When we last visited with Uma Krishnaswami, she was anticipating the release of Yoga Class (Lee & Low, 2000) and Beyond The Field Trip (Linnet Books, 2001). In the years that followed, Uma became a break-out name in children’s literature. Her picture books include Chachaji’s Cup (Children’s Book Press, 2003) and Monsoon (FSG, 2003). Her first novel was Naming Maya (FSG, 2004). Uma also was one of my co-contributors to Period Pieces: Stories for Girls edited by Erzsi Deak and Kristin Embry Litchman (HarperCollins, 2003).
What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?
I’m so grateful to have a writing life, to be able to keep learning and finding joy in the process. I’m teaching new classes through writers.com (manuscript workshops and a class on picture book text are particularly exciting). And I’m working with teachers at a local site of the National Writing Project. All of it comes together, so each writing or teaching project ends up forging more links even when I’m not trying to make that happen.
I have a new picture book out this fall, The Happiest Tree: A Yoga Story, published by Lee & Low, illustrated by Ruth Jeyaveeran. Another new picture book will be published in spring 2006, The Closet Ghosts from Children’s Book Press, with illustrations by Shiraaz Bhabha. And I’m thrilled to say that Jamel Akib, who illustrated Monsoon, will be doing the artwork for another picture book from Lee & Low.
If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?
For quite a long time, The Happiest Tree was a theme looking for a story. I scribbled notes about yoga and theater and possible story points for months, then suddenly realized the perfect flaw for my character. She was sort of tripping around the outskirts of the story until then. You’ll know how mixed up I was when I tell you that the earliest title was “Feet Up in the Air.” At the time too I was struggling with a frozen shoulder, in every way a real pain. Suddenly one day I realized that the flaw Meena, in my story, needed was my own childhood clumsiness. From there on the story straightened up and began to grow its own roots.
The Closet Ghosts came out of a deliberate impulse I had to push my own writing. I wanted to try a contemporary story with a mythological character showing up in it. I’d read Jamila Gavin’s short stories that do precisely that, Three Indian Goddesses, but they were written for the middle grades, and I wanted to try this in a picture book format. In the book, Anu hates her new house, her new school, her new neighborhood. Then she finds out that she has ghosts in her closet. So she calls on the Hindu monkey god Hanuman to help her get rid of them. It’s been loads of fun to see it through with Children’s Book Press, where the editor really understood what I was trying to do and was very patient with my tortured revision process.
How about children’s or YA books that you’ve read lately? Which are your favorites and why?
Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean (HarperTempest, 2005).
I admire her writing greatly, have done ever since I read A Pack of Lies years ago. This one’s a retelling of the Noah story from a fictional daughter’s viewpoint–not an easy book to read, but a gripping book and in many ways courageous.
In the Coils of the Snake by Clare Dunkle (Henry Holt, 2005). Book III of the Hollow Kingdom Trilogy.
She paints a fantasy world in which humans exist as just another, sometimes inconsequential race. Lots of very prescient material here about war and the making of war for trifling reasons!
Finally a collection that I know you know well, Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories for Today, edited by Lori Marie Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005).
The Girl From Chimel, Rigoberta Menchu’s stories as told to Dante Liano, with glorious pictures by Mexican artist Domi (Groundwood Books, 2005).
The voice is so clear and true you can almost hear the teller’s chuckles and sighs as the stories turn. Lovely.
Thora by Gillian Johnson (Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins, 2005). Thora’s a half-mermaid and that’s just the beginning. Told with lots of loving energy and whimsical humor.
The Road to Mumbai by Ruth Jeyaveeran (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).
Funny, sweet, child-centered, luminously beautiful art.
The Travels of Benjamin Tudela: Through Three Continents in the Twelfth Century by Uri Shulevitz (Henry Holt, 2005)[BookLoons Review; NPR excerpt].
Nonfiction with really compelling voice.
Albert by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Jim LaMarche (Harcourt, 2001).
Not your standard picture book. The premise is so startling and strong that it just carries the entire story and you suspend disbelief without a thought.
What are your writing goals for the immediate future?
I have more story ideas pressing their faces against the window than I know what to do with. It’s always the case. I have a novel that needs conjoined twin surgery–it’s really two novels in one, only I didn’t know it at the time. That needs dedicated time, however, so unless I land some dream residency that will give me a month in the woods….
Oh and I’m working on a humorous picture book manuscript based on a story my father told me recently. My parents live in India and we call them once a week. When my father turned 80 he began telling me stories on the phone from time to time, urging me to write them down. Some I’ve heard from him before. Others are new to me. They’re all wonderful, and I’m so grateful for them. I’m hoping at least one will end up working itself into a picture book.
Mind you, I’m not sure those are goals. I take tai chi classes, and I think those stories are the horizon I’m supposed to keep my eye on.
Cynsational News & Links
Monsoon by Uma Krishnaswami is one of my all-time favorite picture books.
Author Lori Aurelia Williams has a new YA novel out, Broken China (Simon & Schuster, 2005)(read an excerpt). Lori was born in Houston, graduated from the Mitchner MFA program at UT, and lives in Austin.