Process Talk: Sheela Chari on the Mysteries of Novelizing a Podcast

Manu Patel, Mars to everyone, is one of a motley crew of outsiders at H.G. Wells Middle School in the Seattle area. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is the first of a three-book series by Sheela Chari, based on an award-winning podcast from Gen-Z Media.

Sheela Chari’s opening title is charming, engaging, spot-on for middle grade voice and eccentricity. I asked Sheela if she’d tell me more.

[UK] You’ve ventured to the borders of the known world in this project. How does one go about novelizing a podcast? What parameters did you have to stick with and what was the extent of your creative freedom?

[SC] The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel is an original podcast that spans 3 seasons, created by Gen-Z Media. The Mars team did a fantastic job of bringing their story to life in podcast form, with kids around the world tuning in to find out what happens next as Mars and his pals search for their missing friends while encountering the mysterious billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt.

When I first came on board to novelize this popular series, I asked myself the same question — how do I take a high-action audio drama and turn it into a book? Some lucky things I had going for me: I had the entire plot laid out, season to season. The other lucky thing is that I had support from the Mars Patel team to take the story and make it my own. This meant I was free to explore these characters, their backstories, and even make adjustments to the storyline to make the novel work.

Still…I had some choices to make: where does the story start in time? How do we hear the voices of these characters who are so strong and distinct in the podcast? And how does Oliver Pruitt, who narrates the podcast, play a role in the novel? Eventually, I wrote the story in third person and I gave everyone a chance to tell some of the story, though we stay mainly with Mars. I also relied on texting messages, podcast transcripts, and comments to give us a flavor of how the characters speak with each other and over social media. This was hands down, the most fun I had in writing this book! I loved writing the group texts between Mars, Caddie, JP and Toothpick — with just a few lines I was able to show how they think and communicate. I also loved the sections where podcast fans could leave comments for their hero, Oliver Pruitt. As the novel progresses, their comments gradually change form adoration to suspicion as it dawns on them that Oliver Pruitt might not be the person he says he is.

In terms of the plot, I tried to stay as faithful as I could to the original story. Fans of the podcast who pick up this book will recognize all the key moments. This way the reader and the listener will arrive at the same place by the end of Book 1 and Season 1. But I also wanted to give readers something extra — the backstories of the core characters, to show us why Mars, JP, Caddie, and Toothpick do what they do, and why they remain so fiercely loyal to each other. Lastly, it was a joy to set the book in Washington State, where I’m from. People who live or have visited the area will recognize elements of the Puget Sound in Mars’ fictitious hometown of Port Elizabeth.

[UK] What came easily to you in writing this first series title? Any challenges you didn’t anticipate? 

[SC] Any mystery writer will tell you that the hardest part in writing a mystery novel is the plot. I didn’t have the problem! The whole plot was given to me from start to finish. Which really allowed me focus on the characters and the storytelling. The biggest challenge was figuring out how to create the character of Oliver Pruitt on paper.

In the podcast, Oliver Pruitt is the narrator. Listeners will realize early on that Oliver Pruitt is an unreliable narrator. He’s telling the story but he’s also part of it, and he’s constantly disrupting the lives of the main characters. Also, part of his charm is that you never know if he is a good guy or not. In the novel, Oliver Pruitt is not the narrator, but his podcasts are an integral part of the story. In the transcripts, not only do we get a flavor for Oliver’s personality, but I weave in clues that he’s signaling to the reader. Which is why it’s important to read the podcast sections carefully along with the rest of the book! 

[UK] It’s so great to see this mystery/adventure for kids with a South Asian American protagonist. Your thoughts on representation? How did you feel bringing Mars Patel to the page?

