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A Conversation with Samira Ahmed & Monica Hesse, authors of Internment and The War Outside

LB School: How did the ideas for each of your books come to you, and why did you feel that they were stories that needed to be told?

 

Samira Ahmed: I always see a character first and then begin by writing a short story around that character to see if the story has legs, to see if this is a character I want to build a world around. After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a significant uptick in Islamobphobic rhetoric in the United States that spread to changes in policy and an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. There was a public guilting or scapegoating of Muslims as if all Muslims had to bear the onus of the terrible acts committed by a few. American Muslims, as ever, were seen as other, a group that continually and consistently was being asked to prove its Americanness, but always falling short because of bigoted standards.

 

That was the environment in which Layla’s story came to me. I imagined a young woman who just wanted to live her life—go to school, play on the tennis team, apply to college—but who wasn’t allowed to because of fear mongering and Islamophobia. I’m very interested in understanding and unpacking the moments in childhood where life is shattered—how kids react to that gross unfairness, how they respond, how they resist. I believe that teens can be incredibly brave—are often forced to be—because of the failure and cowardice of adults. It doesn’t mean they’re not scared—their courage comes from being scared but knowing act and speak out anyway. That is what I set out to explore in Internment.

 

Monica Hesse: While I was doing some research for a previous book, I came across a black and white photo of a young woman in a tiara, wearing a corsage. It had obviously been taken at a school dance; the caption said the girl was 16, and the prom queen of Federal High School in Crystal City, Texas. It also explained that Crystal City was an internment camp. This completely blew my mind. If your education was like mine, Japanese internment in World War II was skimmed over in history class—maybe something you’d talk about for a day or two. I didn’t know much about individual experiences, and I was completely drawn to this young woman in the photograph. What would it be like to be the prom queen of your internment camp? What kind of internment camp would even have such a thing?

 

It turned out that Crystal City also had a football team, cheerleaders, a beauty salon—and that hundreds of teenagers, Japanese-American and German-American, grew up there, trying to eke out a regular American existence against the backdrop of imprisonment. I’m always looking for stories like that: what is it like to be a normal teenager in an abnormal time, and impossible circumstances? My two main characters, Haruko and Margot, are now prisoners through no fault of their own. Their families are falling apart. Their worlds are upended. And they have to ask themselves: in a camp full of people the government says are spies, who can they trust? How do you know who the enemy is, when your country says it’s you?

LBS: Internment is set in a near future that has arresting similarities to our own current world. How do you think fiction, and in particular YA fiction, helps foster and guide much-needed conversations about tough topics?

 

SA: I say that Internment is set 15 minutes into a terrifying future, but the fact is, the events of the novel are rooted in elements of America’s deeply disturbing history. Too often, we believe that specific moments in time—like this crucible we seem to be living in now—exist in a vacuum. But the past is prologue. I think young adult literature is a perfect place to explore this idea—how the past is always with us, but also how we are not doomed to repeat the past.

I believe that young adult literature exists in the realm of possibility—a space where tough questions can be asked and where difficulties are encountered, but, ultimately, a place of hope. As young people are forming their own politics and coming into adulthood, it’s a unique opportunity to speak to tough topics. I think teens are incredibly capable of rooting out truths and while the 24-hour news cycle confronts us with facts and “facts” without end, I believe fiction allows us to explore ideas in deeper and complex way. Fiction enables us to see our interrelatedness as human beings.

 

LBS: The War Outside is set in 1944 during WWII and focuses on an aspect of American history that isn’t much spoken about. What do you think historical fiction can teach us about our current world? What attracts you to historical fiction, and what do you think it offers readers?

 

MH: There are a few essential questions the United States keeps asking, at various times and about various groups of people. What does it mean to be an American? Who belongs in this country, and how should we treat the new people who arrive? We asked that question about slavery in the Civil War, we asked it about Japanese immigrants in World War II, and we’re asking it now, about immigrants and asylum seekers from the southern border. The rhetoric that government officials were using at the time to justify internment camps is really similar to the rhetoric used now to justify putting minors in detention centers now. They’re hard, complicated issues. But to me, historical fiction is a way to think and talk about those issues in a space that feels safe.

