Writing

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

Writing and Illustrating Funny Poetry For Kids – Author Interview with Vikram Madan, and Giveaway

At Mixed-Up Files today, we’re thrilled to have author-illustrator Vikram Madan. Vikram talks about his new book A Hatful Of Dragons that comes out on April 21, 2020. He also shares his exciting publishing journey along with other writing tips.

                                                           

 

  1. Tell us about A Hatful Of Dragons. What inspired you to write the book?

A Hatful of Dragons: And More Than 13.8 Billion Other Funny Poems’ is a quirky, eclectic collection of funny rhyming poems woven together with rich illustrations featuring recurring characters and sub-plots – a double dose of visual and literary fun for all ages 7 and up.

As a kid I loved both cartooning and writing poems but never thought of combining the two till I encountered, much later in life, Shel Silverstein’s work. I was instantly attracted to the concept of words and images working together to create a funnier experience. So much so that ‘A Hatful of Dragon’ is my third collection of self-illustrated funny poems featuring intertwined words and drawings.

 

  1. What would you want readers to take away from A Hatful Of Dragons?

I would love for readers of all ages to come away from this book with the idea that you can have a lot of fun playing with language and also with a desire to read more rhyming poetry.

 

  1. What were some of the most fun and challenging parts about writing A Hatful Of Dragons?

The poems in my original manuscript were largely disconnected from each other. While shortlisting the poems, Rebecca Davis, my editor, instinctively zeroed-in on the uniqueness of creating cross-connections between poems. As I developed the illustrations for the book, I had a lot of fun thinking of ways to interconnect the poems visually. For example, a main character in one visual might show up later in the book as a secondary character in another visual, helping create a cohesive, but weird, universe for the characters. I hope kids will have fun closely inspecting the illustrations for cross-connections.

The most challenging part of the book was stuffing 13.8 billion poems into 64 pages. 🙂

Actually I found doing the illustrations to be a challenge as I underestimated the sheer physical work required to get through multiple rounds of revisions and changes. Somewhat like running a marathon, most enjoyable, not while you’re doing it, but well after it is done. 🙂

 

 

Another challenge was coming up with a distinctive title for the book. The title poem ‘A Hatful of Dragons’ did not exist in my original manuscript. We thought of titling the book ‘There’s a Dragon in My Wagon’ but an internet search showed half-a-dozen books already had that title. Many other title poems from the manuscript did not pass internal sales and marketing reviews. I finally proposed ‘A Hatful of Dragons’ and once that title was approved, I had to then write a title poem from scratch worthy of the book. Talk about pressure! 🙂

 

  1. You began your writing career by self-publishing your work. How did the experience influence you as a children’s writer? How did you make the transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing?

Prior to self-publishing, I spent a decade trying to have my rhyming picture books and themed poetry collections published. I found agents and publishers reluctant to consider poetry. With rejections piling up, I actually gave up writing and submitting for a few years. However the itch never went away. In 2012, I spent a summer writing a fresh collection of poems. I decided then that if no one would publish my poems, I would publish them myself, which led to my first collection ‘The Bubble Collector’.

 

Once ‘The Bubble Collector’ was out, I realized writing the book was the easy part. Marketing, distribution, getting anyone to notice a self-published book, was incredibly hard (more so for us introverts!). I learnt that if I didn’t do the hustle, no one else would. With perseverance and leg work, I was able to get the book into local bookstores, gain a few favorable reviews and endorsements, and conduct some school visits. The book went on to win a 2013 Moonbeam Book Award for Children’s Poetry and was invited to apply to the 2014 WA State Book Awards. All in all, for a self-published poetry book, it did quite ok. The ‘hustling’, however, left me with deep appreciation for traditional publishing.

Upon completing the manuscript for my second collection (in 2015), I decided to give the traditional channel another shot. It took a year of querying agents before one, Rosemary Stimola at Stimola Literary Studios, expressed interest in the manuscript. (The modest success with the self-published book really helped my pitch). It took Rosemary another year to find a publisher, Boyds Mills & Kane. The publisher scheduled the book for a 2020 release, five years from when I finished the manuscript. Despite the slow pace of traditional publishing, I’ve really enjoyed working with my editors, Rebecca Davis and Barbara Grzeslo – the book is so much better than I could have made just by myself – and I’m looking forward to it being available everywhere without having to knock on doors, one at a time. 🙂

And since the second book was going to take five years, I squeezed out another self-published poetry collection, ‘Lord of the Bubbles’, in 2018, which went on to win a 2019 Moonbeam Award for Children’s Poetry.

 

 

  1. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Although I was writing and drawing from a really early age, I didn’t take my art seriously because I couldn’t see how to traverse the gap between what I made and what I admired. With no insight into the creative journey, the learning process, the blood, sweat, and tears that every piece of art demands, I did not believe in my own abilities. My epiphany came when one day, as an adult, I accidently wandered into an exhibition of original Dr. Seuss manuscripts. Typewritten sheets covered with frustrated scribbles, crossed out over and over again in search of better options. I was stunned to realize that the ‘genius’ was in the incessant revision, the twenty attempts before something worked, the trying, trying, trying and not giving up. Looking at those manuscripts was the first time I thought to myself, “Wait, if this is how it’s done, then maybe I can do this too!” Thank you Dr. Seuss – I wish I could have sent my younger self to see that!

 

  1. Do you have any other advice/tips for writers?

In visual-art circles the running joke is that ‘Only the first fifty years are the hardest’. In other words, the ‘successful’ artists are the ones who find ways to persist. The same is true for writers. Patience, persistence, working on your craft, and never giving up! (And if you do feel like giving up, read a book, any book, by creative coach Eric Maisel).

 

Here’s a cool flip-through video that Vikram made for the book: https://youtu.be/XswGM2FLlBM

Seattle-area Author-Artist Vikram Madan grew up in India, where he really wanted to be a cartoonist but ended up an engineer. After many years of working in tech, he finally came to his senses and followed his heart into the visual and literary arts. When not making whimsical paintings and public art, he writes and illustrates funny poems. His books include ‘The Bubble Collector’, ‘Lord of the Bubbles’, and ‘A Hatful of Dragons’. Visit him at www.VikramMadan.com

 

Want to own your very own ARC of A Hatful Of Dragons? 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 March 2, 2020 and will be contacted  via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.