for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
Henri and his parents leave their homeland, Haiti, after they receive an invitation from an uncle to come to New York City.
Only able to afford a small, rickety boat, the family sets out in the middle of the night in search of a better life. Out at sea, Henri dreams of what life will be like “across the great waters.”
Then the small boat overturns, and Henri is placed on top of the boat as his parents drift further out at sea.
Overcome with grief, Henri retreats into himself and is no longer able to speak once he reaches land. Encouraged by his uncle and neighbor, Henri takes a bucket and plays on it like a drum. The drumming becomes a link to his past and a conduit for his emotions.
Slowly, through his drumming and the kindness of his uncle and friend, Henri learns to navigate this new and foreign world without his parents.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
|more from illustrator Aaron Boyd|
I keep a notebook with me almost all of the time. But I didn’t write down the idea for this story right away. It stewed in the back of my mind for several months. When I finally stilled myself to write it, I let the story pour out onto the page without editing.
As I wrote, the first challenge was capturing Henri’s voice. Henri narrates the story and it took me a few revision rounds to discover how much dialogue he would have. I’m not a poet or a musician, but Henri’s voice had formed a certain cadence when I read the draft out loud.
Then I immediately tucked the story away. After that, I researched details of the Haitian language, which is Kreyol, and the culture; it was important that I presented it properly. I also researched drumming, the origins, and its ceremonial use within the African diaspora.
When I returned to the story months later, I shaped it with those elements, chose more precise words and tightened the structure. Later, when I worked with my editor Jessica, she helped me revise it further by adding the day-to-day details of life in Haiti, which required more research. That added another layer to Henri’s story.
For the psychological aspects of the story, I knew from the onset that Henri was dealing with great loss, which was balanced with hope. But I never considered the themes in Calling the Water Drum too heavy for a child to understand.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
|LaTisha at a classroom visit|
One piece of advice that I always found interesting was the adage to “write what you know.” I like to modify that: write what you want to know more about. I write what intrigues me or gets under my skin. And centering a child as the protagonist in a story gives me the chance to explore with wonder. Kids are curious about the world and, as a writer, so am I.
When it comes to actually learning how to write, I view it as a skill, like anything else. You read something, a poem, a short-story, a picture book, a novel and then you apprentice the story–you take it apart to see how the author put it together. Of course the “recipe” of read a lot, write a lot has to be seasoned with patience. Life gets so busy sometimes and it gets difficult to make time for writing.
It helps to set realistic reading and writing goals. I read the classics and read what’s on the market. I decide how many stories to write and complete in a month or three-month time frame if a year feels too lengthy. And completing the story is key. It’s better to complete two short-stories or one novel than have a hard-drive worth of half-finished stories.
What would you have done differently?
If I could do it differently, I would’ve taken creative writing classes in college and started to learn the craft earlier. I also would’ve sought out other writers and writing organizations sooner.
The community has been invaluable. It’s important for me to gather with other writers; but it was critical for me in the beginning stage to be around other writers and experience that camaraderie. I’ve learned that writing in isolation doesn’t benefit me at all.
How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?
|More from illustrator Aaron Boyd|
Being an author is still very new to me. It’s true that having a book published is a delicious feeling. I’m still amazed. But I keep my focus on getting my butt-in-the-chair and writing. I have more stories to tell. And since I want to get more of my stories out into the world then I need to write more.
The pragmatic side of me has approached marketing and promotion with the understanding that it’s part of the book publishing process. It’s a business, after all. So I setup a website and I’m on Twitter joining the conversations about writing or the writing life, which is fun. I’ve been steeped in the writing world for years, but publishing is a whole other beast.
In terms of my self-image, it’s pretty much the same, again, because I’ve been a storyteller since I was little. So for me, at the end of the day, it’s all about story.
As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?
Now, I didn’t write a Haitian story or the Haitian experience. There are Haitian writers who can express that from a place of vision that I never could. But, I wrote this story entwining two children from different cultures and that was intriguing to me.
Since I grew up in New York City, I’m familiar with being immersed in my culture while living parallel to many other cultures. I definitely wanted to give life to that experience and I did.
Kirkus Reviews gave Calling the Water Drum a starred review, calling it “a powerful story of loss and survival, human connection and hope… Redding’s distinguished text sensitively portrays the tragedies young Henri and Karrine have faced…”
A teacher’s guide is available from the publisher.