Process Notes: Gail Villanueva on My Fate According to the Butterfly

Once in a great while, I come across a middle grade novel that moves and shimmers in time to the beating heart of its young protagonist, while at the same time picking me up and planting me squarely in a place I’ve never been. That’s what My Fate According to the Butterfly, Gail Villanueva‘s beautiful debut novel set in Metro Manila, accomplishes.

This tender, funny middle grade novel, set in the Philippines, is narrated in the first person by young Sabrina “Sab” Dulce. Sab’s parents are separated, and she misses her father. The day her ordinary life changes is the day she sees a giant black butterfly alight on her very own heart-shaped silver locket on its braided metal chain.

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel My Fate According to the Butterfly was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews and was selected for the 2020 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC).

I asked Gail if she’d answer some of the questions her novel raised for me.

[Uma] How did you pull together this perfect confluence of butterflies, looming death, and family relationships?

[Gail] I’ve always believed that we adults tend to underestimate kids. They understand certain issues more than we think they do—and sometimes even understand issues better than we do. While I get the need to “protect” them, I believe easing kids into these difficult subjects in an age-appropriate manner will equip them with knowledge when they encounter these later in life. Because these issues aren’t just issues. They’re realities that people have to live with, not just here in the Philippines but everywhere in the world.

I hope that with my book, kids will find both a mirror and a window that can introduce them to these subjects that they’ll later face one way or another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect it’ll have an impact on every kid who reads it. But maybe—just maybe—it’ll give them something to think about and/or empathize with.

[Uma] There’s so much in this book that made me smile. Ate Nadine’s postcolonial take on history and life, the separated parents, the dad in a same-sex relationship. None of these is a plot point, and yet together they make for a complex, lovingly drawn portrait of a family and the community they live in. Can you talk about those craft choices and how you came to make them?

[Gail] I’m so glad you mentioned this! Yes, you’re right—every character’s backstory is a microcosm of different realities many Filipinos face. I figured that there is no better way to represent these realities but to show them through human experience. Not just Sab’s experience, but the experience of everyone around her as well.

You see, Butterfly isn’t the first book I wrote. I have an unpublished middle grade novel in the drawer, waiting for the day I’ll be ready to revisit it. Before I even wrote that one, I had a chat with a friend who studied psychology. Through her, I learned that it’s not enough to rely on personality types to create a character. I also needed to consider their past experiences, present circumstances, and dreams for the future, in order to come up with a believable cast of characters. I used this knowledge while brainstorming primary, secondary, and even peripheral characters for Butterfly.

Since socio-political issues are human experiences, I was able to weave them into the characters’ backgrounds, which I think helped in making everyone just be without the need to become a plot point in the story.

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

[Gail] I did a lot of research for My Fate According to the Butterfly—from reading journals, articles, blog posts, etc. to chatting with and interviewing people and experts with different perspectives about the Philippine drug war. I definitely learned a lot about the political and social aspects of the issue. It also gave me a deeper understanding of addiction and its effects on families, as well as the importance of rehabilitation.

In terms of writing as a craft, writing Butterfly helped me come to a realization that unlearning ableist language is an ongoing process. I tried my best to make sure that I didn’t perpetuate ableism by using “lame,” “crazy,” or “dumb” in a negative sense, but I still slipped one time and I was so ashamed. Thankfully, my editor and the production team caught the ableist word. It just goes to show that I still have a lot to learn.

[Uma] Gail Villanueva, thank you for these heartfelt, honest replies! I wish you butterfly gardens–and I absolutely intend to try cheese ice-cream the very next chance I get! Here’s hoping our paths cross in real time someday.

Series Nostalgia: Animorphs

riverofadventure.jpgLiterate adults who were once child readers tend to carry warm memories of books that shaped and nourished them. They also carry memories of the books they were addicted to, the ones that worked like candy, arriving in shiny packets, promising escape to imaginary yet predictable worlds, and usually dismissed by grownups as junk. Often these junk reads were series titles.

