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?!?”


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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Nyerere is Back!

Tanzanians recently elected a new president, John Magufuli, and people are excited.

Photo credit:

Magufuli supporters celebrate the new president’s election. (Photo credit:

Magufuli grew up herding cattle for his poor family, and he seems bent on putting a stop to corrupt spending. Right after he was sworn in, Magufuli slashed budgets for an upcoming independence day celebration and for politicians’ foreign travel and parties. Instead, he has invested that money in efforts like sanitation to prevent cholera and hospital equipment.

I asked my friend Modesta, whom A Girl Called Problem is dedicated to, what she thinks of his first month in office. We were just chatting informally, so please excuse Modesta’s casual English:

Ya, President Magufuli started up very well. Making sure thr is free education from form one to form four. No charges. During Kikwete’s time [the last president] he said primary education was free, but students had to pay lots of contributions. With President  Magufuli everything is free. He is making sure investors pay tax. He is hunting down all people who misused Tz money for their own interests. He is improving facilities in hospitals. And reducing public holiday expenditures and officials traveling abroad unnecessarily. All in all, so far so good. People love him. They say Nyerere is back!

Even Twitter has caught onto Magufuli’s cost-cutting measures with endless What Would Magufuli Do? tweets. Check out these two:

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.39.43 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.40.29 PMSo, next time you feel tempted to spend your money on something you don’t really need, ask yourself, “What would Magufuli do?”

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Tanzania’s 2015 Elections

If you’ve read A Girl Called Problem, then you know a good deal about Tanzania’s early political history. In fact, you should be able to tell a friend:

  • When (what decade) Tanzania achieved its independence.
  • Who Nyerere was.
  • What ujamaa was and how it factored into Nyerere’s vision for an independent Tanzania.*

As you know, A Girl Called Problem focuses on a small portion of the first decade of Tanzanian independence–the 1960s. It turns out Nyerere stayed in power for quite a while longer–some would argue too long–having been first elected as the unified nation’s president in 1965 and then retiring in 1985. At that point, Tanzania only had the one political party, which Nyerere had formed: CCM. Imagine what politics would be like if your own country had a single political party–say, the Democratic Party, OR the Republicans, OR the Tories, OR the Greens. Importantly, though, there would only be one party.

A decade after Nyerere’s retirement, Tanzania introduced a multiparty political system, and as a result other political parties were introduced to the ballot. Nevertheless, to date, Tanzania has continued to elect only CCM presidents. That could change this weekend when Tanzania holds its 2015 national election. This time, several of the smaller parties have joined forces under the coalition name Ukawa. Now the question is whether Tanzania will elect a CCM president or an Ukawa president. The CCM candidate looks like he has the upper hand, but that’s not certain.

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A crowd supporting the Ukawa candidate for president, Lowasa. Photo credit: Citizen Digital (

One thing is certain, Tanzania democracy has been enlivened by this election. In the 54 years since Tanzania achieve its independence, the country has only seen four presidents. That’s not a lot. This election looks to shake things up a bit.

*For those of you who haven’t read A Girl Called Problem, here are the answers to the questions above:

  • Tanzania achieved its independence in the 1960s.
  • Nyerere was the nation’s first president. At the time, he was the only Tanzanian with a university degree and he previously worked as a school teacher. The word for teacher in Swahili is mwalimu, so even after Nyerere moved into politics, people frequently referred to him as Mwalimu.
  • Ujamaa translates to mean familyhood in English, but it was Nyerere’s term for what he called African socialism. His dream was that all Tanzanians would live in self-sustaining villages where citizens would collectively farm, and run their own schools and health clinics.
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President Obama Calls for Empowering Girls in Kenya

As readers of A Girl Called Problem know, one of the central challenges faced by thirteen-year-old Shida in the novel is a traditional belief by some in her village that girls should not attend school. Even one of the teachers at her school holds this belief and makes it difficult for Shida and her female cousins to be there. In my author’s note at the end of the book, I discuss how access to education continues to be a major challenge for many girls in East Africa and other parts of the world. The good news is that many development organizations and leaders are beginning to understand the power of educating girls.

