Just Get on a Slope

The lessons may have gotten off to a rare and beautiful start, but my (real-life, not fictional) bike-riding saga then proceeded to run into all kinds of setbacks this summer–travel, houseguests, plummeting self-confidence, dead household appliances, no time, questioning the sanity of the endeavor, and so on. The rest unraveled at the speed of a piece of writing coming apart at the seams. The bike sat in the garage, its presence only serving to lower my belief in the entire project.

Does this sound like writing to you?

Today I forced myself to put the helmet on, because once I have done that and wheeled the bike out into the cul-de-sac, there is no going back. It’s akin to turning the computer on and forcing myself to look at yesterday’s draft of the nonfiction work I’m in the thick of at the moment. Then I walked the bike down to the park. I confess I thought it best to get in the saddle a couple of blocks away from home, where I’d be making a fool of myself in the presence of strangers rather than neighbors.

I got on, and managed to navigate a more or less straight line to the end of the paved trail. Great, I thought. I’ll just ride back and repeat. But back was ever so slightly uphill and somehow my best efforts tanked. Several wobbles later, it was perfectly plain that things were not going well. Breathe. Handlebars. Focus. Brakes at the ready. Kick off. Nope-nope-nope. All I got for my pains was a lot of tipping and stalling.

Then the woman bagging her recycling in the house across the road called out, “It’ll be easier if you just get on a slope and ride down.”

Oh. It sounded logical. Why couldn’t I see that on my own? For the same reason, perhaps, that I can’t see the forest for the trees in my own writing.

“Let the bike roll down on its own,” she said. “Really.”

I did. It worked.

I walked the thing back to the other end. Piece of cake. Well, almost but almost was good enough. Walked up. Rode down. Again. And again. It wasn’t always perfect. Twice, I ended up on the grass. But I put in my half-hour. Ten repeats, and I felt halfway capable of doing it all over again tomorrow.

Getting back to the work in progress, I decided to apply the lessons of the day. I read my partial chapter from yesterday looking for a slope to ride down. I found the single paragraph that I knew instinctively would give me momentum. I began writing there, keeping that energy going, pedaling through while keeping my eyes on the horizon of the chapter’s vision. It worked. I made it to the end. It’s not perfect, but it’s moving along. And more to the point, rolling to the end in this way leaves me feeling capable of tackling the work again tomorrow.

It’s all in the mind, but when you harness the gravity of your own draft, you’re letting the words carry you along the natural slope of the work’s landscape. As with a swale that channels flowing water, downhill is sometimes the best way.

Lean in to Kindness

When terrorist planes attacked the Twin Towers and the United States shut down its airspace, tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland stepped up and did its part. The Canadian airport opened its runways, managing to accommodate 38 wide-body planes on transatlantic routes.

But what about the 7,000 passengers? Nobody knew who exactly was on those planes. Rumors abounded. There could be criminals among those passengers.

Nonetheless, the people of Gander and surrounding fishing villages took them into their schools and community spaces, their churches and their kitchens. This, of course, is the inspiration for the musical, Come From Away, about to embark on a major North American tour.

It’s easy to fall in love with the warmth and generosity of the characters in the show. As the CBC episode points out, what conflict there is in the show is external to the main storyline.

The show…hinges on the incomprehensible brutality of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. But the theme of Come From Away is kindness, and the richness of human interaction when generosity is reflexive. It’s all about the opposite of conflict, thus breaking the law of dramatic tension.

All of which leads me to think about kindness in children’s books. John Frank’s collection of poems, Lend a Hand, explores generosity and giving in a child-sized world. From sandwiches to seats, puppies to trees, the poems speak of children sharing, giving of themselves through acts of kindness.

invisibleboy.jpgTrudy Ludwig’s The Invisible Boy, illustrated by Patrice Barton, is another gentle rendering of a small act of kindness with large consequences. One of the loveliest elements in the book is how the boy Brian changes from one spread to the next, slowly becoming more real with the increasingly visible use of color in the art.

It’s true. Kindness grows us. It allows us to be and to become. Unkindness belittles those who give it and those who receive it.

samesunhereAnd finally, here is an epistolary novel that is even more relevant today than when it was first published a few years ago: Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani. The fictional correspondence between Meena, an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown, and River, a Kentucky coal miner’s son, points the way to how two young people can take small, incremental steps toward each other, finding common ground against all odds. Here is the opening of Meena’s first letter:

Dear River,

I cannot tell from your name if you are a boy or a girl so I will just write to you like you are a human being.

and here is an honest and curiously touching passage from River’s reply:

I have never met anybody from New York City before. I’ve always heard that people from up there are real rude and will not hold the door for you, and you’ll get mugged if you walk down the street. Is this true? My mamaw says it is probably a stereotype, which I looked up in the dictionary and it means “an oversimplified opinion.” She also said to remember the Golden Rule, which she says a lot. She is real big on the Golden Rule, which is from the Bible, I guess. I don’t have time to look it up right now. Do you believe in the Bible? Since you are an Indian, I don’t really know.