In my long-ago youth, they were the books of Enid Blyton. I read them avidly and repeatedly, and then tossed them aside for the next one and the next. In the end, I grew disillusioned with them and with the worldview they represented, but that is another story.

My son, now a responsible adult in the world, similarly devoured a series of books that pre-dated Harry Potter. Anyone remember the Animorphs books? Today we’d call them middle grade. At the time, they were thought of as YA.

I will admit I have not thought about the Animorphs books in a good, long time, but then I came across this article in  The Paris Review. And I remembered that child in my house, not yet morphed into a teenager, who devoured every one of these shiny new titles, poring over it until the covers disintegrated, at which point it was time to read the next. The pages warped from endless flipping to experience the low-tech spot illustration that “morphed” from front to back. My son subsequently created a miniature morphing flipbook of his own, transforming himself into our cat. It felt as if those morphing teens–boy to jaguar, girl to butterfly, girl to squid, boy to hawk–had moved in with us for the long haul.

In the Paris Review article, Frankie Thomas writes:

Look, I know! I know how it sounds. And yet, against all odds, the books were great. They were dark and witty and thrilling, endlessly inventive and achingly sad. They made me laugh out loud and cry myself to sleep.

Back in the waning years of the 1990’s and the start of the oughts, on the principle that I needed to know what the kid was reading, I read the first few. Even with my parental mind on, I could feel that dark-funny-aching blend. They were every bit as consumable as the Enid Blyton series titles of my youth, and they were clearly by a writer who knew what she was doing.

That writer, of course, is Katherine Applegate. She and her husband Michael Grant co-wrote the books under the name of K.A. Applegate. The series was a product (I use the word deliberately) of Scholastic Books. There were 54 of them in all. Eventually the fad passed, Harry Potter arrived on the scene and we were off on another kind of book-binge altogether–also, as it happens, courtesy of Scholastic.

But series titles count in the life of a young reader, and today I find myself thinking fondly of those cheesy 90’s covers and the friends with secret powers who battled the evil invasive Yeerks and kept my son reading voraciously.

The Yeerks of our time, alas, digging into our ears, uttering falsehoods, taking possession of our thinking, come from right here on Planet Earth. An Animorph or two might come in handy in the real world right now.

Remembering Barbara Brooks Wallace

Barbara Brooks Wallace, author of children’s books and two-time Edgar Award winner, passed away November 27, 2018, of natural causes.  It’s a term she would have liked–Natural Causes. I imagine I can hear her saying, “That could be a title.”

Back when the Internet was young, I was on a blue board lovingly titled The Pub, where a bunch of us chatted, rejoiced in each others’ publications and awards and commiserated when someone skidded on the inevitable peanut-shells the industry sometimes threw our way.  Barbara Brooks Wallace was our resident link to the history of the field. She’d worked with Jean Karl, which made the rest of us feel we were touching the hem of a goddess. Here’s Bobbie talking to me about receiving her first contract from Jean.

barbara_brooks_wallace.jpgBobbie was remarkable–full of ideas and questions and determined to stay connected. Here’s a 2013 post she wrote for Cynsations.

When Bobbie turned 90, we Pubbies put a birthday package together for her. It was my privilege to mail it, along with the scarf and matching blue socks I’d knitted. She’d been grumpy about that birthday and when the package arrived, she called me. I picked up the phone and there was Bobbie, laughing so hard she could barely talk. “You weren’t going to let me be cranky, were you?” she said.

Here’s what fellow Pubster Dian Curtis Regan says in remembrance:

Every time Bobbie posted to the Pub, her words made me smile. At the time, she was pushing 90 (!) yet was still ‘in the game,’ writing and publishing and wanting to talk about both.
To learn that she published a new book at the age of 95, Seeking Nip and Tuck, makes me happy, and also makes me want to be just like her.  What a wonderful role model for all of us writers.
Excerpt from the book description:
We’re in the dangerous streets of the New York tenements at the close of the 19th century, with two young boys who have escaped their vicious stepfather by faking their own drowning in the river. Matt and Mickey Deacon disguise themselves by changing their names to Nip and Tuck. But just changing names for two proverbial peas in a pod is hardly enough to save them from the determined evil predators who are seeking them…

And this from Fred Bortz:

On a trip to the DC area a few years ago, I met Bobbie at her assisted living place and took her out to dinner–Chinese, of course. Her sparkling personality was exactly as expected from our online interactions.

