New Voice: Leah Henderson on One Shadow On the Wall

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Leah Henderson is the debut author of One Shadow On the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 6, 2017). From the promotional copy:

An orphaned boy in contemporary Senegal must decide between doing what is right and what is easy as he struggles to keep a promise he made to his dying father in this captivating debut novel laced with magical realism.

Eleven-year-old Mor was used to hearing his father’s voice, even if no one else could since his father’s death. It was comforting. It was also a reminder that Mor had made a promise to his father before he passed: keep your sisters safe. Keep the family together. 


But almost as soon as they are orphaned, that promise seems impossible to keep. With an aunt from the big city ready to separate him and his sisters as soon as she arrives, and a gang of boys from a nearby village wanting everything he has—including his spirit—Mor is tested in ways he never imagined. 


With only the hot summer months to prove himself, Mor must face a choice. Does he listen to his father and keep his heart true, but risk breaking his promise through failure? Or is it easier to just join the Danka Boys, whom in all their maliciousness are at least loyal to their own?

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Their endless imaginations.

The imagination of a child is unparalleled. They are willing to take journeys many adults are not. They have a critical eye and I love that they will question anything that doesn’t seem quite right. Young readers challenge writers to be better in ways most adult readers never could or would.


So, I write for children because I want every child to see their inherent potential through their own imaginations, their varied possibilities, and to encourage them to believe they can be the stars of their own adventures. I write for them because I want every child to experience the diversity of our world.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

During a trip to Senegal, I saw a young boy sitting on a beach wall and wondered what his day might be like. 

I had no idea at the time I would try to create a story out of that question. But all through the day, the image of that boy sitting tall on that crumbling wall stayed with me. And when I saw him again later, a short story started to form. 
Of course I had no clue where it was going, but that didn’t matter. I was curious about his experiences that were probably so different from mine (though I did also wonder what might’ve been the same) and attempted to recreate a snippet of an imagined day. 
It really wasn’t meant to go any further than the ten pages I ended up writing, but one of my graduate school professors read it and had another idea. Regardless of my doubts, she thought it should be a novel. And so the journey began . . .

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

The main challenge was believing I could tell this story about a boy and a circumstance I knew little about. I did not want to assume I knew this young boy’s life or what his dreams looked like. 

I did not want to do harm. We have had enough of that in books already. 
What would you have done differently?

Surprisingly, not much. 

The journey I’ve taken in creating this book, with all its pitfalls, frustrations, smiles, and tears, is the journey we were meant to take together. 
But I do wish I could have whispered in my own ear long, long ago to trust the wonder of revision, to be kinder to myself about my writing, and to get out of my own way so the story could figure itself out. That would have been a tremendous treasure back then!

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?


I think more than anything I brought a level of compassion and fear to this project that some who have not seen themselves misrepresented in books time and time again might not understand. 
I was overly mindful of the damage that could be done if I did not take the time to do the research, ask questions, and have people of the Senegalese community read my words.

Every day that I worked on this story, I reminded myself how important it is for kids who look, sound, and live like my characters do to be able to hold their heads high when they read my words or see someone else reading them. 

I do not want them to feel like caricatures as we have in so many other instances. 
I want them to feel as if they really are seeing themselves on the page and can be proud of what they see.
As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

Writing can be a very solitary experience, so to instantly be a part of a community that understood what I was feeling—my apprehensions, my need to write, my love of stories—it was wonderful. 

I didn’t have to explain to anyone why I stayed glued to my chair all day writing when no one was forcing me to. Or why I was picking out clothes for a character I had created in my mind (okay, sometimes I still had to explain that one), but for the most part, I entered into a community that instantly understood and welcomed me in. 
The level of support, encouragement, and instruction I received was priceless. In a way, my experience gave me a (much needed) nod that it was okay to try and tell my stories.
Cynsational Notes
Kirkus Reviews said, “In her debut, Henderson paints a detailed picture of life in Senegal. The author’s experience, research, and sensitivity shine, making this distinctive novel a valuable addition to the literature.”

Leah Henderson has always loved stories—short ones, long ones, sad ones, funny ones, and all those in between. 
When she is not frantically scribbling down the adventures of the characters jabbering in her head, she is off on her own adventures. Traipsing around the globe, venturing down meandering paths, soaking up the vibrancy of tantalizing souks and making lasting friendships. 
Many of the hopes, struggles, and traditions she witnesses on her travels find a home in her stories and color her and her characters’ lives.
Leah holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University and calls Washington, D.C. home.

