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Folk Storytelling in South Asia, Author interview with Sayantani DasGupta, and Giveaway

Like many countries, South Asia is a source and inspiration for folk storytelling.  You can see folk storytellers like our mothers and grandmothers at homes as well as performers on the streets and marketplaces in rural villages, small towns, and even in some of the bigger cities. Men and women perform in elaborate style, using colorful costumes, large picture cloths, and scrolls. They perform in groups, accompanied by the narrator, actors, and musicians. They tell stories in stage performances, in areas where there is public attraction, courtyards of homes, wedding ceremonies, or special gatherings.  Their repertoire is usually wide and consists of historical tales, myth, episodes from the two Great Indian epics – Ramayana and Mahabharata, Christian scriptures, Sufi stories, as well as local folklore.

Today, I am delighted to welcome Sayantani DasGupta to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing Bengali folk tales in middle-grade fiction. Sayantani’s middle-grade novel, THE SERPENT’S SECRET is available to pre-order and will be released on February 27, 2018.

Sayantani, thank you for stopping by at Mixed-Up Files. The protagonist of THE SERPENT’S SECRET, Kiranmala is an interdimensional demon slayer. Could you tell us more?

Thank you so much for having me! It’s a joy to be back on The Mixed Up Files!

So Kiranmala thinks she’s just an ordinary sixth grader living in Parsippany, New Jersey, until the morning of her 12th birthday. That day, her parents go missing – transported to an alternate dimension because of an expired spell – and two mysterious princes show up at her doorstep, promising to help her find her family. She’s a little skeptical (she’s a Jersey girl, and as she’ll tell you herself, Jersey girls are no dummies), until a drooling rakkhosh demon slams through her kitchen, totaling her suburban split level. Kiranmala’s forced to fly off with the princes Lal and Neel on their flying pakkhiraj horses, through a transit corridor that’s a lot like the customs and immigration lines at an airport, and to a magical dimension called The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers. There, she has to solve riddles, battle the evil Serpent King and vicious Rakkhoshi Queen, who may or may not also be a black hole, and find her parents before the spell protecting them entirely expires and they get eaten by a newborn rakkhosh baby! All that and make it home in time to finish the sixth grade…

Tell us why the subject of Bengali folktales is important to you. What inspired you to write this story?

Toni Morrison has that great quote – “If there’s a book you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The Serpent’s Secret is the funny and fast-paced fantasy adventure with a kick butt brown skinned heroine that I always needed, but never found, as a young reader. So that’s the short answer to what inspired me to write this novel.

The longer answer is that my parents immigrated to this country in the late 1960’s and so I was born and grew up in the Midwest at a time when there weren’t a lot of people of color, nonetheless South Asians, in the community where I lived. Back then, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in media or advertisements. I was a big reader, but there was still a big disconnect between me and Laura Ingalls, Meg Murry or the other heroines I loved. But when I went back on my long summer vacations to my grandparents’ homes in Kolkata, India, that’s when I saw others who looked like me, that’s when I found a sense of belonging and history, that’s when I felt seen and heard in a deep and real way that I didn’t find in my life in America.

Of course, stories are such an important way that anyone finds ‘home’ in any community. So when we’d gather on those sweltering summer nights, under the whirring fan and the gently swaying mosquito net, and my grandmother would tell us cousins these fantastic folk stories about flesh eating rakkhosh and flying pakkhiraj horses, evil serpent kings and brave princes and princess, my imagination would be completely captured. I loved those stories so much that I translated/adapted several in a 1995 folktale collection for grownups I wrote with my mother called The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales (Interlink, 1995).

Fast forward many years, to when my now teenage son and daughter were becoming big middle grade readers. I was impressed with the increased range of diverse titles they had access to. The problem was, most of those books (at least then) were realistic fiction, and my son in particular was a big Harry Potter, Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl fan. I was so frustrated to realize that he and his sister were experiencing that same lack of literary mirrors I had suffered as a kid. There were more diverse titles, sure, but mostly in contemporary or historic realistic fiction. Intentional or not, this still sent out the message that kids of color and kids of other marginalized identities weren’t allowed to be heroic, or funny, or central to the saving of the universe. So I went back to those Bengali folktales I had loved so much, those stories which were such an important part of my finding my own identity. In the same way I had found myself in West Bengal, India – the land of my ancestors – the heroine of my novel would have to travel to the magical Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers to find her own strength and power. Eventually, the book I began as a family project for myself and my children took wings and became The Serpent’s Secret, first in the Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond series!