I am certain that as she passed away, the twinkle in her eye was the last thing to fade.

Go, Bobbie! If there’s an afterlife, you’re in some celestial Pub, still in the game, writing up a storm.

Guest Post: Susan Fletcher on Journey of the Pale Bear

Susan Fletcher‘s prose is glorious, and the history behind her middle grade novel, Journey of the Pale Bear (Margaret K. McElderry Books, October 2018) is fascinating. But the beating heart of this story is a deeply felt friendship between a boy and a bear, under circumstances both breathtaking and improbable. I asked Susan to write about how she built that relationship, how she made it so alive and so compelling.

journey-of-the-pale-bear-9781534420779_lgHere’s what she wrote:

It started with the bear.  I had read Daniel Hahn’s The Tower Menagerie and was taken with the exotic animals that lived in the menagerie in the Tower of London, beginning in medieval times.  And the animal that kept coming back to me was the bear, apparently a polar bear, a gift from the king of Norway.  The thing about the bear was…they let her out of her cage!  They let her swim and catch fish in the Thames River.  Though I was fascinated by many of the menagerie animals—the elephant, the leopards, the porcupine—it was the bear who captured my imagination.

As part of my research I contacted the Oregon Zoo, where I met, up close, the resident brother-and-sister polar bears: Conrad and Tasul.  Conrad (the male) was enormous (1500 pounds!), and had a commensurately big and goofy personality.  I really fell for Conrad.  But the polar bear in my book was going to be young, and young male polar bears are some of the most dangerous animals on the planet, making friendship with a boy unlikely.

I decided that my polar bear would be a female, maybe separated from her cubs, and that there would be a bit of mother-cub vibe between her and my protagonist, Arthur.  In fact, without realizing it, I had already put some of that vibe in the early drafts.   Right from the get-go, Arthur hums to the bear.  I found out later that polar bear cubs do a sort of humming thing with their mothers.  There was also an early scene where the bear reaches out a paw to make contact with Arthur.  I found out later that mother polar bears do this with their cubs.

So, what about Arthur?

He is a runaway, missing his mother, of course.  He is out of place in some way; he doesn’t quite fit the world in which he finds himself.  He is cut off from his family, unprotected.  I kept discovering echoes between Arthur and the bear.  They are both strangers in the world in which they find themselves.  They are isolated and lonely.  They long for freedom, and home.  In a way, they need each other.

In the 13th century, people didn’t feel as we do about animal rights.  I wanted Arthur to bond with the bear, but he still had to be a boy of his times.  One of the challenges of the book was to believably take Arthur from a place where a wild animal in a small cage is not a moral issue…to a place where he believes that caging this bear for the rest of her life would be cruel and wrong.

And finally, I thought about all the animals I have lived with and loved since childhood: a parade of dogs and cats and birds.  Somehow, without words, we understood one another.  We had relationships—friendships, actually—each unique.  So I tried to think, concretely, about how these friendships worked, and to bring that to the page, as well.

Susan, you do that and more. Congratulations on this beautiful book.

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.



Sayantani DasGupta on Identity, Resistance, and the Personal Rakkhosh

kiranmala-reveal-cvrHow do you create celebration out of despair? Someone whose work and thinking I’ve been privileged to follow over the years, physician, teacher, and now children’s writer Sayantani DasGupta explores these overlapping terrains in her article, Nothing About Us Without Us: Writing #OwnVoices Fantasy in The Age of Black Panther


…when I was young, I rarely saw myself celebrated, or even portrayed at all, in books, media, or the wider culture. As the saying goes, “it’s hard to be what you cannot see,” and since I hardly saw myself at all, I almost became convinced that maybe I shouldn’t even be – in other words, that I should make myself small, quiet, and nearly invisible.

