Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Mother's Garden by Emila Yusof

Regionally specific children's books are hard to come by in much of Southeast Asia, so it's nice to see My Mother's Garden, an offering from OneRedFlower, a Malaysian press.

Here are some things debut author-illustrator Emila Yusof does in this book:

She doesn't drum in its cultural or geographic specificity. It's just the first person narrative of a child in a garden with her cat, playing and watching until the raindrops fall, driving them indoors.

This garden, however, does not have roses and daffodils in it. It's full of lush tropical plantings, and the child doesn't stop to explain that. She just plays on the cusp of reality and her own fantastic imaginings, while around her are aloe vera and hibiscus, ginger and frangipani and ixora. Backmatter shows us the botanical and common names of plants in the book, along with spot illustrations, but young readers can just as easily enjoy the book without this added information.

Children who live near such gardens will recognize them and feel the pleasure that comes with familiarity. Children who have never seen a frangipani tree could well feel the very different pleasure that comes from traveling through the pages of a book.

Slice of life stories may feel passe in markets that were deluged with them twenty years ago, but in some places the questions still remain: whose slice and which lives are being privileged, and why.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Metafictional interview: Seaglass Summer by Anjali Banerjee

When Katia Novet Saint-Lot's picture book, Amadi's Snowman came out, the Tusk ran an interview, not with Katia in her author role, but with her fictional protagonist, Amadi.

In similar vein, here's an interview with Poppy, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Anjali Banerjee's warm, funny middle grade novel, Seaglass Summer. I had the pleasure of reading this book in manuscript form, so it's a delight to see it in print now. Indulge me while I indulge in a little metafictional conversation with its young protagonist.

[Uma] Hi, Poppy! Welcome. The last time I "saw" you, you were still emerging from Anjali's thoughts, but you seem pretty real to me now. Can you tell readers about the very first draft in which you appeared? How long ago was it and how did you change through the drafts?

[Poppy] Anjali took so long to find my true personality, I got bored. She took nearly two years. I had to get several haircuts along the way, and I outgrew my clothes.

In the beginning, I danced across the stage in the school play. I wanted to be a famous actress, and Anjali wanted to send me off to stay with Uncle Sanjay, a veterinarian on a Pacific Northwest island, to teach me a lesson in compassion. You know – I would take care of little creatures and learn to think about someone other than myself. But I wasn’t a likable girl, so Anjali thought, why not give Poppy an adopted baby sister?


So in a second and third and fourth draft – sigh – my parents are flying off to India to adopt a baby, and they send me to stay with, you guessed it, Uncle Sanjay, so I’ll learn how to care for small, vulnerable creatures. The idea was, by the end of summer, I would be ready for my new little sister. But the baby kept disappearing, falling off the page. Anjali worried that the reader wouldn’t care about the poor little thing. With help from you, Uma, Anjali decided to toss the baby. Not literally. The baby crawled off into the sunset, off the page and out of the story.

[Uma] I do remember that. My apologies for stirring things up. Maybe that baby will find a home in some other story. So then in the end...?

[Poppy] In the end, Anjali got down to the nitty gritty. The story opens with me, Poppy Ray, which, you know, makes sense. It is my story! Jeez, you writer types, what a lot of circling you have to do to get to the point. So anyway, I'm about to board the ferry to my uncle’s island. I’ve got my special Deluxe Veterinarian First Aid Kit. All I want in the whole world is to become a vet like my Uncle Sanjay.  For the rest, anyone who wants to know will have to read the book.

[Uma] Do you think Anjali changed through those drafts?

[Poppy] Ha! Serve her right if she did. I know she got frustrated, but you know, I think she learned a lot. About how she writes, how much memory her computer has, and how much patience her editors have too.

[Uma] Speaking of change, that summer meant a lot to you--by the time Mom and Dad got back from India, you had grown. Do you think part of it was the place? Mists and old-fashioned streets and that terrific name, "Witless Cove"? And the lavender festival--that really got me! Can you talk about the magic of Nisqually Island?

[Poppy] Oh, it got me too. I want to run on the beach with Uncle Sanjay’s sweet dog, Stu (I miss him) and find treasures in the sand. Nisqually gave me so many memories of things I couldn't have done in L.A. Memories of my new friend, Hawk, and the animals and people that came into my uncle’s clinic. The island gave me room and I guess freedom to think and explore in my own way, away from school and my parents.

Anjali's been to many of the magical, misty islands in the Pacific Northwest – Whidbey Island, Bainbridge Island, San Juan Island, Orcas Island. Nisqually is a make-believe island, but it's a combination of all those places, just like I'm a combination of thoughts and traits and stuff.

[Uma] What did the piece of seaglass mean to you? What does its memory mean now?

[Poppy] The seaglass was my window into the world, I suppose you could say my way of seeing things. In the beginning, I thought it would be easy to take care of animals. I could heal them all. But as I began to understand how complicated it all was, the clear piece of seaglass started to turn cloudy. I think of that cloudiness sometimes, and it's okay. You don't always have to have answers right away.

[Uma] If you could say one thing to your younger self what would it be?

[Poppy] That’s a hard question. Maybe, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to make a difference in the world. Just take it slow.