 

LBS: What does resistance mean to each of you?

 

MH: I think we often get preoccupied with big, dramatic acts of resistance: protests, rescue missions and escapes. But there’s a quieter kind of resistance that is no less important: the small, noble act of keeping your humanity when the world is inhumane. Refusing to believe that someone is less than you just because they’re different than you. Willing yourself to be a rigorous thinker in a sea of propaganda. Those are small, quiet acts that anyone can do, and they’re deeply important. That’s the kind of resistance in The War Outside.

 

SA: Oppression and silent complicity go hand in hand. Resistance, to me, means, first, and foremost, refusing to be silent. We must speak truth to power, in the best ways we are able and with the means we can access. I know not everyone can march or protest or perform acts of civil disobedience, but we simply cannot afford to be silent. And it may feel uncomfortable, or difficult, but we all must use the power and privilege that we have to dismantle the mechanisms that seek to harm the very foundations of our democracy and our humanity. Sometimes this means confronting difficult truths about ourselves—about our willingness to sacrifice a part of our privilege so that we can lift others up. One thing I know, no human being is born voiceless, but many are forcibly silenced by those who use their power as a bludgeon. We cannot let that stand.

 

LBS: What do you want readers to take away from each of your books?

 

MH: Wars don’t just happen to countries, they happen to people. The biggest ones can happen inside yourself. I hope The War Outside invites young readers to think about what they believe, and where those beliefs came from, and how far they’d go to protect them.

 

SA: I believe that the seemingly simple act of reading, is in fact, profound. Reading is resistance.

Though Layla’s life and circumstances may be very different than theirs, I hope young readers will be able to see a part of themselves in Layla’s hopes and dreams and her fierce desire to be free, live life on her terms and combat the sinister forces of silent complicity and overt oppression. I hope that Internment encourages readers to ask critical questions about how Layla’s fictional world is a reflection of the world we live in now. I hope young readers will realize that their voices and their actions can change the world by drawing attention to injustices and by compelling politicians to change the policies that strip away the rights of their fellow human beings. I hope that young readers will realize the power they have to speak up and speak out when they see injustice in their schools, communities and their nation. Young people are brave. They shouldn’t have to be, but too often, those who should be protecting them press them into horrifying circumstances—still their courage shines. It’s a light. I hope they use it to lead the way, forward.

 


 


Author Essay: Tony Abbott

On Revisitng Old Characters in The Great Jeff

 

When I wrote Firegirl, published thirteen years ago now, like most readers, I had a problem with Jeff Hicks, a boy who bullied both Tom Bender, who tells the story, and Jessica, a girl whose horrific accident left her disfigured and isolated. While Tom gets to know Jessica a bit, Jeff’s response to her is unrepentantly cruel. When Tom Bender drops him as a friend at the end, I thought it was a good thing.

And it was a good thing. For Tom. But only for a while.

I’ve written before about how a few years ago, not thinking about these old characters at all, I saw a boy, and within seconds knew he was Jeff Hicks. I had privately vowed that I wouldn’t return to the world of Firegirl in another book. I’d said what I wanted to there, and had moved on to other things. But the power of Jeff’s “appearance” was striking. In that brief glimpse, the core of a new story—the gradual, then swift disintegration of Jeff’s home life—rolled over me. I felt instant sympathy for this character who, like Tom and many readers, had been left in the cold. I could say Tom left him, but in truth it was I who had left him in the cold.

Now, here he was again.

Learning his current situation, I found it heartbreaking, and knew that—like everyone we see—he had a story just as important and real as Tom’s or Jessica’s. He was just as human, he hurt and bled, got angry and laughed like we do, and was mortally terrified of losing himself to whatever bad thing was out there.

So I followed him. I shadowed him, peeked in, listened, put his words on paper, transcribing what he said and thought about his life, about his mother’s inability to keep a roof over his head. This became The Great Jeff, which I’ve never thought of as an ironic title in any way. This is his personal story, filled with Jeff-isms that will make readers weep and wince, but it’s all too common, and it’s all around us. When substance abuse meets poverty, when pride and anger combine, when safety nets are stretched too thin, people fall. Jeff Hicks is a snotty kid, fiercely angry about so many things he’s been handed to deal with, but he deserves to be helped.