Let me ask you about Bengali folklore, since that’s the heart of Serpent’s Secret. What types of Bengali folklore do you write about in THE SERPENT’S SECRET? Could you explain how the local folklore is different from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, or stories from other religions?

Thanks so much for asking! First, these are stories from Bengal – a region which used to be one united area but is now comprised of the state of West Bengal in India, and the country of Bangladesh. In 1947, when the British rulers of India were leaving, they split up the subcontinent into the independent countries of India and Pakistan (In 1971, East Pakistan would win its independence from Pakistan to become Bangladesh). This was a time fraught with a lot of violence between religious communities – people who had previously been neighbors and friends were suddenly pitted against one another – and these bloody tensions have in many ways been South Asia’s postcolonial legacy, influencing politics and religious strife in the region today.

All this to say that the folklore that I’m drawing from is actually pre-partition – these are stories shared by Bengalis of India, of Bangladesh and of course of the diaspora. They are also stories loved by Bengalis of multiple faiths, including Hindus and Muslims. These hilarious stories of rakkhoshi demons disguising themselves as beautiful maidens and marrying human kings, these adventures of princes and princesses riding on pakkhiraj horses, wise cracking tia birds playing tricks on silly humans – these are all our collective stories. Although it’s inevitable The Serpent’s Secret novel is colored by my own particular background and my own particular experience, I wanted to honor and celebrate the fact that the folktales and other children’s stories that inspired the novel aren’t bound by any one country or religion. I wanted to celebrate our commonly loved stories.

As oral tradition, these folktales are also different than myths, which tend to have more spiritual significance. Epics like The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, which are wonderful, and were a big part of my growing up as well, are linked to a religious tradition – to Hinduism – and are beloved across multiple regions of the subcontinent. In contrast, the folktales collected in 1907 by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar in a collection called Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandmother’s Satchel) and the other Bengali children’s stories which influenced The Serpent’s Secret are regional, not necessarily religiously bound. That’s a really important distinction for me as I want to resist artificial separations based on nation or religion.

Do you see Kiranmala’s story as a fracturing of Indian folktales like the fractured fairytales of Snow White or Cinderella or Goldilocks? If you could use fairytales to pitch your book, which two stories or characters would you choose and why?

I definitely fractured the Bengali folktales and children’s stories I was inspired by – playing very fast and loose with multiple stories. For instance, my protagonist is inspired by a character who appears in a folkstory called “Arun, Barun and Kiranmala” in which the youngest sister, Kiranmala, has to go save her two older brothers. I was inspired by this story because it’s about female strength and smarts saving the day. But I didn’t stay true to the tale at all beyond that core message about an empowered and heroic girl. My Kiranmala lives in New Jersey and is the only daughter (or so she thinks) of loving convenience store owners. The heroic princes she meets early on in her adventure, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, come from a totally different folktale. People who know these stories will hopefully recognize references I make, but I really don’t stay true to any one story or tale. Rather, the entire novel is kind of a love story to the Bengali children’s stories which helped link me to my own heritage and identity as a child.

The one big difference between The Serpent’s Secret and traditional Western fairytales is that, although Kiranmala does turn out to be a princess, she’s a pretty reluctant one. In fact, she hates all things princess-y, so she’s certainly not waiting around for anyone to rescue or marry her (I mean, she’s only 12!). So rather than liken my novel to traditional Western fairy tales (I’m not sure there’s a good comparison), I might say that like Harry Potter, Kiranmala has to discover her hidden powers and potential. Like Percy Jackson, her story is inspired by traditional tales. Like Katniss Everdeen, she’s a bow and arrow wielding warrior, and like Meg Murry, she has to travel across time and space to rescue her parents. Finally, like Mia Thermopolous, Kiranmala is a wise cracker, making references to Bengali and American pop culture all the time. But of course, although she shares commonalities with Harry, Percy, Katniss, Meg or Mia, she’s her own intergalactic, demon-fighting joke-making heroine!

