Q&A with Uma Krishnaswami
Q: You've been reviewing for Children's Literature for many years now, but it's been a while since you spoke to us with your author hat on. In the meantime you've published several picture books, and you've been busy teaching and writing. Tell us where you are in your writing life now.
A: It has been a while. I'm in a very exciting place. Teaching as much as I've done in the last few years really sparked something in my own writing. So I've written picture books, and published six of them in the space of 5 years. I've also experimented with short stories and poems, some of which have been picked up by Cicada magazine, and I have two new novels under contract.
Q: Congratulations. Tell us about the latest of the picture books.
A: My books tend to fly by word of mouth, and these two are no exception. Remembering Grandpa, illustrated by Layne Johnson and published by Boyds Mills, is one with wings of its own. I often get e-mails from people who find that it helps foster discussions with children on questions of grief and healing without being didactic or heavy-handed. Then there's Bringing Asha Home, published by Lee & Low and illustrated by an artist with a fabulous palette and amazing perspective, Jamel Akib. It's a first person narrative by a young boy of his baby sister's adoption from India. It will be on a Father's Day special on a Connecticut ABC affiliate this weekend. It was on the mantelpiece of the governor's mansion in Salt Lake City when Governor and Mrs. Huntsman adopted a child from India.
Q: Tell us about the novels under contract.
A: They'll be out in 2011. Waiting is the hard part. They're both for the middle grades, but they couldn't be more different from each other. One will we published by Lee & Low: it's historical, set in a fascinating community in 1930's California, with men from the Punjab in India, who married women from Mexico. My protagonist is a young girl named Maria Singh, the daughter in one such family. The other, due out from Atheneum in Fall 2011, is a whimsical humorous novel in a completely wacky setting in India. It's about an Indian-American girl, Dini, who finds herself in the same town as her favorite Bollywood movie star. It was great fun to write. Since they're slated for spring and fall I expect to be juggling revisions madly in the next few months.
Q: And you're teaching in Vermont, I understand. How can you teach in Vermont and live in New Mexico?
A: You know, I'll bet you think I'm going to say it's all due to cyberpower! In fact, the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA model has been in existence now for more than a decade, so it predates the widespread use of the Internet for instruction. The way the program works, faculty and students are on campus twice a year for 10-day residencies. The rest of the semester, faculty work in one-to-one mentoring relationships with up to 5 students each. Most of us do use the Internet, or at least e-mail, for the semester-long teaching. I just finished teaching a special picture book semester, which made more focused use of an online class forum. I'm also in the process of transitioning out of teaching for a wonderful resource site for writers, http://www.writers.com. I taught online classes for them for nearly 12 years, but I am now handing those classes over to two wonderful writers and Vermont College graduates, Debby Edwardson and Sarah Aronson. So it's a time of transition but change is good.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm juggling three picture book manuscripts and a YA novel right now. We'll see what rises to the top. I never know how that will work out. I just show up to do the work. And I read--the other thing that teaching's done for me is that I feel compelled to read at least as much as my students do. I keep a running bibliography with brief annotations on points of craft. I try to go beyond "like" and "dislike" in my reaction to each title. Reading closely and critically (and I mean that in the sense of critical appreciation) allows me to keep in touch with the world of books, and recharges my own writing batteries.
Q: Thank you, Uma. Best of luck.
A: Thank you!
Contributor: Marilyn Courtot
To view an earlier feature about Uma Krishnaswami, click here.
To learn more about Uma Krishnaswami, visit www.umakrishnaswami.com.
Illustrated by Layne Johnson.
