Stories from Central America

This academic year, my family and I are living in Central America. I’m busy working on a young adult novel set in South India, but I’ve also recently started a blog about life south of the U.S. border. Warmer Than Canada is a website designed to inspire other families to explore living abroad (not permanently, of course, but for a spell). I’ll be posting regularly about Central American politics, culture, nature, and travel.

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For avid readers, there’s a link at the bottom right side of Warmer Than Canada where you can sign up to receive email alerts when I post new stories. If you have friends who are infected with wanderlust or who simply might enjoy some armchair Central American travel, please send them to Warmer Than Canada. I’d also be delighted to see your comments on my stories there. Thanks so much for your interest!

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Happy International Day of the Girl

A few years ago, I wrote the following article for the wonderful website A Mighty Girl about the real-life stories that inspired me to write  A Girl Called Problem and how they relate directly to the International Day of the Girl. I hope you enjoy the article and that it inspires you to pick up a copy of A Girl Called Problem or another book that celebrates strong girls. Enjoy!

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Please vote!

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 4.46.11 PMHow delighted I was to learn that a draft of my yet-to-be-published memoir, Sari Swinging: An American Mother Opts All the Way Out, has been shortlisted for the Half the World Global Literati Award!

There is a people’s choice category for the award. If you have a few minutes to spare and would be willing to log in, read some of the entries, and consider voting for mine, I’d be so grateful. Here’s the link. Thanks so much, dear friends and readers!

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Spoiler alert!

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?!?”

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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.

 

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Caucusing for Motherhood

Caucusing in Maine brought up some of the bones I have to pick with modern feminist politics. If you look at the data on women and girls in the U.S., we’re making strides toward gender equity, up until a woman chooses to have a child. Then things fall apart. Why? I’d argue our status as one of the few nations in the world without federally-mandated paid family leave, or our failure to provide services like universal childcare have a lot to do with it (much of this is the focus of the memoir I’m working on about opting out of American parenthood and raising my newborn baby in India instead). In spite of this increasingly evident cliff that women keep falling off of, motherhood is often censored from feminist agendas. My essay — recently published in the wonderful Yes! Magazine–explores these issues in the context of caucusing in Maine. No, my son Reid has long outgrown the stroller–the pic ain’t mine, but the words are. Thanks for reading!

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The full article can be found here.

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School Author Visits

I had so much fun last week visiting with students throughout New England. My first stop was at Boston Collegiate Charter School. For the second year in a row, 5th grade readers read A Girl Called Problem and then invited me down to share stories and pictures from my time in Tanzania. The students had so many great questions and comments about the book. It was readily apparent that they had spent two whole months carefully reading and studying A Girl Called Problem. Here are some vocabulary words from the novel posted on their classroom wall:

IMG_5573The next day I was up in Boston for a day of talking with students at Cape Elizabeth Middle School. Seventh graders there will soon be launching into their study of Africa, so it was fun to talk about Tanzania’s post colonial history, which is the backdrop for A Girl Called Problem.

IMG_5602The next day I attended the Cape Authorfest, where I enjoyed more time to visit with students and some fabulous writers. Here I am with Megan Frazer Blakemore (author of The Water Castle among other great books), Terry Farish (The Good Braider and others), agent Edite Kroll, Padma Venkatraman (Climbing the Stairs, etc.), and Maria Padian (Out of Nowhere and the soon-to-be-released Wrecked, which I can’t wait to read). Fun!

IMG_5601Thanks so much to the fabulous Ms. JB at Boston Collegiate Charter School, Amanda Kozaka at Cape Elizabeth Middle School, and Travis Nadeau and all of the other organizers of the Cape Authorfest for hosting me! It was great to reconnect with readers and writers.

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Black Girl Protagonists

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Marley Dias with her donated books. (Photo credit: Andrea Cipriani Mecchi at NPR news)

Congratulations and kudos to fifth-grade reader  Marley Dias for exceeding her goal of  collecting 1,000 books with black girl protagonists to donate to her school in New Jersey and to the parish in Jamaica where her mom grew up.

“I started this because in my fifth-grade class I was only able to read books about white boys and their dogs. I understood that my teacher could connect with those characters, so he asked us to read those books. But I didn’t relate to them, so I didn’t learn lessons from those stories,” Dias told the Guardian.

Librarians often talk about children’s and teen fiction as being windows and mirrors–windows to other cultures and places the reader is not familiar with, but also mirrors reflecting back young readers’ own lives as they shape their identity. What a long overdue service Marley is offering to all readers, regardless of their gender or race–windows and mirrors into the lives of black girls.

GCP cover high resEerdmans Books for Young Readers and I are excited to be sending Marley a copy of A Girl Called Problem. We think she just might identify with the spunk of the main character, Shida.

Thanks for your efforts, Marley!

(To learn more about Marley’s story, and to read her list of favorite books, check out this public radio story).

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