Process Notes: Cynthia Leitich Smith on Sisters of the Neversea

This is not the first time my gifted VCFA colleague and longtime friend, Cynthia Leitich Smith, has held conversations with the literary canon. Her Tantalize series is an ongoing bestselling heart-to-heart over several volumes with Dracula by Bram Stoker.

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.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Smith, author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint, is standing in front of the flag of the Muscogee Nation. Photo by Christopher T. Assaf. Image courtesy of Cynthia Leitich Smith.

[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!

Wordplay and Profiteering: Fran Wilde on The Ship of Stolen Words

The Ship of Stolen Words blends humor and wordplay with eccentric magic. How about this for starters? A group of goblins steals a boy’s ability to use a magic word: “sorry.” And we’re off on an adventure involving goblin technology, miniature pigs, a couple of friends temporarily at odds, a Little Free Library, and more.

I asked the author, Fran Wilde, if she’d tell me more about her charming book.

[Uma] I was struck by the comparison early on in your book between the loss of a word and the loss of a tooth—it was such a perfect evocation of a universal childhood experience. What are the sources you credit for the magical, eccentric child mind that you channel so well in this book? 

[Fran] Thank you! It is something I’ve thought about for a long time — how language acquisition develops in phases, and how usage and understanding drops out and emerges in different ways for different people, at different ages (even for adults!), but mostly I got caught up thinking how surprisingly different your mouth feels when that first (or second) tooth falls out and what a big, new, tangible sense of something missing that is!

I’ve been so lucky to have opportunities to both teach and work as a summer camp counselor for children at many different ages, and I have a very magical kiddo of my own as well, so I’m around that magic a lot. At the same time, I kept a diary when I was a kid, and some of the things that fascinate Sam, Bella, and Mason (magical doors and monster traps, to name a few) were absolutely on my list as well! Lastly, I love to read — and I think books like The Phantom Tollbooth, Greenglass House, and Sal and Gabi Break The Universe, When You Trap A Tiger, hold so much of that wonderful magic in them.

(Kickstarter Creators, photo by Bryan Derballa, used courtesy of Fran Wilde)

[Uma] I am a Little Free Library fan with connections to the book exchange theme in a book of my own, so of course I was captivated by the notion of a Little Free Library as a portal between worlds. Can you talk about that element of your setting and how it came to play such a crucial role in the story? 

[Fran] The idea that neighbors all over the country and the world are building and keeping up these beautiful, whimsical outdoor spaces as places of connection and exchange warms my heart every time I see one. They’re all so different! And yet the goal is the same: reading and community, accessibility and sharing. That’s kind of like a portal between strangers, isn’t it?

The Little Free Library in The Ship of Stolen Words is something of a larger-scale woodworking project by the owners of the largest house on Sam’s block. They’re intimidating people, and Sam somehow has gotten on their bad side (something about Sam’s baseball wrecking the daffodils below the Little Free Library, I suspect)  a few times. The fact that this Little Free Library is a bigger, ornate structure, and that it just happens to be very close to a tree where a previous generation used to leave messages for each other, is of course part of what attracts Tolver and his grandmother, the word-stealing boglins, to it!

[Uma] This is a cautionary tale in the best traditions of The Phantom Tollbooth and The Wonderful O, but it’s also much more lighthearted than Riverland, which was also, I want to say, beautifully imagined and written. What drew you to this wacky mix of kids and goblins, wordplay, and the unraveling of order through greed?

[Fran] I love that you mention The Phantom Tollbooth! It’s a favorite. And I’ll be checking out The Wonderful O! When I first came up with this story (which is related, and I mention this in the dedication, to the fact that I myself sometimes apologize too much, and a friend once took all my sorries for a whole month (!) which was really hard to manage without, but taught me a lot about the way I use that particular word!) I wanted it to be filled with joy and discovery — kind of the way summer is. 

[Uma] Ha! I should really spread the word about your book here in Victoria, BC, where “sorry” is practically a greeting and there’s a Little Free Library in just about every neighborhood! But I digress. Back to portals.

