didn’t laugh when I dared to imagine I might belong at such places. The energetic, book-loving Marilyn Courtot asked me to review books for Children’s Literature, not yet the institutional database it is today but a paper newsletter. It was designed, in Marilyn’s words, to be “a lunchtime read for librarians to bring them up to speed on 50 new titles each month.” I gave it a shot. It was an education in critical thinking that serves me well all these years later.
Not everyone understood what I was trying to write–stories with Indian and Indian American characters and themes. Sometimes, even while trying to be kind, some writers unintentionally set me back. I walked out of a group where the members suggested I ought to work with tried and true themes and subjects–something more “American.” But I didn’t want to be tried and true. I wanted to be me, in my own words and by my own reckoning.
In 1993, the Internet had yet to enter everyday life. I moped, I picked myself up, I got on with it. I knew it was a messy undertaking but I went back to it anyway.  I didn’t have social media to complain on, and thinking back now, am I glad! I could have taken my disappointment and blown it away in a tweetstorm, instead of turning it into energy that could generate a new book.
license plateI kept on going. I found a group in Maryland, and later another in New Mexico. Twenty-odd books later, I’m still at it. And kindness still exists. Despite the descent of some virtual conversations into an abyss of endless nitpicking and name-calling, now it can exist online as well.  As Mitali Perkins says:

I write serious, global, ethnic fiction. My blog, Facebook, and Twitter allowed me to showcase that my voice is wider—that there’s humor. And I’ve [formed] relationships with librarians, with booksellers. Now I have these people who beautifully and earnestly will handsell my book.

And the writing–yes, it’s still messy. And I still depend on the honesty-and kindness–of fellow writers.

The Singular Case for “They”

In the last century, back when I first began daring to think of myself as a writer, I thought I knew how gender was supposed to play out in language. I had grown up speaking Tamil at home. It’s a language that is set up quite logically, with a neutral gender assigned to inanimate objects. I’d struggled mightily with Hindi, in which common nouns are gendered, there is no neutral gender and you’re just supposed to know that a chair (कुर्सी), for example is feminine and your glasses (चश्मा) are masculine.

IMG_2066But I thought I knew the rules in English. Pronouns were supposed to correspond to the referent, whether that was male, female, or genderless. When you dealt in plurals, however, the male, rather illogically, was supposed to embrace the female. That posed a minor problem for me, if truth be told. Still, (we’re talking about America in the 1980s here) I was determined to follow the rules in order to be recognized as literate. In order to make people stop saying to me in surprised tones, “You’re from India? But you speak such good English.”

[Brief aside: Rule-following did not help that cause. Some people still say that to me. These days I reply: “You don’t do too badly yourself!”]

So I spent a lot of time dancing around the noun-pronoun-gender minefield.

Then I read Ursula Le Guin’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness. And realized that the little unease I’d always felt about that embrace situation–well, maybe it wasn’t so irrational after all. Men have spoken for women for centuries, not to mention embracing them without asking permission. How natural it was then for the language of Empire to reframe suppression and erasure as inclusion.

Still, whenever I could, I tried to write in plurals. I’d torque myself into twisty sentences, or clip them all into many short ones, in order to make that gender connection unnecessary. But it was when I was reading students’ work that I really began to doubt my own adherence to a rule that had begun feeling more and more archaic to me. Susa Silvermarie’s critical thesis on gender fluidity eventually led me to question, among other things, some of the building blocks of grammar that I’d taken for granted.

In 2016, NPR offered this update:

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”

As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.

So there. I’m burying my gender pronoun hatchet at last. If anyone calls me on it, tell them to worry about something else instead.

How about apostrophes?


A Clear Sign

KohinoorThe lies contained in conventional historical narrative sometimes carry a peculiar, irrational sting.

Take the Koh-i-noor Diamond, currently part of the British crown jewels. A Smithsonian article by Lorraine Boissoneault examines its history and reviews a book about it, Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond by historians Anita Anand and William Dalrymple.

I had to read this book, because I remember seeing the thing itself, in an exhibit at the Tower of London back in the 1980’s. And I remember how seeing it made me feel a little ill. It was part of a whole lot of purloined goods. Instinctively, I knew that everything in the interpretive text was a lie. I knew that, even though I hadn’t quite formed the words to say so at the time.

