History From Within: Outrun the Moon

In my fifteen years, I have stuck my arm in a vat of slithering eels, climbed all the major hills of San Francisco, and tiptoed over the graves of a hundred souls. Today, I will walk on air.

outrunthemoon.jpgI asked Stacey Lee to tell me how she went about developing the character of the determined, gutsy hero of her YA historical novel, Outrun the Moon. Here is what she wrote:

I wanted to do a little stereotype busting with Mercy, who is the opposite of many of the Asian girls we’ve seen portrayed in media as shy, quiet, introverted, obedient, geeky or worse, exotic. She’s extroverted, charismatic, and willing to be a leader because of a cause she believes in, but not because she seeks power. She reminds me a lot of my mother who is all those things, and who grew up in Chinatown forty years after Mercy. Mom would tell me stories about herself marching up and down the hills of San Francisco wearing heels because that’s what teenage girls in the fifties did, and I imagine Mercy having the same sort of fearlessness.

And that intention comes through in the novel. The San Francisco earthquake rocks not juts the city but Mercy’s world. Her life’s longing shifts. So far, she has driven herself so she can find release from “pernicious drudgery.” Now she has to reach within and beyond herself to find out who is really capable of becoming.

A 2017 Amelia Bloomer pick.



The Legacy of a Newbery Winner from 1928

gayneckI’m grateful to Pooja Makhijani for including my comments in her terrific article in The Atlantic on 1928 Newbery winner Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It made me think about how politics, the laws of nations, and the upheavals of history can disrupt the narratives of people’s lives. We are restless beings, humans. Always have been, ever since the days we streamed out of Africa and ended up in the remotest corners of the planet.  Religion and politics, tyranny and dictatorships have tried to contain us, sometimes successfully. Sometimes we have managed to burst out from behind the restraints they’ve tried to impose. Sometimes only poets, artists, and novelists have the courage to speak the truth.

In 1928, when Dhan Gopal Mukerji went to receive his Newbery medal, he had to hide behind a stand of trees. The award had to be kept secret until the announcement. In a crowd of white librarians, his presence would have given away his status as the winner.

In our time, you’ll find a good number of brown-skinned attendees at the Newbery awards announcements. Yet surprisingly, few of the well-informed, highly educated people at those gatherings today will have even heard of Dhan Gopal Mukerji. Makhijani writes:

…90 years on, this once-celebrated book, which has remained in print since its publication, is rarely mentioned in discussions of racial and ethnic diversity in books for kids, as if Mukerji were some sort of aberration rather than an early chapter of what could have been.

Had the immigration laws not clamped down upon Asians after 1917, Pooja asks, what would books for children look like in the United States today? We may as well ask, what would society look like? Might it be kinder, more inclusive? The story of the bicultural Yuba City families, too, (of which my novel, Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh is a fictional rendering), is largely forgotten. We seem to want to erase the complications of the past, instead of learning from them.

Children’s books constitute an important layer of self for every literate adult. The fuses they light burn long into the future. The rise of xenophobia in American society suggests that we desperately need the adults of tomorrow to be endowed with rich imaginations, empathy for others, and the will to overcome petty differences. Acknowledging and honoring the history of our own field can only help us give tomorrow’s adults the gifts that writers are uniquely able to offer–foresight, intuition, the long view, compassion.

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.

Sarvinder Naberhaus on Blue Sky, White Stars

blue-sky-white-stars.jpgIllustrated by the acclaimed Kadir Nelson, and filled with a dazzling array of beautifully diverse people claiming a complicated national identity, here is a picture book that does an enormous amount with very few words.

I was intrigued by Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, so I invited her to chat with me here at Writing With a Broken Tusk:

[Uma] Some of the text in your book depends upon very specific illustrations. In other spreads, the illustrations add to the meaning of the text. Meaning is created in the spaces between words and images. Here’s what every picture book writer who is not also an illustrator will want to know—did you send in art notes? How did your spare words lead to to Kadir Nelson’s glorious (and very specific) illustrations?