[Fran] Portal fantasies are among my favorite ways to tell a story — whether it’s going through a wardrobe, traveling in time, or driving a mysterious toy car into a world filled with puns, in each case, the characters are traveling to a different place to solve a problem that they can’t yet manage in the real world. For Peter Pan, it’s growing up; in Narnia, it’s World War II. In Tolbooth, it’s boredom. I think, for me, this is all about problem solving, and learning to solve problems — much as wordplay is. 

The unraveling of order through greed is a whole different problem, and that one let me build a reverse portal fantasy where Tolver must come to the human side of the world to figure out his problems too! I loved being able to tell both stories, and show each character growing and changing because of their interactions. 

[Uma] Yes, and we can see ourselves in the goblins as much as in the humans, which is of course the best kind of fantasy fiction magic. BONUS: Fran is happy to take questions, so consider this a call to fantasy fans and wordsmiths to join this conversation.

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.

Process Talk: Shveta Thakrar on Star Daughter

Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar is a synthesis of astral melody and desi voices from the Indian American community. “Cupcakes and kulfi” to quote the book’s young narrator, Sheetal. The voices run from strident to loving, a few with distinct, affectionately drawn Gujarati accents. The drumbeat of Hindu mythology is never far. I asked Shveta if she’d talk about how this book came to be.

[Uma] Tell me what brought this particular blend of magical and real together for you.

[Shveta] I have always believed in magic—when I was younger, I could even feel the numinous in the air—and I’ve always carried lush imaginary worlds inside me.

I love a good second-world high fantasy as much as the next reader, but when I came across Holly Black’s Tithein 2002, I knew that was what I wanted to do, too—make magic accessible in our world, something just beyond the corner of your eye, and if you were swift and fortunate enough to catch it, you might be off on an enchanted adventure, too.

Throw in the desi/Hindu aspect, and that’s my heart on the page.

I wanted to ground this particular book (and the one I’m revising right now) in our world, so readers, especially fellow desis, could feel like this might actually happen to them. We all deserve beautiful escapism and hope, especially right now, and to see ourselves and our traditions and mythologies celebrated.

[Uma] It is lovely to read a book with Indian American characters that’s not an immigrant assimilation story. Yet, Sheetal’s experience of being “a half star,” “neither here nor there,” evokes the experiences of children and teens in immigrant families. Can you talk about the power of fantasy to shed light on our own real world?

[Shveta] Thank you! That was deeply important to me and remains so. I yearned for magical tales about people like me, fun stories like white people always got to have, but instead, it seemed like all brown and Black people were allowed was stories about the pain of being marginalized. There’s a place for those books, certainly, but that was never what I wanted to write.

Maybe I’m not half a star (or am I? I’ll never tell), but I’ve always felt caught between—caught between the desi American and other American communities; caught between being the “right” kind of Indian kid (the kind who doesn’t major in German and pick up herbal medicine as a hobby and dress up in faerie wings) and the one I was; caught between the world itself and feeling like I would never, ever belong anywhere or even be loved. (I’m so grateful I hung in there and learned otherwise!) So all that flowed naturally into Sheetal’s story, and I had a feeling it would resonate for other people, too. We’re all trying to find our place in the world, after all!

So while I absolutely believe in magic and long for it, I also understand the power of telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. Fantasy allows us to play with wonder and whimsy while exploring our own world from a necessary remove, so we can reexamine the things we take for granted. It can work both as adventure and allegory, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special to me.

[Uma] Every book teaches a writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

[Shveta] Not to give up; not to listen to naysayers (I was told many times when I started out that no one would ever want to read a book about someone who looked like me)…

[Uma] Yeah, I heard that too. You learn not to listen to some voices, right? What else?

[Shveta] that careful, thoughtful revision is the best gift we can give our work; that a good editor is worth their weight in stardust; and that if you listen to your heart, you will never be steered wrong.

[Uma] So true about revision. And listening to your heart. So–related to that, what should young people tell themselves that will help them find their way in this very complicated world?

[Shveta] There’s room in the world for every single one of us. Don’t ever let anyone silence your voice or tell you you’re not good enough. I’m here to say that you’re the light the world needs exactly the way you are, and you absolutely deserve love and magic. No matter what anyone else might think, you belong; I’m proof of that.

As Sheetal’s sidereal family would say, may you burn bold in the deepest night.

