Monday, December 23, 2013

Happy Holidays, Winter, Snow, Rain, and a Happy New Year!

WWBT is on winter break/getting ready for VCFA residency break. Happy days to all, and the best of years ahead. This blog will resume in February 2014. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Broken Pavement, an Election, a Pile of Books, and Me

It was a lovely surprise when my chapter book, Book Uncle and Me, published by Scholastic India, recently won a Crossword Book Award in the Children's Category, sharing this hono(u)r with Payal Kapadia's whimsical Wisha Wozzariter. The books make a perfect pair, both about kids who are mad about books.
Scholastic India editor Tina Narang received the award on my behalf.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Cheng
The Australian edition of Book Uncle and Me has also made its way onto the Books in Homes selection.

All of which got me thinking about how story can travel and where all this came from in the first place for me. What fragments of reality managed to link together in my messy mind to form this book?

Here are the (real) ingredients of this story:

  • the broken pavement in the real St. Mary's Road in Chennai, India where my parents lived at the time I first began writing this story
  • a pile of books on a street corner
  • a kid sitting cross-legged next to it, engrossed in a book and oblivious to the feet of passersby
  • a fancy hotel on that same road, keeping random company with blocks of flats
  • a woman with an iron who plied a busy trade up and down the street
  • election banners strung between trees
  • kids' voices, chattering on full volume as they got off the bus and made their way home
  • a sign on an apartment building that read "Horizon."
I will confess it. I am in love with settings. When you start to pay attention to the quirkiness of a place, it will begin to show itself to you as if it's auditioning for a part in your story. That street where my parents had lived for over thirty years suddenly began to take on all kinds of possibilities, once young Yasmin came to inhabit it in my mind. The woman with the iron became the "istri lady." The silent man beating time in the air as if he were playing an invisible drum walked into the story. Even the pigeons seemed to start cooing purposefully. Tee shirts really did get folded on TV. Bus drivers sang--all right, that lament the bus driver sings came right out of my father's old cassette tape collection that I was converting into digital music files. And slowly, line by line, Book Uncle and Me came to be written. 

For expat Indian me, the ex-kid who read obsessively, this has been quite a journey.

[Note: This blog post can also be found on the Scholastic India blog]

Monday, November 04, 2013

Bookaroo 2013

I'm off to India again this month to speak at Bookaroo 2013. I'll be talking to young readers, families and anyone else who's there (looks like half the children's publishing world of India for starters). Sessions are scheduled at the festival and in schools in Delhi, mostly focused on Book Uncle and Me, my chapter book published by Scholastic India, which has recently also been released in an Australian edition.

Indian edition
Looking forward....
Australian edition

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Trailer and Guest Post: Falcon in the Glass by Susan Fletcher

Some time ago, I was privileged to host a conversation with my VCFA colleague and gifted writer Susan Fletcher and children's literature scholar Taraneh Matloob. Now it's my delight to invite Susan to write a guest post for me on WWBT--this time about her latest book, Falcon in the Glass.

Here's the trailer, with music and editing by that talented duo, Cooper Appelt and Laurel Kathleen

Here's what I asked Susan

Obsession and form dominate in this book--Renzo's obsession with the glass, the forms of birds and children that appear as if magically from the mist, and the glass and what it means. The interplay between these things does so much to help shape this beautiful story. Can you talk about that? What did obsession and form (structure if you will) mean to you in the making of this book?
Her answer is filled with all those internal contradictions that writers know so well--the fragile and the unbreakable, the fleeting and the enduring, the things that create the shifting, shadowy dance between vision and craft.

Susan Fletcher on Obsession, Form, and Falcon in the Glass

I guess I started with three obsessions from the get-go. First of all, Venice. Ever since seeing a video documentary on Venice about twenty years ago, I’ve been fascinated by that city and have wanted to explore it in person and in writing. Maybe it’s all those canals and bridges, or the reflections of water on stone and stone on water, which give the city a rippling feeling of evanescence. Maybe it’s the opulence, or the flamboyant history, or the fact that the city is sinking, which brings to mind the fragility of everything that’s beautiful. Maybe it’s the fact that when you walk through those old streets, you can almost imagine that the 21st century has dropped away and you’re living in some alternate Renaissance—with tourists.

In any case, my second obsession had to do with the shape of the story I wanted to tell. Years before, I had read The Kite Runner, and it had moved me deeply, and I’d gone back and asked myself why. Part of of it had to do with the book itself, which I still admire. But part of it, I decided, had to do with the type of story it is—a story of harm inflicted and later atonement. I can’t tell you why, but this kind of story pulls at me. And it has a particular shape: Someone hurts someone else, for human reasons that we can understand. And he then tries to go back and undo as much of the harm as he can—though undoing it entirely is impossible. So I knew the larger shape of the story very early in the process. A sort of forward movement with the hurting. And an echoing backward reflection with the attempt to undo. Stone on water. Water on stone.

My third obsession is longstanding. It has to do with creating things. Shaping things. The word “art” makes me skittish—but I spend the bulk of my days thinking about, teaching about, writing about, and in the act of attempting to create something original and harmonious: a story. I hadn’t really explored this territory yet in a novel, but I wanted to. So my protagonist, Renzo, aspires to become a glass artist. He is, as you say, obsessed. In this book I got to explore, through Renzo, some of the issues I have mulled over the years in my teaching and writing. How important is innovation in artmaking? What is the relationship between the hard work (and even drudgery) of developing the skills the artist needs on the one hand…and the flash of inspiration required for the art to break through to true originality? For me, finishing a novel requires a kind of dogged persistence. It’s a long process requiring a suite of hard-won skills. But when I approach a book with a sort of grit-your-teeth determination, I can crush all the life out of it. My best writing comes when I lighten up and approach my work in a spirit of play. For me, writing a novel is a delicate balancing act of craft, persistence, obsession, and joy. And I imagine that this is true of other art forms, too.