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

Being from an immigrant family is to be a superhero. Being able to straddle multiple worlds, code-switch between multiple languages and cultures – that’s a kind of a superpower! I hope that, particularly in this time that is so fraught with anti-immigrant sentiment, readers of The Serpent’s Secret are able to recognize and celebrate the strength of kids from immigrant families.

I also love fantasy as a genre, because while all books can strengthen readers’ imaginations, fantasy in particular is in the business of radical imagination. And I truly believe that to save our own universe, to imagine and then bring about a better and healthier world for all of us, we’re going to need a lot of brave young people armed with radical imagination. So my hope is that, on reading The Serpent’s Secret, readers’ imaginations are caught on fire!

Ultimately, I hope that, like Kiranmala, readers of The Serpent’s Secret can embrace their own inner heroism and slay whatever demons come their way!

Enter the giveaway for an advanced reader copy of THE SERPENT’S SECRET by leaving a comment below.  You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be determined on January 21, 2018 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.

If you’d like to know more about Sayantani and her novel, visit her website: http://www.sayantanidasgupta.com/writer/  Or follow her on twitter : https://twitter.com/Sayantani16

 

 

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from your blogging team at the Mixed-Up Files! May the coming year bring joy, peace, tolerance, and understanding in our world.

We’re honored to be able to share with you a wide variety of posts every week that highlight the diverse, adventurous, enchanting, fantastic, engaging, and mind-blowing stories in the world of middle grade books. Here’s to a wonderful year ahead!

All the best,

Julie Artz, Patricia Bailey, Amie Borst, Jenn Brisendine, Dori Butler, Heather Capps, Dorian Cirrone, Sue Cowing, Sean Easley, Laurie Edwards, Greg Fishbone, Annabelle Fisher, Robyn Gioia, Mike Hays, Hillary Homzie, Jacqueline Houtman, Michelle Houts, Michele Weber Hurwitz, TP Jagger, Amber Keyser, Sheri Larsen, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Kate Manning, Beth McMullen, Rosanne Parry, Andrea Pyros, Natalie Rompella, Jonathan Rosen, Julie Rubini, Tricia Springstubb, Valerie Stein, Suma Subramaniam, Jen Swanson, and Mindy Alyse Weiss

 

November New Releases

This month we celebrate a cornucopia of wonderful new middle-grade releases. Be sure to tell us which books you’re thankful for in the comments below.

COOL PHYSICS by Sarah Hutton, illustrated by Damien Weighill from Pavilion (November 1st) Aimed at older children and curious adults, this book covers everything you need to know about some of the most complex scientific ideas the world has ever seen, made accessible and fun—Newton’s Theory of Relativity, quantum physics, nuclear fission and fusion, quarks, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and that old favorite E=mc2 are all explained here, clearly and entertainingly. There are also 10 practical experiments to give you even more insight into the theories, including making a pinhole camera, a whirlpool in a bottle and electric circuits with Play-Doh.

MOSQUITOES DON’T BITE ME by Pendred Noyce from Tumblehome Learning, Inc. (November 1st) Mosquitoes don’t bite Nala Simiyu. It’s part of who she is, like being a half-Kenyan seventh-grader whose mother is in a wheelchair. But when a schoolmate’s father–who happens to head up a large drug company–learns of Nala’s special power, the excitement begins. After helping out with mosquito research, Nala has the chance to travel to Kenya to investigate mosquitoes’ reactions to her father’s family. All goes well until a man heartbroken by his daughter’s death from malaria kidnaps Nala. In the midst of a realistic adventure story, this book will introduce young readers to such dilemmas as health disparities, subtle racism, and who owns biological information. Brave, fallible, compassionate and spirited, Nala is a strongly relatable character in a loving, imperfect family.

