Visiting Old Town Elementary School!

I had a wonderful time visiting Old Town Elementary School last week. They have a gorgeous school building, which has been divided up into intimate communities of small groups of classrooms with their own courtyard 2nd graders have been studying the continents, and I jump-started their exploration of Africa by sharing photos from my time in Tanzania, telling a Sukuma folk tale, and looking at pictures of Tanzania from space.

All of the fifth graders had read A Girl Called Problem as a read-aloud with their teachers, so we had a wonderful time talking about everything from siafu ants, to real-life experiences I had had in Tanzania that lead to the writing of the book. I met with about 100 fifth graders for over an hour, and we could have gone on for much longer. They asked fabulous questions!

Thanks so much to Ms. Jackson, fifth-grade teacher extraordinaire, for organizing the visit!

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Books about Africa for Young Friends

A Girl Called Problem got a brief but complimentary mention recently in Monica Edinger’s wonderful Horn Book article entitled, “Books about Africa.” Edinger is the author of the recently released and very well-received Africa Is My Home: A Child of the Amistad.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 8.37.55 PMIn the article, Edinger offers a helpful survey of books that do (and sometimes don’t) help young folks develop an accurate and rich concept of the diverse and fascinating continent that is Africa. She makes the point that we could still use more good literature for young people set in this part of the world. Let’s hope if Edinger revisits the topic in a decade that she’ll have a lot more material to draw on! In the meantime, I strongly recommend her article.

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Lists, lists and hopefully more lists…

A Girl Called Problem was among 25 middle-grade novels honored to find itself on the New York Public Library’s Children’s Books: 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing 2013 list. Here’s a picture of the saintly librarians who do such a good job of putting lists like this together and getting good books in kids’ hands:

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 7.33.13 PMThe American Book Sellers (ABC) Best Books for Children Catalog also did A Girl Called Problem the honor of placing it prominently among this year’s recommended titles.

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 7.32.28 PMMany thanks to our wonderful independent booksellers, too! I’m a particular fan of the Briar Patch in Bangor, ME, and Auntie’s in Spokane, WA.

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Letters from Readers!

I got a large envelope filled with wonderful letters in the mail last week. The authors of these letters were 5th-grade students in Ms. Jackson’s class at Old Town Elementary School here in Maine.


They asked many wonderful questions, several of which have come up from readers in the past, so I thought I’d share my answers with all of you. Here’s my letter in response:

Dear Ms. Jackson’s Class,

Thanks so much for writing so many wonderful letters to me. What a treat it was to hear your impressions of A Girl Called Problem and to think about your many questions.

 Inspiration for the book

Julia, Robert, and Joseph all asked what my inspiration was for the book. I lived in Tanzania for two years and fell in love with the country then. I was frequently sick, and yet I still consider those two years some of the happiest of my life. Some of the things I enjoyed there were the rituals of collecting water, reading by candle light at night, learning the intricate Swahili greetings, getting to know people in the nearby rural village, and eating fresh mangos and papayas. Ask your teacher if you can take a peek at the book (or check it out from your local library) in order to read my author’s notes at the back of the book (p. 235). I get into the question of inspiration a bit there, too.

 Character names

Mallie asked about my inspiration for the names of characters. Believe it or not, I actually knew a girl named Shida in Tanzania. She was the daughter of a village tailor and she sometimes delivered clothes to my house. I never heard the story about why she had been named “Problem” but for years after meeting her I wondered. All of the other characters were named with words or names I encountered while in Tanzania, and I gave some of them names with meanings that seemed fitting (Furaha=Happiness; and Mrefu=Tall, as you know).

 Litongo village

Devan asked about the village of Litongo. It’s actually a made-up name. In fact, in an early draft of the book Shida’s home village was named Lawanima, which was the name of a real village I visited, but I figured that Lawanima was kind of a hard word for most non-Swahili-speakers to pronounce, so we changed it to Litongo.

 Other books?

Summer and Micheal asked if I have written any other books. I am revising my second book right now. It’s actually a book written for an adult audience and it’s about two years I spent living in India, after I lived in Tanzania. Unlike A Girl Called Problem, it’s non-fiction.

 Years, and years, and years to publication

Alexis asked how long it took me to write A Girl Called Problem, and the answer is complicated. One simple answer is that I started my first draft six years before the book actually came out in print. Pretty amazing, huh? The book went through several drafts, each one slightly better than the last. When my writer friends and I had run out of ways to improve the manuscript, I went on to find an agent. Once I found an agent, she had to find a publisher who was interested in buying the book. Once we sold the book to the publisher, then my editor at the publishing house and I did more revisions and thought about things like cover art, glossary pictures, and other details, and then the book finally came out. As you can see, it’s an involved process!


 Why is Shida’s life so tough?

In  your letters, many of you mentioned the hardships Shida faced. Blake and Jamie wondered why people were unkind to Shida, especially her own mother, and Ethan mentioned the death that happened (I won’t mention the character’s name just in case someone reads this who hasn’t yet read the novel). Readers often ask me why these tough things had to happen, which is a great question. Part of the answer, in my mind, is that good stories often involve transformation of the main character—in other words, she is changed in some permanent way because of her experiences. Though we are certainly changed by positive experiences, hardship also really helps to define who we become (and it also makes for interesting stories). Shida faced many hardships throughout the book, but she always persevered. I would be curious to hear how you think she changed as a character by the end of the book.

