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.

 

Hannah Moderow on writing Lily’s Mountain

 

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All photos courtesy of the author

When Hannah Moderow was my student at VCFA, she worked on a novel about a girl, a missing father, and a mountain. Not just any mountain but the iconic Denali, the tallest in North America. Her early draft contained striking elements of truth and beauty. It was difficult and moving. It is always hard to use a novel close to your heart as the vehicle for learning how to write a novel, but Hannah was one of those students you dream of, the kind who never flinches from hard work.

author photo-smallerI asked Hannah to write a guest post on the writing and publication of Lily’s Mountain. Thank you and congratulations, Hannah!

My dream to publish a middle grade novel began when I was a middle grade reader. In elementary school, I fell hard in love with books like Charlotte’s Web, Summer of the Monkeys, and Tuck Everlasting.

I knew then that I wanted to be able to create this kind of magic: words on pages that had the power to take readers into an imaginary world that could hold them and captivate them, if only for a few enjoyable hours.

Brilliant teachers throughout my life told me to keep writing… that I could become a published writer someday.

Thankfully they didn’t tell me just how hard it is to get a book published.

Flash forward to my early 20s. I’d finished my undergraduate degree in English and I had a big fat middle grade manuscript sitting on my desk. I went to a few writing conferences, and editors encouraged me to submit work.

This was back in the early 2000s when you still had to mail manuscripts to publishing houses.

LilysmountainAfter a few rejections that took months to arrive, I decided on a very cold day in Denali that if this dream to publish a book would come true, I needed to know more. I could read books and revise my manuscript a million times, but I felt like I needed more instruction… more feedback, more lessons, or more of something.

That’s why I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

I’d always known there was magic in middle grade novels, but I never could have imagined how much magic I’d find at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For two years while pursuing my MFA, I was given the rare opportunity to indulge in the magic of writing. I worked with four different advisors over that time—including Uma!—and I read dozens of books each month while writing dozens of pages.

This was the one time in life where I was being told to play with words, play with stories, and revise, rewrite, and re-envision. Sometimes, my teachers told me my work was brilliant. Sometimes they told me to throw away everything I had just written and start over.

The best part was feeling that everyone in the program—teachers and students alike—seemed just as captivated by stories as I had always been, since those early days as an avid reader.

IMG_2154I started Lily’s Mountain while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). From first draft to publication, the book took eight years to write.

Eight years spanning crazy milestones in my life. When I started the novel, I lived with two girlfriends in a house—our first attempt at being grown-ups after college. Midway through my MFA, I met Erik, the man I would later marry. Not too long after that, Erik suffered a spinal cord injury throwing a major mountain in our life.

We pressed on, and Lily was a constant companion while we were living in Seattle for a few months when Erik was in the hospital. For me, Lily became not just an imaginary girl in my imaginary story. She was a fellow traveler in this journey called life. Lily’s character morphed over eight years, and so did I.

VCFA did not save me from rejections. Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there. I remained hopeful that someday this story about a girl and her missing father, and the mountain that stood between them, might offer a little magic to young readers.

47 editors might have rejected Lily, but the 48th said “yes.” That “yes” made the dream to have a published book a reality.

I always thought life would feel different once I had a published book. It’s not as different as you might think. I love writing just as much, and I love reading just as much.

For me, the best part of being a published writer is imagining kids out there, even if it’s just a few of them, who open the pages of Lily’s Mountain and get to experience a few hours of magic that made me so sure that I had to grow up to become a writer.

I’m forever grateful to my teachers and fellow writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts for telling me and showing me that it’s worth it to keep on writing…and bringing magical stories to life.

 

 

 

Ten Years of Magic with The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

The Underneath coverTen years ago when I first read The Underneath, the narrative voice lifted me up and carried me off on a kind of story tide, irresistible and primal. I asked Kathi to talk to me about that voice that moved and stirred and haunted me.

