11 Apr

“It’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2018)

Welcome to the Q&A for the April edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

This month I’m talking with author Sayantani DasGupta and giving away one signed copy of her demon-filled and very funny new middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic Press).

In its starred review of The Serpent’s Secret, Booklist writes, “Inspired by Bengali folktales, this is an exciting, fantastical debut grounded by Kiran’s wry, clever voice and her experiences as a child of immigrants. With a vibrant supporting cast, a world steeped in Bengali folk stories, and an action-packed story line, this is a series starter that rivals Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (2005). A breathtaking adventure.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of The Serpent’s Secret to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on April 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Sayantani DasGupta.

Chris: You’ve written about how your own children’s love of the Percy Jackson books helped inspire The Serpent’s Secret (“a story in which my own kids could see themselves being brave, dashing, smart, funny, strong and true”). Was the freshness of these Bengali folktales to American readers — compared to the familiarity of the Greek myths adapted by Rick Riordan — liberating to you as a writer, or did you feel a responsibility to be faithful to elements of these stories that you grew up with?

Sayantani: The Serpent’s Secret draws from many beloved Bengali children’s stories and folktales — regional stories that have, for the most part, an oral tradition to begin with. These were tales my grandmothers and aunts would tell to me when I was young, and would go on my long summer vacations to Kolkata, India. Even then, I was aware that each teller would slightly change the story as they were telling it, adding their own embellishments and moral lessons. (Say, if a cousin had been caught lying that day, suddenly a character in the story might have to face consequences for lying too!) Because oral stories have this tradition of adapting to context, of changing at each telling, I actually felt free while writing The Serpent’s Secret to mix and match, trying to stay true to the heart of any one character or story, but simultaneously putting them in a 21st century diasporic context.

Kiranmala, my heroine, is a Bengali folktale heroine — she comes from this story called “Arun, Barun, Kiranmala.” In the original folktale, Kiranmala’s older brothers Arun and Barun go off on adventures, leaving her at home because she’s the youngest and she’s the girl. Of course, when they get in trouble, it’s Kiranmala who has to go save them — so it’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day, and I loved that even as a kid. So I wanted to stay true to that. But in The Serpent’s Secret, I got rid of Kiranmala’s brothers and made her the only daughter of loving, if kooky, immigrant parents living in New Jersey. Her friends, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, are princely brothers from an entirely different folktale, as is her talking bird companion Tuntuni. So clearly, I was playing fast and loose with many tales.

The one important point I want to make too is that while I draw from many children’s and folk stories, I don’t draw from myths in The Serpent’s Secret — in other words, stories based primarily on spiritual or religious traditions. While my own family’s particular identities undoubtedly creep into the novel, the Bengali folktales I draw from are regional not religious in nature — beloved by people of many faiths and multiple nations — both West Bengal, India and the country of Bangladesh as well, not to mention the entire Bengali speaking diaspora! I want to make that point because it’s really important to me that these wonderful stories don’t get falsely attributed to one nation of people or any one religious group. Bengal all used to be one common region prior to the bloody 1947 Partition of South Asia at the time India and Pakistan gained our independence from the British (Bangladesh later gained its independence from Pakistan in their own independence battle). So these are pre-partition stories shared by Bengalis of many faiths and nationalities!

Chris: With the arrival of The Serpent’s Secret, you’re now a published author of children’s books in addition to being a pediatrician and a teacher. Which of those three pursuits would be most surprising to those who knew you while you were growing up in Ohio?

Sayantani: While pediatrician, narrative medicine scholar, and children’s writer seem like they are three disparate careers, they’re ultimately each about giving and receiving stories, and being wholly present for another person. They’re also, of course, about power and justice — paying attention to issues like whose stories get heard and whose silenced, whose are centered and whose are marginalized. They’re about questioning who gets to tell the story, and who gets to be the hero.

