Writing

Middle-Grade Mysteries, Spy, & Sci-fi stories featuring South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Sheela Chari

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Sheela Chari, author of the new mystery series, The Unexplainable Disappearance Of Mars Patel, for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.

                                   

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

Thank you for having me—it’s great to be back! Years ago, I was one of the original members, and I loved interviewing other writers! These days, writing, teaching, and being a parent has taken over much of my time. But it’s definitely fun to be in this familiar space again.

 

About THE UNEXPLAINABLE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARS PATEL

The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel follows Mars Patel and his pals on their quest to find their missing friend, Aurora, who might be part of a chain of other disappearances around the world leading back to billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt. It’s a story filled with conspiracy theories, deceptive adults, and enterprising kids who know how to rely on technology and each other to solve problems.

Mars Patel was originally produced as a podcast mystery drama series for kids by Gen-Z Media.

Now, it’s also a middle-grade novel and series written by me!

When I was invited to write the novelization, I was asked to take an audio-drama and re-envision it in written form. I had to really think about who Mars, Caddie, JP, Toothpick and the rest of the characters were, and the stories of their lives not captured in the podcast. It was a lesson in character study and plotting, and even rethinking everything I knew about dialogue. In the book, you will find a traditional story littered with emails, texts, podcast transcripts, and other asides to capture the same chatty dynamic of the podcast. It was really my wish to reflect the very interesting, funny way that young people talk to each other today both online and IRL (that’s “in real life” for the uninitiated).

On Mars Patel identifying as an Indian-American spy kid

Representation have always been important for me. It’s the reason that I wrote my mystery novels, Vanished and Finding Mighty, which both feature Indian-American detectives, and are rooted in my experience of growing up Indian-American. I also make an effort for the other supporting characters in all my books to reflect the diversity and inclusiveness I see and cherish as a part of being an American immigrant. The Mars Patel series is a perfect representation of these ideals. Not only that, Mars gets to do those very things that ALL kids should be seen doing in novels: sleuthing, pranking, laughing, messing up, apologizing, doing better, taking risks, and growing up.

 

                                                         

 

On how reading mysteries was an integral part of your childhood

When I was young, I would pore over Nancy Drew books in my library and at home. Not just the stories themselves, but also those wonderful interior illustrations and cover art, observing how Nancy Drew, and her loyal friends, Beth and George, transformed from book to book. To me, they were heroes and old friends, and even the way I met my own best friend (we found each other in the Nancy Drew aisle of the Iowa City Public Library). From then on I would graduate to other mysteries and spooky stories (Lois Duncan comes to mind!). But I do believe this idea of mystery-solving and friendship finds it roots in those Nancy Drew mysteries and a shared love for them with a close friend.

On drawing inspiration from your own life when writing this book

The original podcast hints at a story set in the Northwest. I went a step further and set the book in Washington State, where I lived when I was in middle school and high school. Mars’s fictitious town of Port Elizabeth is based on all the trips I made to Seattle and the Puget Sound as a young person. So writing the book was truly a trip down memory lane for me. I also went on a recent vacation to visit an old friend in the Puget Sound, and it was very inspiring. I used all kinds of details — taking the ferry across the water to Seattle, that particular quality of rain, clouds, and occasional sun, the up-and-down hills, the inky waters of the Sound —to help me describe Port Elizabeth. It was so much fun!

On immersing yourself in a MG sci-fi with corporate conspiracies

Yes, in this story there are bad guys, surveillance, and a conspiracy to hoodwink kids. Even so, for me, Mars Patel is about looking to the future, where anything is possible, even a chance to start over as a society. It’s a book that celebrates technology, space travel, and innovation. Not to say there aren’t threats — Book 1 starts with a Code Red scene in school. Later books in the series take on the urgency of climate change. Even so, the story has always given me a surprising and upbeat way of looking ahead, of knowing that kids growing up now will have the mindset to invent and think differently. Thank goodness.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY and VANISHED, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her latest middle-grade novel, THE UNEXPLAINABLE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARS PATEL, based on the Peabody-award winning podcast, is out this October from Walker Books US, an imprint of Candlewick Press. Sheela teaches creative writing at Mercy College and lives in New York.

Want to own your very own signed copy of The Unexplainable Disappearance Of Mars Patel? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 

 

You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on October 16, 2020 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive a signed, personalized book.

 

The Most Important Thing About Children’s Books: For Readers and Writers During COVID-19

Last night, my son asked for something extraordinary. He requested I read him a goodnight story. From my shelves, I pulled out a picture book, The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. At first glance, this might not seem that unusual.

Except my son is a ninth grade, a newly minted 15-year-old, and I couldn’t more proud. He wasn’t afraid to ask for what he needed– the comforting ritual of a bedtime story read aloud by a parent. He wasn’t embarrassed. His ears didn’t pinken. This wouldn’t have happened pre-COVID. Well, it would have but like six or seven years ago.

This was not an isolated incident.