 

[Uma] Where did the narrative voice in The Underneath come from? What did it take to bring it to the page?

 [Kathi] Uma, you ask the best questions. But they are also hard questions. I wish that I could say that the narrative voice for The Underneath came to me in a dream and I was able to channel it directly to the page. But oh my, that would be a big, fat lie.

For me, the voice always begins with the landscape. Each place has its own inherent sound, and what creates the sound for me is the mixture of voices that arise from it. When I was working on The Underneath, I paid attention to how the wind in the trees made a kind of baritone harmonic hum that created a basis for the other sounds to pop up and reflect against. There were the sounds that the various animals contributed—purring, howling, growling, screeching, hissing, etc. And then there were the deeper sounds of those who had once lived in those marshy lands—the Caddo and Hasinai. I listened for their footsteps, for their campfires, for their laughter and sighs. And of course, there was also the sound of their absence, maybe the most heartbreaking of all. I also paid attention to what I think of as regional sounds—the music of the bayou for instance, a kind of zydeco beat—as well as my own southern dialect, the one I grew up with, with its soft extensions of the vowels and its tendency to mush consonants together and expand one syllable into two. And over all of those came the bird calls, with their wings beating against the air—also a kind of thrumming, humming sound.

So, all of this together creates what musicians would call a “sonic landscape,” or maybe a “soundscape.” (I think a great example would be Aaron Copeland’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” Listening to it always takes me right to the Canyon).

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to capture the voice that encapsulated that landscape and its denizens. And one of the things that occurred to me is that there was no real hurry there, so I slowed down the rhythm of it and allowed the pacing to reflect that lumbering slowness. This gave me room for repetition and chanting and at least a little background humming.

I hope this makes sense. I really do believe that place, and all that it holds, is where we find the voice of a story. Of course, each character will have his or her voices, but they are overlaid against the setting. My flat, grassy backyard sounds very different from that mountain in your backyard.

[Uma] So true. And like the rocks and trees in a yard, there are stories within stories in this novel—the naming of a creek, lovers separated, a lost child, and more—stories of sacrifice and betrayal and redemption, anger and grief and through it all the small, insistent journey of a kitten. How did all these threads come together for you? What existed in early versions and what fell into place along the way?
[Kathi] This whole book started from a short story that I had written about a boy (who very much resembled my older son Jacob) who rescued a kitten from a creek. I kept going back to that story, and it just seemed like there were more to tell. The snake was there already. The hummingbird was there, and all along, the kitten—Puck.
The story was fine as it was, but it kept calling to me, and so I began to pull at it. I’ve often used the simile of taffy. The story felt like that, like taffy, and I just kept pulling at it. And as I did, another strand would appear, and then I’d pull some more, doubling the length, tripling the strands.
The ironic thing is that at the end of it all, it was that boy, that original boy, who was taken out. That was heartbreaking, really. He reminded me so much of Jacob, and he had brought the story such a long way. So, I had to think of him as a kind of navigator, as the book’s director in a way, and once the larger story made its way to shore, the boy was done with his part. Sometimes I think maybe I’ll return to that boy, but in a million ways I believe his story is somehow underneath it all, and he’s completed his job.
[Uma] These words from the book just got me straight in the heart back when I first read them. A decade later, they still get me:
“Who would look out for them? Who would stand watch?”
Kathi Appelt photo 2015_credit Igor Kraguljak

Photo © Igor Kraguljak, 2015

You, that’s who, I’m thinking. Is that a fair read? Can you talk about how you as writer stand watch and bear witness?

