Thursday, February 6, 2020

Q&A with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo

Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo is the author of A Galaxy of Sea Stars, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written the middle grade novel Ruby in the Sky. She lives in Ellington, Connecticut.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and for your characters Izzy and Sitara?

A: I write books about kids finding their own kind of brave. I’ve always felt that kids coming to the U.S. as immigrants and refugees are the bravest of all.

So when the refugee character Ahmad Saleem found his way into Ruby in the Sky, I was lucky enough to connect with a group of refugee youth (through the organization IRIS-Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, Connecticut) to ensure his voice was accurate and authentic.

Our discussion group became a space for these young men and women to talk freely about how they felt coming to the United States, as well as a platform for them to “speak” to their peers through Ahmad.

I learned so much from these young men and women. At the time I was fighting cancer and their courage had a tremendous impact on me. They also made it clear that they wanted to see more books with refugee characters…and thus the idea A Galaxy of Sea Stars was born.

At that time, many refugees were coming to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which provides visas for individuals from Iraq or Afghanistan who were employed by the United States government in their countries.

For over a year, I met with a new group of six young women from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. My primary goal was to listen to their experiences, worries and challenges.

In the first meeting I asked them, “If you could tell your classmates something that would have made your adjustment to the United States easier, what would it be?” Their answer was as simple as it was powerful: “Be kind, you don’t know what other people have gone through.”

Ultimately, their strong voices and stories came together to shape the character, Sitara in A Galaxy of Sea Stars.

Probably the biggest reason I write middle grade is because those years were a challenging time of great change for me. Adults’ expectations seemed to inexplicably shift overnight, and the world suddenly felt impossibly big—making me feel even more tiny and insignificant.

In A Galaxy of Sea Stars, I wanted to bring together a girl like me (Izzy) who was afraid of all that change—with a girl (Sitara) who’s had to deal with more change than any child should have to.  Ultimately, Izzy’s fear of change—and how Sitara inspires her to face it head on—became the heart of A Galaxy of Sea Stars.

Q: Immigration and Islamophobia play big roles in this novel. Why did you choose those themes, and how do you think they will resonate with readers given recent events?

A: I hope these themes will spark discussion. In many ways, kids are much smarter than adults. I believe that kids are more open minded, inclusive and accepting of difference.

But still, and especially lately, the ugly noise of intolerance and ignorance has grown deafeningly loud. I wanted A Galaxy of Sea Stars to cut though that noise, to speak directly to kids, and to introduce them to some of the people that noise has been unfairly, untruthfully, and quite shamefully directed at.   

It is a fact that when people meet and get to know each other, prejudice and intolerance melts away because judgments are now based on real fact and experience—not noise and prejudice and made-up stories intended to grab attention by creating fear.

But most kids don’t have the opportunity to travel outside their immediate area. This is why books are so important. Books are the portals through which readers can travel to new places and meet people they may not otherwise have the chance to meet.

In A Galaxy of Sea Stars, I wanted to open one of these doors. I wanted to invite readers to spend time with Sitara and Izzy, to appreciate the sheer courage that defines the millions of refugees in the United States and to realize, as Maya Angelou has said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started working on it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I always knew I wanted the reader to share Izzy’s journey as she ventured outside her comfort zone into the impossibly big world.

As I wrote and re-wrote Galaxy, parts of that journey changed. Nevertheless, I hope readers, through Izzy and Sitara, will realize that, although our “galaxies” inevitably change—that change is not something to be afraid of; it is something to embrace.

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

A: I usually come up with the titles of my books when I’m hiking or running. On one of my hikes I was thinking how each one of us is only one of billions of people on Earth—which is only one of the eight planets in our solar system—which is only one solar system among the possibly tens of billions of solar systems in our galaxy.

Like the ocean, the vastness of our universe can make a person feel tiny and insignificant and scared and alone. But it is also a reminder of how we are ALL part of something much bigger than ourselves and our immediate communities.

It is only when Izzy embraces this “impossible bigness,” by stepping bravely into the unfamiliar—that she begins to learn who she really is.

And she is only able to do this because Sitara—who has already boldly and courageously stepped into a brand-new world—inspires her and gives her the confidence to speak up. Sometimes we can be braver with a friend, and Sitara is truly that friend to Izzy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My books usually begin with a setting unique to that story. My current work-in-progress is set on a mountain. But I can never seem to get my head out of the stars so there is a good deal of heaven, spirituality, and a touch of magic mixed in.

It is usually not until I get to the end of the story that I understand what it’s really about. This is where writing revision gets exciting because all of the pieces finally start to fall into place!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to hear from readers—especially kids—and I look forward to hearing everyone’s opinion and thoughts on my stories (good and bad—I’m always working to improve!).

I would love to hear about classroom discussions on any of the topics in A Galaxy of Sea Stars or Ruby in the Sky, and am always happy to participate in person (if relatively nearby) or by Skype (if not)! Please always feel free to contact me at! Thank you for reading!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeanne Zulick Ferruolo.

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