Writing The Great Jeff has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my close to thirty years imagining books for younger readers. I’m deeply proud of it, as I’m proud of who Jeff becomes, and can become beyond this book. Because of his vulnerability and inner strength, and his humor, he is one of my favorite people.

I hope readers come to The Great Jeff and are able to bring him into their lives as I did.

 


 

Author Essay: Florence Gonsalves

A couple of years ago, when I’d just graduated from college, scared out of my mind with no idea what the future would hold, humor kind of saved my life. “Ancient Greece isn’t hiring,” I told people who asked how my philosophy degree would influence my career path. “I’ll probably be permanently unemployed in the year 450 BCE.”

 

At first, I’d tried the whole, “I’ll probably go to law school!” approach, but that wasn’t the truth at all and telling that little white lie was making me feel worse and worse. The truth was I was petrified, and the only way I could access those emotions was by poking a little fun at myself. Once I started joking about my predicament, I was able to come to terms with it and eventually move past it.

 

Instead of law school, I ended up writing what would become my debut novel, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants. The story follows nineteen-year-old Danny’s summer after her freshmen year of college. It covers a lot of taboo subjects—eating disorders, mental health concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, and questioning one’s sexuality. Danny’s approach to such “touchy” issues is to joke about them, which results in a lot of humor for a book about some pretty serious stuff.

 

One of the beautiful things about fiction is its capacity to speak to real life issues in a person’s life, but to do that the characters (and of course, the author!) have to somehow find a way into what is otherwise hush-hush. So often taboo topics aren’t discussed at all because they are treated so seriously. And treating a subject as so serious that it can’t be joked ironically increases its taboo.

 

As a writer, humor gives me the permission to approach the things that society tells me I shouldn’t. It is the access point to otherwise unapproachable topics, and if we never approach such things, how can we expect to confront them at all? If Danny couldn’t joke about her bulimia, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to talk about it, which would have been a missed opportunity to really explore the pain (but also the occasional lol! moment) of her situation. Taboo creates shame and shame creates secrets, as well as shadows where even darker emotions hide. I think it’s much more important that difficult subjects be broached in the first place, especially because usually those difficult subjects make a person feel lonely and laughter is a universal connector. A good HAHA! brings people together at times when connection is most needed, and at some point the humor does fall away, making room for other emotions.

 

I am so grateful that humor exists as a way of shedding light on those parts of ourselves that most need it. Laughter allows transformation to occur through acknowledgment and acceptance of what is, regardless of how lousy things seem. When it comes to expressing our struggles, I say, as Vievee Francis does, “Say it. Say it any way you can.” Find a way in to a find a way out. Crying is inevitable. Why not let laughter be, too?

 


 

 

Oge Mora on writing Thank You, Omu!

When Little, Brown acquired my book dummy Omu’s Stew, my editor Andrea said that we needed to change the name. “The double oo’s don’t flow nicely,” she explained to me. I verbally agreed, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. Even after we mutually decided on Thank You, Omu! I still wasn’t sure, and as I collaged spreads I debated between Omu’s Feast and Omu’s Magic. Today, as my book is on shelves, I can say with certainty that Thank You, Omu! is the right title. However for me, it didn’t come down to double oo’s. Instead, it’s because Thank You, Omu! isn’t about stew at all.

 

Looking back, this is why I insisted on not including a stew recipe. I thought long and hard about it, and even began to draft one, but I decided it didn’t make sense to include it. A recipe should be able to be replicated, but as my mother and I joke often, you’ll never cook or taste the same stew twice. My grandmother’s stew is a thick, spicy stew that is cooked down for hours. My aunt’s stew is thin, mild, quick to make, yet still delicious. The only thing the differing styles share is a tomato base and a red color. Like people, every stew has its own personality, and each stew is an experience that is vivid and distinct in its own right. And like a person, you can’t write that down.