As a lifelong lover of stories who grew up in an activist, immigrant household, I’m not sure any of my careers would surprise anyone who really knew me well as a kid growing up in Ohio. My best friend from third grade on is still a dear friend and actually flew out recently for the launch of The Serpent’s Secret. (Hi, Kari!) Would she be surprised at any of my careers? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. We were the kids who lived in the library and inside the pages of books, we were always imagining our way into fantasy tales or out into the galaxy through our favorite space shows and movies. We were into science, and we were into stories — so really no surprise my careers are at the intersection of those two things!

I’ve been so lucky — to be able to explore so many different approaches to my interests and passions, to be able to contribute to the world in these different ways.

07 Mar

Two-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2018

There’s a story behind the Q&A for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

Last November I was speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. There was a question about subjects we’d wanted to write about, but which another author had gotten to first.

I mentioned two musicians that I had written multiple drafts about: trombonist Melba Liston (subject of Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone) and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose picture book biography — as I told the crowd — was on its way from author Barb Rosenstock.

I didn’t know Barb Rosenstock. All I knew was that she had beaten me to the punch.

Well, right after the panel ended, a grinning stranger approached me up at the dais. “I’m Barb Rosenstock,” she said.

Here we are a few months later, and I’m so glad that there’s now a splendid version for young readers of this tale I had hoped to tell, Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music (Calkins Creek). And I’m also glad to be able to share that book with you through a giveaway — and with a quick Q&A with my friends Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham.

In its review of Blue Grass Boy, School Library Journal says, “The author adeptly and squarely aims this book at the intended audience by highlighting details young readers can connect with, such as Monroe being the youngest of eight children and growing up with a left eye that turned inward (esotropia). In both the narrative and the back matter, readers witness Monroe’s trials with his eyesight and his resulting development of a fine-tuned sense of hearing which helps him make a big impression on the music world. The digital illustrations are vibrant with a retro feel. Natural elements ranging from trees to blue skies and animals are the most dominant images and complement the imagery of Monroe’s music.”

To a single winner, I’m giving away two author-signed copies of Blue Grass Boy — one to keep and one to share. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Barb Rosenstock and Edwin Fotheringham.

Chris: Blue Grass Boy is one of relatively few literary-quality nonfiction books for young readers about country music or about musicians who have frequented the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, despite the massive, longstanding popularity and cultural influence of that genre. Did that lack of other books have anything to do with what drew each of you to the story of Bill Monroe and bluegrass music?

Barb: Yes and no. Initially, like almost all my books, the idea for Blue Grass Boy came about by accident. In this case while driving my older son back to college in Indiana, I wound up a bit turned around in the town of Bean Blossom, home to the longest-running bluegrass festival in the world.

I filled up my car in town, and kept seeing references to someone named “Bill Monroe.” I stopped near the festival site and found myself fascinated by some Monroe memorabilia in the small museum there. My younger son and my father are both traditional-country fans, but I was not at all familiar with bluegrass history. I could not believe Monroe was credited with inventing an entire genre of music — and really that no other human had ever done that before (or since!).

On the long way back to the interstate, I [listened to] Blue Grass Junction … as I drove through rural Indiana with the windows down. Something about this music and the landscape stuck in my head. At home when I started researching Monroe, I realized that there were few (any?) children’s books about bluegrass, country, or the Opry — this whole important, influential set of American music history. Since it didn’t already exist, that motivated me even more to tell Monroe’s history to children. I learned so much and hope kids will, too.

Edwin: Being the illustrator and not the author, when Barb’s manuscript about Bill Monroe was offered to me, I figured there was probably a void in this category, to be honest. ;)

Seriously though… I had an extraordinary prior experience that made me view Bill Monroe with real interest as a character for young readers. I was traveling on a solo overnight bike tour from my home in Seattle to Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago, and decided to camp halfway at a place called Fort Worden outside Port Townsend.