[SC] When I sat down to write my first mystery novel, VANISHED, it was very important to me that the mystery involved an Indian-American in the chief detective role. Which is how Neela, the main character, operated throughout the book. Her Indian heritage was important but remained in the background of the mystery. In the Mars Patel novel, I had similar ideas in mind. I was very drawn to Mars because he shares my South Asian heritage: his mother is from India. On the other hand, it was important that his heritage did not overshadow the plot. As one of my daughters said to me recently, she wants to be able to see Indian-American characters in movies and books who get to do all the same amazing things that their white counterparts do without focusing so much on cultural and ethnic differences. That’s how I see this book — showing us all the ways Mars is like any other American child growing up. His mother, Saira Patel, occasionally speaks in Hindi, she lights a diya in prayer, and some of the foods she mentions are Indian. She plays a larger role in the subsequent books, and in her, I see important moments that reveal her cultural heritage and how it shapes her character. To me, that strikes the right balance between Indian and American.

[UK] Every book teaches the writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

This project involved inheriting characters I knew nothing about. They were given to me and I met them like you might meet a stranger at a party. Which means I had to really spend time getting to know them inside out. In a strange way, it forced me to become more empathetic, to walk in someone else’s shoes. I had to dig deep to imagine their backgrounds and memories, and even, to figure out how they speak. 

I think it’s important for all writers to find new ways to enliven our craft. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of writing the same stories or thinking about characters in the same way. In her ground-breaking book, THE ARTIST’S WAY, Julia Cameron speaks of filling the well, of finding activities and experiences that reinvigorate us as artists. Writing this series was  definitely an invigorating experience for me. I know I will carry the ideas I learned from this book— on dialogue, on making my characters more inclusive, and thinking outside the box when it comes to finding missing things.

[UK] Thank you, Sheela! Happy trails to you and Mars and his pals!

Process Talk: Tziporah Cohen on No Vacancy

The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.

Photo courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?

[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.

I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.

[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?

Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen

[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!

As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.

[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?

[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.

The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.

[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).

Process Talk: N.H. Senzai on Secrecy, History, and Fiction for Young Readers

History is contentious in the Indian subcontinent, so often determined by religious and national identity, by borders. But “to breathe the air and touch the soil where your family originated…” That is the closing of a circle, a moment that feels practically sacred. That search to find self and family is the driving force in Ticket to India by N.H. Senzai. I asked Naheed Senzai to tell me more.

[UK] Secrets figure largely in Ticket to India—family secrets, hidden grief and looming over the whole journey, the huge, unspoken secrets of Partition. What did it mean to you to bring secrecy and secrets into the light of fiction?

[NHS] My family, like most families, have secrets. Most are incidents, actions or emotions that are secreted away because they emote grief and loss. Over the years, when I talked with my mother, aunts and uncles about our family history, I learned that one of the greatest turning points in their life was partition – a great deal of suffering and loss was generated by physical displacement, economic upheaval and the loss of community and country. 

I learned that secrets don’t stay hidden – they affect the very fabric of a family’s structure and manifest themselves in subtle and painful ways. My grandfather always said that he was ruined twice – one when migrating to East Pakistan, then moving to West Pakistan during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. These tragedies stayed with my grandfather and affected how he interacted with us, and the world. 

In writing Ticket to India, I wanted to honor our elders and highlight the memory of their sacrifices – they hid painful secrets to make sure that the next generation succeeded, as Maya’s grandmother does. 

[U] How does your Maya fit her name? 

[NHS] I have always loved the name Maya and I think if I’d had a daughter I would have chosen the name.

[UK] Me too! No daughter but I too had a character named Maya in my very first novel. Something about the name…

[NHS] For my main character in Ticket To India, I wanted a name that was global, crossed boundaries, religions and ethnicities.

The name Maya proved to have those characteristics;  Maya is an old Arabic word, means princess, it translates into eternal spring in Hebrew, and love in Nepali. There have been extraordinary Maya’s throughout history; Maya was the mother of the Greek god Hermes, and the founder of Buddhism. Maya is also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga, who is believed to be invincible as the power behind the creation, protection, and destruction of the world.

[UK] It also means illusion: the power by which the universe becomes manifest; the shifting appearance of the material world, a sense that things are not as they appear. Understanding that sense of shifting reality is a huge motivation for your Maya, as she longs to make sense of her family’s fractured past. Talk about why the past matters—to you, as well as to the lives of young people. 

