For Librarians

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.

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

Games

Interviews

Presentations

Websites

Bibliographies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diversity in MG Lit#30 Graphic Novels + Anthologies

Graphic novels are having quite a moment. They have grown by an astonishing 10-15% each year for the past 2 or 3 years and then in 2020, they grew by 29%. They now count for more than a billion in sales. The two factors driving this change are the willingness of independent bookstores and libraries to carry and promote graphic novels and the dramatic growth in graphic novels for children. This month I’m going to introduce a few of the many diverse graphic novels new this year. I’m also going to highlight two new anthologies.
Piece by Piece: the story of Nisrin’s Hijab by Priya Huq, Amulet 9/21book cover of Piece by Piece by Priya
If there’s one book I’d recommend to teachers and families trying to understand the lives of immigrants and refugees, it would be Piece by Piece. It’s a spare and powerful story of a Bengali girl who is the victim of a hate crime and goes on to use the very cultural markers that made her a victim to aid in her healing process. Along the way she comes to understand more fully her family’s generational trauma rooted in the Bengali genocide of 1971. I love this story for its nuanced take on a difficult topic and for it’s gorgeous art. I hope that debut author-illustrator Priya Huq has many more stories in the future.
Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms by Rey Terciero & Megan Kearney, Harper Alley 3/22
Imagine a high speed collision between Swan Lake and The Princess Bride and you’ll be onto the vibe of this rollicking tale of friendship and adventure. The racial identity of the main characters are hard to parse in the blue toned illustrations but one of the chief swashbucklers is a single leg amputee.
¡¡Manu!! by Kelly Fernández, Graphix Scholastic 10/21
Here’s another friendship story about girls at a magical school (run by some seriously spunky nuns) who learn the limits of magical power and boundless power of friendship and loyalty.
Borders by Thomas King illustrated by Natasha Donovan, Little Brown 9/21book cover Borders by Thomas King
This simple and thoughtful story packs a lot of power in under 200 pages. It’s about First Nations identity, justice and belonging and is set at a US/Canada border crossing where a Blackfoot family refuses to claim any citizenship other than their own tribe. It’s not flashy but it’s a real conversation starter.
Ms.Marvel: Stretched Thin by Nadia Shammas illustrated by Nambi H. Ali, Marvel, Scholastic 9/21
Love this story about Ms. Marvel, the 1st Muslim American Avenger in a theme that I think will resonate with a lot of students. Ms. Marvel AKA Kamala, is trying hard to do all the things she loves successfully and sacrificing her own well being to do it. But in the end she embraces the super power of leaning on your friends when you need help. Timely! Also from the Marvel universe, Miles Morales: Shock Waves by Justin A. Reynolds illustrated by Pablo Leon, Marvel, Scholastic 6/21
Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas, Harper Alley Quill Tree Books 2/22cover Squire by Sara Alfageeh
This one reminded me a lot of the Tamara Pierce stories. A Girl, a quest, a training regimen, allies gained and enemies vanquished, all with a middle eastern cast and setting. It’s great fun and sure to appeal to boys and girls equally.
City of Dragons: the awakening storm by Jaimal Yogis & Vivian Truong, Graphix 9/21
Fans of the Wings of Fire series will love this one. Set in Hong Kong, a group of friends find a dragon egg that hatches and becomes a creature of immense power who becomes the object of evil powers intent on destroying the entire city.
As a bookseller I LOVE a good anthology. It’s a great way to introduce kids to a variety of new authors. It’s great to help kids transition from chapter books to middle grade or from middle grade to young adult.  For teachers I love a themed anthology for augmenting curriculum. Here are two new anthologies that I think will serve you well.
cover of Living Ghosts & Mischievous MonstersLiving Ghosts & Mischievous Monsters: Chilling American Indian Stories by Dan Sasuweh Jones of the Ponca Nation, Illustrated by  Weshoyot Alvitre of the Tongva Nation. Scholastic Press, 9/21
Years ago I was a teacher on a reservation in Washington and one of the things I remember most was how eager my students were to tell me a scary story. This collection is not for the faint of heart though the tales vary in intensity quite a bit. They are collected from a tribes across the country. Chapters are devoted to ghosts, spirits, witches, monsters and the supernatural. Back matter includes books for further reading and reliable websites.
Beast & Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani  Illustrated by Julia Iredale Harper 9/21
The author of the School for Good and Evil series has a collection of 12 tales, all twists on familiar tales–thoughtful twists–conversation worthy twists.
This is just a small sampling of the many new graphic novels this summer and fall. Please mention your favorites that I might have missed in the comments.