Thursday, February 28, 2019

Q&A with Keely Hutton

Keely Hutton is the author of the young adult historical novel Soldier Boy. The book is based on the life of Ricky Richard Anywar, who as a teenager in 1989 was forced into Joseph Kony's army in Uganda. Hutton is an educational journalist and former teacher, and she lives in Fairport, New York.

Q: How did you end up working with Ricky Richard Anywar on Soldier Boy, and why did you decide to write it as a novel rather than as nonfiction?

A: In March 2012, my cousin, John Fay, emailed me about his friend, Ricky Richard Anywar, a man he’d met while working with non-profit organizations in Africa.

Ricky had been trying for over eight years to find a writer to tell the story of his time as a child soldier in notorious warlord Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but no one would take on the project.

Although Ricky’s story of survival captured my attention, I politely declined John’s request that I speak with Ricky three times. I believed a story as important as Ricky’s deserved both a published author with name recognition and a writer with life experiences similar to Ricky’s. I was neither.

Fortunately for me, my cousin emailed again about Ricky, and even went as far as involving my mother in his push to make the Skype call happen. Finally, I agreed, and Ricky and I scheduled a time to chat.

Five minutes into our first Skype conversation, I was certain of two things: 1. Ricky’s story needed to be told. and 2. even though I still questioned if I was the writer to tell it, I knew I wanted to help Ricky and his work at Friends of Orphans in northern Uganda in any way I could.

I agreed to write his story if Ricky agreed to be involved in every part of the process and promised to let me know if, at any point, I was not representing his story, him, his family, the Acholi people, and Uganda with the respect, accuracy, and authenticity they deserved.

I then dove into research to educate myself on the Ugandan conflict, Joseph Kony, the LRA, child soldiers, and Acholi culture and traditions. Ricky and I also started Skyping and emailing regularly.

In June 2012, Ricky traveled to the U.S. and stayed with my family for several days. We discussed ideas for the book, Ricky’s time as a child soldier, and how he became founder of Friends of Orphans, an organization that helps with the recovery, rehabilitation, and reintegration of former child soldiers and war-affected youth in northern Uganda.

The decision to not write the story as non-fiction stemmed from our discussion about Ricky’s motivation to share his story with the world. Ricky explained that he didn’t want the book to be a series of shocking, graphically violent scenes. He wanted the message of his story to be one of hope and inspiration.

After reviewing my notes from our conversations, I knew I had to find a way to give readers time to breathe. During Ricky’s two-and-a-half years of captivity, there were no moments that weren’t traumatizing and terrifying, so I had to build in quieter moments.

With that goal in mind, I pitched the idea of writing his story as a young adult historical fiction novel with two alternating storylines, Ricky’s and Samuel’s. Ricky’s chapters would be accurate representations of his time in the LRA.

The chapters that follow Samuel, a fictional composite character representative of the thousands of children Ricky has helped since founding Friends of Orphans, would be set 20 years later and serve as a thread of light woven between the darkness of the Ricky chapters.

Ricky loved the idea, so I broadened my research to include how Ricky and the Friends of Orphans staff approach the difficult task of aiding former child soldiers and war-affected youth. Readers would see Friends of Orphans and the healing, transformative work done at their compound through Samuel’s eyes. 

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: My research consisted of thousands of hours of conversations with Ricky, books about the history of Uganda and the Ugandan civil war, documentaries, videos, articles, accounts of former LRA child soldiers, and a collection of Ugandan poems and folktales.

My prior knowledge of Uganda and the Ugandan civil war was very limited, so most of the information I learned through research and my conversations with Ricky surprised me.

I was heartbroken over cruel abuse children suffer, but also inspired by the resilient spirit of Ricky and former child soldiers like him and in awe of Ricky’s capacity for forgiveness and hope.

Q: What did you see as the right blend between history and fiction as you wrote the book?

A: To tell Ricky’s story, we leaned heavily on history, both his and his country’s, and less on fiction. We agreed to keep Soldier Boy as close to Ricky’s experience as possible.

When writing the Samuel chapters, I pulled from stories Ricky had shared with me about his interactions with thousands of children at Friends of Orphans to create a fictional character that possessed characteristics, thoughts, and reactions that were authentic to the experiences of former LRA child soldiers and abductees.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Soldier Boy?