And finally, I found myself exploring the relationship between art and life. Some artists believe it’s necessary to sacrifice the fullness of their lives to their art. They believe that genuine art requires that level of sacrifice. And truly I have found that if you let it, life can shoulder aside your plans to make art. And if you want to create, you can’t allow that to happen. On the other hand, I think the most important thing I’ve done in my life isn’t writing my books—it’s raising my daughter. So in Falcon, Renzo finds himself caught between the demands of artmaking and life. I won’t say what happens, but I will tell where I come out on this issue: Life can disrupt your plans to make art, but it’s a full life that gives you something to make art about.

Thank you, Susan, for this sensitive post on a book as rich and beautiful as the history, art, and humanity it brings to the page. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Commonwealth Education Trust, MOOCs, and Me

Sometimes an experience comes along that puzzles you, intrigues you, opens your mind up to possibility and makes you want to learn more. It was in this spirit that I accepted an invitation from Judy Curry of the Commonwealth Education Trust to come to Philadelphia for a workshop to put together a MOOC on writing for children.

Yes, I said MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Course. Not something I can claim to know anything about. But at the end of this three-day workshop, and with some of the reading and preparation and thinking that led up to it, I'm in awe of this project.

Look at the amazing people who were in that workshop with me:
Tololwa Mollel, writer, author, dramatist, storyteller, performer

Shelley Tanaka, writer, editor, and, I'm proud to say, my teaching colleague at VCFA

Lani Wendt Young, writer, entrepreneur, activist, blogger, storyteller

Summer Edward, writer, Caribbean children's literature specialist, blogger

Alice Curry, writer, anthologist, children's literature scholar

Judy Curry, Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Education Trust.

And here are the fabulous others who are part of the think-tank for this work but couldn't be there for this first round: Gene Luen Yang, Nnedi Okorafor, Finegan Kruckemeyer, John Agard.

We plotted, planned, drafted, revised, charted, mapped a 12-week sequence of online offerings for people anywhere who might want to write for young readers--anywhere with Internet access, that is to say. The course, when it launches, will be offered on the Coursera platform, which already boasts 534 courses and 107 partners.

Some of the love that made this work possible comes from Alice's anthology of stories and poems collected, commissioned and submitted by writers from around the Commonwealth.

Finally, we heard from Al Filreis at Penn who's been teaching poetry online for some years now, and now leads a course in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry through Coursera:

Filreis says that teaching poetry online has been transformative for him as a teacher.

How does one teach writing in this way? The idea of reaching out to massive numbers of people is mind-boggling, elusive, incomprehensible, and completely fascinating. It's exciting to me that I was able to take part in this very beginning conversation. Down the virtual road, I hope this work will stir up international interest in stories for young readers. I hope it will also give voice to writers from many places. And in the end I hope it will lead to original work from many geographical and cultural perspectives.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Listening with Our Pens: Narrative Humility for Writers (Guest post by Sayantani DasGupta)

Sayantani DasGupta is a physician, a writer, and a teacher with a remarkable voice. Her collection of traditional tales from Bengal, The Demon Slayers and Other Stories, coauthored with her mother Shamita Das Dasgupta, is regionally specific and richly complex. Her collection of narratives and essays, Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies, bridges the artificial divide between women's lives and scholarship in gender, health, and medicine.

I'm delighted to welcome Sayantani to WWBT with this guest post. Her ideas about narrative fascinate me, and I'm sure that I'll revisit and think about this meditation for some time to come.


I spend my life at the intersection of the stethoscope and the pen. Although I was originally trained in pediatrics and public health, as a writer, as well as a faculty member in Columbia University’s Master’s Program in Narrative Medicine, and co-chair of Columbia’s University Seminar on Narrative, Health and Social Justice, I spend most of my days writing, teaching, and thinking about the role of stories in healthcare.

Narrative Medicine is the clinical and scholarly endeavor to honor the role of story in the healing relationship. Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no fancy all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.

And so, I spend most of my days teaching clinicians-to-be how to listen. I do this by having them read stories, and take oral histories, and study lots of narrative theory. I teach them the work of scholars like medical sociologist Arthur Frank, who explains that when illness or trauma interrupt our life stories, we need new stories to help navigate these uncharted waters. Although it was always there, illness and trauma bring into sharp focus our basic human need for narration. We are, after all, fundamentally storied creatures.

But besides all this, what I also do is teach my students to listen by writing stories. I have them do listener response – writing in reaction to a poem or story we read in class. I have them write to a prompt – ‘when was the last time you witnessed suffering?’ I have them write ongoing personal illness narratives – weekly narratives in which I ask them to tell of the same experience but from a different point of view or genre or form to help unpack not only their own personal stories (stories which inform how they in turn will listen to the stories of others), but discover how stories work – in regard to plot, form, function, and voice.

So yes, I’m training people to be better doctors by teaching them how to be writers.

Over the years, I’ve explained some of how this all works with a philosophy of listening I’ve been calling Narrative Humility.* Narrative Humility is not about gaining any sense of competence or mastery over our patients, or their stories. Rather, it is about paying attention to our own inner workings – our expectations, our prejudices, our own cadre of personal stories that impact how we react to the stories of others. You can hear me talk all about it here, during a recent TEDx event at Sarah Lawrence College (where I also teach).

But it serves to reason that if doctors can borrow skills from writers to do their jobs better, then perhaps the reciprocal thing can happen as well. In other words, does narrative humility have any lessons for those leading the writing life?