My oldest son, who graduated from college last year and is a software engineer for a celebrated car company, is back home and after reading some non-fiction, picked up The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman. My son had first read this very book and the rest of His Dark Materials series when he was ten. He said he relished re-reading it even more because “there was so much that I didn’t understand” the first-time round.

My middle son, a 20-year-old, and college sophomore has been asking for back rubs after sitting in his chair digesting his third Zoom class for the day. He also has been introducing us to some of his favorite board games.

In fact, all three of my sons have asked that we play family games at least once a week. Our favorite is definitely Exploding Kittens, which is silly, involves a little strategy and a lot of luck.

I’m not trying to glorify sheltering-in-place. It’s been, at times, incredibly stressful and full of grief. Two of my students have lost their grandparents. Three of my students have been hospitalized. Childhood friends are struggling to recover from COVID-19. My youngest son may have had COVID-19 for a month in March, but at the time we couldn’t get him tested. But I don’t need to tell you of all this woe. We’ve all experienced heartbreak in one form or another, collective grief and loss in many forms.

So I’m really trying not to be a Pollyanna.

But I do feel like COVID-19 has helped me put priorities and values into sharper focus.

Health. Wow. That’s important.

Friends. Community. Books. All Vital.

And it’s clearer than ever before that children’s books are not just for one particular life period. And reading aloud shouldn’t have to stop when you’ve graduated from the HarperCollins I Can Read Level 4. Nope. The pleasure of children’s books are for every season of life. The idea, for example, that you read middle grade just when you’re 8-12 is merely a state of mind.

And as creators of children’s books, it’s especially imperative to embrace this perspective.

Next month, starting on June 15, I’ll be teaching Middle Grade Mastery, a four-week interactive, remote course for the The Children’s Book Academy with Rosie Ahmed (Penguin Random House/Dial Books) and Mira Reisberg (Clearfork/Spork). It’s a class I’ve taught for several years now, and one that I love. We focus on craft and mentor texts. But this year, I plan to remember what I’ve learned from this sheltering in-place. I want to emphasis more reading aloud at any age. And to remember that no one is ever too old for children’s books; they open hearts and minds, pose and answers questions, as well as (perhaps most importantly right now) mend and delight the spirit.

Hillary Homzie is the author of the Ellie May chapter book series (Charlesbridge, 2018), Apple Pie Promises (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2018), Pumpkin Spice Secrets (Sky Pony/Swirl, 2017), Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009) as well as the Alien Clones From Outer Space (Simon & Schuster Aladdin 2002) chapter book series. She’s also a contributor to the new Kate the Chemist middle grade series (Philomel Books/Penguin Random House 2020). During the year, Hillary teaches at Sonoma State University and in the summer she teaches in the graduate program in childrens’ literature, writing and illustration at Hollins University. She also is an instructor for the Children’s Book Academy. She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page as well as on Twitter.

South Asian Storytelling: Author Interview with Sayantani DasGupta, and Giveaway

                                                                 

 

Today, I am delighted to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing her third book in the middle-grade adventure fantasy Kiranmala series, THE CHAOS CURSE. Sayantani’s novels feature a powerful girl character who carries a quest on her shoulders and must overcome the conflict between good and evil.

 

  1. Tell us about “The Chaos Curse,” and how your journey has been writing three novels in the Kiranmala series?

The Chaos Curse is the third in the Bengali folktale and string theory inspired Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series. Kiranmala, the 12-year-old protagonist of the series, thinks she’s just an ordinary immigrant daughter growing up in New Jersey, until she realizes all her parents’ seemingly outlandish stories are true, and she really is an Indian princess from another dimension. This third and final installment of the series finds Kiranmala having to once again battle the evil Serpent King, who wants to collapse all the stories of the universe together, destroying the multiplicity of the multiverse. It is varied and heterogeneous stories, after all, which make the universe keep expanding. The Chaos Curse finds Kiranmala once again teaming up with some old friends, as well as some new ones, to try and stop the Serpent King and his nefarious Anti-Chaos Committee. Will they save the stories in time to save the multiverse?

 

 

  1. Your work is about a powerful twelve-year old girl Kiranmala who is proud of her ancestral heritage, connected to her family, and has a strong desire to fight for good over evil. Can you discuss how you broke stereotypes with this series?

It took me many years to find an editor for The Serpent’s Secret, as ten years ago, there didn’t seem to be any room in the publishing industry for a funny, fast paced fantasy starring a strong brown immigrant daughter heroine. The answers were often similar: “We love your voice, but how about writing a realistic fiction story about your protagonist’s cultural conflict with her immigrant parents?” In other words, the story that was expected and wanted was one that reinforced stereotypes about South Asian immigrant parents (as oppressive, or regressive, or rigid) and allowed a certain type of expectation about South Asian parents and children to be fulfilled. Many marginalized communities face this narrative demand – to tell stories of conflict, stories of suffering, stories of pain – for others’ voyeuristic pleasure. But for that very reason, in our stories, joy is an important form of resistance. To portray a strong, funny Desi heroine with doting, loving parents is to break a stereotype that mainstream America has about our communities. Other ways this series breaks stereotypes is to challenge the notion of fixed good and evil altogether. For instance, the rakkhosh monsters who are pretty uniformly baddies in the first book get more nuanced in the second and third. Like any beings, there are good rakkhosh and bad rakkhosh, and Kiranmala must get over her prejudice against them, realizing that heroes and monsters are not based on family, or appearance or community, but rather, what someone chooses to do each and every day with their lives.