A: Despite the heartbreaking horrors Soldier Boy reveals about the decades-long civil war that gripped Uganda and its children, at its core, Ricky’s story is a story about the unrelenting strength of the human spirit to find hope in the darkest corners of hell, to escape captivity despite insurmountable odds, and to hold onto humanity when all else is lost.

It is a message I hope readers take from the pages of Soldier Boy and remember when faced with hardships in their own lives. I also hope readers recognize the healing power of storytelling and find the strength to someday tell their own stories.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished reading through the second pass-page proofs for my next book, a middle grade historical fiction novel titled Secret Soldiers. Like Soldier Boy, Secret Soldiers explores the impact of war on our youth, but this story is set during World War One and deals with young soldiers who volunteered to fight.

Over a quarter million underage British boys fought on the Allied front lines of the Great War, but not all of them fought on the battlefield—some fought beneath it.

Secret Soldiers follows the journey of Thomas, a 13-year-old coal miner, who lies about his age to join the Clay kickers, a specialized crew of soldiers known as “tunnelers,” in hopes of finding his missing older brother.

Thomas works in the tunnels of the Western Front alongside three other soldier boys whose constant bickering and inexperience in mining may prove more lethal than the enemy digging toward them. But as they burrow deeper beneath the battlefield, the boys discover the men they hope to become and forge a bond of brotherhood.

I am looking forward to sharing Secret Soldiers with readers starting on June 11, 2019.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The civil war in Uganda lasted over 23 years, and the damage and trauma caused by the conflict is still being felt throughout northern Uganda. A portion of my proceeds from the book are donated to Friends of Orphans, so by purchasing Soldier Boy, readers are already helping.

If readers want to help beyond purchasing Ricky’s story, Friends of Orphans needs financial support to help run their programs. They are also always looking for volunteers to come and work with FRO in Uganda, as well as people who will work within their own communities to create awareness about FRO’s work, promote advocacy and networking, and organize fundraisers to further support Friends of Orphans projects.

Additional information about Ricky and Friends of Orphans may be found here.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Soldier Boy is a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards.

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1926: Svetlana Alliluyeva born.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Q&A with Karen Harper

Karen Harper is the author of the new historical novel American Duchess, which focuses on the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American heiress who became Duchess of Marlborough. Harper's other novels include The It Girls and The Royal Nanny. She lives in Ohio.

Q: You note that you learned about Consuelo Vanderbilt while researching an earlier book.  At what point did you decide to write American Duchess?

A: I am always searching for great, real-life heroines and usually center my novels on British women. However, as I read about Consuelo in the book To Marry an English Lord, (about American fortunes in exchange for British titles) it hit me:  This woman is both an American and a British star.   

Although she was forced to wed a man she didn’t love who tried to control her, she rose above it all, went her own way and did bold things. 

And the timing turned out to be good: Although Consuelo’s background is a far cry from Meghan Markle’s, both women are strong and fascinating American duchesses.

Q: How did you research Consuelo’s life, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: As with all my heroines, I read books about her—even her autobiography, though a researcher has to be wary of those.

And the real boost for the book was that I had already been to two of the major fantastic settings for the novel: Blenheim Castle in England and a Vanderbilt “cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island. 

Consuelo and her second husband lived in Paris for a while, also, and I was familiar with that area. Being in the places my heroine knew and loved (or hated!) really opened up her life for me.

Things that surprised me about Consuelo? I was hoping there would be some point in her life that would make for a suspenseful but happy ending to her story. Amazingly, she had to flee from the Nazis because she was on their “ransom” list, so that made an exciting conclusion to the novel. 

Q: What do you see as the right balance between history and fiction in your writing?

A: I write what Alex Haley, the author of Roots, called “faction,” a well- researched story that does not deviate from basic facts, but is embellished by description, dialogue and scenes that may be fiction. 

I love to write my historical novels in first person, so that the voice telling the story is the main character’s, the “I” thinking and telling us about her life. I have always loved history, and these faction novels are one way of bringing it—and its heroines—alive for the reader.

Q: What do you see as Consuelo’s legacy today?

A: An interesting question, especially because she left behind much more than beautiful places tastefully (but expensively!) decorated. 

Partly because of her rabble-rousing mother, whom she did forgive later in life for her forced marriage, Consuelo had a role in getting women the vote in both the U.S. and England. On the estate of Blenheim, even as a young bride, she fought to change old ways to make charity build people up, not just keep them in their place. 

Also, Consuelo was a friend and supporter of her husband’s cousin, Winston Churchill, even when he was down and out in British politics and during the dangers of World War II. 