 

Still, while Thank You, Omu! is not about stew, “thick red stew” is a main character and making it is not easy. Though the Omu in the book puts her stew on simmer and goes into another room, stew in reality has to be constantly attended to. Not only do you need to stir every couple of minutes, but there are onions to chop, meats and leafy greens to add, and countless seasonings to sprinkle in. Traditional stew takes both time and skill. Therefore, when Omu opens the pot in the end and sees it empty she’s devastated. Yes, that big fat pot of thick red stew was destined to be the best dinner she ever had, and Omu is sad it’s gone, but the process also took an inordinate amount of time.

 

Nevertheless despite all her effort, Omu never hesitates to share with her neighbors. Giving can be a sacrifice of time and talent, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. While the neighborhood brings every intricate dish you can imagine, it is the little boy’s simple letter that shares the same collage paper as Omu’s stew. The stew and the thank you letter are equal in value. While having a delicious stew was the dinner Omu expected, the thank you letter the little boy presents her with is what she truly wanted. The countless hours she spent making the stew were worth that one note. I’ve come to cherish the name Thank You, Omu! because at the heart that’s what this book is. It’s a thank you. Like the little boy, I’ve written my own thank you letter. Not simply to my grandmother, but to everyone who has given me love, encouragement, and support. What my community, what my grandmother taught me is that life is more than what you can get. It’s about what you can give.

 

I’ve always thought of collage as a conversation. You talk to the work, and the work talks back to you. You can craft things with all the intention you desire, but in the end like stew, the work decides what it wants to be. While I stubbornly believed Omu’s Stew was the right name, today, at the end of this journey, I am glad I listened back. And I’m still listening. Every time someone tells me about their own cherished loved one and the meals they bought or cooked and shared with them, my story grows and changes. While my senior project Omu’s Stew was about a popular Nigerian dish, my book Thank You, Omu! is a reflection on food’s magical ability to bring us all together.

Tracy Banghart on the inspiration behind Grace & Fury

On the night of November 8th, 2016, I was poised to celebrate. A woman was about to be elected president of the United States. A woman! I’m not that old and yet I remember so much casual sexism growing up, so many lessons I was taught that, in hindsight, were about preserving the patriarchy, not my safety or well-being. I may have been late to the party, as it were, but I was 100% ready for a female president. Women had been fighting for this moment for so long. And now here we were, shattering the glass ceiling once and for all.

Of course, that’s not what happened.

Grace and Fury was born out of the disappointment and anger I felt that night. Because of that night, Serina and Nomi, Grace and Fury’s main characters, were born into a world that oppressed them and dismissed them at every turn.

There’s an old adage that a writer should “write what you know.” I don’t know what it’s like to not be allowed to read, as in Grace and Fury. Or how truly terrifying it is to be forced to fight to the death. But I do know how heavy the weight of expectation can feel. And the difficulty of trying to be your own person when everyone around you is telling you to follow the crowd. Don’t make waves. Be pleasant.

Smile.

One of my favorite details in Grace and Fury is a tidbit about the history of the patriarchal world. We discover that women have been oppressed not because they’re seen as weak but because men are afraid of them. This idea—that women are a threat to the status quo and therefore dangerous—was something I played with a lot in the book. Because, as sad as it is, it’s a dynamic I see all around me in real life. Mansplaining, as a way to undercut a woman’s expertise or experience. That’s a response to a threat. Setting women up to compete with one another instead of encouraging them to work together—divide and conquer. A response to a perceived threat. And how many of us remember a powerful woman being condemned by the media, not for being inept or corrupt, but for being overprepared? Strong women that question and fight back against a system that limits their opportunities and freedoms are, for those who support and buy into the patriarchy, frightening.

In Grace and Fury, not every female character is strong in the same way. But they all, to different degrees and at different times, fight to subvert or dismantle the system holding them back. And, importantly, they aren’t the only ones. There are male characters who are uncomfortable with the status quo as well. Because feminism isn’t about man-hating or elevating women above men. It’s about striving for equality. Equal opportunities, an equal seat at the table.

My characters may live in a world much harsher and more oppressive than the one I’m privileged to live in. But we are all fighting for the same thing. I still have hope that I’ll get to celebrate the election of a female president someday. But if the last two years has taught me anything, it’s that nothing will change without working for it. Like Serina and Nomi at the end of Grace and Fury, I—we all—still have a lot of work to do.