Since 2013 when Same Sun Here was published, much has changed in the United States. Where the Gander story indicates there is a kinder, gentler worldview to be had in the north, the election in House and Vaswani’s book is altogether different from that of today’s reality. If River and Meena were real people, could they even bear to write to one another today?

But they are not real, and therein lies the power of a book. Within its pages, we can recreate the world and right its wrongs. And perhaps too, we can learn (or relearn) to lean in to kindness.

Context and Reference

Walking in one of Prague’s many interconnected parks, it’s possible to spot this little blue head perched on a wall in someone’s house. In a museum, sterile and possibly behind glass, one might pass this by, or at most see it as one piece among many. But here on this wall, there is something moving and tender about this sculpture.

L1030275Perhaps it’s the red brick behind the head or the matter-of-fact way it faces the road. Regardless, you stop to look back. You  see the subtle asymmetry in the face in the way you might see your own face in a mirror. Character emerges from that face, as meaning emerges from Sis’s book, arising from its context, “quietly shimmering, motionless, as if frozen in time.”

The Three Golden Keys yields plenty of meaning all by itself. But reading it while walking through these streets, I’m moved by the power of place. Setting is more than an element to employ in fiction. Used with skill, setting is story.

An Untold History, A Working Title

There are many stories that never get included in history textbooks and many others that should be part of the contemporary discourse but get overlooked. Political mayhem regardless, books for children have begun to take such stories on in fiction, nonfiction, and innovative combinations. Here are just a few:

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Ticktock Banneker’s Clock by Shana Keller, illus. by David C. Gardner

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No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illus. by R. Gregory Christie

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Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz

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Calling the Water Drum by LaTisha Redding, illus. by Aaron Bond

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Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

Now, with the release of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, I’m honored to have been able to bring one of these untold narratives to the page. More on the book on Kitaab World, The Book Smugglers, Teen Vogue Ms. Yingling Reads, and Cynsations. Thank you all!

Lee and Low, the diversity source for anyone who reads, is absolutely the perfect publisher for this book. They have staked out that very space in the children’s publishing market, after all, over so many years–the space of stories that don’t usually get told. Thanks as well to writer and educator Tami Charles who offers ways that teachers can use my book in the classroom.

At one time this book had a different title. It was only a working title, the sort you know won’t last, but it holds the story ahead of you in some mirage you keep on following. In that way, the working title keeps you working. At the outset, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh was called “Summer’s Promise.”

At this moment, with this book out, summer promises to be a season of gratitude.

Trees, Forests, and Human Myopia

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A nursing log provides a home and nourishment to new seedlings, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada

I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (Discoveries From a Secret World) by Peter Wohlleben. It’s not always easy going. The subtitle is subtitled, which tells you something about the structure of the book. Its narrative, often dense and circular, nonetheless offers up some pretty startling ideas about the forest you might think you know.

There’s an incredible study cited in the book about the sounds of roots? Sounds? That is correct. In a study of grain seedlings (because it’s hard to listen in the forest) researchers registered a quiet crackle at about 220 hertz on their sound equipment. And when other seedlings were exposed to that crackle they turned their roots toward it. Has all this really been around us for centuries and we had no idea? It seems incredible, even while it rings true. We’re known for our short-sightedness, we humans.

Wohlleben is a forester. He writes of forests as whole societies, complete and evolving. Trees support one another. Some are bullies and others are loners. They have friends; they feel loneliness and pain. They communicate through networks of roots. It’s a compelling argument to rethink how we have been looking at nature for over a century, like a machine, as if its components can easily be removed and replaced.

theastreeReading this book made me go back and look at a picture book about a girl in a city bereft of trees. Thea’s Tree by Judith Clay, published by Indian publisher Karadi Tales, is a child-sized meditation on humans becoming separated from the natural world. If books could talk to one another in the manner of trees, this book would speak to my own Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and maybe as well to The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever by H. Joseph Hopkins, illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

There isn’t a children’s book as yet that encompasses the wider view of trees that Wohlleben urges upon us. There should be. His book makes me want to open my notebook and get to work. Kids will get the idea that a tree is only as strong as the forest surrounding it.