Her autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, is a real life Downton Abbey for readers who like some background to that era.  (Remember Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, was also a “dollar bride,” but that was a marriage that worked well.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am just completing a book on the woman most of us know as “The Queen Mum,” the mother of the current queen. My heroine was also a Queen Elizabeth. The book focuses on her marriage, family and her huge part in fighting the Nazis during World War II. 

By the way, the title of the book, The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe, comes from Hitler’s name for her, because he feared her influence over King George and on Winston Churchill. 

You may recall this Queen Elizabeth as the smiling, waving granny, but in her World War II years, she was so much more. And she had several secrets she fought to keep from the public and even from her own husband.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Because my early historical novels were mostly Elizabethan-era women, the fun of writing more recent heroines is that I can see them in photos, even videos, hear them speak. 

Just Googling Consuelo Vanderbilt or Duchess of Marlborough opens up a whole new exciting realm of research that goes far beyond looking at paintings in museums or even on line.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1807: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow born.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Q&A with Boris Fishman

Boris Fishman, photo by Stephanie Kaltsas
Boris Fishman is the author of the new memoir Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table. He also has written the novels A Replacement Life and Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. Born in Belarus, he immigrated to the United States as a child.

Q: Why did you decide to center this memoir around food?

A: After my grandmother, our previous kitchen wizard, passed away, this Ukrainian woman, Oksana, showed up in our lives -- officially to help take care of my grandfather.

But she was, and is, a phenomenal cook, which went such a long way toward -- if not smoothing over, then postponing -- the various grievances we were struggling through as an immigrant family with adults still living the Soviet way and an only child who grew up to be someone very different. For the duration of those meals, we were happy, we got along. 

And Oksana's presence in general was its own useful vector. She became a member of the family in every sense except the literal, and that angle of separation was often enough to put us on better behavior. Also, she became for us the ear, and the shoulder, and the sounding board that we often failed to be for each other.

But to go back to the food, the things she put on the table three times a day were part of an incredibly rich tradition of cooking that most Americans know nothing about -- a completely different perspective on what people think of as "Russian" or "Soviet" food.

This wasn't mayo-heavy glop -- this was peppers marinated in buckwheat honey and garlic, pickled watermelon, duck roasted with apples and dried apricots, rabbit braised in sour cream with new potatoes, and so forth.

Q: Was the process of writing this book different from that of writing your novels?

A: The process of writing the book was not. Stylistically -- the characterization, the dialogue, the narrative development, the quality of the writing -- it's a novel as much as either of my previous books.

What was incredibly challenging was translating all the recipes from Oksana's brain, the only place they exist, to paper, and then to English, and then testing them, and generally getting them to a format any cook could replicate.

Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, or did most of it come from your own memories?

A: I remember almost nothing from my childhood, so most of that actually came from extensive interviews with my parents and some other people in our lives.

I did a lot of reading about Russian/Ukrainian/Soviet food, and food in general, and also some background reading to the issues that arise in the book, like Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir of the Stalin Terror, Hope Against Hope, or Gal Beckerman's invaluable book about the Soviet-Jewish immigration, When They Come For Us, We'll Be Gone.

We went through that immigration, but it was a revelation to read about the global forces -- literally, and figuratively -- that had bearing on it. 

Q: The book deals with immigrants making their way in a new country. What do you hope people take away from this book, given the current debates over immigration?

A: Whiteness indisputably confers privilege, but whiteness is not a vaccine against trauma. I would really like people on the left to understand that. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just wrote a season of a TV show that fuses themes from my first novel, A Replacement Life, and this new book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Many, many thanks for your interest in my work since the very beginning.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Boris Fishman.

Q&A with Tanaz Bhathena

Tanaz Bhathena, photo by Nettie Photography
Tanaz Bhathena is the author of the new young adult novel The Beauty of the Moment. She also has written the YA novel A Girl Like That, and her work has appeared in various publications, including Blackbird and Witness. Born in India, she grew up in Saudi Arabia and Canada. She lives in Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Beauty of the Moment, and for your characters Susan and Malcolm?

A: I had written a couple of short stories a few years ago, featuring Susan’s character. I took one of those stories and turned it into The Beauty of the Moment. Malcolm had a different name at the time and he wasn’t Susan’s love interest.

Q: One of the book's themes involves immigration to a new country. What do you hope readers take away from the story, given the current focus on immigration today?