Small, quiet, and nearly invisible no more. Racism and intolerance are the demons in our world. Supernatural solutions are the tools of fantasy but the real stuff? For young Kiranmala as for all of us humans, that comes from within. From resistance and community and a refusal to be silent.

Congratulations, Sayantani, on your beautiful new book. May your voice ring many bells among young readers and the  people who care about them.

A Second Look at Aliens

aliensonvacationWhen I first read Aliens on Vacation by Clete Barrett Smith, it felt like a funny romp of a book—a middle grade novel with a lovable protagonist, a cast of eccentric characters, and a terrific premise. I turned to it again more recently when I was looking for funny books to include in my Highlights workshop lecture. To my pleasant surprise, I found the delightful story and funny passages that I remembered but I also found more. This is something that is always enjoyable, but it’s especially gratifying when you’ve had the privilege of working with the writer.

In this first book of the Intergalactic Bed and Breakfast series, David (“Scrub”) goes reluctantly to his grandmother’s B & B for the summer. He encounters some pretty weird visitors, as well as a grouchy sheriff and his wackily appealing daughter. Grandma is a hippie grandma like no other. And yes, on the surface, this remains a fun tale about middle-grade anxiety, family and social relationships—and aliens.

But look more closely. You will find compelling layers that bring us in touch with our own knee-jerk reactions to those whom we don’t understand. Suddenly I found myself recalling how, as an immigrant living in the United States for three decades, the term “resident alien” always made me squirm. Substitute “foreigners” for “aliens” and this little book becomes a fable about xenophobia.

A satisfying resolution emerges with the aid of the Intergalactic Police—where are they now, I want to know, in the real world? Wouldn’t you love to call them up?

All kinds of other subtleties lurk still deeper, including questions of Scrub’s own family history and possibly even his identity. It’s a lovely way to open up a funny, quirky world, but don’t miss the mirrors in this book. They reflect our own human foibles.


Margarita Engle on Thoughts Trapped and Free

Margarita Engle’s podcast as US Children’s Poet Laureate addresses the privilege of reading, books as a forbidden commodity, and the limitations on the lives of women relative to her verse novel, The Lightning Dreamer.  Engle’s historical narrative is a fictionalized biography of the 19th century Cuban abolitionist poet Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, known simply as Tula. Multiple voices tell the story of the poet’s life as a teenaged abolitionist.

One image that remained with me was that of little brother Manuel, trained to be “a brave smuggler of words,” bringing the forbidden treasures of books to his sister. Borrowed schoolbooks, hidden beneath embroidery hoops, become the fodder of literacy. Words “glitter/ and glow/ in starlight.” Invented worlds are the stuff of comfort. A forced marriage looms in Tula’s future, yet “Thirteen is the age for dreams.”

lightningdreamer.jpgThere is broken glass here as well, a society in turmoil and a girl who stands witness to the plight of the enslaved and begins to take action in her own way. Engle’s books are child-sized yet each one is vast in scope. The Lightning Dreamer suggests that the failures of societies might well arise from a failure to imagine the world of the alienated, the oppressed, the other.In the end, empathy is the force of empowerment in this book–the ability, as Tula puts it, to “trade my thoughts/ for theirs.”

It doesn’t come naturally, empathy. Our deepest instincts push back against empathy when we feel threatened. They push us to fight against those who are different from ourselves, however we define that difference. We’d do well to think about this right now, in this moment, in our world today.

HavanaBut at another level, things get murkier. Because who gets to tell the stories of the other? Who should? Are there even definitive answers to those questions? Here’s Margarita Engle turning to these complex matters. She says:

Many non-‘own voice’ authors do thorough research, but Cuba is an easy country to misinterpret. Rural Cuba, in particular, is often misunderstood by tourists who speed past impoverished villages and farms in air-conditioned buses, listening to official stories told by government guides.

And then again, where do the limits of empathy lie? Is there such a thing as the objective truth about a place or people? No answers, only questions. The more we can talk about them, the better.

