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.