A: I wanted to write a story where immigrant teens were not only able to find a place for themselves in a foreign country, but also have happy endings. I hope readers will be able to relate to this—and also have fun reading the story at the same time.

Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: My editor chose the title from a dialogue in the novel. I thought it fits both characters really well—Susan is often afraid to live in the moment, Malcolm races through life without pausing to enjoy its beauty.

Q: The story is told from Susan's and Malcolm's alternating points of view. Did you always plan it that way, or did you change things around as you wrote?

A: The two POVs came naturally to me; they felt like the right way to tell this story.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a YA fantasy series set in a world inspired by medieval India. The first book of the series, Hunted by the Sky, will be published in spring 2020. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: I became a writer because I failed as a cartoonist. So when it came to picking out Susan’s talent, I knew I had to make her an artist. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 26

Feb. 26, 1802: Victor Hugo born.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Q&A with Dee Romito

Dee Romito, photo by Nathan Romito
Dee Romito is the author of the new children's picture book Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her other books include The BFF Bucket List and Best. Night. Ever.. She is a former elementary school teacher, and she lives in Buffalo, New York.

Q: How did you learn about Georgia Gilmore, and at what point did you decide to write a picture book about her?

A: I was reading about the Montgomery Bus Boycott with my kids on MLK, Jr. Day and I came across a couple lines about Georgia. I was immediately fascinated by her and started researching to find out more. The more I found, the more amazed I was, and I wanted everyone to know about this incredible woman.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the book, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I read old newspaper articles, interviews, online articles, books that included parts of her story … I even did some research at the Library of Congress. The idea that this part of the story isn’t widely known surprised me from the beginning.

But also, there were things I couldn’t include in the picture book that really showed Georgia’s strong, tough personality. She had some interesting nicknames for her friends and didn’t put up with people treating her or her family poorly.

Q: What do you think Laura Freeman's illustrations add to the book?

A: Laura is amazing! This story came to life because of Laura’s beautiful illustrations. And the way she added just the right touches made it even more special.

I love how the secret helpers are shown walking past a doorway and that she simply added a protest sign at the end that showed what came next for Georgia. This story is what it is because of Georgia Gilmore and Laura Freeman.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from Georgia Gilmore's story?

A: I hope this story sticks with them. Georgia has earned her spot in American history and is a true inspiration. Most of all, I hope kids (and adults) are reminded that everyone can make a difference, and that sometimes it’s the smallest acts that make the biggest impact.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m always working on a bunch of different things. I read nonfiction biography picture books all the time and am always looking for, or working on, the next one. But right now my focus is on my upcoming chapter book series, Fort Builders, Inc., which comes out from Aladdin in 2020.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Check out the author’s note in the back of Pies from Nowhere to learn more about Georgia. And you can find links to more information (including video interviews) on my website. There’s also a recipe for Georgia’s homemade pound cake in the back of the book. It’s even better the next day after you let it sit.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Karen Odden

Karen Odden is the author of the new historical novel A Dangerous Duet. She also has written the novel A Lady in the Smoke. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Michigan, and she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Q: You've noted that your father was a pianist. How did you end up creating your character Nell, a pianist in 19th-century London?

A: There’s not a tidy answer to that one, honestly. I’d say the impulse came from a few different strands of thought and memory.

First, my father was a fine pianist, and so piano was always part of my life as a child. After he died in 2012, it sharpened my memories of him playing piano in our living room.

We had a goldenrod carpet (it was the ‘70s) and sometimes I would lie underneath the piano, listening to the disembodied notes coming through the air, and watching my father’s feet in their Hush Puppies as they moved among the three pedals.

I wasn’t ever close to my father, who was rather a loner, engaged in collecting model cars and trains, reading his books, and photographing the sights he saw on trips he took alone.

But after his death, which stemmed from his Type 1 diabetes, I realized that his diabetes in many ways shaped and defined his childhood; while his older brothers could play football and baseball, my father couldn’t, and so piano became his companion, and music a significant way of communicating.

This suggested to me some ways that my heroine Nell’s interactions with the piano might be shaped by her early childhood.

Second, my son plays piano now, and people who knew my father when he was a young man are amazed—because my father and my son have mannerisms, down to the tilt of their heads as they read music, that are exactly same, although my son has never spent any significant time with his grandfather.

This raised the questions for me of just how much musical talent is hardwired into the brain, and what can be inherited.

Finally, years ago when I was researching for the introduction to Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, I read a piece about his older sister Fanny Dickens, an extraordinary pianist who attended the Royal Academy of Music in London in the 1820s.