 

 

Poetry and Claiming Voice

IMG_1335.JPGIn Vermont this January, when author-illustrator Don Tate signed a copy of his beautiful picture book for me, he wrote, “Love words.” I always have. For many of us it was words and their power that drew us to the uncertain and often unpredictable vocation of a writer. And no form distills words better than poetry.

In times of crisis, poetry gives us a way to claim voice, assert ourselves, protest injustice; it enables us to “live in the along,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it. It helps us maintain a kind of necessary conviction that we will, in the end, be right, even if that juster, kinder end seems deeply endangered at the moment.

Don talked to us in workshop about how he went about the work of creating this glorious picture book about poet George Moses Horton. What a story this is! Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Horton on the University of North Carolina’s web site, Documenting the American South:

By the time he was twenty, George Moses Horton had begun visiting the campus of The University of North Carolina….There he sold students acrostics on the names of their sweethearts at twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five cents. For several decades he “bought his time” from his masters through the sale of his poems and through the wages collected as a campus laborer.

Horton loved words. That’s where it all began.

I was especially fascinated by how Don has integrated the poet’s experience of words into the design of his book.

img_1337Here is the preacher’s soaring rhetoric.

 

 

 

 

 

img_1339Here are the alphabets floating into the boy’s understanding, as he’s drawn irresistibly to the empowering skill of reading, a skill forbidden to his people.

There are lessons in this book that arise organically from its story and fall gently upon the mind. They arise from love and family and community, and from a boy’s deep, abiding desire to know the written word. A compelling story, brought to the page with a loving hand.

Thank you, Don Tate and Peachtree Publishers.

Stan Yogi and Laura Atkins on Fred Korematsu Speaks Up

628dd2bfb56cd1d0122408860ee65943Since it was published in January, in a modest print run of 3,000 copies, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up has sold out and gone into reprint. Which is as it should be. I asked Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi to tell me what drew each of them to Fred’s story, tragically relevant as it is to our own times.

Stan: Fred Korematsu is one of my heroes. As a young man, Fred defied the government’s World War II orders forcing 120,000 Japanese Americans (including my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) from the west coast into concentration camps only because they looked like the enemy. Fred’s family and community did not support his actions. It took tremendous courage for him to stand up for his rights as an American citizen. 

His story is all the more important now with threats to Muslims, immigrants, refugees, communities of color, women and LGBT people. Kids need to know that we can organize and fight against injustice, just like Fred.

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Jana, Mona, and Batool from Fred Korematsu Elementary School in Davis, CA. Young people. Our last best hope. Photo courtesy of Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi.

Laura: I was over the moon when Molly Woodward, the editor at Heyday, asked me to get involved in the book. I was brought on to add my children’s book experience.

I grew up in an activist family and became an activist myself, arrested twice in high school at protests, and working as at Children’s Book Press and as an editor at Lee & Low Books, with a focus on diversity and equity in children’s books. I love that this series highlights people who have fought for their rights, showing the power of individuals, and collective action, to make a difference. 

This couldn’t be more timely. We’ve now presented to over 1,200 kids, with over 1,000 more in the coming few weeks. It’s been inspiring to share Fred’s story with them, but also to talk about standing up and activism more generally. At a school presentation in Davis last week, three girls told us how they raised money at the school after their mosque was vandalized. They were proud to share their efforts, and clearly supported by their teacher and community. It’s an honor to be connected to kids in this way, and I hope that our book helps to inspire more to know that they can also speak up.

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Stan and Laura with Karen Korematsu

One additional note: Karen Korematsu, Fred’s daughter, founder of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute, wrote an op-ed that was published in the New York Times. It’s about her father’s life and legacy and the relevance of that narrative to here and now.

Excerpt:

When President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning travel from seven majority Muslim countries, he hurled us back to one of the darkest and most shameful chapters of American history. Executive orders that go after specific groups under the guise of protecting the American people are not only unconstitutional, but morally wrong. My father, and so many other Americans of Japanese descent, were targets of just such an order during World War II.

United States policies already seem to be tilting toward inhumanity, intolerance, xenophobia. Here is a history that deserves to be remembered, if we are to keep from repeating it. Stan and Laura have done a remarkable job in bringing Fred’s story to young readers.

Love, Ish by Karen Rivers

loveishAt the center of Love, Ish is a girl with a light and lively voice and an irrepressible spirit. Congratulations, Karen Rivers, on a richly layered middle grade novel.