When a grandparent dies, a young child can easily feel sad and confused, not just from the loss but from the distress of seeing the grief of adult family members. Remembering Grandpa takes on this complex topic with a story that may be helpful to children whose circumstances match those of the child in the story. Pulling her red wagon, little Daysha decides to bring her sad grandmother a collection of special things that she remembers making her grandfather happy. These objects are all from nature, such as the leaves that Daysha remembers hearing her grandfather say “you could make needles and paintbrushes from leaves like this and soap from the root.” The conclusion is clearly meant to balance the importance of acknowledging grief, cherishing positive memories, and having the living go on with their lives. Layne Johnson’s illustrations have a lush pink and purple tone that verges on cloying. However, depicting Daysha and her family as bunnies rather than giving them a specific ethnic identity or setting is likely to help universalize the story. 2007, Boyds Mills Press , $17.95. Ages 5 to 8. Reviewed by Mary Hynes-Berry (Children's Literature)
Bringing Asha Home
Illustrations by Jamel Akib
Arun makes a wish for a baby sister on the Indian holiday of Rakhi, a day when "brothers and sisters promise to be good to each other, and everyone eats special sweets." He is delighted when his parents tell him they are adopting a baby girl from India. However, the process is long and readers feel eight-year-old Arun's sense of anticipation as he waits a whole year for Asha to arrive from India. During the year, he makes paper airplanes and when he flies them he pretends they are the planes that will carry his father to India and then return him to America with Asha. The well-paced story comes full circle when Arun sees Asha at the airport and she is wearing a rakhi, a shiny bracelet attached to the paper airplane he made for her. Arun's excitement about his new sister and the frustrations of having to wait so long are on target for a child his age. The illustrations, softly done in warm tones, reflect the warmth and family love present in the story. Children waiting for siblings from other countries will identify with Arun. This is an equally good book for those who have been adopted. They will feel how special they are to their families. Children who have friends who have been adopted from other countries will not only enjoy the story but will glean a better understanding about their friends' experiences. This is a good book to include in a story hour about families. 2006, Lee & Low Books, $16.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewed by Sharon Salluzzo (Children's Literature)
The Closet Ghosts
story by Uma Krishnaswami
Illustrations by Shiraaz Bhabha
Presenting a taste of the rich abundance of myths from India in a picture book about moving to a new house and going to a new school, is a task nicely accomplished in this story about Anu. Her parents assure Anu that she will soon feel at home in their new home and that she will quickly make new friends, but Anu misses her old neighborhood and her best friend, Mira. Only her little statue of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, gives her comfort when she discovers that it is hard to make new friends and, worst of all, that her closet is occupied by mischievous ghosts who like to try to upset her. When the monkey god appears at her window, Anu welcomes him, as a polite person should, with lemonade, peanuts, and fruit. Hanuman’s appearance gives Anu confidence to try to make friends with the ghosts, but they rebuff her efforts to win their affection with a gift of flowers by ripping the offering to shreds. At school Anu does, indeed, begin to have friends and she hatches a new plan to befriend the ghosts. She decides to play music, sing, and dance to entertain the ghoulish creatures who find that “Funny-sunny people make us quiver-shiver.” The ghosts depart and Anu bids Hanuman good-bye as he sets off to help someone else in need of guidance. The back matter includes a message from the author describing Hanuman and some of the poetry in the story. Bold, contemporary illustrations have a flavor of the origins of the story and show a wide variety of faces in the school children who become Anu’s friends. This title will have a subtle impact as it exposes readers (listeners) to some aspects of Indian culture and a brave girl’s efforts to deal with her own challenges--with a little help from the monkey god. 2006, Children’s Book Press, $16.95. Ages 6 to 8. Reviewed by Sheilah Egan (Children's Literature)
The Happiest Tree : A Yoga Story
Illustrations by Ruth Jeyaveeran.
Courage comes from the ability to handle fear, as young Meena learns in The Happiest Tree. In this empowering picture book, Meena worries her clumsiness will jeopardize the class play. After all, she is supposed to play a tree--graceful and stalwart. But when she signs up for a children’s yoga class, Meena learns to breathe slowly and deeply, to stretch “like a rubber band” and to coordinate her arms and legs in “smooth, slow movements.” With greater control comes greater calm, enabling Meena to deal with a minor mishap during the play. Bright acrylic pictures by Ruth Jeyaveeran reinforce the upbeat tone of Uma Krishnaswami’s text. The book includes diagrams of six yoga postures suitable for children, giving young readers a chance, like Meena, to realize that “I can change my body by how I feel inside. If I am quiet inside, my body will be still.” 2005, Lee and Low, $16.95. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewed by Mary Quattlebaum (Children's Literature)
Added June 2009
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