Mark Tatulli: Becoming Short & Skinny

Short & Skinny cover“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”

This ungallant sentence was spoken to me by a cartooning compatriot when I gave him the news that I had sold Short & Skinny, a mini-memoir of my life in the summer of 1977. You might think my first reaction would be to get indignant and huffy.

But all I could think in that shocking moment was: “Holy crap! He’s right! Who wants to read a story about me?!

I hadn’t thought of this before! I was so wrapped up in wanting to tell my story and analyzing my life as a detached, outside reporter that I never stopped to think, why was this a story worth telling? Who would want to read this? I forgot to ask myself the first question I always ask …why do I care?

How did I miss that very basic thing? What was different this time?

So I stepped back and reviewed…I remember reading Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (who hasn’t?) and being so moved and engaged by her very personal middle school story, and relating to the same thoughts and feelings at that age. And without hesitation, I jumped into writing/drawing my own middle school epoch…my story. As I pondered my early teens, the words and pictures came flooding out, right there in those spiral Strathmore sketch books. With no forethought. I just started to draw panels…and then myself in those panels, and suddenly it was May 1977 again and there I was at a desk in Memorial Jr High…drawing in my private world and swathed in insecurity.

The memories continued to bubble up and fill the pages. Soon my thoughts moved faster than I could draw, and I began to cram the anecdotes and events of my experience onto single Post-it notes, forcing me to keep them simple and to the point. I honestly, and at times painfully, examined my 13-year-old self (but always with a bent toward humor), with each distant recollection unleashing two or three more. Before I knew it, I had an entire door in my office, ceiling to floor, full of these little orange and yellow flashbacks.

Then I assembled the memory-squares into an arc of my life from that far past summer, and like a puzzle coming together piece-by-piece, the full picture of Short & Skinny emerged.

Then, I sat down and converted the story into comic pages like I saw in other graphic novels for middle schoolers. I had never written a long form comic story (I make two daily newspaper comic strips three or four panels at a time—a very different genre), and the process was sort of scary and exhilarating at the same time. I love learning how to do something new, especially if it combines cartoons and storytelling.

Soon I had 60 rough pages and the story treatment, which was passed along to publishers and before long, BOOM! A sale to Little Brown Books for Young Readers was made. Taa-Dah!

“You wrote a graphic novel memoir? Who wants to read a story about you?!”


For the first time I thought about the “why do I care?” question after the story was written. And it dawned on me:  middle school is this weird, awkward bump in time for everybody. Everybody has that cringe worthy, outcast, ill-fitting, body-conscious period…when you have one foot in childhood fantasies and the other foot slowly making the turn into young adulthood, and nothing you do seems right or normal and you’re filled with doubt. When you are trying to find yourself. Everybody has a story about that time. And Short & Skinny is mine.

Who wants to read a story about me?

I do. Middle school me. I wrote this for middle school me, and all those other kids that feel like I did. In retrospect there’s nothing especially cataclysmic about being short and skinny, but when you are 12, 13 or so, it’s pretty devastating to be the smallest kid in your class. With no end in sight. So I wanted to let that me know it’s going to be ok. That in the end it doesn’t matter how tall or short or fat or slow or dorky or clumsy or different you think you are. It’s about finding your voice. All kids have that hidden voice, that something special just waiting to come out. For me, it was my storytelling voice and how STAR WARS unlocked that back in ’77. And I can only hope that Short & Skinny will be that kind of inspiration too. That being different isn’t a bad thing. As my Mom used to say, “It’s all about what you do with those dancing shoes.”

Cheryl Bardoe on Harnessing the Power of Literary Nonfiction for STEM

Nothing Stopped SophieWhen I visit schools, I often ask students to share, by a show of hands: Who likes to write? Who loves math? Who is interested in sports? Who likes art? Who is interested in science?… The younger the students, the more likely they are to raise their hands for almost everything. As a writer, I hope to create books that encourage students to see the world as full of possibilities. Literary nonfiction offers a unique path to this goal, and one that is particularly compelling in STEM topics.