Summer Hiatus & Publishing Preview

Gayleen and Cynthia at the Austin SCBWI conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynsations is now officially on summer hiatus. We will return in the fall with more inspiration, insights and information on children’s-YA writing, illustration, literature and publishing.

In the meantime, keep up on all those topics with Cynthia Leitich Smith on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Cynsational Queries

If you have an idea for a Cynsations post, please email Gayleen to discuss options: CynsationsIntern(at)gmail.com.

Guest posts are approximately 500 words of inspiration and information with real reader, writer, gatekeeper takeaway. Debut authors are eligible for the New Voices interview series, and established authors are welcome to suggest ideas for topic series or interviews about new releases and/or the craft of writing, the writing life, and/or publishing.

For your reading pleasure, we asked a few authors with books publishing this summer to tell us:

What makes your book a great summer read?

May

(Middle Grade novel)

K.A. HoltGnome-a-geddon, illustrated by Colin Jack (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, available now) makes a great summer read because it’s a crazy adventure that we all wish for during those lazy, hot days of the summer doldrums.

Buck and Lizzie get pulled into the world of their favorite books, and they have to figure out what to do when everything they think they know turns out to be just a little bit… off.

It’s a fast-paced fun read with an ending that you might not see coming.

(Middle Grade Novel)

Sheela Chari: If you love mysteries, Finding Mighty (Abrams, May 30, 2017) is a perfect way to spend a warm summer day.

In this middle grade novel, set north of New York City, follow twelve-year-olds Myla Rajan and Peter Wilson as they team up to find Peter’s missing brother, Randall. It turns out Randall is after something, too: a cache of missing diamonds that might clear the mystery behind his father’s death.

With graffiti clues, parkour moves, and a daring climb along one of NYC’s oldest bridges, this book has something for everyone. Using Myla’s lists, Peter’s secret black book, and Randall’s smarts, see if you can figure out where the missing diamonds are hidden before they do.

Join Sheela at the Hastings-On-Hudson Multicultural Book Fair June 15, and for her book signing from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. May 27 at Books of Wonder in New York City.

June

(Middle Grade Novel)

Leah HendersonOne Shadow On The Wall (Atheneum, June 6, 2017) takes place during the summer months in Senegal, West Africa. So it would be a wonderful way for young readers in the States to draw parallels between their summer experiences and that of my main character, Mor, who has to spend his summer choosing between what is right and what is easy to keep is family safe while honoring a promise he made to his father.

For me, great summer reads are books that I can spend lazy afternoons getting lost in while discovering new things. And I think, within the pages of this story, readers may find themselves strolling a dirt path in no time with the sun glimmering over their heads as salty air clings to their skin.

Those interested in a book that peeks into another culture, focuses on family, friendship, and self-reliance might find One Shadow on the Wall the right book to get lost in.

Join Leah at her book launch and presentation at 6 p.m. June 6 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond and a book signing, hosted by Politics & Prose, at 7:30 p.m. June 8 at the Takoma Park Library in Takoma Park, Maryland. Also, a book celebration and family craft event 11 a.m. on June 10 at Old Fox Books in Annapolis, Maryland.

(Young Adult Novel)

Kayla Olson: The Sandcastle Empire (Harper Teen, June 6, 2017) was inspired, in part, by my longing for a beach vacation.

The island setting sprung out of that—a desire to spend imaginary time in the sand, the sun, the waves—all of which call to mind the feeling of summer.

I’ve also heard from numerous people that it kept them up late into the night, so if you’re looking to get lost in a book while on summer vacation, this might be a good fit for you!

Join Kayla for her book signing at 5 p.m. June 10 at BookPeople in Austin.

(Young Adult Novel)

Bonnie Pipkin: What better way to cool down this summer than with a book that takes place in the dead of winter?

Aftercare Instructions (Flatiron, June 27, 2017) may not seem like an easy breezy summer beach read at first glance: seventeen-year-old, Genesis Johnson is abandoned at the Planned Parenthood in Manhattan by her boyfriend during the procedure to terminate her unwanted pregnancy.

But the book isn’t all heavy duty, grief reconciliation. It’s also romance, and re-discovering what makes you feel whole and complete and cared for. It’s about letting go of what weighs you down in order to find your place center stage. Those are themes for any season!