Supriya Kelkar on Research and Family History in Ahimsa

new-visions-award-winner.pngWinner of the New Winner Award from Tu Books/Lee and Low, Supriya Kelkar‘s debut middle grade novel, Ahimsa, takes place in 1940s India, against the backdrop of a nation struggling to unite even as its people fight for independence from British rule. Ten-year-old Anjali is the protagonist, thrown into the reality of a swiftly changing world when her mother announces that she has quit her job to follow Mahatma Gandhi and become a freedom fighter. I corresponded with Supriya in anticipation of her novel’s release on October 2, which is, appropriately enough, Gandhi’s birth anniversary. 
[Uma] What came first for you with this story–the history, the character, an idea, an era, or something else? Talk about what led you to think about writing this book. 
IMG_6435 (2).JPG[Supriya] It started with the thought of my great-grandmother, Anasuyabai Kale, a Gandhian freedom fighter in India who was jailed for her role in the movement. I was fascinated by the idea of a strong, sometimes flawed female leader in the early 1900s. As a screenwriter, I thought the story would make a great biopic. But no matter what I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it as an interesting screenplay. I then thought about making it a fictional story, where the character based on my great-grandmother was not the protagonist, but rather, the mother of the protagonist. But again, I struggled to make it work. Then I had the brilliant idea to write it as a novel to work out the story beats, and then go back and write a screenplay with the solutions I had discovered in the process. Clearly, I had no clue what I was doing because it turned out writing a novel was not a quick and easy task!
[Uma] What sources, personal and research, did you tap while you were writing Ahimsa? 

Gandhi's letter to Anasuyabai  Kale.jpg

Letter from Mahatma Gandhi to the writer’s great-grandmother. Used by permission of Supriya Kelkar

[Supriya] My great-grandfather had written a biography of my great-grandmother. That book was a great resource. It showed me how life was at the time. The freedom movement could be very small-scale at times, with individuals doing their part to make a difference for a few other people in their area through protests and letter writing campaigns. It also showed how those changes could inspire greater changes in the country. I also used Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, an academic website on Dr. Ambedkar, and old newspapers for research. For personal sources, I spoke to several family members and friends to make sure I was representing the time accurately, including my parents. Since my great-grandmother and grandparents had all passed away, I relied a lot on my great-aunt. She was able to fill in a lot of details about her mother’s story and the time period for me.

Ahimsa-cover-revised3 FINAL.jpg[Uma] I find as a writer that every book teaches me something. What did writing this book teach you? 
This book taught me the importance of patience and not giving up. I wrote the first draft of Ahimsa in 2003. There were many times over the years that I wanted to give up on the manuscript because it felt hopeless and things weren’t happening fast enough on it. I’m so glad I stuck with it!
[Uma] What tripped you up along the way, even after you’d begun to feel more in command of the work? 
[Supriya] Despite all the research through the years of writing Ahimsa, it wasn’t until I was working on the copyedit and double-checking my work that I realized a couple of the famous Gandhi quotes I had used in the book were probably things he had never said. It took a while but in the end, I was able to find words that were actually from one of his publications.
[Uma] Ahimsa is a concept that’s desperately needed in today’s contentious world. What do you want young readers—and their adult allies, too—to take away from this story?
The main thing I want readers of all ages to take away is the importance of empathy. Just because an issue doesn’t personally affect you, it does
not mean the problem does not exist. I hope young readers will be inspired by Anjali’s journey from a child of privilege to someone who is very aware of the wrongs in her world and is willing to do what she can to right them.
[Uma] Congratulations, Supriya Kelkar. Much luck with this book and others yet to come.

Love, Ish by Karen Rivers

loveishAt the center of Love, Ish is a girl with a light and lively voice and an irrepressible spirit. Congratulations, Karen Rivers, on a richly layered middle grade novel.

Ish’s voice is beautifully crafted, knowledgeable, and more, when the downturn couldn’t be worse, it’s funny. It makes us care. Mars is a metaphor for Ish’s journey, and maybe even for life itself.

A fuller review for CLCD will appear on the Barnes & Noble web site in a couple of weeks.