 

Humans are wired to engage with story. Evidence for this ranges from paleolithic cave paintings, to the epic of Gilgamesh that was chiseled into stone 4,000 years ago, to contemporary research where neuroscientists track the brainwaves of people listening to stories. Humans are also innately curious, and we yearn to make our mark on the world. Literary nonfiction represents the intersection of these powerful instincts. As an author, I weave information into a narrative in the hopes of helping young readers make connections that broaden their knowledge and inspire them to ask more questions.

 

My latest book, Nothing Stopped Sophie, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, demonstrates how literary nonfiction can engage young readers with STEM topics. Growing up during the French Revolution, young Sophie Germain overcame many obstacles to teach herself math and develop a formula that could predict how materials would vibrate. Her work began a path of inquiry that eventually made it possible to build modern skyscrapers and impressive bridges all over the world.

 

Is Nothing Stopped Sophie a story about math or physics? The answer is, both. It is also about history. And it is about one woman who dared to pursue what others said was impossible. My goal is to offer readers many hooks into any story. Some readers will be brought in by Sophie’s unwavering quest to learn, despite women not being allowed to attend college. Others will be captivated, as Sophie was, by the mysterious patterns that salt forms on vibrating metal plates. And yes, some readers do love math. Nonetheless, we don’t need to understand the intricacies of Sophie’s equation to relate to her passion.

 

Cheryl BardoeIn the book, I describe Sophie’s triumphant equation as being “as precise and eloquent as a poem.” This is because mathematicians themselves often describe their work in terms commonly applied to poetry; they strive for solutions that are elegant and beautiful, with ideas distilled to the purest form. My hope is to recreate for readers the sense of excitement that scientists and mathematicians feel about their work and to open a window into how they approach big questions. Imagine if we viewed the quadratic equation as a graceful, insightful expression of universal truth, just like when we hear the words of Shakespeare or Robert Frost. How might such connections open up interests and possibilities for young minds?

 

I like to share with students my own journey in this area. When I was younger, I used to think that nothing could ever interest me about sports. Many students are visibly shocked by this confession. Now I understand that inspiring stories are everywhere—as long as I open myself up to noticing and appreciating them. Literary nonfiction helps readers do this in STEM subjects by highlighting the significance, exhilaration, and human endeavor behind the modern advancements that are so easy to take for granted.

 

This interdisciplinary approach to writing parallels the heart of STEM initiatives. Educators encourage children to explore the world around them, synthesize information from many directions, and figure out how to make something happen. It’s natural for people to eventually specialize in fields of study and careers. Yet our lives are richer, and opportunities greater, when we preserve our youthful instincts to raise our hands and proudly declare, “Yes! I’m interested in everything.”

 

Florence Gonsalves on writing Love & Other Carnivorous Plants

Florence Gonsalves photoA couple of years ago, when I’d just graduated from college, scared out of my mind with no idea what the future would hold, humor kind of saved my life. “Ancient Greece isn’t hiring,” I told people who asked how my philosophy degree would influence my career path. “I’ll probably be permanently unemployed in the year 450 BCE.”

 

At first, I’d tried the whole, “I’ll probably go to law school!” approach, but that wasn’t the truth at all and telling that little white lie was making me feel worse and worse. The truth was I was petrified, and the only way I could access those emotions was by poking a little fun at myself. Once I started joking about my predicament, I was able to come to terms with it and eventually move past it.

 

Instead of law school, I ended up writing what would become my debut novel, Love and Other Carnivorous Plants. The story follows nineteen-year-old Danny’s summer after her freshmen year of college. It covers a lot of taboo subjects—eating disorders, mental health concerns, drug and alcohol abuse, and questioning one’s sexuality. Danny’s approach to such “touchy” issues is to joke about them, which results in a lot of humor for a book about some pretty serious stuff.

 

One of the beautiful things about fiction is its capacity to speak to real life issues in a person’s life, but to do that the characters (and of course, the author!) have to somehow find a way into what is otherwise hush-hush. So often taboo topics aren’t discussed at all because they are treated so seriously. And treating a subject as so serious that it can’t be joked ironically increases its taboo.