[Kathi]  Story is the only way I know how to bear witness. Or maybe I should say it’s the best way I know how. I realize there are other ways.
When I wrote The Underneath so long ago, I think my concern then had a lot to do with the way we treat others in our world, particularly animals. I’ve gotten plenty of comments that are pointedly disapproving about the treatment of Ranger in particular. I always respond that there were no animals harmed in the writing of the book. But it’s interesting to me that most of the concern for my characters is directed toward the animals. Not so much for the singular human. Granted, my villain is a dedicated villain. There’s not much that is redeemable about him. However, he was treated badly as a child, and yet I’ve never had anyone bemoan his fate.
[Uma] Oh, that is very interesting. Do we not care about humans who are treated badly?
[Kathi] In some ways, we are more empathetic towards animals than we are towards children, which is a sadness for me.
But it’s also a call to action. I think this disregard for our children shows up in school shootings, in overburdened foster care systems, in underfunded schools. In a law passed because a puppy died on an airplane flight, only days after that flight. But here we are, almost twenty years from Columbine, and no significant laws about gun control. It’s so infuriating.
Ten years ago, a mistreated dog set my fingers on fire. Today, I look at those kids in Parkland, and my heart says “go there.” Bear witness, as you say. And I’m so happy to have you and so many of my colleagues going there with me. Namaste, Uma. Namaste.

 

[Uma] It’s a privilege to walk this road with you, Kathi Appelt. Namaste.

 

Kathi talks to Cynthia Leitich Smith about surviving and thriving in the long haul as an actively publishing children’s and YA author.

Consider the World

In Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi writes:

I told my students I wanted them in their readings to consider in what ways these works unsettled them, made them a little uneasy, made them look around and consider the world, like Alice in Wonderland, through different eyes.

eclipse2A major celestial event like today’s solar eclipse should give us all pause, should make us “consider the world” in this way. It should make us a little uneasy, with a persisting sense of how small we are and how very big the universe is, and how easily we could throw it all away. eclipse3

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Images of the solar eclipse through a pinhole, a little south of the line of totality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wendy Mass’s characters in her middle grade novel, Every Soul a Star, grapple in this way with their places in the world. It’s an interesting novel to read now, because it was published back in 2008 when the dilemmas facing the world were rather different from today. And because the entire storyline leans forward, way forward, all the way to August 21, 2017. everysoulastarTo now, this day, the day of the Great American Eclipse.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of three teenaged characters–Ally, Bree, and Jack–the novel is set in a place that is close to nowhere, the Moon Shadow Campground in rural Oregon, a home as transitory as the eclipse itself and as loaded with meaning. A home that is smack dab in the path of totality. The skies are “dark and wide” here, a suitable home for a girl whose soul is tethered to the sky, a latter-day comet-hunter.

Some things have changed since the book was published–texting was still new back then, for example, and both the lure and the tyranny of social media were yet to come. Gender roles have been challenged since then and the challenges threatened all over again. All of which leads the text to travel quite well beyond its original time, in my opinion. There is much to consider here–the family history that ties Ally to the place, the lucid dreams that offer Jack, struggling with weight and family issues, an escape from reality. Even Bree, whose shallowness is initially annoying, acquires an emotional corona of sorts by the end.

Then there’s the eclipse itself. By giving us many ways to look at the lives of people leading into this single event, Mass manages to convey a whole worldview. Here’s a peek:

“…comparing what you see during an eclipse to the darkness at night is like comparing an ocean to a teardrop.”

and another:

I get to my feet and walk into the sun dial. “Show me where I stand.”

and a few more:

The pockmarked face of the moon stares back at me, enormous and bright. It doesn’t look anything like it does hanging above us in the sky. It’s so beautiful and mysterious and powerful. This enormous rock controls so much of whathappens on our planet. The tides, for one, and indirectly, the weather. I’m struck by the perfect way the universe fits together…

Now, in five hours, barring the end of the world, the moon will obliterate the sun.”

The pearly white corona suddenly streams out from behind the dark moon in all directions, pulsing, looping, swirling, glowing, a halo of unearthly light. I feel like I could die from the beauty of it.

There it is again–mystery and unease all wrapped up in one. As Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem unread during her lifetime:

It sounded as if the Streets were running
And then — the Streets stood still —
Eclipse — was all we could see at the Window
And Awe — was all we could feel.