She was forced to leave, however, because her spendthrift father was thrown into debtor’s prison, and she could no longer pay tuition. Eventually, she was allowed back, earning her way by teaching piano to younger students.

But it raised the question for me: What would a woman in 1870s London do if she desperately wanted to go to the Academy and didn’t have money for tuition?

On a visit to London, I went to the Academy (where I found a class list with Fanny Dickens’s name written in fading ink on a foxed page—so evocative!) and to Wilton’s Music Hall, the last Victorian music hall still standing.

When I researched music halls further, I realized my protagonist could be an accompanist—and Nell Hallam’s story began to take shape in my head.

Q: You also focused on the 1870s in your first novel, A Lady in the Smoke. What intrigues you about that time period?

A: Back in 2001, I wrote my dissertation on Victorian railway crashes as they appeared in novels, newspaper articles, parliamentary papers, medical treatises, cartoons, and so on, from about 1840 to 1890.

As I did my research I realized the 1870s were a time of explosive change, propelled into the air by the rising literacy and a growing number of newspapers and pamphlets, and then anchored to the earth by decisions being made in the law courts and in parliament.

For example, the second Reform Bill of 1867 extended the vote to working-class men; the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 allowed a married woman, for the first time, to retain control over money she had earned; the Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first step toward making education mandatory for all children.

It was also a time when Scotland Yard was still in its infancy—and many people were suspicious of policemen who could “cloak their misdeed in their plainclothes.”

So it was a time of extraordinary shifts in ways of thinking about gender and class, childhood and families, trust and the law—all of which are themes I enjoy exploring in my books.

Q: Do you usually know how your novels will end before you start writing them, or do you make many changes along the way?

A: I know generally that I’m writing toward particular kinds of resolution—that is, the heroine has to learn something and change her behavior as a result of facing her past and understanding its meaning for her present; usually I also want her to find a new friend or a romance and something more for herself (i.e. a career, a new perspective on her passion).

I know that the back-story, rooted in family unhappiness, has to be uncovered, and the original act of violence (the attack on Nell’s friend Marceline, for example) explained.

But, yes, the book changes along the way: this novel actually began as “The Phrenologist’s Daughter,” with Nell viewing her con-artist father askance, as he read people’s skulls for money.

In a subsequent version, her father was a doctor who specialized in mental diseases, and his best friend was a detective. Still later, I killed off the father and made the detective figure her brother Matthew, so he’d be at the breakfast table with her, to draw the stakes of solving the mystery closer to home for both of them.

Q: Which authors do you particularly admire?

A: Tana French, for her intensity. She can get characters’ feelings on the page and hold them there as well as anyone I know.

Jane Austen (so predictable of me, I know), Madeleine L’Engle, and Elizabeth George Speare for oldies but goodies; Amor Towles, Jennifer Egan, Ian McEwan, Mary Karr, Alexandra Fuller, and David Mitchell are favorites.

And for nonfiction, Atul Gawande and Brené Brown, whose books are full of compassion and wisdom.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My next book, A Trace of Deceit, concerns Annabel Rowe, a young woman painter at the Slade Art School in London, in 1875. Her older brother Edwin, a brilliant painter and a former forger, is murdered, and a valuable French painting is stolen out of his studio.

Being Edwin’s closest relative and acquainted with the art world, Annabel offers Scotland Yard Inspector Matthew Hallam (Nell’s brother from A Dangerous Duet) her help in an investigation that exposes secrets from Edwin’s past and the darker side of the London auction world.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: On March 2-3, at the wonderful Tucson Book Festival, I’ll be speaking with Donis Casey (author of The Old Buzzard Had It Coming and other mysteries) on writing historical mysteries. Our panel is on Saturday at 2:30 pm, and I would love to see people interested in historical fiction there.

For people interested in the Victorian period in particular, please visit my website for blogs about Victorian music halls, women pianists, and the seedier side of 1870s London generally.

Like many authors on this blog, I want to encourage people to reach out to the authors whose books they enjoy; I love to hear from readers, so on my website, please click on the “Stay in Touch” tab to be added to my mailing list!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 25

Feb. 25, 1937: Bob Schieffer born.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Q&A with Ayesha Harruna Attah

Ayesha Harruna Attah, photo by Itunu Kuku
Ayesha Harruna Attah is the author of the new novel The Hundred Wells of Salaga, which takes place in late 19th century Ghana. She also has written the novels Harmattan Rain and Saturday's Shadows. She lives in Senegal.

