Tag Archives: Author Interview

Interview with Author N.H. Senzai

Naheed Hasnat Senzai calls herself a voracious reader, stalwart writer, intrepid traveler, and eater of good things.

Born in Chicago, she grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England. She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal. She attended UC Berkeley and Columbia University, and lives in San Francisco.

She is the award-winning author of Shooting Kabul (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2010), Saving Kabul Corner (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2014), and Ticket to India (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books 2015).

She joins us today to talk about her newest book, released this week from Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books , Escape from Aleppo. About the book (From IndieBound):

Silver and gold balloons. A birthday cake covered in pink roses. A new dress. Nadia stands at the center of attention in her parents’ elegant dining room. This is the best day of my life, she thinks. Everyone is about to sing “Happy Birthday,” when her uncle calls from the living room, “Baba, brothers, you need to see this.” Reluctantly, she follows her family into the other room. On TV, a reporter stands near an overturned vegetable cart on a dusty street. Beside it is a mound of smoldering ashes. The reporter explains that a vegetable vendor in the city of Tunis burned himself alive, protesting corrupt government officials who have been harassing his business. Nadia frowns.It is December 17, 2010: Nadia’s twelfth birthday and the beginning of the Arab Spring. Soon anti-government protests erupt across the Middle East and, one by one, countries are thrown into turmoil. As civil war flares in Syria and bombs fall across Nadia’s home city of Aleppo, her family decides to flee to safety. Inspired by current events, this novel sheds light on the complicated situation in Syria that has led to an international refugee crisis, and tells the story of one girl’s journey to safety.

A common theme in your books is the experience of refugees, what they leave behind, and how they struggle to adapt to a new way of life. What drives you to write about such a difficult subject?

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children. Most of my books deal with such families, and in Escape from Aleppo, my hope is that Nadia’s story allows readers to walk in the shoes of a child whose life has been turned upside down by the trauma of war and the loss of everything they know and love. If we pause to reflect on that connection, that at one point we were all refugees, we can share in a common humanity.

How did you decide to depict the uglier, more violent aspects of Nadia’s journey and still make the book appropriate for middle-grade readers?

I believe that you do a disservice to your reader, especially middle graders, by not to telling them the truth, no matter how ugly. This is especially the case when discussing war, atrocities and the complexities of politics and history. We shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing the harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

You use flashback both to provide information about how Aleppo became such a dangerous place and to show what Nadia’s life was like before she had to flee. Why was it important for you to show that?

When people see scenes of war and images of refugees fleeing death and destruction, that becomes the viewer’s only frame of reference for that country and its people. When writing Escape from Aleppo, I wanted to show that Nadia had a normal life before the war, like that of any teen around the world. Aleppo was an advanced, cultured city where she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a sweet tooth, a passion for music and a dislike of Algebra! In showing the two sides of the coin, peace and conflict, I wanted to show how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

The book depicts a place and a culture that is very different from the experience of most Americans. What kind of research did you do to get the details right?

This, as with most of my books, was very research intensive, and I spend months absorbing and cataloging information! I’m lucky that I’ve lived and travelled in the Middle East for fifteen years, and have many friends in the region. It also helps that my husband teaches Middle East politics at Santa Clara University and he helped in putting the history and politics of the region in perspective. I spoke to many journalists and Syrians who shared first-hand accounts of the terrible conflict.

If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from Escape from Aleppo, what would it be?

Kids may have heard about the war in Aleppo or seen images of the conflict on the news or in social media. While reading Escape from Aleppo, I hope that can further delve into the rich history of Syria, the root causes of the war, the culture and people of this amazing country. I’d like to illustrate that Nadia and her family are like families anywhere around the world. Like parents living in San Francisco, Beijing, Sydney or New Delhi, Nadia’s mother and father want to give their children a safe and secure place to grow up, pursue their dreams, get an education and have a family of their own. At the end of the day, all families, no matter their origin, want the same things – peace, security and chance at a hopeful future.

What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed Escape from Aleppo?

What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?

I love writing for middle graders because at this age they can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story – but they can smell a skunk a mile away. They are sophisticated readers that can handle “heavy” topics via believable plots, authentic characters, dialogue that rings true and reality based facts. At this age, if we present complex material in the right context, we can open their hearts and minds to the world around them so that they build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?