[Sarvinder] It seems I am always defending my position of condoning illustrator notes. I know it is a big no-no in the unwritten book of rules for children’s publishing. However, I think editors do want notes if they are necessary. Since I use such sparse words, the illustrator notes are necessary to understand the story. I usually put them in, and make a note that they are just ideas and suggestions. I do find it frustrating though, because oftentimes I build entire worlds in my mind, and I feel I should be allowed to convey my world to the editor. I think it is necessary in seeing my vision for the character and the book. So often it gets cut between the journey from agent to editor.

Sometimes, I purposely add more words, because I am afraid they will not use my illustrator notes. So to ensure they keep true to my meaning and visuals as the author, I have to add unnecessary words to the text, to ensure it stays true to me.

Kadir Nelson, who paid wonderful homage to my words, used several of the illustration suggestions I gave. The illustration notes had a way bigger word count than the original text. Boom Boom also had a sparse amount of text, but I did not give illustration notes for that, as I got to talk to the editor in person.

My college students just finished their project — making book trailers for Blue Sky White Stars. You can see their wonderful work here: https://sarvinder.wixsite.com/blue-sky-white-stars/about (under Reviews)

[Uma] I came across your book while teaching the Picture Book Intensive semester at VCFA. I sent my students your text and asked them to imagine what the pictures might be. Then I invited them to create their own texts around subjects of their own choosing, in two-word sequences. It was a rich, rewarding exercise. But clearly, the spare text also came from your own journey, your life that has flowed into this book somehow. So tell me how, as a writer, you came to frame so many layers of meaning into such a distilled form.

Naberhaus.jpg[Sarvinder] How astute of you to recognize that my whole life has been leading me to this point (thus far anyway). I feel like it has been an accumulation of my heritage from my family.

How did I distill it? I wish I knew the answer to that. The closest thing I have to an answer, is that I write songs. And one thing I love to do with my songwriting, is to have a double meaning, or a twist or surprise. I do think it is in my DNA, and I love your image of my whole life flowing into this, because I think it goes back even further, to my dad’s life, and his mom’s life, and his grandfather’s life. As you will see in my author’s note, my dad’s other grandfather boarded a ship to come to America. His other grandfather helped build a school for girls in 1911 in Dosanjh. That was very advanced thinking for the year 1911, especially in India. How great that he recognized that the way out of poverty is education. This school just celebrated its 100 year anniversary. My grandmother (his daughter), as a girl, traveled and sang and played the harmonium to help raise money for this school. My grandmother was also a singer, so I think it is in my genes.

Often times, melodies and words pop into my head. I don’t really know where they (or ideas) come from. Sometimes they rain down out of heaven, and I catch them. That is the feeling I had when writing Blue Sky White Stars. It came to me. It picked me. I feel like God’s fingerprints are all over this book. I do believe He brought about the manifestation of this book, as a means of uniting and healing this nation. I feel this book is for All Americans, child and adult, and for the entire range of the political spectrum.

As for distilling these words into a condensed form, all I can say is that Kartar Singh was also a writer.  I too am a songwriter, and singer, and my “gift” for minimal words comes from that heritage. Songs tell stories in brief simplified form, and that is what I do. I think it is genetic, as I can’t explain how.

[Uma] And the back matter? It evolved too, I gather.

[Sarvinder] The backmatter is a story on its own. My lovely editor asked me to write backmatter, with a few weeks time limit. If you have ever done research for nonfiction material, you know that it takes a LOT of time!  There are always contradictory facts and you have to dig to get to the truth. Panic set in for me, as I was not researching ONE singular topic but the entire history of the United States! How was I going to research all of these topics and write about them accurately?  My friend Ann Green helped me with that and you can see a version of that on my website (click on menu: Blue Sky White Stars/Student & Teachers).

The funny thing is, after I spent all this time on the backmatter, reworded by my editor (you’ll see those 2 pages on the website home page), it was cut without my knowledge. In the end, I think the final replaced backmatter was in my original voice and matched the story better. I think this was the right decision. So it all worked out in the end and made for a good story (as I told my lovely editor it would).