1.     Active Listening – This is an easy one. Writers are told all the time to listen: for regional accents, for scraps of interesting dialogue, for pieces of intriguing stories. We listen to ourselves too through journaling, going on writing retreats, and digging deep into our cadre of personal and familial stories for sources of inspiration. We even talk about listening to our characters, and letting them co-create the story that we’re telling. For writers, as for doctors, listening is a necessary adjunct to action. It is a way of filling ourselves up – like blood into the heart, air into the lungs – before we breathe out stories, images, words onto the page.

2.     Embodiment – In the words of Arthur Frank, illness stories are not just told about bodies or of bodies but through bodies. Similarly, they are received through particular bodies. This connection between body and voice (which I write about here in a post called Writing Our Bodies: Embodiment, Voice and Literature) is perhaps a critical connection for all writers to make. We can ask ourselves: How is the story I tell connected to my body? How does it emerge from my bodily experiences? In the words of memoirist and writer Nancy Mairs, who writes about having MS and using a wheelchair, “No body, no voice, no voice, no body. That is what I know in my bones.”  

3.     Wonder – The notion that stories are not objects we can fully comprehend or master is a difficult one for most medical professionals, who aren’t necessary trained to embrace ambiguity. Like clinicianss, writers too need to master certain technical skill sets – we need to know how to develop a plot, deepen characterization, build tension, and draw readers in with our world-building. Yet, like those in the healing arts, we writers cannot allow those technical skills to somehow suffocate that other, more ineffable quality so central to the creative process: the ability to receive, to witness, to open one’s creative heart. And so, both professions must embrace both ways of knowing – the technical and the artistic, the ‘scientific’ and the creative.

For both doctors and writers, stories are bones and the blood of our professions. Containing equal measure of the known and unknowable, of the earthly and the ephemeral, the work of storytelling, like the work of healing, must be approached with a sense of humility. Humility for the stories we tell, humility for the stories we have yet to tell, and humility for those stories just beyond our grasp – waiting for us to be ready to receive their whispered secrets.

*Here's the citation for that Lancet article on narrative humility: The art of medicine: Narrative humility. DasGupta, Sayantani, The Lancet; Mar 22-Mar 28, 2008; pg. 980.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Process Talk: Don Tate on Illustrating The Cart That Carried Martin

It's a rare picture book with two creators that manages to look as if it came from a single inspirational source. The Cart That Carried Martin from Charlesbridge is such a book. I'm so pleased to be able to interview illustrator Don Tate about his glorious art for this book. 

[Uma] Don, welcome to WWBT. Talk to me about what research was involved in illustrating Eve Bunting's text for The Cart That Carried Martin. What did you learn from this project? 

[Don] For research, I found hundreds, if not, thousands of photos online. They informed and inspired my drawings. I also visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site in Atlanta, where the cart is now on display. I took photos of the cart at every possible angle, and of the newly renovated Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

What impressed me the most about the day were the sheer numbers of people who turned out to celebrate King's life. I learned that about 1,300 people were at the funeral held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and between 50,000 and 100,000 followed behind the wooden cart that carried King's casket. Reading the numbers are one thing, seeing the photographs of the size of the crowds, that’s a whole other thing. The crowds were beautifully overwhelming. 

When studying history, I sometimes feel a disconnect between myself and the people I’m studying about. Stories about slavery, Reconstruction, the 1960s civil rights years, that happened awhile ago, most of it before my lifetime. The people can seem so far away. Almost unreal. Photographs don’t lie, though, and serve as a reminder that these things really happened, the people were real. Slavery, whippings, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, beatings, fire hoses and dogs — real people, just like me, experienced these things. As I looked through the photos of King's funeral and procession, I saw myself. That's why stories like The Cart That Carried Martin are so important, so we don't forget.

 [Uma] You work in many media--why pencil and guache for this book? And the style here is quite different from some of your other work--would you like to talk about how form and content came together for you here? 

Honestly when I read a new manuscript, I don't have a particular media, look or "style" on the ready. The story leads me to a particular media or style. Sometimes I don't even know until I sit down to render the first piece of art in a book. I may create sample studies and settle on illustrating a book in oils, only to sit down and pull out my watercolors, if that's what feels right when I begin to work. Most of my books have a slightly different look. But they all seem retain a familiar clarity, a sharpness -- hard lines, bold colors, tightly rendered ("muscular," as one reviewer described my art work). That's me. But for The Cart, I needed to loosen up because of all the crowd scenes, or else I'd have driven myself crazy trying to draw every little eye and nose and ear in a crowd. Loose lines, light-flowing colors, I felt that would be best for this story. And besides, with the subject matter being a funeral, realistic paintings might have given the book too somber a feel.

[Uma] There is one spread in this book that is utterly transcendent in its power--it's the one where the men walk in front holding the reins of the mules, and "The widow walked behind, her grief hidden by her veil." The words are so simple, and the art in the scene is deceptively simple as well. But something in the way the crowds melt at the edges, the perspective, the smallness of the people and the simple power of that wooden cart at the center--well, you just take a moment and center it there in a truly unforgettable way. All right, I'm done raving. I want you to tell me how you composed that scene, and what the creation of those pages meant to you. 

[Don] Again, photographs of the day inspired the scenes. Love was the dominant theme for the day. As the cart wound its way through Atlanta streets, people looked on with admiration. They held hands. They embraced. They caressed the cart. Men walked alongside, reaching over to touch the casket.

At first I worried about picturing the coffin. To me, coffins are scary. When I see one, I get a sick feeling in my stomach, and I turn my eyes away quickly. I assumed that most kids felt this way, too, so I wasn't sure how to show the coffin. I experimented with drawing the cart at different angles, hiding the coffin on only showing hints. But ultimately, that would have been defeating the purpose of telling the story of the day. I chose to picture coffin in full view, where necessary. How could a scene with a coffin be scary when surrounded by so much love?