Making my way to my campsite I noticed, unexpectedly, the sound of fiddle music — live fiddle music, not recorded. After setting up camp I walked to the common area and saw multitudes of folks outside their tents and vans playing fiddle music. I was astounded that the ages of these people lay in two distinct generations: younger (teens, twenties, early thirties) and older (late fifties, sixties). My generation (I’m now 52), having had punk rock take our musical interests elsewhere, was not very well represented!

The event, I found out, is called Fiddle Tunes. Attendees participate in workshops, impromptu late night jams, breakfast breakouts, concerts, and square dances, all while camping out together. Fiddlers (as well as bassists, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players) from all over the world converge and strut their stuff… be it Celtic, Old Time, Quebecois, Cajun or Bill Monroe’s American bluegrass. I could see that there was a connection between seemingly disparate generations that was linked by this music. I was impressed, and felt lucky to observe the scene completely by chance (bike touring is like that, by the way).

In Barb’s writing I felt the excitement that I witnessed at Fiddle Tunes. I was attracted to the notion that Bill Monroe was able to create a brand-new genre, an American genre, by keeping his ears open and putting together elements from physical and artistic sources borne by his interactions, history, and experiences. It is a great thing to impart on young readers: that new things come from what you already know and what you are about to find out.

Chris: Once you got involved in the actual creation of this book, what role did music — Monroe’s, or others’, or other sounds, or silence — play in your process?

Edwin: I listened to Monroe’s music to get a feel for the elements that make bluegrass distinct from other string genres — namely the banjo and his mandolin playing. After that I went back to my 20-year-old self and put on the Stooges. There’s nothing like music to pull back a few years and feel great, whatever the genre may be. I’m sure those kids playing bluegrass (and everything else) at Fiddle Tunes will feel the same way, just like their much older peers have figured out!

Barb: My writing process is not smooth — it’s a lot of stops and starts, with research before and between, so I keep my office pretty quiet (except for two old dogs snoring.) I look at a lot of pictures throughout a day, but I don’t typically write with any music or other sounds playing.

Blue Grass Boy was different. When I was writing and especially when the story got “stuck,” I listened to two things: nature recordings of Kentucky hill sounds, and Monroe’s own music. His lyrics are really autobiographical too, so I tried to focus on what was important by listening to him. There’s a great two-part video interview of Monroe on his farm in 1986. In a short section near the end, Monroe plays out in the open on his porch, you can hear the sounds around him.

One piece of music that helped a lot for emotional content is a recording of Monroe’s song “My Last Days on Earth.” It starts with water rushing, bird sounds, and then single notes on his mandolin. That song expresses everything I was trying to write about him. No one else’s music could really do that. Basically, Bill Monroe played his life better than anyone could ever write it down.

20 Feb

“I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere”


As promised, my Q&A for the February edition of my Bartography Express newsletter is with my friend Rose Brock. Formerly a school librarian in the Dallas area, Rose is now assistant professor in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University. She’s an expert in young adult literature, and she’s the editor of the soon-to-be-published Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration (Philomel).

Hope Nation is a Junior Library Guild selection, and it includes stirring contributions by Libba Bray, Angie Thomas, Marie Lu, Alexander London, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and many other accomplished members of the YA community. The authors are all donating their fees to charity, with the publisher matching those contributions.

In the book’s introduction, Rose talks a bit about her own story, including her family’s immigration from Germany when she was in elementary school, the hardships her new life entailed, and what helped her get past them.

“In my childhood home, finding hope was a directive,” she writes. “It was expected that the world’s lemons would be made into fresh lemonade. Perhaps that is the reason I’m an optimist. A dreamer. A hoper. And whether it’s in my genetic makeup to see the glass as half full or it’s a product of conditioning, I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere—in books, in movies, and most importantly, in real life.”

I’m giving away one copy of Hope Nation. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Rose Brock.