 

As a writer, humor gives me the permission to approach the things that society tells me I shouldn’t. It is the access point to otherwise unapproachable topics, and if we never approach such things, how can we expect to confront them at all? If Danny couldn’t joke about her bulimia, for example, she wouldn’t have been able to talk about it, which would have been a missed opportunity to really explore the pain (but also the occasional lol! moment) of her situation. Taboo creates shame and shame creates secrets, as well as shadows where even darker emotions hide. I think it’s much more important that difficult subjects be broached in the first place, especially because usually those difficult subjects make a person feel lonely and laughter is a universal connector. A good HAHA! brings people together at times when connection is most needed, and at some point the humor does fall away, making room for other emotions.

 

I am so grateful that humor exists as a way of shedding light on those parts of ourselves that most need it. Laughter allows transformation to occur through acknowledgment and acceptance of what is, regardless of how lousy things seem. When it comes to expressing our struggles, I say, as Vievee Francis does, “Say it. Say it any way you can.” Find a way in to a find a way out. Crying is inevitable. Why not let laughter be, too?

 

Barb Rosenstock

Barb Rosenstock photo

Dive into History with Otis & Will Discover the Deep

 

“How come you write about famous people?” asked a third grader.

 

There I stood at another school visit stumped by a young person asking a question I’ve heard over and over again. You’d think that by now, since I write picture book biographies, I’d have a handy answer. But each time, that “fame question” throws me. I guess it’s because I don’t choose my subjects because they’re famous.

 

Instead, I’m drawn to stories about people who’ve changed history. For me, history has never made sense as a series of facts or dates (which I still rarely remember!). Instead, I tend to agree with the quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “There is properly no history, only biography.” In my books, I try to show students that history, whether in science, politics, or the arts, is made by regular people. People who pursued a dream or a skill in a deep way—not because someone forced them, not because they wanted to be popular; but usually just because they were curious and liked the work. In other words, the young Abraham Lincoln didn’t know he was gonna be ABRAHAM LINCOLN. He was just Abe, that tall kid; the one who loved to read and made friends easily.

 

This view of history holds true for my new book, Otis & Will Discover the Deep: The Record-setting Dive of the Bathysphere, illustrated by Katherine Roy. It’s the story of how mechanical engineer, Otis Barton, and natural scientist, William Beebe, worked together to create the bathysphere—the first submersible craft that took human beings into the deep ocean.

 

William Beebe is well-known in scientific circles, but hardly a household name; and Otis Barton’s name is kind of off-the-grid all together. I didn’t know about either man ahead of writing the book. Instead, a few years ago, I read a small news item that used the word “bathysphere,” which I’d never heard, and became fascinated with the men who built it. I learned that Otis Barton started as a curious kid who built homemade diving equipment to see deeper into the ocean. And Will Beebe was so in love with nature’s mysteries that once he dove into the ocean for the first time, he never studied anything else.

 

Early on in the research of Barton and Beebe’s amazing adventures, the universe cooperated. My generic request to the Library of Congress website happened to be answered by a librarian, Constance Carter, who’d been Beebe’s assistant in the 1950’s. Photos, film, diaries, and archives were uncovered. There were historical accounts of at least nineteen bathysphere dives over four years. The challenge became how to winnow that much information into one picture book story. I decided to concentrate on a single bathysphere dive in June, 1930—the first time Otis and Will saw the deep ocean they’d dreamed of visiting since they were kids.

 

These childhood dreams drove Otis and Will to great discoveries. To satisfy their own questions, they struggled with scientific and mechanical problems. Most impressively, they put their lives on the line over and over again. Otis and Will became the first to see what lived below the ocean’s light level, or as the book’s refrain puts it, down, down, into the deep.

 

So, are Otis and Will famous? Well, none of the Kardashians have to worry that Otis Barton or Will Beebe will ever have more Instagram followers. At least not yet. But I hope you will agree that Otis and Will are better than famous; they are important.

 

And from now on that’ll be my answer. I don’t write about “famous people.” I write about “important people.” Why? Because each child is important and deserves role models with the same questions, curiosities, and feelings. Because each student is history’s future.