[NHS] I love history and have always been struck by the saying by writer and philosopher George Santayana ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Only by knowing your history can you make knowledgable decisions on how to move forward. Also, current events do not happen in a vacuum, they are influenced by years of history. 

[UK] Very true. Your earlier novel, Shooting Kabul, explores a more recent history, of an Afghan family trying to make the United States home, and a boy desperate to make that family whole again.

[NHS] Most of my books  incorporate history and the importance of knowing where you come from and how it impacts your life today. Ticket to India delves into the impacts of colonialism and the coming partition. 

[UK] You and I both have connections with the subcontinent. What would you wish for that region of the world?

[NHS] Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan, once said “There is a little bit of Indian in every Pakistani and a little bit of Pakistani an every Indian.” 

My maternal grandparents are buried in Pakistan and my paternal grandparents in India. Before partition the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. And although the people of those regions are highly diverse, they were one and coexisted for the most part. That is the beauty of the region and I wish they would remember it today when there is so much intolerance and far right activity in the subcontinent.

I wish that too. Thanks, Naheed!

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

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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!

“I’m not really who you think I am.”

On the plane to Newfoundland I watched Captain Marvel. I’d missed it on the big screen and I must say it was quite wonderful seeing a woman taking charge of saving the world. “Buckle up, folks…”

And Brie Larson came through for me, whether she was kick-boxing or coping with memory flashes. I even found myself being faintly nostalgic for the 1990s! It was nice to check out of reality for a while and sink into a world in which female power prevailed, where you could sort of hand over the problems to a really competent superhero and rest assured that all would be well.

Of course, life isn’t that simple, and more to the point, the real heroes aren’t from some other galaxy. They’re right here among us. This is the point of the recent We Need Diverse Books story collection edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, The Hero Next Door. VCFA graduate Suma Subramaniam’s story, “Rescue” won the WNDB short story contest and is included in the book, which is a wonderful collection of stories about all kinds of heroes in worlds real and fantastic. Interestingly, in each of the stories, something is revealed about the character of the hero, and sometimes heroism can be seen in more than one person, so the quote from Captain Marvel seems apt: “I’m not really who you think I am.”

I asked Suma a few questions about her story:

HEROcover.jpg[Uma] What resonated for you in the anthology theme of everyday heroes?

[Suma] This theme resonated for me as conflicts and universal challenges unfold across all families regardless of culture. In tough times, ordinary people step in to help and we see great acts of humanity. Some of these people are not necessarily famous, but they do great things when no one’s noticing them – sometimes at a significant personal cost. I have been helped by many such people and pets in my childhood and adult life. My story in The Hero Next Door is written in honor of those people (and pets).

[Uma] Talk about the intersection of family conflict and the role of the dog in your story. Where did that combination come from for you?

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Photo courtesy of Suma Subramaniam

[Suma] The inspiration for “Rescue” came from a couple of stories and news articles I had read about domestic abuse. When I researched the subject, I found very little information on how children navigated family separation and domestic abuse in South Asian families. I knew instantly that I had to write a story about it as seen through the eyes of a child. The idea of having a dog in the story came naturally as I could not imagine Sangeetha’s life without a four-legged friend. Children often feel their whole world has turned upside down when they’re facing separation and domestic abuse.

 

Having lived with several dogs over the years, I have found that dogs bring joy in families and offer a healing path in the gentlest ways. When I immigrated to the United States more than a decade ago, my dog helped me feel less lonely. Dogs have a way of being patient, compassionate, trustworthy, and kind. They teach us valuable life lessons in the short course of their lifetimes that can help children in more ways than one. Sangeetha, therefore, had to have a dog who would be that special friend.

[Uma] Every piece of writing teaches the writer something. What did writing this story teach you?

[Suma] Writing this story taught me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wrote Rescue to practice writing short fiction without the ultimate goal of publication in mind. Putting out the finished product into the ether led Rescue to the right hands – to people who got the heart of Sangeetha’s story and were excited about championing it.

And I am so glad that happened, Suma. Good luck!