 Favorite parts of the book

Zoey, Kayla, and Sierra each mentioned specific parts of the book that you enjoyed, including the methods Shida used to heal Furaha, and Mama Malongo’s redemption at the end of the book. I’m so glad that you mentioned Mama Malongo, Sierra. I think that’s one of my favorite parts of the book as well. It’s an example of how a person who is assumed to be bad or evil is, in fact, just a victim of mistreatment by others.

 Malaria–is it real?

And, finally, some of the grizzly details of the story: Darian asked if malaria is real. Yes, it absolutely is. In fact, until about 1950, it was a disease people contracted in some parts of the United States. I was diagnosed with and treated for malaria several times while I lived in Tanzania, and most people I knew there had lost a brother or sister to the disease when they were younger. Researchers are working on a vaccine for malaria, which would be wonderful, but none have become available to the public yet.

 Siafu ants

Merian, Alysa, Tiffany, and Tyler, and many others wanted to know more about the siafu ants. Yes, they are real and, yes, I stepped on them many times, unfortunately. If you saw just one siafu ant, then you’d assume it to be quite harmless, but they travel in rivers of thousands of ants. By daylight, instinct would tell you not to step on one of these rivers. The trick for me in Tanzania with siafu ants was nights: the electricity was often out and if there was no moon and I was walking outside in the dark, I couldn’t see these ant rivers and was libel to step on them. As you know from Gervas’ experience, the ants initially swarm up the victim’s body, unbeknownst to them, and then several minutes later they all bite at once. How does it feel? Worse than a black fly bite, but not as bad as a bee sting—the only problem is that you get MANY bites. I always wondered how the ants all knew to start biting at once and I finally looked it up. Apparently, they send out some pheromone (chemical smell) that they can smell and we can’t. That is their way of telling each other, “On the count of three: one, two, three, BITE!

Gervas and Spankin’

And, finally, Joseph, I agree that Gervas deserves a spankin’. In fact, physical punishment is still quite common in Tanzania, even in schools, so if Gervas were a real kid living in Tanzania today he’d probably get several spankings!

 I hope these answers are helpful. Thanks so much for your letters and for reading A Girl Called Problem. And, in answer to your many generous offers to come to your school, thank you. I would love to! It sounds like Ms. Jackson and others are working to make a visit happen. 

 All the best,

Katie Quirk


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Happy International Day of the Girl!

Today, October 11th, is the second annual celebration of the International Day of the Girl.  There’s so much that I admire about this special day–that a group of girls and young women started the push to make if official, that folks in the development world are starting to understand the critical role girls play in unlocking world poverty, and that books and documentaries are now being made for young readers and viewers to get involved in the fight for universal access to education.

I wrote an article about the International Day of the Girl Child for the wonderful website A Mighty Girl, in which I discuss the importance of this day and how girls, and boys, and adults all over the world can celebrate and learn more.

Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 1.27.54 PMTo read the whole article, please visit A Mighty Girl. Happy Day of the Girl!


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Betsy Bird’s Picks for 2013

Wondering what to recommend next to a young reader (or to an older reader who loves children’s books as much as I do)? Look no further. Here’s the famous New York Public Library’s Youth Materials Collections Specialist, Betsy Bird’s, list. It’s succinct, broken down by reader age and interests, and I’m most honored to report that A Girl Called Problem made the cut. Happy National Book Month!


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Skype Chat with Friends Select School

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 1.44.28 PMFriends Select Middle School in Philadelphia adopted A Girl Called Problem as their core summer reader. I had the good fortune to chat with students over Skype this last week. We talked about the book, living in Tanzania, and my writing process. The students asked great questions.

Here we all are (who knew my face could get so big):

IMG_0839One student, Seb, asked about the death that happens in the book (I won’t mention who dies, in case you haven’t read the story yet). This is a question I get a lot. Here’s what I had to say:

I would say that most stories always have some sort of conflict or force of antagonism that the main character is up against. In my mind, Shida is resilient and she has a pretty clear goal: to move to Njia Panda, because of the opportunities that new home presents. If she just moved and all was well, there wouldn’t be much of a story, and it likely wouldn’t seem very realistic. So, in crafting A Girl Called Problem, I set up a few roadblocks: the missing cattle, the destroyed crops, and eventually the death. All these challenges tested Shida and her convictions, and I would argue that this death even changed Shida in a fairly permanent way.

Thanks so much to the Friends Select students and to their teacher Laurie Morrison, who helped coordinate our chat!

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Writing A Girl Called Problem

I was recently interviewed for the website about my writing process and the story behind A Girl Called Problem. We discuss everything from my admiration for Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, to the wonders of small, independent presses like Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Here’s a snapshot of the beginning of the interview (a full version of which can be found here):

Screen Shot 2013-09-02 at 6.58.25 PM

The full interview can be found here.

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Authoring Stories about Cultures Other Than Our Own

The last month has graced us with a lot of buzz about diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature. I’ve appreciated so many of the voices that have contributed to this important conversation: Lee and Low’s report on our country’s discouraging track record over the last eighteen years of publishing multicultural literature for kids; First Book’s commitment, announced at the Clinton Global Initiative, to increase the market for diverse children’s literature; and, in particular, Minh Le’s thoughtful ponderings about authorship.

One question that has been raised about authorship is who has the right to author a story about a given culture. For instance, does it make sense that I, as an American, wrote a story set in Tanzania with all East African characters? This is a question that bothered me for many years as I wrote early drafts of A Girl Called Problem. Now that the book is on shelves, I value that question even more and I have a few thoughts to add to the conversation, all of which are in this essay I wrote for the wonderful blog, Nerdy Book Club.

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 12.31.14 PMThe full essay is available here.

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