Leda Schubert on Nathan’s Song

Nathan, growing up in a shtetl in Russia, loves to sing. When he hears opera for the first time he is transfixed and longs to learn this kind of music. His family and community, including his little brother Samuel, gather money to pay for his passage to Italy. What happens next is a marvel of picture book writing. I talked to my friend and long-time writing colleague Leda Schubert about the choices she made in telling this story from her own family history in her new picture book, Nathan’s Song.

[Uma] So how do you take a life like your grandfather’s and pack it into thirty-two pages? how do you decide what belongs and what is not germane to the story the book needs to tell?

[Leda] Good question, Uma, and I have several responses. First, I’ve been writing picture books for a very long time, and I’ve read thousands and thousands of them over my longish life. I think the form is embedded in my DNA by now. (I must add that many of these manuscripts have not and will not see the light of day. If you’re reading this and seeking publication, don’t give up!) That isn’t to say that I’ve mastered the picture book. Not likely. It’s one of the simplest and most complex of forms, isn’t it?

Second, I can’t remember much about anything. My grandfather lived into his 80s, but he was reticent about his past, particularly about his childhood in Russia, and I expect it would have been painful to recall. He did tell me the bare bones of this story, however, and some of it stuck with me. Maybe enough for a story, I thought. In real life, he drank a bit too much, got on the wrong boat in Odessa, and ended up first in Brazil, where he sold rags from a cart, learned Portuguese, and eventually made his way to New York. And he did sing opera. He was a gorgeous singer, even singing in Broadway/off-Broadway productions. He did make hats, he did fall in love with my grandmother, and he did sing for us at family gatherings on occasion.

Third, the rest? It had to do with the shape of story.

In the end, readers make a story their own, I think, but for me his story is about leaving home, finding home, and family love. It’s a story that’s true of millions and millions of people, often forced to abandon everything they’ve known and embark to unknown lands. (It is also true that several of my picture books have turned out to be about music–Ballet of the Elephants, Listen: How Pete Seeger got America Singing– which is central to my life.)

[Uma] I’m always fascinated at the way stories turn and create patterns. I was delighted that while Nathan may have meant to go to Italy and ended up in America, Italy came to him in New York, in the person of the marvelous Nicolo. Your thoughts?

[Leda] I have to say that was something I never even realized. It’s important to acknowledge, I feel, that there is something mysterious about writing. There are subconscious forces that shape our work. A writer must give those forces time and space to emerge. “Nathan’s Song” sat somewhere in my mind for decades.

Finally, as you ask, anyone writing about anything has to figure out what to leave out. What propels a story and what doesn’t? What are the underlying bones–the trajectory? I knew I didn’t have the space to go into more detail (I tried to cut even more), so what mattered most? What would an illustrator be able to work with? What could I rely on the artwork instead of the words to carry? What kind of action would there be on each page? For example, I didn’t need to describe the ship, Ellis Island, or Nathan’s village. I chose also to eliminate the Brazil years; they derailed the narrative. I didn’t need to write about the family back home in Russia, or what they would do in the US. Etc. Of course the editor chooses the artist, and I was incredibly lucky that Lauri Hornik found Maya Ish-Shalom. I couldn’t be happier with her glorious work, which is so bright and joyful.

This is from the School Library Journal review of Nathan’s Song:

This title pays tribute to courageous individuals, with an underlying message of the unbroken connection of family love.

[Leda] What is harder for me than compressing is expanding. How do you write a novel, Uma?

Hmm. How indeed. Very carefully?

India and Black America

India and Black America have often been on intersecting paths, paths that have largely been ignored in the national discourses of both countries.

Example: the influence of a former Inner Temple lawyer from Gujarat upon the life and thinking of a young Black minister from Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve been gripped by that story since 2006, and the resulting book will be out later this year.

But Black and Desi people share history along many dimensions, as this India Currents article demonstrates. Snippet:

…a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

The history of Indians in the US and Canada has been all about navigating the complexities of racialization.

And of course, there’s Kamala Harris, personifying an identity that went under the radar until now. Today, the Blindian Project celebrates Black and South Asian relationships.

All of which seems appropriate to think about, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in this still-new year.

Who We Really Are

Courtesy of the brilliant Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, here is poet Marie Howe’s reflection on humans and time and the big, big picture:

The Universe in Verse: Marie Howe reads “Singularity” (after Stephen Hawking) from Maria Popova on Vimeo.

