Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Process Talk: Kate Hosford's fictional Uma and Infinity

In Kate Hosford's glorious new picture book, Infinity and Me, young Uma (yes, that's right, she's my very cute fictional namesake!) contemplates the stars in the sky and thinks about her place in the world in her own eight-year-old way. There is a vast concept at play here, stars and symbols. Then there are friends and family, and butter chicken, and oh yes, red shoes. How could you not be charmed?

From the starred review, it's clear the Kirkus reviewer loved it too:
Uma’s struggle with the meaning of infinity offers readers a playful, gorgeous introduction to the mathematical concept.

I'm proud to say that Kate Hosford was my student in the picture book semester at VCFA. I'm delighted to welcome her now to WWBT to talk about the wacky enchantment of this lovely book from Carolrhoda Books.

[Uma] Tell me how this book bubbled up to the surface for you.

[Kate] Although I was not the most promising math student, I’ve always been interested in philosophical concepts, and went on to major in philosophy at college. One of the fascinating things about infinity is that it is an important concept not only in math, but in other fields as well, such as science, philosophy, religion, and art.

In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who spent a year with us reading all of Plato’s dialogues, and studying the Pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the Pre-Socratics, Zeno, was fascinated with the idea of infinite divisibility, and how it creates paradoxical situations when we apply this logic to time and space. For instance, Zeno said that you can’t every really get from point A to point B, because first you have to get half the way there, and then a fourth of the way there, and then an eighth of the way there, and so on, forever. This, he said, would make any sort of movement impossible. Therefore we can never depart from point A. We all know that this can be disproven by simply walking from point A to point B, but it’s not so easy to explain why that is the case. When we start thinking about infinity, we soon find ourselves in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of world where paradoxes are the norm, and that is a place that I find both fascinating and scary.

[Uma] When you were writing the story, you tested the concept out with children. Talk about that.

[Kate] I made a point of talking about the concept with different groups of school children (grades K-2) to see what they thought about infinity. They defined infinity by saying things like this:
“If you start counting to infinity, you will die and you will still be counting.”
“Infinity is when you ask what’s outside of a galaxy, and then outside of that, and on and on.”
“It’s a very high number but it’s not really a number. Nobody knows what number.”
After talking to children, I became even more excited about pursuing this idea. Infinity was an idea that mattered to them, they had smart and interesting things to say about it, and they were tuned in to its paradoxical nature.

I also knew that if anyone told me that a picture book about infinity was too sophisticated for young children, I would have lots of great quotations, which would provide a nice counter-argument. Yes, children will be confounded by infinity, but no more so than the rest of us. Rather than ignore a topic like this for children, isn’t it better to simply explore it? Children are already thinking about infinity and any number of other profound topics, and that needs to be reflected in the books that they read so that these questions can be discussed.

[Uma] These are all intellectual reasons. Were there also emotional reasons?

[Kate] Those were somehow not obvious to me until the book was actually printed and bound.

Like Uma, I was a child who became overwhelmed by philosophical and religious ideas. This became apparent in second grade, when my best friend told me that I would burn in hell if I didn’t become baptized. I was completely petrified by this thought for many years. However, like many children, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about my fear, even though I had very supportive parents who undoubtedly would have made me feel better. Once I saw the finished book, I was finally able to see that the story was really connected to that eight year-old version of myself. But unlike me, Uma asks other people for help. In this book, ‘infinity’ really serves as a stand-in for the existential angst that most people feel at some point in their lives.

[Uma] Of course I'm so very flattered that you wanted me to share my name with your young character--but why? Why is she Indian-American? Why that little aside in the text?

[Kate] In college, I spent a semester studying Buddhism in India, and I consider that to be one of the seminal experiences of my life. It was a time entirely devoted to questioning and contemplation. Perhaps because of this, when I pictured my questioning protagonist, she was Indian.

I tried out many different names for the main character, several of which meant ‘limitless,’ or ‘without boundaries’ (which I thought would be a nice touch), but none of them seemed quite right. I love the name ‘Uma’ because those three little letters sound very strong, resonant, and universal. The name ‘Uma’ is sometimes used for the goddess Parvati, who is a powerful figure. This is important to me because my protagonist is in the process of discovering her own strength. I’m so grateful that you lent me your name, and it’s wonderful to have the association with you —another strong woman I admire very much.
Gabi Swiatkowska and Kate Hosford in Paris

[Uma] It's my pure delight, Kate. Can we shift gears now and talk about Gabi's art? It's so beautiful and luminous--what are your reactions to the pictures in the book?

[Kate] Gabi and I met about twelve years ago when I was also working as an illustrator, and became good friends. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her artwork. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or since. I find her work absolutely stunning, both for its visual beauty, incredible inventiveness, and its emotive qualities. I don’t know any other minds that work like Gabi’s.

I actually wrote this story with Gabi in mind as the illustrator. I knew that this concept would be perfect for her artwork. After I sent it to her, I received an amazing little dummy with sketches in the mail. In their own way, these sketches are just as beautiful to me as the finished art.

[Uma] We know how different this is from how picture book publication typically works. For me, as a writer, it's magical to think of your being able to hold that little dummy.

[Kate] The art still takes my breath away, and I think it always will. Gabi really captured the pensive, searching mood of the story, and made it dream-like, which is perfect for this elusive concept. I’m sure readers will disappear inside the illustrations, and continue to notice new details every time they read the book.

[Uma] How have children responded to the book?

[Kate] I’m excited to see our book venture out into the world and to hear what children have to say about the book, and about infinity. I’ve already done some preliminary classroom and camp visits where I explored infinite divisibility through fractals with older children, and asked younger children to write about their own images of infinity. My latest favorite definition of infinity is from a girl who imagined it as “a book that never has a last page.”

[Uma] That is wonderful! Children have the most amazing minds. For young readers, and for those (mere) adults who work with them, you have plans for online resources, I gather.

[Kate] I am going to have an infinity curriculum on my website that parents and teachers can use. I would also love it if children wrote to me on my website and told me how they define or envision infinity, or their feelings about infinity. Maybe I can compile quotations (anonymously) and put them on my website to share with others. It could function as a kind of a virtual infinity quilt. It would also be great to have feedback on the curriculum materials.

[Uma] Watch this page for more. Readers may also want to write directly to artist Gabi Swiatkowska.  Here's the  New York Times review of Infinity and Me. Congratulations, Kate and Gabi!

1 comment:

  1. I especially love the quotes from the children, and learning that Kate spent time studying Buddhism in India. (Why did I not know this about you, Kate?) I love that you're writing picture books that touch kids' souls. This is great. Wonderful interview, Uma.