Chris: I don’t know if the parameters you provided to your contributors were anything more specific than “Write something hopeful,” though I imagine you must have had a general idea of the sort of pieces they would create. But what did you receive in their essays that you weren’t expecting?

Rose: That’s a great question, Chris. I feel like when I first approached my contributors, I did give them a great deal of latitude in regard to the personal story/essay they wanted to share, but I did ask them to make dig deeply into their own experiences and share about those moments where hope felt elusive.

Since you’ve read the collection, you know that each author tackled this call differently. The one thing each selection in Hope Nation has in common with the others is that what each of these writers shares is simply a piece of a collective human experience. Each of them (and us) has been a teen, and we know that teens are as passionate as people come about the things that matter most in their lives. That’s why hard times for them feel so stinking hard. Without a bit more of what I call “butt time on Earth”, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to have perspective—you need life experience for that. These writers have that in spades, and these personal stories capture that—abuse, family financial ruin, death, lost body parts, immigrant experiences—it’s all there and more.

So with that said, what was I not expecting? I didn’t expect these contributions to be so personal even though that’s what I asked for—my first idea of this book was that this would be a modern Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, and in some ways it is, but I believe it’s much more than that, too. It’s raw and it’s real, and the thing I love most is that these brave writers of YA (who love their readers the way I’ve loved the thousands of teens I’ve worked with over the years) is that they have opened themselves up in such intimate ways, allowing all of us to see the scars they’ve endured and wear as badges of honor. The stand on the other side of those experiences saying, “I’m still here, and I’m here for you.”

Chris: Hope Nation would be a terrific book to get into the hands of young people eligible to vote for the first time in 2018 or 2020. Are there other particular audiences that you hope will read this book, take it to heart, and get motivated by it?

Rose: In my mind, ALL readers can benefit from this book—I think regardless of age, I want teens to know that they can make hope a decision, one that is definitely rooted in advocacy for themselves and for others.

The inspiration for this book really goes back to two young women in my life who were pretty devastated by the outcome of the 2016 elections. For them, they hated that their voices as marginalized young women went unheard. They wanted a shot to speak up and out, and I think that’s the case with many teens.

As for how that plays out in regard to politics, I think a heightened awareness of the need to never be apathetic or complacent in regard to all types of leadership is essential; certainly that’s the case for our high elected offices, but it’s even a battle cry for us all in our personal worlds and local government.

Truly, it is my hope that this book will inspire all the young people who read it to fight for what they want and what they believe is right—shouldn’t we all do that?

24 Jan

Q&A and giveaway for Write to Me


The Q&A for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Cynthia Grady and illustrator Amiko Hirao, creators of the new nonfiction picture book Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (Charlesbridge).

Write to Me is a true — and all-too-relevant — account of the correspondence between California librarian Clara Breed and the young patrons who were displaced when their families were imprisoned during World War II. The book immediately brought to my mind the recent rise in the United States of openly expressed xenophobia and the dubious constitutionality of government actions that have been taken in that spirit.

A starred review from Booklist notes that, “The personal story … is full of warmth emanating from Hirao’s radiant, softly shaded color-pencil artwork, from Miss Breed’s relationship with the children, and from the actual quotes from their notes, appearing on small postcards superimposed on the illustrations. A beautiful picture book for sharing and discussing with older children as well as the primary audience.”

I’m giving away one copy of Write to Me. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao.

Chris: Write to Me feels especially timely, but I know that this book has been in the works for a long while. What can you each tell me about your interest in and history with this story — and about your dedication to getting it told and getting it right?

Cynthia: I first learned of Clara Breed — and the children she served in her San Diego library — in 2002. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles had created a video documentary about her, and I had read an intriguing review of it.

There is a long and rich history of librarians as advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice, and as effective agents of change. I strongly believe in literature’s ability to dissolve the socially constructed barriers [that some people] are so intent on creating. I wanted to learn more about this Clara Breed.

