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).

Karen Rivers on A Possibility of Whales

IMG_2134Karen Rivers writes:

When I began writing A Possibility of Whales, I had an idea that I wanted to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for a new generation of kids, taking into consideration both all that is different about being twelve-going-on-thirteen in 2017 and all that is, in fact, still the same.

Nat loves her mother. Well, okay, she loves some tenuous idea of her mother. The truth is that her mother left Nat and Nat’s famous superstar dad, soon after Nat was born.

Yes. It’s complicated.

A Possibility of Whales (see my ARC, festooned with sticky notes) is a complicated book, its beautifully drawn young protagonist a collector of words in multiple languages, with deep interior longings and a generous, surging heart. I asked Karen to tell me more about how this book grew in her mind and on the page.

[Uma] Nat’s facility with words, her lively imagery, the synesthetic quality to her perception—these are delightfully eccentric traits and they make her entirely memorable. How did Nat grow into her particular kind of quirkiness?

[Karen] Nat’s childhood is unusual.   Her dad is famous and also very particular about what he believes – not owning “things” is a big part of that, he follows an experiences-not-stuff philosophy.  Nat is naturally synesthetic – something I also have but didn’t know had a label until very recently – but I also think her upbringing lends itself to a heightened interest in the intangible.   Her “collection” of words, for example.

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Photo courtesy of the author

[Uma] I was struck by how much you normalize the trans character, Harry. You pull the reader along so that after a while the issue of gender becomes secondary to the growth of the friendship. Talk about how where and how Harry’s character emerged and grew.

[Karen] I know a young man who is trans and I’ve been observing from a distance how his journey has unfolded.  One thing that I noticed in particular was that amongst his group of friends — from the time they were really young — he was just who he was, a boy like them, without question.  There were some decisions on the part of his school at the time that I still question profoundly, which must have been terrible for him, which were traumatizing even from an arms’ length.   But afterwards, the kids just moved on.   They didn’t give the fire (started by misguided adults) any air.  It gives me hope for a future where people are simply able to be who they are, period.

[Uma] I was fascinated by the sheer wackiness of Nat’s phone calls to The Bird, and how they turn into something tender and important in ways we can’t understand until the end. No plot spoilers here, but tell me how you made the entirely improbably scenario of an impulse/prank call feel so plausible?
[Karen] I think the call in the book works because The Bird can tell that Nat is nervous and that she isn’t setting her up as a punch line for a laugh. As an adult who happens to not be in a hurry, The Bird behaves in a compassionate way – she pauses, she listens, she waits to discover what the call is really about.  (What would it be like, I wonder, if everyone were to be like that all the time?  We’re always in such a hurry, always angling away from situations that feel as though they might demand something of us. I think the fact of listening–the impulse to NOT hang up, to not avoid someone else’s needs–that’s when we are the most human, when instead of rushing away from something uncomfortable or awkward, we pause and give it space.) The Bird listens, listening is a form of love, and love is all that Nat needs, that all of us fundamentally need, don’t you think?

[Uma] Listening is a form of love. There’s a thought for the impatient among us–that would, I must confess, sometimes be me–whose first instinct is to make the connections, complete the thought, move on with the conversation. Thank you for this book, which tells me instead to stop, to breathe, to listen. 

 

Nidhi Chanani on Pashmina

Pashminacover-450x635Nidhi Chanani (the talented illustrator who created the cover for my Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh) is announcing a new graphic novel. Pashmina is the story of young Priyanka’s internal and real-world journey to India. Is this India real or not? What’s behind the exotic fruit and the glittery sari shops? In a swiftly turning tale that unfolds in black and white alternating with brilliant color, Priyanka navigates magic and mystery to uncover the history of her family and to find her place in the world. I asked Nidhi a few questions about the process of developing this lovingly crafted graphic novel.

[Uma] You write about the origins of Pashmina as “opening a suitcase and traveling to a fantasy version of India.” Why was this important to you?

[Nidhi] I wanted to represent India in the best possible way to Priyanka and to readers. In order for Priyanka to move through her journey, the fantasy India had to push her to step outside of her comfort and answer questions.
[Uma] It pushed her, interestingly, by falling short, didn’t it? The exotic elements were unreal, they weren’t enough. They weren’t the real India that she was looking for. Can you talk a little bit about the many connections you are making there for your character? What do you want your readers to take away from this?

[Nidhi] It was important to ground Priyanka with aspects of Indian culture while not fully introduced to the wealth of imagery and beauty. Through the pashmina her curiosity for the real India is accelerated. It was important that Priyanka’s journeys with the pashmina intrigued her to visit the country itself but the choice to do so had to originate with her.
[Uma] Your character, Priyanka, is an outsider in many ways. Tell me what led to the elements of her character as you developed this book?
[Nidhi] I wrote a lot from personal experience. Priyanka enjoys drawing and only has one close friend. She is teased at school for her difference economically and culturally. These aspects are directly plucked from my life. Her mom is a variation of my own. Nimisha, her mom, is strong, nidhiheadshotreligious and loving. And her mom’s life choices shape her environment as she navigates questions about her past. As I developed her backstory the elements of Priyanka’s character became apparent.
[Uma] Every book teaches the writer (and I’m presuming artist as well) something she didn’t know before. What did creating Pashmina teach you?
[Nidhi] It taught me so much! The steel you need to revise scripts is one lesson, but I also revised thumbnails 3 times for nearly every page. In total I think each page was revised 8-11 times. It taught me patience – making a good book takes time and dedication. Meeting my deadline taught me that I can draw for 10+ hours a day and I am fortunate enough to have a family that supports that. It taught me that comics are made from love. You have to love the form, flow and drawing the same characters for years. It taught me how to plan, ask the right questions of my editor and early readers. There’s more… but finally, it confirmed that I want to continue creating characters and narratives that are not often represented. If I can keep doing that for the rest of my career, I will be happy.
[Uma] Can you tell me how you went about developing Priyanka’s backstory? I know how I’d do that as a writer but your work is rich in images, so I’m curious—what did that process look like for you?

prisss-1[Nidhi] I drew these early Priyanka expressions to explore who she is through how she reacts and acts. I thought about how she would conduct herself in each environment – with comfort and freedom around her family and with trepidation and insecurity around others. This is one of the fun parts of the early work in comics – to explore your character through design, expressions, and clothing.
[Uma] Fabulous! Look at that Priyanka-face! Much luck, Nidhi, and congratulations!

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.

An Untold History, A Working Title

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

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

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

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Viva, Rose! by Susan Krawitz

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

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Cover art by Nidhi Chanani

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

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

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

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