FIREFLY WILDLIFE ATLAS by John Farndon from Firefly (November 1st) This beautiful book is from the producers of Firefly Encyclopedia of Animals, praised by Kirkus Reviews: “the entries come from all over the world; some are common and others rare, but all are interesting in some way… for browsers and researchers alike, this is a useful and inviting display — and a bargain.”

Firefly Wildlife Atlas is similar but approaches the animal kingdom by means of habitat. It is also remarkable for its scope and presentation, covering almost 1000 animals in meticulous full-color illustrations and concise authoritative text. From millipedes to monkeys, this book offers a detailed and thorough guide to a wide array of the world’s mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, as well as insects, spiders and other invertebrates.

THE GETAWAY (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID #12) by Jeff Kinney from Amulet (November 7th) Greg Heffley and his family are getting out of town. With the cold weather and the stress of the approaching holiday season, the Heffleys decide to escape to a tropical island resort for some much-needed rest and relaxation. A few days in paradise should do wonders for Greg and his frazzled family. But the Heffleys soon discover that paradise isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. Sun poisoning, stomach troubles, and venomous critters all threaten to ruin the family’s vacation. Can their trip be saved, or will this island getaway end in disaster?

DANIEL COLDSTAR #1 The Relic War by Stel Pavlou from HarperCollins (Novemeber 7th) Below the surface on a forgotten planet, Daniel Coldstar searches for relics from a lost civilization. Daniel has no memory of his past. All he knows is to do his job and fear the masters of the mines.

Until he unearths a relic more powerful than anything he has ever seen. A relic that might help him escape…

What follows is an epic outer space adventure filled with Truth Seekers, anatoms, Leechers, and the evil Sinja who seek to control the universe.

All that stands in their way is a boy named Daniel Coldstar, whose journey will change the galaxy forever.

HOW OSCAR INDIGO BROKE THE UNIVERSE (AND PUT IT BACK TOGETHER AGAIN) by David Teague from HarperCollins (November 7th) Oscar Indigo has never been good at baseball, so naturally he’s nervous when he has to fill in for his team’s injured All-Star, Lourdes. Luckily, Oscar has a mysterious gold watch that can stop time, which he uses to fake a game-winning home run. Now Oscar’s the underdog hero of his town and even Lourdes wants to be his friend.

But the universe is a precarious place, and you can’t just steal time without any consequences. If Oscar doesn’t find a way to return the time he stole, the universe will unwind completely.

Oscar wants nothing more than to ask Lourdes for help, but what would a baseball star like her think of a guy whose fake home run actually destroyed the universe? But as he and Lourdes grow closer, Oscar understands that it isn’t always what you do that makes you special—but who you are. And that confidence just might be the key to fixing the universe.

MARTHA AND THE SLAVE CATCHERS by Harriet Hyman Alonso, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon from Triangle Square (November 7th) Thirteen-year-old Martha Bartlett insists on being a part of the Underground Railroad rescue to bring her brother Jake back home to their abolitionist community in Connecticut. It’s 1854 and though African-Americans and mixed-race peoples in the north are supposed to be free, seven-year-old Jake, the orphan of a fugitive slave, is kidnapped by his “owner” and taken south to Maryland. Jake is what we’d now describe as on the autism spectrum, and Martha knows just how to reassure him when he’s anxious or fearful. Using aliases, disguises, and other subterfuges, Martha artfully dodges Will and Tom, the slave catchers, but struggles to rectify her new reality with her parents’ admonition to always tell the truth. She must be brave but not reckless, clever but not dishonest. But being perceived sometimes as white, sometimes as black during the perilous journey has thrown her sense of her own identity into turmoil. Alonso combines fiction and historical fact to weave a suspenseful story of courage, hope and self-discovery in the aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, while illuminating the bravery of abolitionists who fought against slavery.

MUTANT BUNNY ISLAND by Obert Skye, illusrated by Eduardo Vieira from HarperCollins (November 7th) Ten-year-old Perry Owens has learned everything he needs to know from comic books. So when Perry receives a troubling message from his favorite uncle, Zeke, he knows exactly what’s wrong. Obviously, evil newts wearing trench coats must have kidnapped Zeke. Now they’re holding him hostage somewhere on Bunny Island, the remote vacation destination that Zeke calls home.