[Uma] Sidereal. There’s a word to carry in the heart. Thank you, Shveta.

Process Notes: Garret Weyr on Choosing Magic

I’ll admit, a good storytelling voice is my ticket to happiness. Garret Weyr’s middle grade novel, The Language of Spells, had me firmly in the grip of its dragon paws from the start. Read this little passage:

From The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr

By the time Grisha’s shape had been rudely shifted, I was a willing collaborator in the business of creating mental images that we call reading. No wonder the Kirkus reviewer called this book “extraordinary–not to be missed.”

So I asked Garret if she’d “explain the Where, the When, the How Come, and the How Long” behind the narrative voice that drives, modulates, lifts, whispers, sings, and quickens this elegantly crafted, yet completely child-aware story. Here is her reply:

Well, you have asked the question that sings my song.  As a writer, point of view is everything to me.  Who is telling the story, why are they telling it, when are they telling it, and where are they as they tell it?

Normally the process of answering those questions can take me half a draft and/or many many months. 

But this novel was always a story being told by a voice that knew about magic, dragons, and the cost of knowing both.  There are two reasons for this. 

The easiest comes from the rainy afternoon when I ducked into a junk shop and encountered a small china teapot in the shape of a dragon.  The dragon and I looked at each other.  I wondered how the dragon had gotten in there and the dragon, I suspect, wondered if I could figure it out.  So, I bought the little teapot and took it home.

Garret Weyr’s teapot

I should confess that my history with dragons goes all the way back to my childhood. Perhaps even to my father’s childhood. He grew up in Austria, specifically the city of Vienna and had to flee the city when he was eleven and the Nazis were about to march in.

He spent the second world war in England and the US and although he eventually became a US citizen, Vienna still beckoned.  As children, we went with him to visit every year and he kept an apartment there that seemed like our second home. 

My sisters and I liked a bedtime story and he liked to tell them.  Our favorite was about a dragon who lived in a castle on the Danube.  Now my father likes a sword fight, and so his dragon was forever running into battle with mayhem in his wake. 

Inside scoop: Garret’s late beloved dog Henry inspired Grisha the dragon in The Language of Spells.

To this day, my sisters and I are uneasy sleepers.   But we know dragons.  And Vienna.  More importantly, we know how refugees cling to stories of the world they once lived in but no longer do. 

And her imperious cat Dorcas inspired the magical cats

And that is my second reason for this novel being a story told.  My dragons had lost their home. Like large numbers of people who survived WWII, the dragons were refugees.  They had stories to tell. 

Uma: Maybe this is why I found this story so compelling. Because the dragons. struggling to live outside their lost homes, echo the feelings of so many millions of people who are forcibly displaced in our all-too-real world. The UNHCR puts the number at 70.8 million this year, one person forcibly displaced every 2 seconds. Garret continues:

I should add that I thought this would be a picture book.  It turns out, I am not a picture book writer.   I should have known that a book largely set in a hotel bar was not going to loan itself to that format. 

Live and learn.  

Indeed. Thank you, Garret Weyr. I wish you a richness of warm courtesies and the best dragon magic.

Mary Winn Heider on The Mortification of Fovea Munson

Jacket Pic MWH.jpg

Photo courtesy of Mary Winn Heider

Ever since Mary Winn Heider was my student at VCFA some years ago, I’ve looked forward to the books that I knew she’d write–curious, eccentric, inventive. Recently, having gotten my hands on a copy of her delightful middle grade novel, I spent an afternoon chuckling over it and marveling at the machinations of its author’s wondrous mind.

Allow me to introduce you to The Mortification of Fovea Munson, and to the author who brings Fovea and friends to life: Mary Winn Heider. I asked Mary Winn to talk to me about her wacky new book.

[UK] Talking heads and music, a loopy extravagance of wordplay, and a kid finding her way in the world–how on earth did all this come together in the labyrinths of your mind? I want to know how that brain of yours ticked its way into this story.

[MWH] Well, the first spark happened outside of my mind and sort of…by accident? I was looking around for a job and I landed a gig as the receptionist of the cadaver lab at a medical school in my city. It turns out very few people arrive unexpectedly at a cadaver lab! (Often those that do have nothing to say.) So as the receptionist, I did very little actual reception and had plenty of time to write—it was as dreamy as a cadaver lab can possibly be.