Leads me back to Whitman. Seems as if many things these days lead me back to Whitman or Gerard Manley Hopkins. What is that all about?

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Because look.

Giant tree ferns in New Zealand. Rhesus monkey mama and baby and ancient rock art in India. Stardust, all.

Fantasy Fiction and Inclusion

Back when Greek mythology ruled and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson was turning middle graders into reading addicts, the notion of fantasy and cultural diversity was nonexistent. Tim Parks asked morosely whether an upward pathway existed from pulp to Proust. If anyone thought about diversity in connection with popularizing mythology in fiction in the years since, it was more kumbaya than prediction.

But times have changed, thank heavens and the end of the year feels as good a time as any to be gtateful. Now Riordan’s imprint at Disney-Hyperion is publishing exactly the diverse list that’s been missing for so many years. Riordan writes:

Over the years, I’ve gotten many questions from my fans about whether I might write about various world mythologies, but in most cases I knew I wasn’t the best person to write those books. Much better, I thought, to use my experience and my platform at Disney to put the spotlight on other great writers who are actually from those cultures and know the mythologies* better than I do. Let them tell their own stories, and I would do whatever I could to help those books find a wide audience!

The first of these I came across was Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time. Aru’s a charming protagonist whose casual relationship with truth gets her, predictably, into trouble. A dare ends up launching her on a quest in the course of which she finds out that she’s the daughter of Indra, king of the gods, and the reincarnation of Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata.

Other series titles from the imprint weave Korean folklore and space opera, add Cuban flair to the space-time continuum, and reclaim and recast John Henry and Brer Rabbit along with Middle Passage villains.

Along similar lines, see Sayantani Dasgupta’s Kiranmala books. And look for Van Hoang’s Girl Giant and the Monkey King.

Different Childhoods

From Neev Literature Festival in India, where I was likely headed in person before the pandemic struck, here’s an interesting conversation between Sayoni Basu and Emily Drabble.

I am a decade or so older than Sayoni, I think, so my reading was even more restricted than hers. And I had my own personal moment of awakening, after which I tossed the last Blyton book over my shoulder and went on directly to adult books. I think I’m still writing to fill those gaps in my own childhood.

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper

The old year creeps to an end in this muted, beautiful spread by Carson Ellis that opens the picture book edition of Susan Cooper‘s iconic poem, The Shortest Day.

Here is the full text of the poem, which has been a part of the Boston area Annual Christmas Revels for over 40 years. You can feel how these words, this sequence of events, these yearnings, have all emerged from a northern hemisphere geography, from the waning of days in the winter and the revival of springtime. We are all creatures of place, of particular places, and here is a poem with that kind of particularity.

Our lives are cyclical, the book reminds us, and we should honor that cycling of ourselves through the seasons of place and time. As chaotic and transformative as this year has been, we might remind ourselves that the year will turn, the seasons shift, the earth will spin on, no matter how we choose to live through time.

For a very different seasonal take on winter, see Malaika’s Winter Carnival.

Reasons to Give Thanks

Canadian Thanksgiving is long over–it falls, coincidentally, on Columbus Day. It has its own history, quite separate from that of the American holiday, although also loaded with its share of dastardly deeds from colonial times. As this MacLean’s Magazine article puts it:

This may be starting to sound like an argument for the abolition of Thanksgiving, given that it is textbook cultural appropriation, one that’s been repeatedly used as a tool to promote political ideals, often tied to ideas of racial and cultural superiority. The flip side of Thanksgiving’s shaky foundation, though, is that, in its modern form, it’s an invented tradition—like all holidays, really—that’s been tied to all manner of mythical stories to promote whatever vision of national or cultural identity needed at the time. That means it can be re-invented again to mean what we need it to mean now.

A repurposing of a holiday to redress historical wrongs? There’s a thought.

For a recent Native American perspective, this American Thanksgiving, consider this YA nonfiction book:

Adapted from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s text for adults by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese.

And here’s a great selection of titles from the 2020 list of books honored in the American Indian Library Association Awards, representing the richness of today’s Native American and First Nations voices. Includes Birdsong by Julie Flett, We Are Grateful/Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, Apple in the Middle by Dawn Quigley, and many others.

And finally, join me in giving thanks for the generous heart and transformative work of Cynthia Leitich Smith, author-curator of the HarperCollins Heartdrum imprint and 2021 winner of the NSK Neustadt Prize.