On his own, Perry travels to Bunny Island, where dozens of bunnies are running wild. One in particular doesn’t seem quite right. A creature this cute shouldn’t exist in nature. Are there truly evil newts on the loose, or something much stranger…and more disturbingly adorable?

CICI’S JOURNAL: The Adventures of a Writer in Training by Joris Chamblain, and Aurelie Neyret from Feiwell and Friends (November 7th) Cici dreams of being a novelist. Her favorite subject: people, especially adults. She’s been watching them and taking notes. Everybody has one special secret, Cici figures, and if you want to write about people, you need to understand what’s hiding inside them. But now she’s discovered something truly strange: an old man who disappears into the forest every Sunday with huge pots of paint in all sorts of colors. What is he up to? Why does he look so sad when he comes back?

In a graphic novel interwoven with journal notes, scrapbook pieces, and doodles, Cici assembles clues about the odd and wonderful people she’s uncovered, even as she struggles to understand the mundane: her family and friends.

A CHILD THROUGH TIME from DK (November 7th) An original look at history that profiles 30 children from different eras so that children of today can discover the lives of the cave people, Romans, Vikings, and beyond through the eyes of someone their own age.

History books often focus on adults, but what was the past like for children? A Child Through Time is historically accurate and thoroughly researched, and brings the children of history to life—from the earliest civilizations to the Cold War, even imagining a child of the future. Packed with facts and including a specially commissioned illustration of each profiled child, this book examines the clothes children wore, the food they ate, the games they played, and the historic moments they witnessed—all through their own eyes. Maps, timelines, and collections of objects, as well as a perspective on the often ignored topic of family life through the ages, give wider historical background and present a unique side to history. Covering key curriculum topics in a new light, A Child Through Time is a perfect and visually stunning learning tool for children ages 7 and up.

THE LOST FROST GIRL by Amy Wilson from Katherine Tegen Books (November 7th) With a name like hers, Owl never expected her life to be normal, at home or at school. But when Owl finds out that she is Jack Frost’s daughter, her world shifts beyond what she could ever imagine.

Determined to meet him, Owl delves into Jack’s wonderful world of winter and magic–the kind of place she thought only existed in fairy tales. And as she notices frost patterns appearing on her skin and her tears turning to ice, Owl starts to wonder if being Jack Frost’s daughter means that she has powers of her very own.

At once breathtaking and brimming with heart, The Lost Frost Girl is a story of family, friendship, and the magic of embracing who you are meant to be.

THE REAL MCCOYS by Matthew Swanson, illustrated by Robbi Behr from Imprint (November 7th) Her name’s Moxie. Moxie McCoy.

Bold, opinionated, and haplessly self-confident, the world’s greatest fourth-grade detective faces her biggest challenge! When someone kidnaps beloved school mascot Eddie the Owl, Moxie is on the case―but she’s forced to fly solo now that her best friend (and crime-solving partner) has moved away.

Moxie must interview her classmates―both as potential new best friends and as possible suspects. She finds clues and points fingers but can’t save the owl on her own. Enter Moxie’s little brother, Milton. Quiet, cautious, and boring as a butter knife, he’s a good listener.

Can the Real McCoys form an unlikely alliance and solve the crime of the century?

LILY’S  MOUNTAIN by Hannah Moderow from Houghton Mifflin (November 14th) Lily refuses to believe what everyone else accepts to be true: that her father has died while climbing Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Lily has grown up hiking in the Alaskan wilderness with her dad. He’s an expert climber. There’s no way he would let something like this happen. So instead of grieving, Lily decides to rescue him. Her plan takes her to Denali and on a journey that tests her physically and emotionally. In this powerful debut, Hannah Moderow has written an authentic Alaskan adventure that crosses terrain both beautiful and haunting–and ultimately shows the bond of family and the wonder of wild places. 

GOLDELINE by Jimmy Cajoleas from HarperCollins (November 14th) In the wild, free woods of the Hinterlands, where magic is as real as stories are, Goldeline travels from camp to camp with Gruff and his bandits, getting by on the things they steal from carriages that pass through the woods.