And finally:

[Uma] What's up next? Any projects coming up I should know about?

[Don] Oh, I have a lot on my slate. I feel blessed. The next project I'm illustrating is the story of John Roy Lynch. It's the story of a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It is written by my friend, Chris Barton. Next, I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It's the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south, before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery, a brave man, huh?). And I'm under contract to illustrate two more books, one that I wrote as well.

Thank you, Don! Congratulations on your beautiful book. I look forward to your new work and to many more conversations to come!

Monday, September 30, 2013

New Books From Karadi Tales: An Aesop Adaptation

A few years ago, I retold some mythological stories for Karadi Tales, and learned something about writing stories for an audience familiar with their context and background. I wrote about this in a 2010 post:

For years I've tried to shape my writing to be accessible to any audience. It's led me to try to write so fluidly that anyone could understand. That's taught me in turn to pull back on content that calls for too much interpretation, to say "royal dynasty" instead of "lunar dynasty" because the latter would just take too many words to clarify. Now I could pull out those stops. I could let battles play out on the page because readers would get the setup, would know who the combatants were, and might even in some instances know the outcome already. It felt as if I were speaking to a family gathering.
Now, Karadi Tales is distributing their books in the US through Consortium Book Sales & Distribution Services (CBSD). Several of their picture books are released in the US already, and one of them, The Rumor by Anushka Ravishankar, won the newly instituted South Asia Book Award.  

One of the e-books I received recently from Karadi is an interesting retelling of an Aesop fable, The Fox and the Crow, with text by Manasi Subramaniam and illustrations by German artist Culpeo Fox

The drama of the fox and crow, rivals in their quest for a piece of bread, plays out in deep, glowing spreads together with very spare text. The reader is pulled directly into the story from the beginning with an in medias res opening that is unusual in a picture book. Every action (even the moon "slithers" into the sky) slides the fable forward in its deliciously dangerous jungle setting. The book ends by circling subtly back to the notion that this is an age-old tale and will surely repeat itself. 

Writing is always shaped by its audience and purpose. It will be interesting to see how future books from Indian publishers might shift and change, now that more of them are available to young readers overseas. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Guest Post by Sarah Aronson: To Look Forward Start By Looking Back

Sarah Aronson’s new novel, BELIEVE (Carolrhoda Lab), the story of a sole survivor of a suicide bombing, deals with the power of faith, the lure of fame, and the strains of friendship. 

During the High Holidays, Jews revisit one of the most complicated and disturbing stories of the Torah, The Binding of Isaac. In this story, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham does not refuse God. Instead, he brings his son to the mountain and prepares him for sacrifice. Luckily, an angel stops the madness and offers a lamb instead. It is a crushing story, and I am always troubled by it. I’m disappointed in Abraham for not standing up to God. I’m disappointed in God for inviting Abraham into this ultimate game of chicken. And I always spend time thinking about Isaac and how he lived the rest of his life. I think about how this penultimate incident changed him and affected every chapter of his life thereafter. 

My rabbi seemed to be reading my mind, because what she said next really made sense for the holiday as well as the writing process and plot development—things I’m always thinking about. She said, “Before we can look forward, we must look back. We must examine where we have been. Only then can we see where we are going.”

Look back. To look forward. Is that really all it takes?

First, a confession: If you know me, you know I’m a back story junkie. When I’m starting a new book, the character’s past is always the first thing that interests me. Sometimes, I find the backstory from a memory in my own life. Sometimes, it comes from an image or scene from the news—from the stories in our world that I can’t let go of. No matter what, the past gets me thinking. It speaks to character motivation. It reveals what Franny Billingsley calls “the default emotion,” or what a character will do when they are stressed out. When I know how my characters have behaved in the past, I can better anticipate their reactions to actions and situations in the plot.

This is what I do:

I start by asking the question, “Who are you?” I answer this question as many times as I can without making myself crazy (usually around fifty times). I start at the cliché level: sister, friend, and student. Then I go deeper. I think about who they are in terms of emotions: are they paranoid? Or superstitious? Are they angry? Or forgiving? And I don’t stop there. I try to think concretely. I try to find answers that the character would not want his friends to know. Is my character a chocolate lover, late sleeper, or obsessed with fashion? Is he loyal? Or does he blab at the first opportunity? Is he unhappy? Does she feel alone? All these traits help me anticipate and make the most of future conflict and themes. They reveal my characters’ controlling beliefs. Most important, they provide plot clues. By understanding how these traits have served my characters in the past shows me what they love and hate and where they draw a line in the sand—when enough is enough. It gives me clues about how they react to events in the plot.

Then I examine connectivity. I look at allies and enemies: who sticks up for each other and then I determine sources of conflict. I look first at their pasts. And then at the events of the story. Here is one connectivity chart from a draft of BELIEVE, a novel whose inciting incident happens ten years before page one. In this chart, you can see that there are a lot of tripods. Each one is fortified by conflicting emotions. Seeing them on the chart showed me how to raise the stakes in the plot; it made it easy to see where the conflict was brewing. Once I understand how every character is connected—not just to the main character, but to the other characters on the chart—I can better predict who needs to be in the big scenes. I can anticipate who needs to be on the page to move the plot forward.

It may seem simple, but it works for me. By looking back, through character and connectivity, I can envision the future. I can understand where the hot spots will form and the plot will turn. Only when I know what happened in the past can I begin to think about what will inevitably come next as well as what will surprise.