 

 

  1. In a previous interview, you shared with me that as a child, Bengali folktales were an important part of you finding your own identity. How did you personally approach storytelling in this series and make Bengali folklore accessible to young readers?

I grew up in the U.S. with very few positive ‘mirrors’ in the culture around me – not in the books I read, not in the TV shows and movies I watched. (Here, I refer of course to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishops’ important framing of books as ‘mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.’) It was only when I would go on my long summer vacations to India that I could see heroes and heroines who looked like me – brown kids being strong and heroic, saving the day. When I thought about adapting these stories to an American audience, I was at first nervous – would I be doing these cultural stories an injustice? But then I remembered that folktales are oral stories, and as such often change in the telling. Even my grandmother would often sprinkle in her stories with little morals she wanted us grandchildren to hear on that particular day because of some naughty thing some cousin had done. So in changing and adapting the stories, I still felt like I was being true to their nature as oral folktales. Just like so many aunties and uncles and parents and grannies before me, I was simply adapting my storytelling to my audience.

 

  1. Although the story is predominantly in English, you sprinkle Bengali in the books too. Tell us about the power of weaving Bengali words into Kiranmala’s world.

I think many of us immigrant kids or Third Culture kids aren’t just multilingual, but we speak a mash-up of multiple languages at once. We speak Spanglish and Hindlish and in my case, Benglish. Sprinkling in Bengali words without apology and without italics was a way of not only honoring the language of my family and community, but reflecting the real way that so many of us communicate. I knew that non-Bengali speakers would pick up words and meaning from context, and that young Bengali readers might be seeing familiar words in an English book for the first time. That felt like a really important responsibility – and so I tried very hard to use Bengali pronunciation to guide the way I spelled these words (rakkhosh for instance instead of the more Hindi-fied “rakshas” or “rakshasa”). I also narrated the audio books myself, and tried very hard to keep to Bengali pronunciations of all these words – I wanted young listeners to hear their language pronounced correctly!

 

  1. You discussed in my previous interview that you hoped to inspire children to have radical imaginations through your stories. How has that manifested in your school visits and public readings/signings?

When I talk about radical imagination, I am usually talking about kids from marginalized communities being able to see themselves as protagonists in stories, see their own strength and heroism reflected back to them in them in books. It’s hard to be what you can’t see, right? And every kid deserves to see someone like them as a hero. But what I have found in my school visits is something else very interesting. I do meet many immigrant kids or Desi students who come up to me, hugging my books, so excited that Kiranmala is a brown kid, like them! But I also meet many non-Desi kids who are equally excited about Kiranmala’s adventures, and this feels very radical. When a gaggle of young blonde boys runs up to me telling me how much they love the series, I see something radical here too – their unquestioned ability to not just accept but cherish a strong girl as a hero, a protagonist of color. When radically representational of our todays, I truly believe that stories can help make better futures for us all by making space in all our imagings for liberatory possibilities of leadership, family and community. In other words, if you grew up reading strong brown female protagonists as a kid, it’s not such a stretch of the imagination to rally behind a strong woman of color president, right?

 

 

 

  1. What has writing this series taught you about yourself? And what advice do you have for children, young adults, and adults who want to pursue writing?

When I was in practice as a pediatrician, I used to write prescriptions for reading. This is because stories are good medicine, in all the senses of that word. This same notion brought me to Narrative Medicine, the field in which I teach. And it’s this same impulse that has pushed me to write for young people. I guess what I’ve realized is that storytelling is a critical act of healing – particularly the sort of storytelling that is filling in the narrative erasures of the past – the gaps in positive representation that so many of us suffered through. I’ve also come to realize that fantasy is an amazing way to talk about oppression, prejudice, racism, justice. But at the same time, particularly when you’re writing for young people it’s also got to be a cracking good story. Young readers are unfailingly honest. They’re not going to let you get away with lecturing them or talking down to them. They know when they’re being respected and a story is speaking with and for them.

 

My advice to people of any age who are writing is this – follow the joy, follow the passion. Tell the story YOU want to hear first and foremost. Don’t follow trends, or worry about publication at first. Tell the best story that only you can tell. As Toni Morrison says (and I always tell students), “If there’s a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” And I truly believe each of us has the privilege and responsibility of telling our stories.

 

Enter the giveaway for a copy of THE CHAOS CURSE by leaving a comment below. You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be determined on Monday, March 9th, 2020, and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.

If you’d like to know more about Sayantani and her novel, visit her website: http://www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer/ Or follow her on twitter : https://twitter.com/Sayantani16