[Uma] If you could give one piece of advice to writers who are writing for the middle grades, what would it be?

[Poppy] Tell a good story. Well, show me a good story. Don’t try to teach me a lesson!

[Uma] Thanks Poppy. And thanks for leading me to Uncle Sanjay's "Furry Friends Animal Clinic: A Healing Place for Pets."

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Gap Between Intention and Action

I wrote a few draft chapters before I left for Vermont, and beyond a cursory glance, once during the residency, didn't really read them again until now. Rereading, I saw that I had fallen yet again into the common trap of the draft: I'd placed characters on stage, after which they just stood around, telling me about themselves but not really doing anything much. The writing was fine, even funny in places. But it wasn't about the heart of story, the character-in-setting, and it wasn't moving along. It sauntered in places then slid to a halt again. Started up, stopped.

This morning, getting ready to dive back into that work, I listened to a couple of TED lectures, as I often do to get my mind moving, to get past the pause button that Tim Wynne-Jones includes in his "Eleven Things you Need to Know" about story.

Here are two talks, both related to forests. One is by Corneille Ewango, Congolese botanist, talking about his work in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, the work he has persevered at despite the obstacles posed by poachers, miners, and the ravages of civil war. The other is by Nalini Nadkarni about the nature of static systems and how we can change them by shifting our perspective.

In their own way they are both about story. The first is a personal history, plainly told but oh so voiced. You can practically see the speaker living this life, pursuing the career he dreamed of against great odds, and revising his talk even as he speaks. Retitling it. Extending it. Sliding to its impassioned ending. Becoming the words.

The second is briefer, more controlled, and with a startling plot turn, to frame it in the conventions of fiction. What the speaker did in the spirit of inquiry made my mind race in fictional ways. Imagine trees that began to paint pictures. What if this happened spontaneously? What if the paintings left messages, only no one could understand them? Nadkarni shifted her understanding from trees to social action in prison systems. I can see myself transplanting her stunning image into the only realm I know that deeply--the systems of fictional worlds, those places constructed entirely out of ideas. The only places I know where I can try to set our own flawed world to rights.

My story at this point is a static system, forming itself in my mind in camera stills instead of moving forward cinematically as stories do in scenes or through the engine of a powerful storytelling voice. That is the nature of drafts. In writing forward, I can try to be more aware of the gaps between intention and action, of pause buttons, of stasis itself. But those gaps will be there, even after I've written through to the end. I won't be able to see them all at this time, but then again, moving from the static to the dynamic is the work of revision.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fantasy and Geography: Kathi Appelt's Huffington Post interview with Rebecca Serle

Kathi speaks eloquently about fantasy, magic, and American landscapes in an interview on The Huffington Post, and touches as well on the pacts we must make and fulfill with readers, especially when we write for young people.

Given the nature of America, the idea of an American fantasy opens many doors to ingenuity. Immigrants certainly carry multiple landscapes in their minds. Seems to me that American fantasy can and should also reflect that mental imaging of places that overlap and merge with one another.

Friday, July 09, 2010

M.T.Anderson, novelist, picture book writer--actor?

M.T. Anderson's known for genre-bending, and here he takes on the book trailer, spoofing its conventions while creating a funny, crazy storyline complete with fractured Vermont geography and a maniacal villain.

The Suburb Beyond the Stars from Sang Lee on Vimeo.


Watch for the book!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Updates, Downloads, and the Picture Book Semester Ahead

July has fourthed in northwest New Mexico, fireworks and all. A stand-off has just begun with a raccoon in the veggie garden.

In Albuquerque, Kimberley Griffiths Little has launched her new YA novel, The Healing Spell. Congratulations, Kimberley!


Mitali Perkins launches Bamboo People, a coming-of-age novel with a setting rare in literature for young readers: the novel takes place in the political and military context of present-day Myanmar. Told in two viewpoints in an interesting structural choice that sets those viewpoints apart rather than intertwining them, the book explores the nature of war and hatred contrasted with the tenuous but insistent forces of friendship and humanity.


I intended to post an interview last month with Anjali Banerjee regarding her lively middle grade novel, Seaglass Summer, that I was privileged to see in manuscript form. But oh dear, the OOTW blog tour got in the way. There will be an interview, I promise, after the residency.


Janet Fox speaks to Cynthia Leitich Smith about her new novel, Faithful, set in 1904 against the magnificent backdrop of Yellowstone National Park.

I'm off to the VCFA residency in just a few days which means the Tusk will get some rest for a while. Suitcase more or less packed. Workshop packet in hand. I'll be leading this summer's workshop with the talented, vastly knowledgeable, funny, thoughtful, quirky Sarah Ellis. Look for Sarah's cat quoting my very favorite Eeyore line from Winnie-the-Pooh: "This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me."

Christopher Cheng tells us of the chance discovery that his books are on the Australian PM's bookshelf! Very impressive. I'm hoping we can connect with Chris through Skype about picture books from Oz, assuming our workshop times don't find him in a workshop session or on a plane! Speaking of which, I'm ready, very ready to spend the next semester talking about all picture books, all the time! This is possible because of the one-semester concentration VCFA offers in the unique, wonderful, magical, shape-shifting and transformative art form of the picture book.