I know this is advice often given, but it is at the core of writing middle grade fiction; READ. And not just middle grade novels. The best books are those that bring in unique, interesting, sometimes esoteric knowledge – that knowledge comes from reading about space travel, obscure poisons, baking techniques, Russian history, chemistry, flora and fauna of Madagascar… you get my drift. Read about things that interest you – it will make it into your books which will also be interesting!

Adventure, Intrigue, and Korea, OH MY!

One of the perks of being a teacher is the authors who grace our school halls, no matter where in the world those halls stand. Korea is such a place, currently front and center in recent events.

First, let me say, as a teacher and author, I appreciate the process: long hours, extensive research, pondering, the wrestling and wavering of ideas, bits of your heart and soul on paper. I value how one’s experiences provide rich content for the stories we create and how those events can touch the lives of students in the classroom. I especially love when students are able to connect to the person behind those words.

Meet author, Anne Sibley O’Brien, and her middle grade novel, In the Shadow of the Sun, an adventure story set in North Korea.

When our school librarian announced an upcoming author visit, I was intrigued to learn that the author, Anne Sibley O’Brien, had grown up in South Korea as a daughter of medical missionaries. A prolific picture book author, Ms. O’Brien’s first novel for middle school kids, In the Shadow of the Sun, unfolds in North Korea, a country currently in the midst of rising tensions around the world.

When my class and I pick up an author’s work, I remind them we are looking inside the mind of another person. We are immersing ourselves into a world that has been created from nothing. If someone else was to tell the same story, it would be voiced from a totally different perspective. In Ms. Obrien’s case, we are not only privilege to her writing acumen, but also bicultural experiences that provide sustenance in the backdrop of a foreign land.

Book Synopsis: North Korea is known as one of the most oppressed countries on Earth, with a dictatorial leader, a starving population, and harsh punishment for rebellion.

Not the best place for a family vacation.

Yet, that’s exactly where Mia Andrews finds herself, on a tour with her aid-worker father and fractious (would irritable be better here?) older brother, Simon. Mia was adopted from South Korea as a baby, and the trip raises tough questions about where she feels she really belongs. Her dad is then arrested for spying, just as forbidden photographs of North Korean slave-labor camps fall into Mia’s hands. The only way to save Dad: get the pictures out of the country. Thus, Mia and Simon set off on a harrowing journey to the border, without food, money, or shelter, in a land where anyone who sees them might turn them in, and getting caught could mean prison — or worse.

 Author Interview

In the Shadow of the Sun, Anne Sibley O’Brien

Please tell us about In the Shadow of the Sun and how you came to write it.

Our family arrived in Korea in March 1960, when my parents were hired by the Presbyterian Church to do medical missionary work. I was seven. We lived in Seoul and Daegu and on the island of Geoje, and I attended Ewha Women’s University for my junior year of college. Along the way I became bilingual and bicultural, and that background has influenced the content of some of my books, including the folktale 바보 온달, published as The Princess and the Beggar (now out of print) and my graphic novel of the Korean hero tale, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea. 

Those books were both inspired by retellings of traditional Korean stories. In the Shadow of the Sun, however, is a completely original story, and a modern one. The inspiration for the book was a radio interview in which my attention was drawn to the people of North Korea in a way I’d never thought of them before. (More about the story here.) That led to a ten-year process of research and writing, including several remarkable encounters with North Koreans who had defected.

You can find more about my childhood and background, photographs and videos, responses to the novel, and whether I’ve ever visited North Korea, on the novel’s blog, InTheShadowOfTheSunBook.com. There is also an activity guide created by Island Readers and Writers.

How do the events in your book tie into our current events with North Korea?

In the Shadow of the Sun is the first fictional portrayal of contemporary North Korea for young English-speaking readers. When I was writing it, I never anticipated just how much the DPRK would be in the spotlight!

The picture of North Korea that’s presented in the media is such a cartoonish one. I think it’s important to consider not just the government but the people, everyday citizens who have no say in what their leaders do. Of course, my plot is a completely imagined one, but I’ve tried to weave in bits of current North Korean politics and society — and most of all, people — in a way that will give readers a glimpse of what it might be like to live there today. In the Author’s Note, I also recommend other books and films which can add more context. I hope that people might come away from the novel with a sense of the humanity of North Korea’s people.

 

 

STEM TUESDAY: Zoology – Interview with Author Patricia Newman and Giveaway

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math! 

