Leah Henderson is the author of One Shadow on the Wall, a novel for kids. It takes place in Senegal. She has traveled to more than 50 countries, and she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for One Shadow on the Wall, and for your character Mor?
A: It all started with a boy. I was on vacation in Senegal while in grad school and happened to look out a car window and saw a young boy sitting on a beach wall. I’m not really sure what it was about him that captured my attention, but he did.
For the rest of the day, I thought about him. I wondered what his day was like and if it was similar in any way to mine. Then later, when my friends and I drove past that same area, the boy was still there. I jumped out of the car, raced across the street and asked his permission to take his photograph.
In the image I took of him, I am convinced he was giving me a challenge. He stared at me in the photo, daring me not to see him, with his shoulders back and his chin held high. He wasn’t an invisible face, or just another picture.
I did see him.
And when I got back to my room that night, I wrote a 10-page story about him. It wasn’t until my writing professor saw it and encouraged me to expand it into a novel (despite my protests) that the story of One Shadow on the Wall even began.
Q: What type of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: When I started working on the longer story, I flip-flopped between worry and uncertainty all the time because I was trying to dive into an experience and culture that I knew very little about. I didn’t think it was my story to tell. I know what it feels like to see characters who are supposed to “be like me” done wrong, and I did not want to do that kind of harm. So, this novel started with research.
After dragging my feet for a while, my father reminded me that this was an opportunity for a child like my main character Mor to see themselves in the pages of a book. And he gave me another challenge. “Don’t stand in the way of him seeing his possibilities on the page. Go figure it out.”
So that is what I tried to do. I went back to Senegal to try and figure out what Mor’s story could be. I made a lot of missteps along the way, but I kept watching and listening and asking questions. I took tons of photos, made recordings of sounds—city life, beach life, market life etc. I watched and talked to people, tasted things, smelled things and recorded it all in my journals never knowing exactly what I might need.
After a few weeks, bits of story and character started to take shape in my mind. I don’t know if anything really surprised me while doing research, but it all definitely fascinated me.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The novel’s title comes from a line in the book. I don’t want to spoil it, so if you’re curious I hope you’ll grab a copy of One Shadow on the Wall to find out what it means.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: For me, the story is all about challenges and possibilities. And I hope readers come away knowing a little more about a country and a people that have a wonderful heartbeat. I also hope readers will realize that even though life is full of obstacles, by not giving up, anyone can find a way through.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a few projects at the moment. And like One Shadow on the Wall, they all center around family, friendship, and possibilities.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I have wanderlust bad. Not only because it’s freeing to get out an explore, but because I end up learning so much about myself and others by traipsing around neighborhood corners, and through bustling or quiet towns.
I encourage everyone to step outside their surroundings and explore someplace new whether it’s a new museum, new park, new block, or country. Seeing the world highlights so many possibilities, similarities, and struggles, it also helps us to appreciate the world we share and all who inhabit it. Not to mention it’s a great way to spark a new story idea!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. One Shadow on the Wall is a winner of the 2018 Children's Africana Book Awards.