Looking back has another benefit, one that is more personal. By taking the time to look back at our own writing pasts, we feel more accomplished and are better able to set goals for the future. When we give ourselves recognition for work accomplished, we are motivated to work harder in the future. Every time I start a new class, I insist that my students celebrate each milestone. We have a special topic called “Chocolate and Flowers,” where we cheer each other on when we figure out something new, send out a manuscript, or even get a rejection. (That’s an important step!) This is what my rabbi was hoping we would all do. She was not just saying, “Look back at this story.” She was urging us, “Look back. Celebrate where you’ve been. Resolve to do better.” It’s not just good advice for this time of year. It is important to take a moment to thank ourselves, our husband or wife or partner, our children, and our friends for supporting us as we discover made-up worlds and people. When we look back, we can also see how far we’ve come. By thinking about the past year, we can look forward to the next one and set new goals for our writing lives.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Interview with Kashmira Sheth

Earlier this year, I was delighted by the chapter book, The No-Dogs-Allowed Rule by Kashmira Sheth,  illustrated by Carl Pearce. I raced through the book with its whimsical young Indian American narrator and its family-centered story, and oh so many of its scenes just made me smile.

I asked Kashmira to tell me what led her to write this book.

[Kashmira] A few years ago I had gone to one of the International Reading Association (IRA) conferences where some librarians told me that it would be wonderful to have a chapter book with an Indian protagonist. I kept thinking about a protagonist who would be appealing to young readers. Even though I have two daughters, I found myself thinking about someone like Ishan, a boy born and raised in this country, being comfortable with who he is.

My family is a big source of inspiration for me and I believe Ishan is molded from my brother, my cousins, and my nephews— he has a little bit of each of them. Of course, as soon as I started to write the story Ishan took over, surprising me with his mischief as well as his sensitivity.

[Uma] It's been a delight for me to read all your books over the years--novels, picture books, and now this most appealing chapter book. Do you feel your writing has grown and changed over time? Can you talk about that writing journey? Which of your books taught you the most, and what did you learn from them?

[Kashmira] I hope my writing has grown but I am too close to my own writing to be objective; every new story I write feels like I’m writing for the first time. In a way, that is marvelous because each book is a journey to explore, to stretch, and to discover. I like being surprised by my characters, I love when I discover something new and different through the writing process, but I must confess that I am not so amused when I hit a roadblock. Maybe that’s why I write in different genres and work on multiple stories at the same time. As a writer you know how we breathe and are consumed by our stories while we’re in the midst of them, so working on multiple projects gives me little breathers. When I get back to any given story I am excited and eager to dive in again.

Each of my books has taught me different things. Blue Jasmine was my first novel and it taught me the ABC’s of the writing, revising and publishing process. Keeping Corner taught me pacing and bringing a setting alive. Boys Without Names, the power of stories, My Dadima Wears A Sari, telling a story in a few words, The-No-Dogs-Allowed Rule and Tiger In My Soup taught me to look though the lenses of quirky young boys who are full of innocence and imagination.
Most of all, my writing has taught me to experiment, to dare, to dream in order to emotionally connect with young readers.

[Uma] You teach at Pine Manor. Is teaching good for your own writing? What makes that combination work for you?

[Kashmira] I love teaching at Pine Manor. As a writer, it’s exciting to read a story not as a finished product but with the full potential of what it could be. Every semester I get to go on that journey. It’s inspiring as well as humbling to guide other writers and have a chance to peak into their work, to provide guidance, encouragement and above all be a cheerleader for their hard work.

It also benefits my own work. When I am doing my own writing I’m so deeply absorbed in creating a story that some of the important craft points are forgotten or take a back seat. Since I started teaching, I have become more aware of craft and that has helped me a lot with my own writing and revising. Now I can take apart my own story and think about it from various angles: character development, pacing, voice, language, story arc, etc.

The combination of teaching and writing works well for me. Even though the Solstice MFA program is a low-residency program, I do have to travel to Pine Manor twice a year and guide students throughout the semester. This gives me some structure. I’m more productive when I have other commitments besides my own writing.

[Uma] That's so true. I've found that to be the case, teaching at VCFA. Thank you Kashmira, for sharing your thoughts with me on Writing With a Broken Tusk! 

[Kashmira] Thank you, Uma, for taking the time to talk to me! Over the years I have enjoyed your books and have been able to share them with my family. One of the best parts of the writing journey is being able to connect with young readers and fellow writers.

[Uma] I'm happy to be sharing time and space with you, Kashmira, in the children's writing universe! 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Beyond Craft: Reaching for Texts That Do Not Segregate

My post on the VCFA faculty blog, MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Excerpt: 
Most often, when we talk about writing, it’s about craft. Tools. Techniques. Elements of fiction. For me, those things are inseparable from historical or psychosocial aspects of our field, e.g., the legacy of colonialism and how it lingers in children’s books, or the persistent representation (or non-representation) of characters of color. Just two examples but do they not, even now in the 21st century, still hold the power to stir conversations to boiling point? And then there are the statistics.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 11: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

We should have been on The Brain Lair yesterday with Alana, the sous chef in the bad-tempered Chef Armend's kitchen, but Alana was...well, missing. As Dini knows all too well, it's very annoying when characters in a fillum don't do as they're told. Happily, she showed up this morning, so here's today's Brain Lair post on how even minor characters can play significant roles in a story.