Natasha Tarpley revisits her classic I Love My Hair!

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness. . .”

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

 

Natasha Tarpley photoThis year marks the 20th Anniversary of the publication of my first picture book, I Love My Hair! As I celebrate this significant milestone, the quote above becomes even more poignant in my reflections on my career thus far, and where I go from here.

 

Long before I had ever heard of Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, I knew what it was like to feel myself split into two. I was born and raised in a quiet neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, where traces of the South, reflecting a history of African American migration from the South to Northern cities like Chicago, still flowed through everything from the cooking smells wafting through open windows, to the lilt in the voices of family and neighbors greeting one another from across the street or driveway, calling after children in the purple-indigo dusk, or trash-talkin’ around a table deep into the night. It was here that I discovered that, even within a two-block radius—from the mailbox on one corner to Scott-the-cute-boy’s house on the other, like two covers of a book, there were countless adventures to be had and discoveries to be made. And there were characters galore.

 

It was in my neighborhood, and within the walls of my family’s home, that I also discovered a portal to my own imagination. The books that filled our house, and which my parents read to us at bedtime, the stories that I watched my mother craft on her magical black electric typewriter about me and my three siblings, helped me, a shy, bookish kid, and later a rebellious tween and teenager, stomping around in combat boots and ripped clothing, to find and express my own voice and creativity as a budding writer. In the worlds that I created for myself on the page, I could be anything—from the popular girl at school, to the lead singer of a famous punk band, who also happened to be British. I could invent fantastic characters. My favorites were an egg, who was a private detective and solved crimes in a town located inside a refrigerator, and a kid genie who lived in a Coke can.

 

I Love My HairBut as I ventured beyond the boundaries of my neighborhood and home, beyond the pages of my notebook, I realized that the world saw me, as an African American girl, very differently from how I saw myself. The world said, “You’re not black enough”, but then also said, “because you’re black, you don’t belong”. Even in my beloved books, or in the movies and television shows that I watched, I rarely saw myself reflected. I began to feel that sense of “two-ness” that DuBois wrote about, a gap between the way others saw me, and the complex, multi-layered vision and understanding of who I knew myself to be. When I started writing for children professionally, my mission was to tell stories for those kids, especially African American kids, who might have also felt that their voices and experiences were overlooked.

 

When I wrote I Love My Hair!  back in the late ‘90s, I wanted to create a whimsical, joyful story to contrast with the often serious, message-laden books that featured black children. I believed then, as I do now, that we are facing a similar publishing landscape that skews towards serious issue stories for black kids. In the spectrum of children’s literature, for example, Caucasian protagonists generally get to experience endless story possibilities. African Americans kids deserve this same opportunity. We are not monolithic. We have diverse life experiences, and feel the full range of human emotions and desire. By focusing on narrow facets of African American life (in literature, in music, movies, and the news), we unjustly constrict the imaginations of African American children, and run the risk of creating a codified and false narrative of the black experience, which our children are forced to consume and encouraged to adopt as their own. For those young people who reject this narrative, it can feel as if they are rejecting blackness itself.

 

Though there is still work to do, I am very encouraged and hopeful that the ever-broadening and deepening discussions and strategies around diversity, will lead to the production and introduction of new and exciting books, stories, and voices.

 

They say that from the pages of a book, many stories blossom. Now, I actually don’t know if the mystical they really do say or have said this at all—I kinda just made it up  (I’m a writer, it’s what we do!). Still, I know it to be true just the same. As I mark this 20th Anniversary of I Love My Hair!, I feel so fortunate and a tremendous sense of honor to have been a part of the family stories, personal journeys, and hair styling nightmares and successes that readers have shared with me over the past two decades. It is to them, the countless children, parents, teachers, librarians, and so many others who love and care for our children, who have passed this book from child to child, hand to hand, classroom to classroom, shelf to shelf, that I Love My Hair! owes its long and happy life. I remain forever indebted to you, dear readers, for supporting me as an author, and for giving my work wings. I hope that many more stories will blossom from the pages of I Love My Hair! for many more years to come.