I was a new middle school librarian in Washington, DC, at the time. I scoured the local public library catalogs, the university libraries, and finally California libraries. I couldn’t find any books written about this amazing woman at all, though I did find a book she had written and a few magazine and newspaper articles by her.

So, I took the advice to heart that many established writers and editors give at conferences: “Write the book that you want to read.”

I had lived most of my life in California and was very familiar with the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, but I had never heard of Clara Breed. I spent the next three years researching the war and the incarceration of Japanese Americans, and I finally spent a week in Los Angeles, reading the letters that the children and teens from San Diego had written to their librarian during the three and half years they were imprisoned.

As I finished my first draft of the manuscript in 2005, I emailed a former library professor to tell her what I was working on, and she said, “You have to read this book!” She had in her hands an advanced copy of a book called Dear Miss Breed, written by Joanne Oppenheim. A detailed, fascinating book for older readers about Clara Breed, the children she knew, and the propaganda of World War II.

I was devastated.

But I thought there was still a place for the same story to be told for a younger audience. I sent my manuscript out to many, many publishers over the years and finally sold it in 2015 to Charlesbridge. It took ten years. Then another year of revisions with my editor, which was most rewarding. During those ten years I kept writing. I published numerous poems and essays, and two books before Write to Me made its entrance.

I’m so pleased with the work Amiko has done to bring the story to visual life, and I’m glad Write to Me is finally here. But yes, it is indeed, timely.

Amiko: Thank you so much for the interest in this book. And to Cynthia, I really enjoyed reading your story and it was a great honor to have taken part in this project.

I was struck by the simplicity of Cynthia’s manuscript when I first read it. The story is a great way to communicate what happened in that particular time and place, and to tell the story of this outstanding lady, Ms. Clara Breed.

It is very interesting to read about the librarians in America. I have personal memories of growing up in [Japan and the United States] and going to elementary school in both nations — and the very cozy libraries in the American schools really struck me.

The very enthusiastic librarians had every trick to get us interested in this book or that. In the Japanese school there was no librarian. Just books (and some attendee to sign books in and out).

I do have an interest in World War II history, but as the narrative of war is so vast and complex I do not think it is possible to hope for history to be told in the “right” way.

The postcards seem to show the right way to approach that issue — to observe, and to live the time through real voices.

Cynthia’s restrained prose does great justice to the story of Ms. Clara Breed and to telling the story of World War II.

(I can only hope I was able to match that even halfway…)

Chris: Were either of you letter-writers when you were the age of the children in Write to Me — and if so, is there a particular correspondent or recipient of your childhood letters that comes to mind?

Amiko: I was not much of a letter writer but I did make drawings to correspond with friends in Japan and US every time I moved to each country.

That was actually what surprised me about the letters — that they had only handwriting — and I thought perhaps people were more formal then.

So in a way working on the drawings to go with these letters did feel like a natural thing for me to be working on. I wondered about if the kids wanted to draw on these cards, too.

But in retrospect I probably still wrote many more physical letters than if I was in the same situation as a child today, with email available.

Cynthia: I remember writing letters to my grandmother when I was quite young. This is my earliest memory of writing at all. I have a few of those letters that she had kept and that my mother had given to me some years later. They are hilarious! In one, I thought I was writing to her in cursive, and it is just row after row of loops! Why she kept that one is a mystery. :)

Sometimes my grandmother put a dollar bill in her letters to me, which seemed like a tremendous amount of money then. And she often gave me stationery for my birthday, which made letter writing even more fun. My mom followed in that tradition — in a way — not with stationery, but with postage stamps. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, we found stamps in our stockings.

I still love to write letters, but don’t do it as much as I wish, and I love to receive them, too. Such a novelty anymore, as Amiko mentioned, with email and everything else.

18 Oct

Bartography Express: “Mommas would tell him, ‘just don’t kill him!'”

Every now and then, I like to throw my newsletter subscribers a curve – or, in this case, a spiral.

The Q&A for the October edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Michael Hurd, author of the new nonfiction book Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas (University of Texas Press). Michael is a longtime sportswriter as well as the director of the Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture at Prairie View A&M University.

Thursday Night Lights is geared toward adults, but it’s accessible to high school- and middle school-aged lovers of football and history. It’s an eye-opener, and it definitely would have been a revelation to the adolescent version of me, who played University Interscholastic League football in Texas without ever giving a thought to the story or structure (overseen by the Prairie View Interscholastic League, or PVIL) of the sport as it was played at African American high schools in the decades before desegregation.

(I wonder if Michael’s book might inspire students in other states to research the history of pre-integration high school sports closer to home. Any educators out there want to take that idea and run with it?)

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a signed copy of Thursday Night Lights. (If you’re not a subscriber yet, there’s still time.) In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Michael Hurd.

Chris: The influence on and involvement in students’ lives by their coaches was one of the most striking aspects of Thursday Night Lights. Was there a particular relationship between a coach and his player – or players – that was especially meaningful or moving to you?

Photo of Michael Hurd by Taylor Johnson

Michael: That’s a great observation. What immediately comes to mind is Houston Wheatley’s Frank Walker. In the book, his daughter, Frances, talks about how her dad was so committed to building the program and taking care of his players that it confused the family’s budget.

Out of his own pocket, Coach Walker would buy needed practice equipment, maybe provide a meal now and then, and for his graduating seniors going off to college, he’d purchase their bus tickets, clothing, and give them some pocket money.

But, I doubt he was the only coach in the PVIL who did those kinds of things for his players. There was a real symbiotic relationship between the players and coaches at the PVIL schools and those relationships extended well off the field as nurturing experiences. Many of the coaches were father figures for boys who may not have had a male parenting figure at home, and even some who did.

In regard to that, my favorite quote in the book is from Joe Washington, Sr. who coached in Bay City and Port Arthur. He talks about the trust that parents had in him, and black coaches in general, to discipline and essentially raise their sons. He said the mommas would tell him to take their son and do what they needed to do, “just don’t kill him!”

Chris: Your interview subjects were frank about the bittersweetness of integration as it affected black high school football programs and the people in those programs. How did what you learned from them square with your own recollections about integration and the waning days of segregation?

Michael: That was one of the things that I really enjoyed about researching and writing the book. A lot of my interviews turned into old home week discussions, reflecting on the Sixties and what that was like for black people as segregation slowly eased into integration.

One day there were all these places – theaters, restaurants, neighborhoods – that before, we couldn’t go here, we couldn’t go there, couldn’t do this or that, then the next day, no problem, more or less. So I talked about those kinds of things with a lot of my interview subjects, especially the Houston guys, and those conversations brought back a lot of memories for me.

An example: I had always gone to segregated schools, elementary and high school, and graduated in the spring of 1967. Then, in the fall of that year, black and white schools played against each other for the first time. So, when I went back for homecoming it had a totally different feel. We were playing at a different stadium and against a white team!

29 Aug

Bartography Express: “Something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding”


The Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Paige Britt and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The three of them have collaborated on Why Am I Me? (Scholastic), which is being officially published today.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of Why Am I Me?, which The New York Times included in this past weekend’s book-review roundup, “You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It.

Chris: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the book? I think my readers would be interested in knowing how the concept came to you and took shape, Paige, and how you arrived at the specifics of the characters and the setting, Sean and Selina.

Paige: The inspiration for Why Am I Me? came straight out of my own life. When I was four years old, I was like most kids — curious about everything. I was constantly asking questions. What’s this? What’s that? Who are you? Who am I?

The last question was the one closest to my heart … and the most baffling. Who am I?

Sometimes I would look at a person — a boy or girl, a man or woman (it didn’t really matter) — and wonder why I was me and not them. The question was way too big for my little brain. It went round and round inside my head — whyamIme? whyamIme? whyamIme? — until my mind gave up. And in that moment of giving up, everything gave way and I felt that I was part of something BIG — something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding. That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe there actually wasn’t a “me” and “you” after all. Maybe there was just us.

Even though I’m grown up now, the question “Why am I me?” is still rattling around in my head. That’s why I wrote the book. To this day, I’ve never come up with an answer, but I do have a hint. The answer is in the asking. Certainty creates labels, but curiosity creates space — space for empathy and connection, for wonder and delight. So … stay curious!

Selina: When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder. But, we knew it would be a challenge to create a narrative to go along with the simple — yet profound — words.

Our first task was thinking of a setting where a variety of very different people would naturally come together. It took some brainstorming before we came up with the subway, but when we did it was an “Aha!” moment for us. It just felt right.

As Brooklynites we frequently ride into the city along with people from all walks of life. Each subway car can seem almost like a microcosm of the world; so many people from all over coming together (often uncomfortably close to one another) to ride to their destinations in peace.

On the subway platform our protagonists (a biracial African American/Caucasian boy and biracial Asian/Caucasian girl) gaze at each other and simultaneously wonder the same things. The crowded setting is ripe for the two to indulge their curiosities beyond each other, as more and more people join them on their journey home.

At a certain point we decided to have them look beyond their subway car to parks and outdoor concerts, places where we could show even more people mixing together — demonstrating that this is the diverse and beautiful world we live in. We wanted the main characters to look very different from each other initially only to realize by the end, after they have gazed up at the sky and then into each other’s eyes, that essentially they are made from the same “star stuff” and are not so different from one another after all.

Why Am I Me? author Paige Britt (left) and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (right)

Chris: Advance copies of Why Am I Me? have been out in the world for a few months now. Of the early responses to the book, is there one that’s been especially memorable or meaningful to you?

Sean: What I like about the reviews overall is that they each discuss the book as a whole unit, focusing on how both the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. As Selina has already said, we immediately fell in love with Why Am I Me?, and one of the reasons for me was that Paige left plenty of room for the illustrations. Her words created an ideal backdrop for us to imagine and bring to life the characters and world that her words suggest, in a way that is unique and personal to us.

I see the book as one indivisible whole, words and art unified by its universal themes. It makes me happy that reviewers seem to think the same.

Paige: I absolutely agree with Sean! Why Am I Me? has received multiple starred reviews and in each case the reviewer has acknowledged how the words and pictures work together to evoke these universal themes. My favorite early response, however, didn’t come from a reviewer. It came from my 86-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Chris, you’re from Sulphur Springs, so you know that it’s a small and extremely conservative town in East Texas. My aunt has lived there for 60 years. When I showed her Why Am I Me? she pored over it, commenting on the colors, turning it this way and that to examine the collage, and reading the words out loud. The questions made her laugh and every so often she’d look at me and ask, “What’s the right answer?” I told her to keep on reading.

When she got to the last page and saw the image of the boy and the girl with their faces overlapping, she said, “They each have one eye of their own and one eye shared.” I held my breath and then asked, “Do you have an answer now?” She thought about it a long time and then said, “White people think they are all there is, but they’re not. We need to think about that.” I burst into tears.

This book is about unity and diversity. It’s about that one eye of your own and the one we share. And if an 86-year-old woman with dementia can realize this, then it means the words and pictures are working together on multiple levels. Because, after all, these aren’t lessons of the mind, so much as the heart.

17 Feb

H.M. Bouwman on writing A Crack in the Sea: “I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling”

From the February 2017 issue of my Bartography Express email newsletter:

I’m delighted this month to feature A Crack in the Sea (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), the magical new middle-grade novel by my friend H.M. Bouwman, with beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

The starred review the book received from Publishers Weekly began this way: “The Middle Passage and the fall of Saigon: two terrible events, separated by centuries, with seemingly nothing in common. But for Bouwman anything is possible, including the existence of a second world.”