Meanwhile, my fabulous VCFA colleagues Kathi Appelt, Susan Fletcher and I are headed to Texas next month for a book launch party with all three of our books and a workshop at The Writing Barn. Yee ha! Dini and Dad are looking forward to it. Dad's brushing up on his cowboy idioms. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 10: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Illustration © Abigail Halpin, 2013
Today Ollie the line cook is featured on The Book Monsters in an interview with Kristen--blogger, book lover, and media specialist. Here's her review of the book. Quick peek:
I loved the over the top characters in this book, really bringing Dolly to life along with rest of the characters.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 9: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Janet Fox is one of my favorite people, not to mention a former VCFA student who, I am happy to say, completed a thoughtful, interesting critical thesis on my watch. She's also a talented writer and the author of marvelous historical novels such as Faithful (Speak/Penguin, 2010), set in Yellowstone National Park in 1904, and Forgiven (2011), set in 1906 San Francisco during the great earthquake. Her latest YA novel Sirens (2012) is a "noir romance" set in 1925. 

Today, Janet bravely allows the intrepid and temperamental Chef Armend Latifi from The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic into her kitchen--er, blog

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 8: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Illustration © Abigail Halpin, 2103
Today, Happy Dancing: How a Wacky Bollywood Star Made Her Way Into My Story--a guest post about the character of Dolly Singh, over at I Read Banned Books.

Jen Bigheart, who hosts I Read Banned Books, is a librarian at Westbank Community Libraries in Austin, Texas. As far as I'm concerned, librarians are heroes in the ongoing battle for freedom of information, for the rights of people to read the books they need to read, or want to read, or both. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 7: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Illustration © Abigail Halpin, 2013
Today Mini the elephant reminisces on Read Now Sleep Later. Which, by the way, was very much my motto in childhood, and still remains my practice, at least whenever a book grabs me by the heart and won't let go. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 6: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

We end the first week of this blog tour with a review of The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic from Booking Mama. Quick peek:

Every Saturday, I host a feature called Kid Konnection -- a regular weekend feature about anything related to children's books. This week, I'm going to share with you a cute middle grade book about a very memorable character!

Tomorrow we take a brief hiatus, resuming Monday with a visit by Mini the elephant to Read Now Sleep Later

Friday, August 23, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 5: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Fourth grade teacher and blogger Colby Sharp features Chickoo Uncle today on Sharpreads.

Quick peek:
I am very honored to have Uma Krishnaswami on sharpread today. Her new book The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic has wonderfully written characters...
Tomorrow, a review on Booking Mama (see today's review of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything) and then we take a break until Monday.  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 4: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

I am not usually tempted to go read reviews of my books on Amazon, but a friend recently sent me an e-mail suggesting I go take a look at the kid reviews of The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. I did, and one mother and daughter post warmed my heart.

It was a short read, but the laughs lasted quite a while longer after the book was closed.
I also liked how the book had not only Dini's point of view but the view-points of Lal the mail man, the director and Dolly herself. It was a really cute book and I would definitely recommend it to my friends.
Now and then I come across adults who wonder if kids will get these shifting viewpoints. Yes. Exactly.

Writers can pretend they're oblivious to audience, that they write from inner spaces that have nothing to do with potential readers. But audience matters when you write for young people. It matters a lot. In the end, reviews and blog posts are just ways to get a book into the hands of the child who needs it. Just the way I needed books when I was ten years old and hungry for the worlds that they allowed me to enter.

Today, we have a guest post about Dini's dad on The Compulsive Reader. Thank you, Tirzah Price! Here's Tirzah's review of The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 3: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Today, Soli Dustup, the studio executive driven to distraction by Dolly's impulses and antics, visits Once Upon a Story.

Here's the promised trailer. I know, I know, they usually show up before the book does, but Dolly's timelines are often slightly iffy.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blog Tour, Day 2: The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic

Today, a guest post by Maddie, Dini's best friend, and a giveaway on a blog that's as friendly as it's informative: There's a Book. "Because sometimes there's a book that can transform a child's world."

Quick peek:
As many of you know I adore middle grade novels, especially those featuring original storylines and standout characters. Well, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic by Uma Krishnaswami is one that will standout in my mind for years to come. 
I got a fan letter yesterday, the first one for this new book. A real letter, in an envelope, all the way from Florida. I picked it up from the PO Box and read it straight through. "The books about Dini you wrote were very exciting," writes my correspondent. "I want to write books when I grow up."

The letter made me smile. Books can touch us in real and magical ways. They touched me years ago. At its best, when it works, writing sparks other writing. It's purely delightful that something I wrote drove a ten-year-old to put pencil to paper, because back when I was ten, that was me!

And watch this blog for the trailer for The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic, to which finishing touches are being placed at this very minute by the talented Laurel Kathleen and Cooper Appelt.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Grand and Heroic Blog Tour with Dini and Dolly and Friends

I'm tickled to announce that today is the kick-off day for the blog tour for my new middle grade novel from Atheneum Books for Young Readers, The Problem With Being Slightly Heroic. Yes, this is the second Dini and Dolly book, the sequel to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything.

Many of the posts in this blog tour will focus on one of the characters from the second book. Today Dini gets a spot on Green Bean Teen Queen.

Filled with insights to warm a writer's heart is this review on the SAADA web site. Thank you, Anna Coats, from the bottom of my rose petal milkshake!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Anushka Ravishankar of Duckbill Books on her many roles in publishing in India

Back in 1997, I fell in love with Anushka Ravishankar's picture book, Tiger On a Tree, published by Tara Books in India and later in an American edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Together with former Scholastic India editor, Sayoni Basu, Anushka has now launched a new press in Delhi, Duckbill Books.

Here's a recent email exchange I had with Anushka:

[Uma] You've played so many roles in children's publishing in India--poet, picture book writer, editor, risk-taker, mover of mountains…. Talk about how it's felt over the years to invent and reinvent your engagement with your work.  Or did it all just happen?