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:


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


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


Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz


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


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.

Freedom is a Constant Struggle

I’ve been writing historical fiction and working on my historical nonfiction project at the same time as the unfolding of the most bizarre political events of our time. It’s all given me new windows into what the past means to me, personally, and why it matters. Growing up in India, I always had the sense that the American civil rights movement was a natural, inevitable validation of peace and justice. Of Gandhi. Of everything I grew to hold dear. Freedom. The end of colonialism. Human rights. Equality. You know. Those kinds of things. The things all human beings ought to be be able to take for granted.

Now, in the 21st century, I’m finding a new reason for why history matters. It matters because you can’t ever feel you’ve won the battle against human meanness, insularity, cruelty, and injustice. Look at this page from John Lewis’s heartbreakingly beautiful graphic memoir, March: Volume 3.  img_1167It is indeed. Last week I spoke to kids on the BC mainland about voting and rights and taking a stand–for trees, for people. It matters more than ever.

Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.


Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.

Diversity Within Diversity: Guest Post by Margarita Engle



Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of numerous highly acclaimed verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.  Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others.  Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award.  Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.


lion-islandI invited Margarita to write about her newest historical verse novel. Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words is the story of a little-known figure in Cuban history. It’s set against an astonishing intersection of cultures and resonates with notes of courage and resilience, yearning and hope. Here is what she wrote:

Many North Americans assume that all Latinos are similar, and that all Latin American countries share the same cultural background.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even the Spanish language is not uniform, with indigenous and West African words varying from region to region, and in certain countries, a mixture of Chinese words as well.  Chinese?  Yes, specifically Cantonese.  As the result of a mid-nineteenth century treaty between the empires of Spain and China, hundreds of thousands of indentured laborers were shipped to Peru and Cuba.  On the island of my ancestors, they were treated like slaves, and housed with slaves, feeding the plantation owners’ insatiable craving for imported laborers to plant, harvest, and process sugarcane.  Within a few decades, so many Chinese men had married Congolese and Yoruba women that an entirely new culture took shape, creating a unique linguistic, spiritual, and musical blend.

antonio-chuffatfullsizerender-3Lion Island is not only an introduction to the Chinese-African blend within Cuban culture, but also a tribute to Antonio Chuffat, a messenger boy who became a translator and diplomat.  His extremely rare memoir documented the nonviolent freedom struggle of indentured Cantonese laborers.  Their petitions to the Emperor of China might be history’s largest mass use of written freedom pleas, and perhaps one of the most creative as well, because many of the petitions were written in verse.  Interwoven with the arrival in Cuba of five thousand Chinese Californians who fled anti-Asian riots in Los Angeles and San Francisco during the late 1860s and early 1870s, I hope my historical verse novel will inspire young readers to explore writing as an approach to seeking justice.

Thinking about My Own Glares of Disdain

I can’t even begin to tally the many ways this NYT piece by US Children’s Literature Ambassador Gene Luen Yang speaks the truth to me. It’s about books as windows. You’d think, how could anyone say anything fresh and new about that old trope? Well, here we go. To start with Gene puts himself at the center of the anecdote:

glareofdisdain1Then he takes me into a scenario filled with the small, incidental meannesses of  childhood that we all know about. Only he’s culpable as well, so I am immediately committed to this journey, uncomfortable as it is. And it is, especially as he has happened to name his antagonist after (gulp) my only child. Point taken. We’re all part of the journey.

Snippet of banner text:

“When our class visited the school library, Nikhil and I were surrounded by windows into the lives of our other classmates, but never each other’s.”

glareofdisdain2And then, just when  I think I know what’s going on, I get hit with this! No, really? My book and Mike Jung’s? I was a fan already and now I am committed.

Gandhi, the movie, seals the deal for me.

What a powerful piece this is! It carries so much weight in each small choice that Yang has made. The local theater. The school library. We’re all in the same tangled webs of relationships and rough edges and glares of disdain. The solutions have to come from all of us.