Ish’s voice is beautifully crafted, knowledgeable, and more, when the downturn couldn’t be worse, it’s funny. It makes us care. Mars is a metaphor for Ish’s journey, and maybe even for life itself.

A fuller review for CLCD will appear on the Barnes & Noble web site in a couple of weeks.

 

Veera Hiranandani: Teaching Writing and the Pure Act of Story-making

9780375871672_p0_v1_s260x420Veera Hiranandani is the author of the Phoebe G. Green series and The Whole Story of Half a Girl. See my earlier interview with her.

Veera also teaches at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY and at the Writopia Lab in Westchester, NY. (Her upcoming spring workshops, Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction and Story Mapping are currently open for registration.)

I’m happy to be talking to Veera again.

[Uma] Veera, what makes teaching a good fit with writing for you?

[Veera] They intersect in many ways and constantly feed each other. I haven’t always practiced teaching and writing together in the way I’ve been able to the last few years. During a writing workshop, though I’m supposed to be the “teacher,” nothing teaches me more about writing than working with my students. I’m always learning.

P1070394.jpg[Uma] Tell me more. What does your writer self learn from teaching? 

[Veera]  As a writer, it’s hard to see your own work from an objective point of view. I’m usually too close to it. When I work with a student who’s wrestling with some of the same things I am, I’m able to bring that objectivity or at least some of it back to my own writing and get a fresh perspective.  

I’m also privileged enough to teach both children, teens, and adults. Working with such a wide age range compliments so many parts of me as a writer. When I teach young people, though many have dreams of being a “real writer” when they grow up, I find the work they do is so real, because it’s not motivated by professional and adult concerns. They’re not thinking about the market or query letters or finding an agent, they are simply wrestling with the stories in their heads and how best to get them out in the form of the written word. Watching and guiding them through the process is to witness the pure act of story-making, one I can sometimes lose sight of. 

When I work with adults, I get to relearn many elements of craft as I try to figure out how best to communicate this information with my students. I constantly think about what kind of feedback would be helpful to me as a writer when I’m giving feedback to others.  I’m inspired by their productivity and their ability to go back to the drawing board to get something right. I also feel like I’d better walk the walk when I talk about the benefits of having a writing schedule, plotting, and pre-writing work, so they keep me on my toes. 

[Uma] Walking the talk. Too true. So how do we reflect that back in our teaching?

[Veera]  As I’m writing, I really try to remember and be sensitive to what leads me to my own writing breakthroughs. What was the process that allowed me to figure out this character, or this scene, or this plot, and how do I share it with my students? I find that I’m a much more reflective writer because of my students. 

When I look back to all stages of my life, I feel like I’ve always had a writer and a teacher in me. Getting to do both things professionally allows me to connect with a fully realized version of myself. I only hope I’m able to do both for a long time.  It’s such a satisfying circle, the way each process serves and stimulates the other. I can’t really imagine doing one with out the other anymore. 

[Uma] Thank you, Veera, for placing this work in the context of a writer’s life. Here’s to the pure act of story-making!

Down With Spoiler Alerts

Raise your hand if you find that the concept of the spoiler ruins any real conversation about the craft of writing. I sometimes tell my students that if they flip to the end of the book all they will get is information. Information is not going to spoil the wonder of the journey. Get over the concept of spoilers, I tell them. I don’t know if they really listen.

Jonathan Russell Clark puts it well:

As a participant in a story, the most practical thing to do is ignore what you “know” and let the narrative plunder you for all your spoils, strip your skin off your bones, and let it, in every way it can, spoil you rotten.

Spoil you rotten. Exactly.

The spoiler alert (Caution: read at your own risk, etc.) implies that once you know a fact about the story it’s all over. But it’s not, is it?

charlottesweb_coverCharlotte (gulp) died.

Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Rosebud was a sled.

Some spoilers are more emotionally loaded than others, I’ll admit. A seven- or eight-year-old needs to be delivered that particular arachnid demise most tenderly.

But I’m talking about writers here, people who want to understand what makes a story tick. If you’re a writer, the facts in a spoiler shouldn’t mean a thing unless you’ve read the pages in between or watched the entire movie. Facts are not what a novel is made up of (or a film). If that were the case, a bulleted list of scenes would do the trick and none of us need ever reread anything.  For the seven-year-old who first encounters Charlotte, rereading is everything. Rereading unpacks the beauty of friendship, of life, of loss and healing and regeneration. At that point, the child reader has gone beyond spoilers.