Join Bonnie at her book launch at 7 p.m. June 27 at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn.

July

(Picture Book)

Emma J. Virjan: Start your engines!

What your summer reading list needs is a pig in a wig, rushing to her a car, dashing into place, ready to start the cross-country race!

Pig zooms off and takes the lead! But oh, no! There’s a rumble, a pop, and a hiss, and Pig gets stuck in the mud.

Will she be able to get back on track and finish the race?

Whether you’re sunbathing on the beach or on your lawn chair in the back yard, What This Story Needs is a Vroom and a Zoom (HarperCollins, July 4, 2017), the fifth book in the Pig In A Wig series, will fill your summer days with catchy, rhythmic text, bold illustrations and tons of laughter.

See activity pages and book trailers for the series on Emma’s website.

(Young Adult Novel)

A Very Terrible Witchtown Summer Poem – Cory Putman Oakes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 18, 2017)

In the shade or in the sun,

Witches are always lots of fun!
At the beach or at the pool,
Witches are always totally cool!
Mystery, magic, spells galore,
Witchtown has them all—and more!
Moonstones, pizza, a poltergeist,
A lonely girl who can only plan heists.
Magical plants, a goth, a baker,
A really cute boy (but he might be a faker).
A mean girl, a murder, a troubling past,
Locusts, lessons, and spells to be cast.
A mother and daughter, always in strife
Trust me, you want this book in your life.
So sit yourself down and grab a brew,
The witches can’t wait to entertain you!

Cory has a summer solstice recipe for Lemony Herb Scones and will have a launch party for Witchtown at 3 p.m. on September 10 at BookPeople in Austin.

(Picture Book)

Jason Gallaher: Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, illustrated by Jess Pauwels (Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, July 18, 2017)

Whobert puts a little mystery back into your summer! We all know that the sun will be shining, the temperatures will be rising, but what in the heck happened to Perry the Possum?

Whobert will make your summer one of sunshine and strengthening those sleuthing skills.

Join Jason at his book launches at 7 p.m. July 18 at Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, Washington, and at 2 p.m. July 22 at BookPeople in Austin.

August

(Middle Grade Novel)

Deborah Lytton: Ruby Starr (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, Aug. 1, 2017) is the perfect summer read because:

  • It’s a book about books.  (If you love books as much as Ruby loves them, this is all you need to know.)
  • Summer is a time to set your imagination free, and Ruby’s imagination is so powerful that it sometimes takes her right into the pages of a story.
  • Ruby’s very best friends are characters from her favorite reads. With her honesty and humor, Ruby just might become one of your very best friends.
See reading guide on Deborah’s website. This is the first book in a series.

Signing set for noon on August 5 at Barnes & Noble, 160 S. Westlake Blvd. in Thousand Oaks, California.

(Picture Book)

Liz Garton Scanlon: Another Way to Climb a Tree, illustrated by Hadley Hooper (Roaring Brook Press/Neal Porter Books, Aug. 8, 2017).

It’s a great summer read because it’s about an avid tree climber living life to the fullest!

Until she’s stuck inside with the flu and has to figure out how to love the trees from there….

(Picture Book)

Tracy Marchini: The chicken in Chicken Wants a Nap (Creative Editions, Aug, 15, 2017) just wants to sit in the warm grass for an afternoon snooze. And in the summer, that’s what I love to do too! There’s nothing quite like stretching out on a picnic blanket with a good book on a bright summer day.

Chicken is fun and funny, and Monique Felix’s pastel illustrations are warm and inviting. And fortunately for readers, they’re far less likely to be interrupted by cows and other barnyard animals than our poor Chicken!

Last – but not least – as a picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap is short enough that you won’t even have to reapply your sunscreen!

(Picture Book)

Don TateStrong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became The Strongest Man On Earth (Charlesbridge, Aug. 22, 2017) is a fun story for everyone anytime of the year. It’s especially a great book for summer as kids head outside to run, jump, swim, and play.

Young Sandow loved to do all of these things, but most times, he was too sick and weak to play. Through exercise, he built himself up to become known as the “Strongest Man on Earth!” And he had the biceps and a six-pack to prove it.

Everyone will want to get into better physical shape and become “As Strong As Sandow.”

See Don‘s classroom discussion guide and more about Sandow – including historic photos available online.