 

Our inaugural interview is with author Patricia Newman who wrote this month’s featured book, Zoo Scientists to the Rescue.

Patricia Newman writes middle-grade nonfiction that inspires kids to seek connections between science, literacy, and the environment. The recipient of the Green Earth Book Award and a finalist for the AAAS/Subaru Science Books and Films Award, her books have received starred reviews, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists.

Zoo Scientists to the Rescue is photo-illustrated by Annie Crawley. Newman (center) and Crawley (left) traveled to the zoos featured in the book, including Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo where Maku the black rhino (right) resides.

Mary Kay Carson: Tell us a bit about Zoo Scientists to the Rescue and how you came to write it.

Patricia Newman: Zoo Scientists to the Rescue began as a comment from my niece, Mia, whose fifth-grade class was tasked with writing a persuasive essay about zoos, either for or against. The trouble was the teacher gave her students almost all anti-zoo material, so guess which way their essays leaned? I’ve been involved with zoos most of my adult life and I raised a zookeeper, so I knew there was more to the story than the material my niece had received. In Zoo Scientists to the Rescue I had several goals:  share some of the ground-breaking research that zoo scientists are doing to save endangered species, inspire kids to help them, and excite kids about a possible career in science.

MKC: It sounds like you spent some quality time behind-the-scenes at zoos with the featured scientists. Do you have a favorite moment or happening you’d like to share?

PN: Photographer Annie Crawley and I visited the three zoos in the book’s pages—Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. We spent some fabulous time behind-the-scenes with both the scientists and the animals. We got up close and personal with Maku the rhino—close enough that he charged Annie while shooting his portrait for the cover. We also drove through a blizzard to meet with the black-footed ferret scientists. At the zoo, we donned booties and surgical caps to visit the BFF breeding area. And we waded through drifts several feet deep to observe BFFs at boot camp–a training facility to get them ready for release into the wild. Through it all, my audio recorder whirred and Annie’s shutter clicked. Annie is also a brilliant filmmaker, and had the presence of mind to shoot video while we conducted our research. In addition to our trailer, videos featuring our interviews with Jeff Baughman at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s BFF breeding center and Rachel Santymire’s lab at the Lincoln Park Zoo are now available on YouTube. Annie and I love the way these resources broaden the reading experience.

MKC: Why do you choose to write STEM books? 

PN: When I was a kid, my best learning happened when I could make connections to the world. I graduated with a B.S. from Cornell University in the social sciences, but my writing focuses more on environmental nonfiction. I think the thing that attracts me to science is the process of discovery. The scientists I interview have fascinating stories that I hope will inspire kids to think science is cool or encourage their parents to buy deforestation-free palm oil products to protect orangutans or instigate a Ditch the Straw Campaign in their community to reduce single-use plastic. While every author wants to tell a great story, I also want to empower kids to make a difference.

MKC: For readers who loved Zoo Scientists to the Rescue, what other middle-grade books would you suggest—nonfiction and/or fiction?

PN: For fiction, I love Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot and Eliot Schrefer’s ape quartet (of which three have been published) Endangered, Threatened, and Rescued. For nonfiction, I love Sandra Markle’s The Great Monkey Rescue: Saving the Golden Lion Tamarins and Cindy Trumbore and Susan Roth’s Parrots Over Puerto Rico.

MKC: Could you give us a peek into your process by sharing where you are right now on a current project and how you’re tackling it?

PN: My newest STEM title will release in the fall of 2018. Called Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation, the book follows scientists from Cornell University’s Elephant Listening Project as they listen to the forest elephants of central Africa. Forest elephants are different from the more familiar African savanna elephants and Asian elephants and the dense vegetation of their rainforest home makes them nearly impossible to follow. But these scientists have opened a whole new world on the study—and conservation—of this endangered species. My editor and I have just finished the first revision pass—I call it the reorganization phase. We move entire paragraphs from the end to the beginning, we check to be sure concepts are developed throughout the manuscript and don’t just pop up in isolated places, and we clarify some complex scientific concepts for young readers. In this book, it’s the physics of sound. The next pass will involve more line edits and polishing. And there’s a multi-media surprise in store for readers of this book. But I won’t say more than that!

More about Zoo Scientists to the Rescue:

Win a copy of Zoo Scientists to the Rescue! Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book. Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids.