Nonfiction

WNDMG: South Asian Picture Book Biography: Meera Sriram talks about BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Meera Sriram, author of BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma,  and other titles for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.

Hi Meera, thanks for joining us today at Mixed-Up Files.

About BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: THE ART & LIFE OF AMRITA SHER-GIL

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS is a non-fiction picture book for children (6-11 years). It is  illustrated beautifully by Mumbai-based artist Ruchi Bakshi Sharma. This book is a biography of Amrita Sher-Gil, a remarkable painter and a pioneer of early 20th century modern art. Amrita lived and created art on her own terms. Her father was a Sikh scholar from India and her mother was a Hungarian Jewish opera singer. Throughout her life, Amrita traveled between Europe and India. She was also a woman ahead of her times in a male dominated art world. This story layers Amrita’s journey navigating cultures over her artistic journey trying to discover where her art belonged.

On Amrita being a rebellious artist

Even as a little girl, Amrita hated being taught art. She always believed art came from the heart. Growing up, her art reflected her bicultural identity. While in Paris, she learned a great deal about European art. She painted many portraits of herself, her family members, friends, and lovers of both sexes. And she did this unabashedly. During this time, she also longed to paint what she’d experienced in India. Eventually, she found her “voice” by fusing western techniques and Indian subjects – something that was ground-breaking in the artistic world during that period. Amrita also pushed boundaries in how she centered women in her paintings. As a feminist, her art was unapologetic about brown female nudity, and her work celebrated ordinary, less privileged women at a time when women were mostly objectified in art.

On reading and writing picture books and how they are an integral part of your writing career

I did not read picture books as a child growing up in India. I fell in love with them when I started reading them to my daughter many years ago. I was blown away by the themes, aesthetics, and more importantly, the impact they can have on children. I believe they are an intensely powerful medium as they have the ability to influence young minds. When I noticed the invisibility of children of color as well as the entire gamut of immigrant experiences, I decided to tell our stories. I hope to continue to write about people, places, and experiences less commonly seen in stories for children.

On a moment in your life that inspired this story

I was sitting on my bed in my parents’ home on a summer night in India. Someone sent me a New York Times article on Amrita Sher-Gil pointing out what an incredible story it would make. I’d known about Amrita Sher-Gil. In fact we’d picked up a picture book for my daughter a few years before that. However, the article prompted me to dig deeper. I sat there obsessed for several hours reading up on the internet. During this time I made a small but striking personal connection with some of her experiences, especially around identity, life across continents, and blending cultures while creating. In those wee hours, I found the inspiration to tell her story.

On the process of immersing yourself in Amrita’s story and writing it for children

Initially, I was reading up every news bit, essay, and article I could find on the internet. Later, I managed to lay my hands on an important primary source, two volumes of AMRITA SHER-GIL: A SELF-PORTRAIT IN LETTERS AND WRITINGS (Tulika Books, 2010) by Amrita’s nephew Vivan Sundaram. This is a compilation of Amrita’s letters and writings along with notes by the author offering chronology and context. It also includes over a hundred reproductions of Amrita’s paintings and many amazing photographs. I researched and made notes for months. The narrative flowed out lyrically in my first draft and stayed that way. However, it took me many revisions and ample aid from critique partners to weed out details and extract the essence for her emotional trajectory as she tried to find out where she and her art belonged.

As an Indian American, Meera has lived equal parts of her life in both countries. Previously an electrical engineer, she now writes for children and advocates for diversifying bookshelves. Meera is the author of several picture books including THE YELLOW SUITCASE (Penny Candy Books, 2019), illustrated by Meera Sethi, BETWEEN TWO WORLDS (Penny Candy Books, 2021), illustrated by Ruchi Bakshi Sharma and DUMPLING DAY (Barefoot Books, 2021), illustrated by Inés de Antuñano. Her book, A GIFT FOR AMMA (Barefoot Books, 2020), illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is the winner of the 2021 South Asia Book Award and the Foreword Reviews Indies Silver Award. She has also co-authored several kids’ books published in India. Meera believes in the transformative power of stories and likes to write about people, places, and experiences less visible in children’s literature. For more information, please visit: http://www.meerasriram.com.

Interview with Author Candace Fleming + 3-Book GIVEAWAY!

I was in eighth grade when Tutmania hit New York. It hit hard, thanks to the exhibit “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on December 15, 1978. I don’t remember the day tickets went on sale, or the line that snaked down Fifth Avenue for more than a mile. But I’ll never forget walking past King Tut’s golden sarcophagus and wondering what life must have been like for the boy pharaoh who hadn’t lived to see his nineteenth birthday.

Today, Candace Fleming (right), author of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB (Scholastic), is here to fill us in.

About the Book

During the reign of the New Kingdom of Egypt, the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun ruled and died tragically young. In order to send him on his way into the afterlife, his tomb was filled with every treasure he would need after death. And then, it was lot to time, buried in the sands of the Valley of the Kings. His tomb as also said to be cursed. Centuries later, as Egypt-mania gripped Europe, two Brits—a rich early with a habit for gambling and a disreputable, determined archeologist—worked for years to rediscover and open Tutankhamun’s tomb. But once it was uncovered, would ancient powers take their revenge for disturbing and even looting the pharaoh’s resting place? What else could explain the mysterious illness, accidents, and deaths that began once it was found…?

Q & A with Candace Fleming

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Candace. Thank you for joining us!

CF: Thanks for inviting me. I’m thrilled to be here.

MR: You have written more than 40 books for children, including biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Buffalo Bill, Amelia Earhart, and the Romanovs. What drew you to the story of the search for King Tutankhamun’s tomb and its decade-long excavation? Was it daunting to take on a subject of such epic proportions?

CF: When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to see the big Tutankhamun exhibit that came to the United States. I was awed. Mix in those black-and-white mummy movies from the 1930’s, and–voila!–a lifetime’s passion for the boy king. And yes, it was daunting to take on the subject. Let’s face it; the story has been told, and told, and told. But I had questions that hadn’t been answered before; questions about colonialism, and cultural appropriation, and where in the world that curse story originated. So I decided to tell the story again, and in doing so, I hoped to find the answers to my questions.

A Visit King Tut’s Tomb

MR: I read that you traveled to Egypt—specifically, to the Valley of the Kings, where you visited King Tutankhamun’s tomb. What was that experience like for you?

CF: Being in Egypt—literally stepping into history—changed everything I thought I knew about the story. Landscapes speak, and temples and tombs hold memories. I definitely gained a clearer understanding of ancient Egypt’s historical periods. I even learned to read hieroglyphs. But more importantly, I discovered how cool and silent it is inside a tomb, and how the rock in the Valley of the Kings crunches beneath your feet, and how the pink of an October sunset reflects on the Nile.

I climbed a summit, following a path that has been taken by Egyptians for thousands of years to look out across the vastness of the countryside. From there I could clearly see the line between the cultivated land the barren desert. For the first time, I truly understood why ancient Egyptians believed it was the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead. And this is going to sound a bit crazy, but while I was there, all my senses were engaged. My imagination too. By the time I came face-to-face with Tutankahumen, I cried. I just felt this sudden, overwhelming sadness.

Questioning the Past

MR: Do you think you could have written THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY without a visit to King Tut’s tomb? 

CF: No, I couldn’t have written the book you have in your hand without taking that trip. That’s because that unexpected emotion changed how I wrote the story. Yes, it’s still an exciting story of discovery and buried treasure. It’s still the story we all know. But I also included parts of the story that are less often told—questions that deserve to be answered for young readers of the 21st century. Why were rich, white men from western countries basically allowed to treasure hunt in Egypt? Why were they allowed to literally appropriate that country’s treasures? Why didn’t the Egyptian people have any say in it? I think it’s imperative to question our past, to re-examine and reconsider it in the light of new understanding. After all, memory is a powerful force in the way society evolves. And so I thought it was time for our young readers to think about these questions.

MR: Out of curiosity, Candace, were your travel plans affected by the pandemic?

CF: Luckily, I went to Egypt before COVID. The pandemic has affected my plans for this coming October, though. I was actually invited by some of the folks I met in Egypt to help dig in the Valley of the Kings. Can you believe it? And I was getting ready—buying a new sunhat and finding a dog sitter. Sadly, those plans are on hold.

A Shocking Discovery

MR: What surprised you most while you were researching the search for and excavation of King Tut’s tomb? Did you uncover any facts or information that knocked your socks off?

CF:  The thing that blew me away–completely shocked me–was the autopsy that Carter and an anatomist named Dr. Derry performed on Tutankhamun’s mummy. They basically went on a treasure hunt, carelessly unwrapping the age-old linens in search of amulets and other treasures the ancient priests had so reverently buried within the layers. It’s really sacrilegious when you think about it. And if that isn’t bad enough, they next chopped off his hands, feet and—wait for it—head (!!!) in order to get him out of the coffin. They hid this mutilation from the public. Carter didn’t write about it in his notes or journals. Neither did Dr. Derry. And they covered up the severed neck with cotton wool before photographing it, so people wouldn’t noticed it wasn’t attached to a body. It was the 1960’s, more than thirty years before Egyptologists saw the evidence of their mutilation. Horrible.

Excavation: An Exact Science

MR: To follow up on this, the excavation of King Tut’s tomb—beginning in 1922 and lasting more than a decade—was a laborious, painstaking process. Each item had to be unpacked, catalogued, and removed with utmost precision and care by archaeologist Howard Carter and his team of scientists, engineers, and Egyptian helpers. Had the same excavation taken place today, would the methods employed differ vastly from those used in the 1920s? If so, what would be the biggest difference be?

CF: Nowadays we have CT scans and DNA tests to learn about Tutankhamun’s physical body. There’d be no need to chop his remains into pieces, as I had mentioned. That said, Carter did do an exceptional job for an Egyptologist of his time. Most of the hunters would come before weren’t interested in learning from the evidence. They were simply interested in grabbing treasure. But Carter didn’t rush. He took the time to gather every single object, no matter how small. One of my favorite stories is about him breaking a beaded necklace. Tiny faience beads bounced and scattered all over the antechamber. Instead of letting it go, he crawled around on his hands and knees for days, locating each one, then picking it up with a pair of tweezers, numbering it and cataloging it. He could be so meticulous and systematic. That’s probably why the whole autopsy thing is so shocking.

The Truth Behind the “Mummy’s curse”

MR: The occult plays a large part in the story of the excavation of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The mummy’s curse, for instance, was thought to have killed Carter’s pet songbird as well as caused the death of Carter’s patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, as well as the deaths and illnesses of countless others. Although the curse of the mummy was later debunked, what is it about curses—and about superstition in general—that has such a powerful hold on us?

CF: It’s pretty simple, I think. We all love a story, especially a spooky story. The media of the day knew that. They created the curse story to sell papers. And it worked. Why? Because I believe westerners recognized, on a subconscious level, what they’d really been doing in Egypt for centuries. That, of course, was robbing tombs and stealing a nation’s cultural treasures. The curse story–the idea that something sinister would “get you” for disturbing Tutankhamun’s tomb–spoke to their internal uneasiness with doing that. I included the curse story in my book because it not only hooks kids in, but it needs to be addressed and explained. Let’s face it. Everybody knows about the curse. They’ve seen the mummy movies. But do they know where the curse really came from? That it’s just “fake news”? I worried about that.

King Tut: Rock Star

MR: During his short time on earth, King Tut was a minor pharaoh; in death he became a cultural icon, inspiring “Tutmania”—an interest in all things Egyptian, from architecture to fashion. In fact, King Tut’s image could be found on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. And let’s not forget Steve Martin’s iconic 1978 SNL musical parody, “King Tut.” The sketch was so popular that the song was released as a record, selling more than a million copies. What is it about King Tut that causes such deep and continued fascination?

CF: It’s a lot of things; the fabulous wealth, the mystery of Tutankhamun’s life and death, the against-all-odds discovery, the timing of Carnarvon’s death. Also, Americans love an underdog, and Tutankhamun was the underdog of pharaohs. He wasn’t Rameses or Amenhotep or Seti. He didn’t have time to build anything famous or become the center of important events.  Basically, he was a nobody in the scheme of Egyptian royalty. He should barely be remembered.  And yet, he’s the only one whose tomb has been discovered relatively untouched. I think Americans especially love that. Tutankhamun goes from obscure ruler to rock star, all because of a series of coincidental events.

Writing with Oxford and Archie

MR: Mixed-Up Files readers are always curious about an author’s writing process. Could you tell us a bit about yours?

CF: I’m at my desk from 9am to 4pm every day, sometimes longer if I’m pushing a deadline. I’m never alone while I write. My 84-pound, mixed-breed dog, Oxford, lies under my desk, and my eight-month-old kitten, Archie, sleeps on the windowsill. I don’t compose on my computer. All my first drafts are written by hand–even long pieces of YA nonfiction. Needless to say, my office is FULL of paper. And I’m specific about my tools. I use wide-lined loose-leaf paper, and blue Bic pens. The smell of pens tells my brain, “We’re writing today.” And the paper reminds me that what I’m writing–these words and sentences–aren’t precious. I can scratch over them, doodle on them, crunch them up into ball and toss them to Oxford to chew up.

This process makes writing feel more like play, than work. Every time I sit down, it’s as if I’m just taking a few sentences out for a walk. No pressure to be perfect, or even good. And sometimes, I end up with something decent. Know what I else? At the end of a long writing day, I end up with blue ink all over inside of my lower arm. I love that. It’s like a badge, you know? I can hold up my arm and say to myself, “Look, I wrote today!”

Outer Space and American Cults

MR: What’s next on your authorial agenda, Candace? Care to share a bit about your latest book project?

CF: I’ve got two amazing pieces of nonfiction in the works. The first is a middle-grade nonfiction book called It Crashed from Outer Space (Scholastic) about Roswell, flying saucers, and our continued fascination with UFOs. The second is YA narrative nonfiction called American Cults (Anne Schwartz Books/Random House) that traces the history of cults in the United States starting with the Pilgrims and moving into modern day. It’s a fascinating and creepy subject, and I’ve made some wild discoveries, like, did you know that just two blocks from my house lurks the site of a famous 1930’s cult? Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Now I’m compelled to keep walking past the place, thinking, “Huh? Really? Why?”

Lightning Round!

MR: Oh! Last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Popcorn

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Favorite item from King Tutankhamun’s tomb?

The golden Anubis statue found in the entryway to the Treasure Room

Favorite song (excluding Steve Martin’s “King Tut” 🙂 )?

This week? “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello

Mummy’s curse: Yea or nay? Big nay!

Superpower? Time travel. I can imagine myself into the past

Favorite place on earth? Venice

You’re stranded on a desert island with only three items in your possession. What are they? A package of both wide-lined loose-leaf paper, a blue Bic pen, and the trick-or-treat-size bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Candace—and congratulations on the publication of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMB. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a chance to win a copy of THE CURSE OF THE MUMMY: UNCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN’S TOMBcomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account. THREE winners in all!

About the author

CANDACE FLEMING is the versatile and acclaimed author of more than forty books for children and young adults, including The Rise and Fall of Charles Lindbergh, winner of the YALSA Excellent in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award; the Sibert Award winner Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction winner, and Sibert Honor Book The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of the Russian Empire; and the critically acclaimed Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Learn more about Candace Fleming on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Middle Grade Examines the Constitution!