Also, that second world? It includes sea monsters.

I’m giving away a signed copy of A Crack in the Sea to one Bartography Express subscriber residing in the US. If you’d like that winner to be you, just say so in a reply to this email before midnight on February 26, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, as always, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the author. But H.M. — I know her as Heather — did a terrific interview recently with Caroline Starr Rose. I recommend their conversation so highly that my feelings will not be one bit hurt if you go read that first and then come back for the one I had with Heather.

Chris: You mentioned [in the interview with Caroline Starr Rose] that, after your writing of A Crack in the Sea began with the image of a giant raft and the story of the Zong slave ship, “More images and stories and real world events influenced the writing as the manuscript progressed.” Can you please talk a little more about that interplay between the fiction you were creating and the unfolding of real life around you?

Heather: It’s hard to remember exactly how things progressed in drafting and revising, Chris! I feel like I’m making up a story about how the book was written….

That said, I do remember very clearly revising this book as I was seeing and hearing news reports about boatloads of people fleeing Syria. There are particular photos and stories….

I know, too, that I felt then (and still feel) in some ways very helpless to change world events. I can give money to organizations that help others, I can vote and write letters to support change, I can show up at marches — but I’m not myself a lawmaker or a doctor without borders or an aid worker.

But I do write stories. I think that writing for young people is a long game — you are putting stories out there that have the power (as all stories do) to influence people’s hearts and lives, but you don’t see any evidence of that for years sometimes, if ever. I hope that 20 years from now there will be a teacher or politician or medical professional or store clerk who will be a better person because of something they read when they were a kid — maybe even something I wrote. I feel sometimes like I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling, all these loving and thoughtful and creative works for kids, and that immense bonfire burns so bright, and I love thinking that I’ve contributed to it.

In this illustration by Yuko Shimizu, the characters Caesar and Kinchin ride on the head of a Kraken.

Chris: I see lots of ways in which A Crack in the Sea will have just that power for its audience — and many ways in which your book will seem especially timely to readers. I’m struck not only by the themes of escape, immigration, and refuge, but also by the ways that different cultures and abilities (in both humans and in sea monsters!) are appreciated, and in how citizens of Raftworld intervene when their leader is prepared to make a decision out of pure self-interest that would have a dramatic and damaging effect on his own people.

Do you yourself see any of that? Now that your book has been published while life around it goes on, are you still noticing new ways in which A Crack in the Sea may resonate with kids, new ways in which readers may interpret its stories, new ways in which educators can put your book to use?

Heather: With this book, I was thinking mostly about issues of escape, immigration, and refuge (as you put it so well). For sure.

But yes, there were other issues, too, that floated to the surface as I was writing. For example, I have a friend and the son of a friend who are both faceblind, so I was thinking about that — and about my own struggles over the years with chronic back issues — thinking about the ways that invisible (or somewhat invisible) differences are handled in our society.

And I was thinking a lot about villains as I wrote this book: What makes for a good antagonist, and how might an antagonist be also a basically good person — a person capable of growth and change and empathy just as much as a protagonist?

And I was thinking, from 2011 forward (in other words, not just in the past couple of months, though it might seem that way) about how political leaders should make decisions, and how they should govern — not through autocratic or dictatorial means, and not through condescension, but through careful listening to the people and tending of their best and most noble hopes and dreams. (In this sense, Jupiter the storyteller is the ideal politician…which is kind of interesting, yes?)

I’m sure there were other things I’m not thinking of right now. Oh! I was thinking about food; I get hungry when I write. I’m fairly sure that’s why Caesar is always hungry.

28 Oct

October 2016 Bartography Express: “They are amazed at what he accomplished.”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the November giveaway of Space Dictionary for Kids: The Everything Guide for Kids Who Love Space, written by Amy Anderson and Brian Anderson — you can sign up on my home page.

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