The lab was a great workspace, but it was also immediately clear that I should set a story there. It was all life-and-death-y while still being completely absurd, and if that doesn’t sound like middle school, then I don’t know what does.

As far as the rest of the puzzle, I knew Fovea and heard her voice right out of the gate. Everything else took its time. I didn’t know there would be heads until Fovea heard a noise in the lab and decided to go check it out. I had no idea what the heads wanted at first, although the options were limited. (In general, the limitations of having half of your main characters unable to move much of anything but their eyebrows was not something I’d thought through. If it had occurred to me to worry about it, I probably would have been way more stressed out about it than I needed to be. And this is probably true about most of the things we worry about when we write?)

Mortification of Fovea Munson[UK] Very true. And really, drafting is not the time for worry.

[MWB] The wordplay is inspired by my own family, but feels inevitable in this world, since medicine is a field of chewy language—all that Latin and Greek and euphemism. One of my favorite details is Fovea’s obsession with the Museum of Holography, but that didn’t enter in until my editor demanded (in the kindest way possible) that I figure out what Fovea actually enjoyed. After some mental flouncing around, I remembered that near the neighborhood where I imagine Fo’s apartment building and the lab exist, there used to be a real Holography Museum. It closed about twenty years ago, but I’d been to it just before that and it was so weird and cool—and I decided she might like it. It wasn’t until later that I realized what a perfect, intangible foil it is to her parents’ love of the corporeal.

So I don’t want to make it sound like I didn’t do anything (there was SO much to do!), but I did let myself be pushed around by the story a lot, and when I needed solutions to problems, I tried to use what already existed in the story as often as possible (like the Holography Museum, for example, or when I needed something flammable and I’d already stashed tampons in a drawer many chapters earlier. Chekhov’s tampons, I’m calling them.) That’s one of the things I love about revision—finding the threads that already exist to be tied together. I’m a big believer in our writerly inner geniuses, that we subconsciously plant things that later become useful or meaningful in ways we didn’t overtly recognize when we were doing it. It might not be a great way to get out of a labyrinth—getting pushed around by the labyrinth itself—but then again, it might?

[UK] Every book teaches you something you didn’t know before. What did you learn from writing The Mortification of Fovea Munson?

[MWH] Hmm. I learned I could write a novel, which is no small thing.

In the course of learning that I could write a novel, I also learned a lot about writing and about living and also about the cadaver business. I learned how amazing copy editors are…

[UK] Indeed. They are. Hats off to copy editors.

[MWH] And also how long you can leave a thawing head outside in the summer before it starts to go bad.

[UK] Wow. (To quote from the immortal Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, “Wow. That’s all she could say. Wow.”)

[MWH] I learned that I love revision more than I love drafting and also that when I make mistakes like accidentally ordering 600 legs, that stuff is very useful material.

[UK] 600 legs? You really did? I’m speechless.

[MWH] That’s right. I accidentally ordered 600 legs, because ordering legs—among other body parts—was my job and I was probably daydreaming about my story when I should have been paying attention to the online form I was filling out. I was supposed to order ONE leg at 600 dollars and…you can probably figure out what happened. But the good news is that then I realized it could use it in my story.

[UK] ONE leg at $600….I am lost in contemplation of this, but go on.

[MWH] My grandparents donated their bodies to science and I learned how that process works on the other end. I learned how to write about stuff that scares me, and how to do it in a way that is both irreverent and loving. Although—full disclosure—I’m trying to do that again, now, and I think it might be something I’ll have to learn all over again every time I write anything. But I’m here for it.

[UK] I’m so glad you are. What a treat. I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, Mary Winn Heider!

Guest Post: Michelle Knudsen on the Evil Librarian series

Michelle Knudsen says:

People sometimes give me the side eye when they learn about my Evil Librarian trilogy. “You wrote Library Lion,” they say. “You love libraries! Why would you write  a book about evil librarians?”