The Hero Next Door includes stories by William Alexander, Joseph Bruchac, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Juana Medina, Ellen Oh, R.J. Palacio, Linda Sue Park and Anna Dobbin, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ronald L. Smith, Suma Subramaniam, and Rita Williams-Garcia.

 

A Child’s-Eye View of History: The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

On the day in 1947 that she and her twin brother turn 12, Nisha yearns for her mother: “It was the day we came and you left…” She begins to write a diary each night. In it, she composes letters to her mother, even as the country around her fractures in the historical event known as the Partition of India.

Veera Hiranandani (see my 2012 Process Talk with her) has created a sensitive, watchful child character in Nisha, who embodies the fracturing of the country, because her mother was Muslim and her father and his family are Hindu. It is a month out from the independence days of the two newly created countries, and Nisha’s letters unpack her uncovering of family secrets, the relationships they leave behind and the perilous journey they must undertake to escape a place that is no longer home.
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At another level, the simple, direct first person narrative in these letters delicately probes a young girl’s dawning understanding of how the world works:

I didn’t want the new India. I wanted the old one that was my home.

As well the letters document the events unfolding around Nisha, as she sees how hate can raise its ugly head readily in a place where it didn’t exist before. Or did it? Was it always there, waiting for the machinations of governments and politicians to give it permission to grow? At its most personal, this is a story of a sister and brother fleeing with their doctor father and their unwilling grandmother, facing along the way the hazards of starvation, illness, and frenzied mobs fueled by religious hatred.

History writ small in this way reels us close into itself, with passages like this:

But here is the question that is most on my mind. I’m afraid to say it, even afraid to write it down. I don’t want to think about the answer, but my pencil needs to write it anyway: If you were alive, would we have to leave you because you are Muslim? Would they have drawn a line right through us, Mama? I don’t care what the answer is. We came from your body. We will always be a part of you and this will always be my home even if it’s called something else.

Here is a fictional rendering of the author’s family history. Its epistolary form makes it intimate and tender. It renders one of the world’s great tragedies accessible to young readers. In the end, this Newbery Honor-winning novel reminds us that love can be present even when it isn’t verbally expressed. It can bind people together. It can give rise to generosity and kindness in the midst of suspicion and hate.

 

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.

Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

bronzeanssunflower.jpgAs measured as the movement of the jet-eyed buffalo dear to the heart of the young boy Bronze, Cao Wenxuan‘s novel for young readers is a masterfully crafted work. Sunflower is the daughter of an artist who is sent to a Cadre school during the Cultural Revolution. When her father dies, she’s taken in by a family from the village of Damaidi across the water, where she finds love and belonging and community. The boy Bronze, who does not speak, becomes her brother.

And what a tale it is, of people who are loyal and loving and generous to one another against all odds! Each family member makes allowances, even sacrifices for the others, and they value Sunflower as if she were a precious jewel in their midst. Locusts, illness, natural calamity, aging, death—we see them all, and we see the children grow in spite of them, or perhaps because  of them. Even the casually brutal Gayu comes around in the end to help Bronze and Sunflower when they’re trying to hide from the city people. I could go on and on. There’s a brilliant scene in which the village leader manages a critical meeting, working the crowds, the family, and the officials with a dexterity that brings the lot of them alive in the mind. Those dreaded officials, too, have hearts. They, after all, come to take Sunflower back in order to make amends for having sent her father away in the first place. There’s a sure authorial hand here, nothing invisible about it and yet it never detracts from the story.

And the ending—I won’t give it away other than to say that its golden light suffuses the reading heart, and at the same time, it’s impossible to decide where it lands. It’s a study in ambiguity. Was it a mirage? And if not, where is the hope coming from that we feel so palpably on the page?

Finally, it’s hard to find poetry in a translated work and to feel in it the energy of the source language that it came from, but between Cao Wenxuang (winner of the 2016 Hans Christian Anderson award) and translator Helen Wang, that magic is conveyed across geographical and linguistic borders. Candlewick, 2017 (Walker Books UK, 2015).