By Robyn Gioia, M.Ed

Constitution Day, September 17, 1787: The day the U.S. Constitution was signed by founding fathers such as George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Jay at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

What began as newspaper comic strips in the late 1800s evolved into stories spanning several pages. From there, stories grew into the superhero genre with the likes of Superman and Batman, to name a few. Later the word “graphic novel” was coined for depicting larger works that can be more serious in nature. Since then, graphic novels have grown to represent every form of genre, from entertainment to nonfiction to academically examining controversial topics such as the Constitution.

The Constitution, a document that was written in the 1700s and for a different time in history remains the heart of American law. Many argue the Constitution needs to be rewritten. The graphic novel fault line in the constitution takes middle school kids through the history and nuts and bolts of the Constitution in easy to understand scenarios and graphics. It is definitely a topic that makes you question the way things work and how you think about them. The book has garnered “starred” reviews from top book reviewers such as Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly.

Meet Cynthia Levinson, teacher, writer, mentor, and author of the middle-grade graphic novel, fault line in the constitution.

(Yes, fellow teachers, the book title does NOT use capitals!)

Robyn: Welcome to From The Mixed Up Files. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. It’s always fun to connect a person’s life with their books.

Cynthia: I have two daughters, two SILs, and four grandchildren. And every book my husband and I write includes a thank you to “our thoroughly splendid children,” regardless of whether or not they helped with the book! For most of my professional life, I worked in education—teaching from K-12 and higher ed and also in state-level education policy. As a writer, I still consider myself an educator. I like to cook, but only in spurts; otherwise, a kitchen-sink salad is my favorite dinner. Nothing with okra—blech.

Robyn: A good salad. Someone after my own heart. I’d pass on the okra, too! So tell me, why write a middle-grade graphic novel on the U.S. Constitution?

Cynthia: The idea to write Fault Lines in the Constitution came from one of my editors—Kathy Landwehr at Peachtree, who had given her father a copy of one of my husband’s books (a law professor) on the Constitution. He liked it so much that Kathy asked if we would write a version for kids. Our editor at First Second/Macmillan, Marc Siegel, requested a graphic novel  version! So, happily, the ideas came to us from publishers.

Robyn: How did you choose what topics to include?

Cynthia: Great question! How on earth did we?! Well, my husband, Sanford (Sandy), has written extensively on problems with the US Constitution so I began by reading his books more closely and winnowing his massive knowledge base to kid-size bites. We introduce each of the 20 issues in the book with a true story. For instance, we begin the chapter on habeas corpus—the right that the Constitution gives Americans to be released from prison if the government cannot show a cause—with a story about a pandemic. See Resources for Teachers.

Robyn: How does a topic on the Constitution relate to middle grade kids?

Cynthia: Although it might seem that the Constitution has nothing to do with middle-graders, that’s not such a tough question. Our government—especially, the way it fails to operate these days, thanks to our Constitution—affects kids’ lives from what they eat for lunch (that’s Chapter Two, called “Big States, Little Say: The Senate”) to whether they have to be vaccinated (Chapter 19) to whether they can vote (Chapter 8). Fault Lines makes abundantly clear the relationship between the Constitution and everyone’s everyday lives.

Robyn: Well, your book has certainly given us a lot to think about. Thank you very much for introducing us to your middle grade, graphic novel fault line in the constitution. Readers will be happy to know there is a plethora of resources available, everything from a teacher’s guide, to lesson plans, to a blog.

Resources are plenty and interesting! The Blog delves into topics such as:

Your Turn! How Would You Write a New Constitution?

What IS “General Welfare?”

What’s a Vice President To Do?

The King is Dead

Resources:

Discussion guides and Activities  (Peachtree teacher guide)

Standards based lessons

Blog

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Interviews

Presentations

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