“A gift from the people of India?” You’re kidding me! It was nothing of the sort. It had been taken off the hands of a ten-year old prince, sole heir to a kingdom in India–along with the rest of the kingdom, naturally. Ten years old. We don’t know how things would have turned out if he’d been allowed to grow into his ancestral role. He wasn’t exactly a gentlemanly role-model or anything like that. For now he lies buried in England. But he was just a child, and all of Empire was aligned against him.

Anand and Dalrymple take readers through the dramatic, poisoned history of the diamond, which can as well be read as a history of the subcontinent itself. The Kohinoor played, they say, a cameo role in that history, elusive and not as sparkling as you might think. Everyone wants it, the East India Company included. And here’s the thing, of all the kings and merchants, soldiers and courtiers who coveted it over the centuries, no one’s hands are really clean. As for the thing itself, it ends up cut down to half its size, around Queen Victoria’s neck.

The book leaves us with the question: what do we do with these stolen artifacts from the colonial era? What should we do with them in the real world and in our minds? Let’s be real. The likelihood of the diamond’s return to the land of the riverbed that gave it up is nonexistent. Still, the book makes us probe the questions related to that possibility: To whom might one return the diamond, since the king who last owned it was deposed and is now dead and the kingdom itself no longer exists?

Perhaps a clear sign by the museum case is an option, a sign that does not disingenuously gloss over the historical facts. Three decades ago, when I came to set my tourist’s eyes on the fat, glassy gem, and felt a sudden pang at being lied to, I think a clear sign would have gone a long way for me.


The Effects of Childhood Reading

We know why it’s important to read early and often.The neurological reasons, the psychological ones, the skill-sets we gain, and so on. But what about the long-term effects, so exquisitely subtle when they act upon a malleable mind? Some adults react to this with a shudder, leaping to the task of scouring through their children’s shelves and making sure they’re only getting wholesome fare.

But what if you read a book as a child, read and reread it, were fascinated by it, and then left it behind in the careless manner of children? What if you forgot all about it. What if years later you reread the book, and it was horrific? Written in a dark era by a polished, cruel mind? Its full impact hit your grownup self upon that second reading.

adichieI’ve long been a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I find her fiction rich and rewarding. I  recommend her TED talk on the dangers of a single story to everyone, and now the talk and related book, We Should All Be Feminists.

This article by her in the New Yorker has once again given me, the ex-child reader, plenty to think about.

To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man?

Today, there are plenty of books for young readers about the horrors of the Third Reich. But Adichie is talking about a primary text, a work of both memoir and propaganda: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. She reflects on that long-ago reading in incomplete snatches of memory combined with nothing more than speculation, surely, because what can you really remember of something like the effect of a book upon your own mind. Layer memory with interpretation and you have so many layers of subjectivity that you can’t draw logical conclusions. But you can remember the visceral effect of a book, the sensory memories of the time and place you read it. And you can absorb its subtext without knowing what it is you are really taking in.

I suppose it can poison you. But it can also be a kind of inoculation, taking effect long after that first reading, tempered by the life experience of the reader.

Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult.

Children are often drawn to the frail dividing line between truth and lies. They can often sense the contradictions simmering beneath the words, even if they can’t name them. The astute child reader can store away the impact of a book, only to make meaning of it years down the road.

Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies.

The writer looks for lessons in a text that may well have shaped her in a curious way. And she makes the point that the books we read in childhood, incidental as they seem to us at the time and beyond, are capable of being interpreted and reinterpreted for years to come. She suggests that history too comes around in circles. With populism on the rise, we would be wise to look for the past’s reflections in the mirrors of our own time.

Smell the Lemon Soap

In Sweny’s in Dublin, they sell lemon soap, just as they did in the pages of Ulysses.

“Mr Bloom raised a cake to his nostrils.  Sweet lemony wax.  – I’ll take this one, he said.” Ulysses, J. Joyce (1922)

robertgoganThis summer when my husband and I were in Ireland, a lovely friend in Portlaoise took me to a one-man performance by Robert Gogan, Strolling Through Ulysses, at the local library. It was irreverent, bawdy and charming. And funny, which I hadn’t expected. And the little library was full! Some forty people had come along to see this performance, with the spoken word reflecting on the written word and all of it about an iconic city and its love of words.

Before we left town later that week, my friend presented me with a bar of the soap. She said she’d bought it at Sweny’s years ago in anticipation of the right moment to use it or give it away, so it was mine.

soapHere you go. Sweet lemony wax. No comma after lemony. A parchment-like feel to the wax paper wrapping. And look at that period after the word “Sweny.”