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

President Barack Obama with his Kenyan family (photo credit:

Among those leaders is President Obama. This week, he dedicated a good portion of his speech in Kenya (a day’s drive from where A Girl Called Problem is set in the Mwanza region of Tanzania) to talking about the importance of educating and empowering girls and women. Here’s what he had to say:

Well, so around the world, there is a tradition of repressing women and treating them differently, and not giving them the same opportunities, and husbands beating their wives, and children not being sent to school. Those are traditions. Treating women and girls as second-class citizens, those are bad traditions. They need to change. They’re holding you back.

He continued:

Any nation that fails to educate its girls or employ its women and allow them to maximize their potential is doomed to fall behind the global economy. We’re in a sports center: imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.

As the first Kenyan-American president, Obama is in a good position to offer this critique, and, citing the United State’s reexamination of the confederate flag, he was quick to point out that all societies have bad traditions that hold them back.

Shida would have been standing up and clapping throughout his speech!

Here’s the full speech. For the section where Obama focuses on girls, listen to minutes 27-33.


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Picture Book Pairings for A Girl Called Problem

I love reading picture books and am a strong believer that young children shouldn’t be the only beneficiaries of this great body of literature. I know some wonderful teachers who will sometimes use picture books to introduce new topics to their older learners–just impress your teens or tweens that though the protagonists may be a bit young, picture books are a great window into unfamiliar topics, cultures, and perspectives, not to mention they often feature fabulous art.

When I was down in Boston in April, the wonderful Ms. JB at Boston Collegiate recommended Rehema’s Journey: A Visit in Tanzania, which she used this year to introduce A Girl Called Problem to her fifth grade class.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 8.29.09 PMRehema’s Journey is the story of a Tanzanian girl, living in the Pare Mountains, who at the age of nine makes her first trip to Tanzania’s famous Ngorongoro Crater with her father, a guide in the game parks. Full of pictures, the book gives readers a glimpse of everything from Rehema’s chores washing dishes under a banana tree, to the special miswaki sticks she uses to clean her teeth, to the amazing animals she sees on her safari. I highly recommend it as a compliment to A Girl Called Problem.

Other picture books worth considering (these come more broadly from East Africa):

Though published in the 1970s, this Caldecott Honored book is still a good introduction to Swahili.

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A story about generosity (something I learned a lot about while in Tanzania), but this time set in neighboring Kenya. The name Panya is unfortunate–it means “Rat” in Swahili–but otherwise a good read.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

Set in Malawi (just south of Tanzania), this is a great book about the resourcefulness of young people.

As one picture book will remind you, "Africa Is Not a Country," and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as "The Herd Boy" is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

As one picture book will remind you, “Africa Is Not a Country,” and I am straying far from East Africa by including this book from South Africa, but please indulge me as “The Herd Boy” is a great story about a boy who takes on big responsibilities at a young age and who also dreams big (much like my character, Shida).

Happy reading!

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Author visits!

IMG_3878I had such a wonderful set of visits last week. First stop on my tour was a day with 5th graders at the wonderful Boston Collegiate Charter School.


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate


Photo credit: Ms. JB, Boston Collegiate

What an inspiring school community they have: ever-present, encouraging, extremely hard-working teachers; and a curious, enthusiastic and wonderfully diverse student body. The reading teachers there clearly do a phenomenal job, because the kids asked such insightful, thoughtful questions.

This mural in the front entry-way summed up the place.

IMG_3876Would that every child could attend a school like Boston Collegiate Charter School!

Next stop on my tour was Cape Elizabeth Middle School, where few of the 7th graders I met with had read A Girl Called Problem, but all of them had been studying African history, both pre- and post-colonial. What a treat it was to visit with students who had a sense of the diversity within the continent of Africa and a nuanced understanding of the challenges faced by African nations just after independence. A Girl Called Problem proved to be a perfect tie-in to their curriculum.

IMG_3883And on the final day of my visits, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting with young readers and a gymnasium full of wonderfully accomplished authors, including Ashley Bryan, Maria Testa, Mary Cerullo, Terry Farish, CB Anderson, Sarah Thomson, and Ellen Booraem at the Cape Author Fest.

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