[Anushka] Oddly enough, I've never thought of my work as work. I wrote, I edited, I moved molehills ... I never thought I was taking risks, or doing anything special. None of it was carefully planned. I got tired of software, and wanted to do something in children's literature or theatre ... and I joined Tara Publishing. That sort of crystallised it for me. I realised I was doing something that was more than work; it was a way of living that I enjoyed and I remember thinking one day, at Tara, how fortunate I was not to have to differentiate my life from my work. But I get restless when I don't write, so I left Tara to write plays, and joined Scholastic because I wanted to get back to editing, then left again to write ... no planning, or invention or reinvention, I'm afraid.

[Uma] Tell me about Duckbill. What led to this venture? What excites you about it? What if anything feels daunting?

[Anushka] Duckbill was a long time in gestation. Like ideas tend to, it lay dormant, and Sayoni and I talked about it now and then, but never very seriously. When it did happen it was all rather serendipitous. Sayoni had just left Scholastic and I had just moved to Gurgaon, so I ended up joining Scholastic in her place, on a short-term, part-time basis. When my time was almost up, Sayoni had decided to leave her new job. We were (still are) neighbours, and so we thought this was the time to put our money where our mouths were. It wasn't Duckbill when we spoke about it before. That happened in about two minutes on a car ride. (Most of our maddest ideas seem to happen on car rides. I wonder what that means.)

What's exciting? Finding fresh new voices through our workshops, happening upon gems in the unsolicited manuscripts, publishing books that we would never have published if we were working in a big publishing firm. The selling is daunting. Getting children to buy books, to read books ... how does one do that in a country where there are no public libraries, and very little institutional purchase of books that are not text books?

[Uma] You're also Regional Advisor now for SCBWI-India. How about your own writing? Where do you see yourself going next?

[Anushka] That's a tough one. I have three or four books to write in the next six months, but time has become a very scarce commodity. I keep thinking I'd like to write a longer book, but for now, it looks like I'll have to be satisfied with chapter books and picture books. Not being able to write when I want to is the one thing that I find difficult about being a platypus. I have to find a way to do it, though.

[Uma] Are there a couple of forthcoming books from Duckbill that you'd like to talk about?

[Anushka] Flat-track Bullies is a book by a Chennai-based software engineer, called Balaji Venkataramanan. It came to us out of the blue. Balaji is a first-time writer. When we read the book, we were bowled over, because it's written in completely unselfconscious Chennai English. It is absolutely hilarious and yet, it has a strong story with an undercurrent of seriousness. The voice of the narrator is fresh, audacious and completely original. We're so happy to be publishing it! It's due to be out in August.

Another gem that landed in our inbox is Jobless Clueless Reckless, a young adult novel, which also has a narratorial voice that is completely authentic and charming. It's one of those rare books that was so tightly written that we only had to put in the odd comma and full stop. An editor's dream! The author, Revathi Suresh, is another first-time author. The writing is deceptively smooth and pitch perfect. Only a beleaguered editor can know what a joy it is to have such a finished and accomplished piece of writing drop into the mailbox!

[Uma] Thanks, Anushka! Much luck to you and Sayoni in this new venture, and to you with your plans for SCBWI-India. I have a feeling our paths will cross again. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Octopus Alone

Divya Srinivasan's charming first picture book, Little Owl's Night, featured a wide-eyed young owl in a dark forest.

Her second, out recently from Viking, brings the same kind of gentle whimsy to an ocean setting. A contented octopus watches a whole lot of chasing going on, as she peers out of her safe and cozy cave. When the seahorses intrude, she ventures out, and we're off on a nicely paced adventure with just the right amount of mildly scary possibility mixed in. Lucky for Octopus, she has a secret weapon!

Deceptively simple and visually appealing, Octopus Alone carries subtext related to safety and comfort, and making your choices about them. The book should lend itself well to repeated readings. Just for starters, the end-papers alone deserve some dedicated perusing.

Watch the trailer here 

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Guided Dreams

Graciela Boulanger is a Bolivian painter. When I first saw her work in an art gallery, I wondered where I'd seen it before. It had a kind of odd familiarity about it, with its stylized renderings of chubby children staring out of the paintings, walking multiple dogs, riding bikes--no, wait, are those unicycles?--and keeping company with cats.

Image source:

Then I realized where I'd seen her work before--on the 1979 UNICEF poster for the International Year of the Child. Why that image stamped itself on my mind and stayed there for so long I will never know. But there it was, and when I saw other paintings from her hand, it felt as if I'd come home in a way, as if I were meeting up with an old friend once again.

Stories can be like that sometimes. They take root in the mind and you don't even know it. Then the patterns begin to form but only after the passage of time can you possibly catch glimpses of what they mean. If you try too hard the image blurs and the whole thing can disintegrate.

I have a card on my desk sent by a friend. It carries a quote from Jorge Luis Borges: "Writing is nothing more than a guided dream." My own dreams mostly feel chaotic and unguided, on the unusual occasions when I can even remember them. But sometimes an image, a sound, a smell, can generate an entire narrative. It's just how the brain works, making connections a person may have overlooked or forgotten, or suppressed.

The Brennen Gallery in Santa Fe is announcing a Boulanger show in  August. I plan to go and spend time dreaming in the company of those images. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Diversity Gap in Children's Books Published in the United States

A blog post on The Open Book (the Lee and Low blog) reads:
Since LEE & LOW BOOKS was founded in 1991 we have monitored the number of multicultural children’s books published each year through the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s statistics. Our hope has always been that with all of our efforts and dedication to publishing multicultural books for more than twenty years, we must have made a difference. Surprisingly, the needle has not moved. 
The graph is telling. Look at that flat line of percentages.