But someone is after Goldeline. The same man who wants to cleanse the Hinterlands of anyone who’s different–and who convinced the overzealous Townies that her mother was a witch–suspects that Goldeline might be a witch, too. Now Goldeline must summon all the courage and magic she got from her momma to escape her pursuers, save her friends, and maybe even find a place to call home.

PENELOPE MARCH IS MELTING by Jeffrey Michael Ruby from Delacorte (November 14th) Something sinister has come to Glacier Cove, an icy-cold town that sits on top of an iceberg. Nothing bad ever happens here. Until now. And it’s up to Penelope March to stop it. Mmm-hmm, that Penelope–the bookworm who lives in the ramshackle house with her brother, Miles. The girl with the mom who–poof –disappeared. The one everyone ignores . . . except strange Coral Wanamaker, a tiny thing with raven-black hair and a black coat. When Penelope meets someone who seems to know secrets not only about Glacier Cove but about Penelope herself, she and Miles are pulled into an ancient mystery. Together, they’ll face the coldest, cruelest enemy ever known. Looks like the girl who only reads about adventures is going to start living one. Magic cookies. Volcanoes. Penguins. Sea monsters.  And a girl hero with the strength and imagination to spring into action.

IN THE COUNTRY OF QUEENS by Cari Best from Farrar Straus Giroux (November 28th) Eleven-year-old Shirley Alice Burns lives with her domineering mother, Hurricane Anna, and loving Grandmother. One day she unexpectedly discovers that her beloved father isn’t in Absentia as her family would have her believe, but dead. And she understands all too well why they haven’t told her; she’s always been shy and quiet, and Anna has always been protective of her. But if Shirley doesn’t start speaking up, she isn’t going to be able to do the things she wants to do: go on vacation to Lake Winnipesaukee with her cousins, stop taking ballet lessons, and talk about her father. Through the help of a mouse, her hero Pippi Longstocking, and her cousin Phillie, Shirley finds the strength to give her dreams a voice and convince everyone, even Hurricane Anna, that she doesn’t need to be sheltered, especially from the truth. IN THE COUNTRY OF QUEENS is the debut novel from acclaimed picture-book author Cari Best.

CHARLIE NUMB3RS AND THE MAN IN THE MOON by Ben and Tonya Mezrich from Simon and Schuster (November 28th) Charlie is recruited to use his mathematical prowess to discover what happened to a box of stolen moon rocks in this follow up to Bringing Down the Mouse.Charlie Lewis is really good at math. So good, that he’s approached by a mysterious woman who needs his help. The woman is carrying an incredible item: an actual moon rock, one of the most valuable objects on Earth, and she’s investigating the theft of a box of moon rocks from NASA’s vault at the Johnson Space Center, and believes the stolen rocks are now in the possession of a former astronaut. Although she claims to work at NASA, Charlie suspects she is something else–but he decides the adventure is too good to pass up. Charlie and the whiz kids go undercover by entering the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s paper airplane contest, and head down to the nation’s capital. Working together, they master the principles of aerodynamics, wind science, and gravity to excel in the competition.Charlie must decide how far he’ll go to solve the mystery of the stolen moon rocks; is he willing to betray a new friendship? Or has he unwittingly been drawn into something even bigger than some missing chunks of the moon?

ODDITY by Sarah Cannon from Feiwel and Friends (November 28th) Welcome to Oddity, New Mexico, where normal is odd and odd is normal.

Ada Roundtree is no stranger to dodging carnivorous dumpsters, distracting zombie rabbits with marshmallows, and instigating games of alien punkball. But things haven’t been the same since her twin sister, Pearl, won the town’s yearly Sweepstakes and disappeared . . .

Along with her best friend, Raymond, and new-kid-from-Chicago Cayden (whose inability to accept being locked in the gym with live leopards is honestly quite laughable), Ada leads a self-given quest to discover Oddity’s secrets, even evading the invisible Blurmonster terrorizing the outskirts of town.

But one of their missions goes sideways, revealing something hinky with the Sweepstakes . . . and Ada can’t let it go. Because, if the Sweepstakes is bad, then what happened to Pearl?