IMG_1387.jpgLibrary Lion occupies a comfortable spot on my bookshelf. My copy is well-thumbed. It’s a book I reach for when I teach, offering nice examples of an outsider protagonist and a matter-of-fact adult ally, raising interesting and important questions about rules and contingencies. So I was curious about the path from this beloved and loving depiction of libraries to…her YA Evil Librarian series. Here’s what Mikki has to say on the subject:

First, just to set the record straight: It’s only one evil librarian, and technically (this isn’t a spoiler; you find out pretty quickly) he’s not an actual human librarian, but a demon posing as a librarian. It’s an important distinction. And when he’s in his librarian disguise, he takes his library duties very seriously. So really he’s a good fake-librarian; he’s just also an evil demon planning to do terrible things in main character Cyn’s high school—including stealing away her best friend and forcing her to live with him in the demon world forever. (The one thing that’s safe is the school musical, because it turns out that demons really love Sweeney Todd.)

Libraries have always been safe and beloved places for me. My mom would take me regularly when I was a kid growing up in Staten Island, NY, and I still remember the moment I discovered the shelf of dragon stories that it’s probably fair to say changed my life. I was a library monitor in junior high school and worked in the Cornell University Library as a college student and later as an adult. I wrote Library Lion while working at CUL, and it was inspired by the amazing people I knew there as well as the feelings of wonder and welcome of that library especially but also of all the libraries I have ever known.

I suspect the reason the idea of an “evil librarian” appealed to me was because it’s so hard for me to imagine anything negative about libraries at all. Placing something evil in such a sacred space seemed to magnify the danger in the story and underscore the wrongness of the villain that Cyn and her friends have to find a way to vanquish. I loved writing this series, but now that the trilogy is complete, perhaps the next library that shows up in one of my stories will be the regular kind—safe and magical and demon-free (except for the ones tucked securely inside the books).

Curse of the Evil Librarian (Book 3 in the YA Evil Librarian series) comes out on August 13, 2019! Congratulations, Michelle Knudsen. Wishing you a safe and joyful passage from demon-gripped libraries to whatever setting lies ahead.

Cultural Complexity and Women’s Aspirations in The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad

candleandflameBritish Columbia writer Nafiza Azad locates her debut novel, The Candle and the Flame, in Qirat, a land located somewhere on the Silk Road. It’s peopled by royals and commoners, Shayateen who thrive on chaos, Ifrit who seek order, and humans with all their flaws and failings, joys and griefs. Qirat is a place of great beauty but what really drew me into this book is how much its cultures coexist. Deepavali lamps celebrate the Hindu holiday. The Azaan summons Muslims to prayer five times a day–in fact this is probably the best fictional rendering I’ve seen of those recursive calls of the muezzin. Rather than feeling imposed, they take on a kind of temporal force through the story, not to mention that the handsome muezzin turns out to be the love interest in an amusing subplot.

In the novel, the land of Qirat has been severed in two, the result of compromises following a terrible attack by the demonic Shayateen. It’s a backstory that feels subtly infused by the history of the Indian subcontinent itself, creating in the process a kind of aspirational mirror of the real world. The female characters are interesting and complex, sometimes pawns in a bigger game, but often engaged in a struggle for agency in their lives and for justice in their world. Fatima is the one we keep our eye on, but they’re all subtly drawn.

I found it interesting that the fractures in this world are not along religious or linguistic lines. Rather, they are rifts caused by the misdeeds of demons and people. Azad’s immaculately crafted prose weaves in the words of many languages—Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi—seamlessly and mercifully bereft of italics.

Read in e-galley.

Rajani LaRocca on Midsummer’s Mayhem

Midsummer's Mayhem final cvr.pngRajani LaRocca‘s Midsummer’s Mayhem is a marvelous mashup of two things you might not think were capable of working together–Shakespeare and fusion cooking! I asked Rajani:

[Uma] How did Shakespeare and fusion cooking come together for you?

[Rajani]  I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was a child. I played Cassius in our (very abridged!) 5th grade class production of Julius Caesar, and that sparked my interest. The next year, we read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was smitten with the tale of feuding fairies and the hapless humans who got ensnared in their mischief. And there is a connection to India that I noticed as a child and remembered as an adult when it was time to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM!