So of course I went looking for Joycean children’s books, and I found The Cats of Copenhagen, a little sister to The Cat and the Devil, and equally puzzling.

cats.jpgOn the surface it’s a nonsensical tale, which is of course a perfectly legitimate genre in the world of children’s literature. But look beyond the lack of cats, the policemen lazing (and smoking, there’s a cultural incongruity for us in today’s world) in bed at home, and the old ladies wanting to cross the road. You will find an anarchic subtext:

When I come to Copenhagen again/ I will bring a cat and show/ the Danes how it can cross the road/ without any instructions from a policeman

Casey Sorrow‘s black and white line illustrations add to the fanciful story, but the ambiguity of the text dictates the reader’s reaction. And who but Joyce would spell a cat’s call this way?


In the 21st century, are we capable of thinking for ourselves? Is is even possible to conceive of crossing a road without instructions from a policeman?

catsofcopenhagenWhat do you think of that?

For me, that’s the big tomato in this little book. Time to wake up and smell the lemon soap.

Following the Story Trail at Highlights

I had a half day to myself at the end of a delightful Highlights Foundation workshop with my co-leader Cynthia Leitich Smith and our amazing TA, Sean Petrie, with visiting wonder-agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, Ltd. I was left exhausted but my mind kept on buzzing. A hike seemed in order. The trails on the Highlights map beckoned. The sun came out. The birds chirped. The universe seemed to be urging me to step into the wilderness and find myself.

My two hour hike turned out to be a kind of living metaphor for the writing of any large work–a novel, a nonfiction book–where you can’t see the forest for the trees.IMG_2108

  1. I got lost more than once.
  2. I followed the blazes on the trail.
  3. The well-marked trail I was blazing with enthusiasm branched off into an unmarked ramble. There was a trail but it didn’t quite sync with the map.
  4. The leaves crunched pleasantly under my feet.
  5. I passed the same tree three times and each time I noticed something new about it.
  6. I was uneasily aware that this was tick country.
  7. A flock of blue jays diverted and distracted me so I lost track of time.
  8. A major signpost pointed firmly to the last stretch–but was upside down.

Yup. All in a day’s work. Highly recommended. What’s the point of writing (or hiking) if you don’t take risks?

“Water is another matter”

Pablo Neruda wrote, relative to the “bristling” earth:

Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,

MonsoonI’m feeling drawn to thinking about water today. It’s the same sort of impulse that led me to write Monsoon, my very first picture book, which was published all of fourteen years ago. It seems more imperative now.

Maybe it’s just that in the time that’s passed, water has become ever more precious, an ever more fragile resource. Look at what they’re finding out about the delicate dance of ocean currents in maintaining the planet’s temperature.

Annapurna trek.JPGMaybe I’m missing the ice-cold waterfall I walked through, barefoot, three years ago in Nepal.

Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling this book down from my shelf: All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.

Start with the jacket, with the small fish leaping in one corner, the tumultuous wash of blue and the swoop of the title and byline into the book’s interior.

all the waterThe title page takes this further. The fish have wings. The waves take on a purple hue.








Still, it’s pretty straightforward. But turn the page and this is what you see:


There it is.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.

Simple. Elegant. And in the light of the slowing currents, deeply true. There’s more. I can’t quote the text without showing the images, and I don’t want to spoil the effect of the page turn. But between the art and the words, this book delivers its message with power and grace.

And now I think again about that waterfall. How I walked gasping through it. How it made me feel, for the next few hours, as if I were walking on clouds. How such things are gifts to us from the universe.

There are quite a few books for young readers now that address environmental issues including climate change, but it’s rare to find one that drives home the interconnectedness of living things with the systems and forces that keep the planet capable of sustaining life. Maybe we should be sending copies to policymakers in the United States.

In the Zone

I did it! Finally!

No false starts. Got into the process right away, maneuvered potential obstacles, adapted my pacing as needed. Managed to keep on going in more than fits and starts. Covered quite a bit of ground, including some uphill stretches, circled back intentionally a couple of times, even executed one slightly tricky turn.

Brought the whole thing to a reasonable end, for the moment, even if I know I’ll have to revisit it later. Ended up exhausted and energized at the same time.

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I am speaking of course, about my grey-haired-lady-bike-riding endeavor. But a day of good writing can have the same effect. As if you’re suddenly over the ridge, and the Big Tomato of it all has revealed itself but you couldn’t say how you know that. You can’t always see what lies ahead but the energy expended has managed to revive you. As if there is more where this came from.