And What About Nostalgia?

Nostalgia reigns in the world of children’s books. What grown-up doesn’t have fond memories of books read or listened to in that enchanted time we call childhood? What parent wouldn’t want to buy their child a shelfload of those very same books? And yet, and yet…

I think about the Enid Blyton books that were my staple youthful reading, and I am frankly tired of the racism they contained, some of it veiled and some of it not so much. I think of The Little House on the Prairie books and Dr. Seuss. I tell myself I’d much rather see children reading anti-racist books. What are we doing, still feeding kids that old poison?

But what about the grownup world? Should we forget those books existed? Or does calling them out also call out the attitudes they’re infused with, attitudes that have not gone away?

It’s the question Angelica Jade Bastién asks in her article, first published in 2017: What are We to Do with Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?

Excerpt:

What makes Gone With the Wind’s racism so important and difficult to taxonomize is the deftness of its characterization. The white characters in the film, including minor bit players, feel real, complex, and human in ways many period epics fail to conceptualize. They are heroes it can be hard not to root for. For all her cruelty and selfishness, Scarlett’s prickly nature make her a fascinating anti-heroine. Yet everyone — including Melanie, one of the most selfless and naïvely angelic women ever portrayed in film — are still complicit in, and directly benefit from, the enslavement of black people. 

Dr. Seuss still dominates, witness this exhibition in Toronto at the end of last year, before Covid-19 shuttered all such mass extravaganzas. When the ALSC decided to rename the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, a mere 2 years ago, there was pushback. Nostalgia dies hard, it seems. I wonder if those who hold it dear know just how its effects are playing out in the lives of real children.

Enduring Appeal

I’m eating my Judgmint today in memory of Notorious RBG. Thank you to the clever people at the Unemployed Philosophers Guild who dreamed these up just to help me feel better.

Thanks as well to Sunil Adam for calling my attention to American Kahani, an online platform for Indian Americans and South Asian Americans to express our views on different facets of American life. The web site says it features “Indian Americans Through the Looking Glass.” American Kahani turns that looking glass onto the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a few different ways: What Ruth Ginsburg’s Life and Work Mean to a Young Indian American Woman Like Me by Asha Shajahan. Excerpt:

Like Ruth, I’m a first generation American. Our families have the same ideals for quality education and hard work to succeed. Ruth was brought up at a time where “nice” girls didn’t speak up or make demands. Women were treated as weak and second class citizens. They were obliged to follow men. Unfortunately, this gender disparity is still present today, particularly in the Indian community. 

More:

Indian Americans Mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Death; Flood Social Media With Tributes

Preeta Bansal, former Solicitor General of the State of New York, went down memory lane in a Facebook post… “she helped me to find my voice as a woman lawyer, as an Indian American, and as a person of spirituality and faith not of the dominant tradition.” 

and finally, from Ishani Peddi, a high school senior from Georgia:

The Youth of America Must Rally to Uphold the Progressive Legacy of the Notorious RBG

With her signature dissents and trailblazing history, RBG has always been a voice for liberals, straying from oppressive norms, despite their popularity. This attitude has inspired young women to speak their minds, even as they continue to be silenced today. Despite the age gap between Ginsburg and her ever loyal teenage fans, her ideas and personality shall forever remain relevant for those that seek to bring change and fight against stereotypes.

We’re all desperate to make connections, to find some meaning in the bigger stories playing out around us. Eat your Judgmints, my people. Remember those who came before. And consider carefully what you plan to do with your vote.

How Do You Compete With Free?

Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. “We don’t live in silos,” she says. In this interview with journalist and radio show host Nahlah Ayed, Ahenkora talks about her childhood reading, the challenges faced by publishers in African countries and her wake-up moment after reading Nancy Drew and confessing to well-meaning adults that she’d decided then and there to become a detective.

Dreams, ambition, reality, and the magic of escaping into a book, all interwoven with a reading of Bahiya, the Little Zebra, a picture book from Tanzania and Egypt, written by Nahida Esmail and illustrated by Randa Abubakr. (African Bureau Stories)

Ahenkora speaks of a book famine in Africa. She asks:

What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?

And when the marketplace is flooded with free book donations from the developed world, all glossy and beautifully finished, how can local entrepreneurs hope to compete? In 2008, she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children’s literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.The interview raises great questions and showcases the voice of a woman with an important and necessary vision.