My greatest joy—my half-Indian, half-Italian, all-American family—is fusion personified. I’ve always enjoyed experimenting with flavors, but writing this book made me take this pastime to a new level, translating favorite foods from my own childhood into tasty baked treats.

[Uma] Your Mimi’s charm comes largely from her uniquely quirky eccentricities. Tell me how you went about developing this most endearing character.

[Rajani] Much of Mimi’s personality came to me as if she were a real person whom I happened to meet. For example, I knew that baking was Mimi’s great passion, so I made her point of view very baking-centric: that’s the lens through which she sees the world, and there are lots of baking and foodie terms sprinkled throughout the book. I also knew she was the youngest child in a large family full of accomplished people. Like a lot of youngest children, Mimi tries many of the activities her older siblings love, only to find that they don’t really bring her joy in the same way. Mimi tries to find her place in in the world, and wonders what she can do to distinguish herself. But at her core is her affection and concern for her sometimes exasperating, often wacky, always loving family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 1.jpg[Uma] Every book you write teaches you something. What did writing this book teach you about writing–or about yourself, if you like?

[Rajani] It took me several years and many revisions to write MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, and the process taught me so much about the craft of writing a novel, about how to take a story idea and turn it into the book I want it to be. But I’ve also come to realize that Mimi’s story is a metaphor for my journey to becoming a published writer. At any age, there is a gap between what we are currently capable of doing and what we wish we could do. It is uncomfortable to be in that gap, but it’s also where we grow and learn so much about ourselves. Just like Mimi, I’ve learned to appreciate what I have to give to the world. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM inspires young readers to create with their hearts and to have the courage to share those creations

 

[Uma] What’s one joyful and unexpected outcome of writing this book?

[Rajani] Although writing is often thought of as a solitary pursuit, for me the process of writing and publishing has been about connecting with other people. I can’t count the number of people who have helped me: my first writing teachers who gently guided a newcomer without crushing dreams; my incredible critique partners who read, suggested, laughed, and cried with me; and my tremendously generous, brilliant Pitch Wars mentor, Joy McCullough, who helped me in my final push with MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. The connections continued with my amazing agent, Brent Taylor, and my fantastic editor, Charlie Ilgunas, who helped the book become even better. I’ve become friends with some wonderful fellow 2019 debut authors, and we’ve supported each other through this zany debut year. And in just a couple of weeks, my book will connect me to young readers…and that is the ultimate dream come true!

Congratulations, Rajani! Much luck with this quirky, funny book, and with your future writing projects.

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

kiranmala-reveal-cvrBefore its publication, I did my best to get my hands on a copy of The Serpent’s Secret. I don’t know why it should be so complicated to get a review copy from New York to a Canadian address! Between mailing issues and the promise of a copy via Scholastic Canada, and the failure of the e-galley to open….let’s just say it’s taken me half a year to open the book and start reading.

I was hooked right from the first words in the dedication:

To immigrant parents and children everywhere–who imagine an idea called home into being through the telling of stories.

I was hooked by the character, twelve-year-old Kiranmala of Parsippany, New Jersey. Ordinary girl, right? Maybe not. Because Kiran’s swiftly sucked into a spiraling story in which everything she knew to be reality is upended. Her parents are gone. There’s a demon, a rakkhosh, eating everything in her kitchen. And who are those guys dressed in funny Halloween costumes? In short order, she’s charged with no less a responsibility than saving the world. Each character is delightfully and lovingly crafted. Narrated in the first person,  the book hums with Kiran’s personality, every scene infused with purpose, sly humor, and an unerring sense of the middle grade character on the brink.

And I was hooked, finally, by the underlying worldview in Sayantani’s book. This is a world in which immigrant identity isn’t the issue, and one in which the cultural particulars not only ring utterly true but are regionally specific, going beyond the all too common representation of the entire subcontinent as one monocultural space. And there’s the girl at the center of the story. She’s the one who must be in control, even (maybe especially) when the ground under her feet has just given way! Magic can happen, the book suggests, in your space, wherever that is. We’re all in it together, if we just let ourselves ride into a destiny waiting for us to take charge of it!

Every girl at that puzzling, promising, in-between age of 12 ought to read this first book in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Look for Book 2, The Game of Stars.