So what do we do about this, exactly? At VCFA we've talked about the need to recruit more students of color into the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. How do we do that in conscience, if this is how the numbers play out?

I've been at conferences where teachers and librarians have stopped to look at my books and talk to me, then say as they disengage apologetically, "I don't have a large South Asian population in my area." Nikki Grimes and Rudine Sims-Bishop both refer to this frequently encountered perception that books about minority characters will only be read by minority kids.

Is this for real? Do we really only expect people to read books that reflect themselves? That seems like an awfully narrow view of reading. Speaking for myself, if I'd only been willing to read books about kids like me, I'd have grown up illiterate.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Unpacking the MFA Residency

It seems the harder I try to get ready for the VCFA July residency the more behind I get. Which makes sense--what could possibly get me ready for that 10-day wormhole experience that swallows us all up and spits us out at the end, exhausted and exhilarated and just about ex-breathing? Because residency has a way of validating your presence in the writing world while simultaneously pointing out at every turn how very little you know about this art around which you claim to have built your life. How very little you might know about anything, in fact. You spend six months looking forward to it and by mid-point you know that you are utterly crazy and all you want to do is go home and sleep for the next half-century.

In fact, it occurs to me that residency does the very things that writing itself can be relied upon to do. It puts your ego on the line daily. It's one endlessly looping emotional rollercoaster ride. And that is fine. Because at the end of it when I get on that plane, heading back to the rest of my life, I take memories with me. Of lectures that hold me riveted, faculty colleagues who fill my heart and mind, talk about books and writing, words and how they operate, workshop conversations and graduation moments that remind me why I love this program and the work we do together.

So instead of trying to get ready for any of that, I'm trying something else this year. I'm shedding loads. I'm packing light. I signed up for yoga ahead of time. I put together a playlist of soothing music. I'm taking along a bag of ginger chews and extra vitamins.

Clearing my desk. Making time to walk. Knitting. Reading for fun at least 10 minutes a day.

Bring on the time-warp. I'll never be ready, but maybe readiness is an overrated concept.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cliff Swallows and Building Narratives

These cliff swallows nest just down the road. (At least I think they're cliff swallows--are they not the only kind to build those gourd-like nests out of river mud?) I've been watching them every summer for over a decade. 

All those years, I'd drive past, slow down to glance at the swarms of birds overhead, feel the smile breaking out on my face in the way that bird-swarms make a person smile. Then I'd go on my way. I'd think, I ought to stop and take pictures. Really. Someday I will.

For some reason it sank in at last that those somedays don't just stretch forever into my distance, so today I decided to put my Flipcam to work. 

The swallows came pouring out, perhaps in response to me and my blundering around at the foot of their cliff palace. Listen to the flapping of wings and the shrill, squeaky cries. Here's life just bursting out of that rock. In contrast to that extravagance of sound and motion, look at those nests. How perfect they are, a whole community on this rock face, built one little dollop of mud at a time, flown up from the riverbank a couple of miles away. 

They remind me of Nader Khalili's ceramic homes.

What can we learn from swallows about form and structure? A lot, I think. There's such a deep sense of the organic and whole about this little colony of homes, each little cavity containing a bobbing beak or two. Nothing wasted. Everything with a purpose. Who needs heaven? Perfection is right here. 

Think about building story that way, with that kind of care and concern for setting and context, space and sky, river and rock, that intensity and life force driving the whole endeavor. I'm quoting Annie Dillard these days: "...right now your job is to hold your breath." 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Writing From the Chakras: An Online Course with Minal Hajratwala

She calls it the "fastest, fiercest way" she knows to generate work quickly. Body-centered exercises grounded in the deeply personal. Inclusive. Fun. Inspires her students to connect with their own creative expression. That's how former students describe Minal Hajratwala's writing workshops.

Juice up your chakras. Write from your body. Why not now?

I have a novel that should be in progress but is currently in dormancy. It could use exactly this. If my June and July weren't spoken for already I'd be signing up, if only to tap some of Minal's energy, enthusiasm, and passion for this work of teaching and writing. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Lyn Miller-Lachman on Humor and Disability

Somewhat related to my thinking on humor and cultural contexts, writer and VCFA graduate Lyn Miller-Lachmann muses about humor and disability.

Also tangentially related, an earlier post of mine about the fragility and robustness of humor.

And in these reviews of multicultural books in IRA's Reading Today Online, it's nice to see several that have funny elements.

Monday, April 29, 2013

South Asia Book Awards 2013

The South Asia National Outreach Consortium announces the South Asia Book Awards:

The winning books in 2013 are The Rumor by Anushka Ravishankar, illustrated by Kanyika Kini, and Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War by Deborah Ellis.

The Rumor (Tundra Books, 2012) is a charming, energetically-paced picture book, a North American edition of a 2009 publication from  Karadi Tales of Chennai, India. The people of the fictional village of Baddbaddpur like to tell tales "so tall that if you put them one on top of the other, they would reach the stars." When bad-tempered Pandurang coughs up a feather one day, the anecdote grows like wildfire--or perhaps like a forest! A neat twist at the end results in an altogether unexpected transformation, while the very last turn leaves the reader with an echoing aside from the storyteller whose narrative presence infuses these pages. The illustrations add color and movement in equal measure. One of Ravishankar's best, right up there with her Tiger On a Tree. (Grades PreK-4).

For Kids of Kabul (Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2012), author Deborah Ellis went to Kabul to find out what has happened to Afghanistan’s children since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. She spoke to children, who gave her often searingly honest accounts of their lives. Courage, optimism, and the power of endurance are reflected in this book, in which Ellis steps back in the role of listener, and gives agency to the young voices. (Grades 5 – 12).

Congratulations to the winners! The full list can be found on the SABA web site.