If you have yet to read A Girl Called Problem, you probably shouldn’t read this post. As I mentioned earlier, I had the good fortune to visit with 5th grade readers at Boston Collegiate Charter School again this spring. They spent an impressive two months reading A Girl Called Problem and, as a result, they had some great questions for me. But, their first question–a question I get from almost all young readers when I do school author visits–was, “Why did you kill Furaha?!?”
You see, this why-are-you-such-a-mean-spirited-murderer question was at the top of the list of prepared questions asked by the student reporters who interviewed me for the school paper at Boston Collegiate. They were kind enough to point out that, as the author, I’m not exactly the one doing the killing. Maybe it was Uncle Bujiko? Maybe malaria? But, still, the question is fair. As authors, we wield control over the plot, so why would I do away with such a sweet character?
Here’s my answer:
Much of storytelling and crafting a compelling plot involves placing road blocks or challenges in the main character’s way. If I had said, for example, Shida moved to Njia Panda and everything was perfect and she lived happily ever after, the book probably wouldn’t have been published. It just wouldn’t have been that interesting.
Instead, I hoped to show readers what a resilient and determined character Shida was, and I also wanted to test her desire to be in this new ujamaa village. So, soon after Shida moved, challenges started coming her way. Can you remember what they were?
Right! The cattle were let loose, characters like Mama Malongo and Teacher Karakola questioned whether Shida and other girls should go to school, the crops were killed, and (worst of all) eventually Furaha died. If you think about it, these challenges progressively tested Shida’s determination. They made the story sad at times, but they made for an interesting plot and a satisfying ending. Many of these tragedies allowed us to see that over the course of the story, people had changed.
In a big way.
Characters changing profoundly is another important part of good storytelling. So, when Shida decided to tie her medicine pouch back on after Furaha’s funeral, we realized she had the strength to be a healer through thick and think, no matter what. She was changed. Or, for example, when Shida’s fellow villagers decided to stay in Njia Panda, even after the unthinkable had happened (sweet, young Furaha died), then it was shockingly apparent that their mindset towards girls and school and even their new home had permanently changed.
In short, I sacrificed Furaha for the sake of crafting a compelling story. I tried to make you really like her, and then I took her away. If you think about it that way, you’ll start to realize that a lot of your other favorite authors are up to the same sneaky business.