Q: You note that you were inspired to write this novel by your own family history. How did your great-great-grandmother's story lead to your writing the book?

A: While drawing up our family tree with my father, I learned that my great-great-grandmother had been enslaved in West Africa. I didn’t know much about slavery within the African continent at that point and I wanted to find out more about what that could have looked like and what my ancestor would have gone through.

Q: How did you come up with your characters Aminah and Wurche?

A: Aminah was inspired by my great-great-grandmother, so her spirit was modeled on the closest person to her that I got to meet: my father’s mother. She was a quiet woman, but one could tell that she had a strong spirit.

Wurche was inspired by a line I read in a book called Salaga: The Struggle for Power, by J. A Braimah, which said that princesses from this particular region could choose whomever they wanted to be their lovers, even if the man were already married. It seemed to me the height of freedom and I thought it would be interesting to compare a woman like that with my ancestor who had been enslaved.

Q: How much research did you need to do to write the novel, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: I did a ton of research. I went up to Salaga to visit. I read as many books as I could on the war in Salaga, as well as visitor accounts of more peaceful times. I think what struck me the most is how absent women were in these reports.

Q: The novel focuses in large part on the issue of slavery. What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I would like us to have more nuanced conversations about slavery. Things weren’t black and white, then, and still aren’t today. I’d like us to also begin to dig at why it doesn’t seem to go away.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on my first book of non-fiction on the kola nut, the “Cola” in Coca Cola, and how it shaped West Africa..

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a small book, but packs in a lot, and even though it may come off as heavy, with themes such as slavery and war, it is a book about human beings in all our complexity, so even in the midst of pain and struggle, there are a few moments of levity.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Kathryn Erskine

Kathryn Erskine is the author of the children's picture book biography Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song. Erskine's other books include Mockingbird and Seeing Red. She spent part of her childhood in South Africa, and now lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about singer Miriam Makeba?

A: Miriam Makeba was one of my heroes growing up and I wanted to introduce her to today's young people. As a child in South Africa, I learned about the horrors of apartheid.

Even from the perspective of my safe little world, I couldn’t understand why grownups came up with a system that separated people, that provided a school and playground and books only for me and other white kids.

It didn’t make sense. It was mean and unfair from my child’s perspective. Children can identify a just and humane society better than some adults. I knew they would understand her story.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: Yes, her perseverance. I had no idea she’d survived so many traumatic life events like plane crashes, cancer, and losing her daughter and a grandson. She was an amazingly strong woman.

Much of my information came from her two autobiographies. It was good to be able to “hear” her voice. Listening to her music was a particularly enjoyable part of research, and remembering dancing to her music with my mother when I was a little girl, and later with my own children as a mom.

I did a lot of research about the setting and the era, the politics and society during her life, both in South Africa and the U.S., and what other people said about her, good and bad.

Obviously, a picture book biography can only be about one aspect of her life and, also obviously, as seen through the lens of the author. It’s my tribute to her, and the power of one individual’s voice.

Q: What do you think Charly Palmer's illustrations add to the book?

A: Everything. Really. When I was told he was going to be the artist, I went to his website and was so overcome with exactly how perfect his art was for this book, I cried. Not only are his illustrations ideally suited to the time period, they evoke the strong emotion of the subject, bold and determined.

I was thrilled when he won the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for his artwork in Mama Africa! He so deserved it, and I would say that even if I hadn’t been part of this project!

Q: What do you see as Miriam Makeba's legacy today?

A: The power of one voice to speak out against injustice, everywhere in the world, including right here in the United States.

In the pre-internet days, it took a lot longer to spread her message and get the world’s attention, and still she managed to help bring justice to her country. If she could do that without the internet, while being exiled from her own country, living in fear that her loved ones could be retaliated against for her behavior, surely we have the strength to speak out.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working with an artist on a picture book we think is pretty special, a middle grade novel, a young adult novel, and several novels for adults. I hadn’t planned or expected to write for adults but I simply write the stories that come into my head and the last several have been for older readers. It’s so interesting where this life takes us!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m grateful to CABA [the Children's Africana Book Awards] and its mission to encourage the publication of children’s books that contribute to a better understanding of African societies and issues, and honored that they’re recognizing Mama Africa! as a best book for young readers!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Mama Africa! is a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards. Here's a previous Q&A with Kathryn Erskine.