Uma Krishnaswami, who was born in New Delhi, was an only child who moved often for her father's career. She says she befriended books and made up stories in her head to compensate for her loneliness. She published her first story when she was 13, in Children's World, a magazine published in India. Krishnaswami's picture books, novels, stories and nonfiction books have been published in English, Spanish, Hindi, Tamil and six other languages. The Journal of Children's Literature has recognized her as "a major voice in the expanding of international and multicultural young adult fiction and children's literature." Her new book is "The Grand Plan to Fix Everything" (Atheneum).
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book –The Grand Plan to Fix Everything?
An idea and a memory. The idea was of a family who moved in the opposite direction to my move years ago. I came from India to the United States. This fictional family moved, if only temporarily, from America to India. But the family and in particular the child character began to come to life only when I put the house named Sunny Villa into the story. When I was just a baby we lived in that very house in a real town in the very same Blue Mountains that are in the book. I went back some years ago and took a picture of it. It really does have funny-looking shutters shaped like eyelashes. There’s a picture of it in the book trailer.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your writing process? How do you overcome it?
My biggest challenge crops up for one reason, and it's this: I write to find out where a story idea will lead, and what the story might be. For this reason, the middle of an early draft is always my point of greatest challenge. I doubt myself. I think I’ve finally been defeated by a story, and I’ll never figure it out.
When I get through that, which I usually do in about a week if I just take some time away from it, I always forget that I’ll get to it again with the next story, and I’m always taken aback when I do. It happens every single time.
I’ve tried thinking about it ahead of time and preparing for it with outlines and plot points, but that’s been a disaster. I do use outlines, but only after I’ve finished at least one full draft. In other words I outline to take a step back from the page and find out what I’ve already written.
So now I’ve decided that I need to expect uncertainty and doubt. In fact, I need to welcome it and just give it time to play out. Nowadays, if I don't feel doubtful, fearful and incompetent by the time I hit the middle, I figure it just means I haven't gone deep enough into the story.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Read everything you can get your hands on. Start talking to books you read by writing back to them. Lose yourself in writing and reading. They go together. You can’t do one without the other.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Draw a map of a place, real or imaginary or some combination of the two. Put in roads, rivers, buildings, lakes, seashore, woods, farms, or whatever else you think that place contains. Put in a person, then another, an animal, then a few more. (I can't draw people and animals to save my life, so I use pictures from magazines for this part). Put in events that happened in those places—an accident, a natural disaster, a rescue, a celebration, or anything else you choose. Now write the story of this map.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
The list changes constantly, but here are some books that have touched, intrigued, delighted, or amused me in the last few years, including several by colleagues on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts:
- Goodnight Commander by Ahmad Akbarpour (picture book translated from the Farsi)
- Keeper by Kathi Appelt (middle grade and up)
- The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (middle grade and up)
- Mirror by Jeannie Baker (bilingual Arabic-English picture book originally published in Australia)
- Lexie by Audrey Couloumbis (middle grade)
- What’s For Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems From the Animal World by Katherine Hauth (middle grade)
- Indian Shoes by Cynthia Leitich Smith (chapter book)
- Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson (picture book)
- Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins (YA)
- One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street by Joann Rocklin (middle grade)
- Winnie All Day Long by Leda Schubert (early reader)
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (middle grade)
- Blink and Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones (YA)
Here are some titles that I know I can open randomly to any page and trust that I’ll find words to touch, intrigue, delight, amuse, absorb:
- Winnie-the-Pooh (the original, not Disney) by A.A. Milne
- The Blue Umbrella by Ruskin Bond
- Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
- The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
- His Dark Materials (trilogy) by Philip Pullman
- Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don’t. It’s the last thing on my mind when I start writing. I’ll usually start with a character or characters and then a place will emerge, then the events of a story. Theme is often the last thing to become clear to me. Sometimes, in fact, I’ll read a review and think, Oh, that’s what this is all about. Or sometimes, depending, Really? This is what it’s about? I may make decisions about things like where to start or stop, or viewpoint, or chapter length, or shifts in voice or using white space on the page. Theme? It’s not a decision, it’s a discovery.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Well, it depends on the book. For the back matter of Monsoon I read a lot about weather systems and the monsoon in particular, how it shows up and what makes it work as it does, and what it means to the people. For the book itself, I needed to delve into my memories of waiting for rain, so that didn't need research so much as getting in touch with my own self back when I was young and thinking about how to connect that memory with readers today.
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything was sort of fun to research: when I got stuck, I'd watch a few Bollywood movies and study their plots. I began to absorb the wild and crazy roles that coincidence and dreams play in them, and that in turn I'm working right now on some historical fiction, a novel set in California that needs a great deal have very focused research. I'm making notes, reading journals, watching footage from descendants of people like the characters in my book. I'm trying to imagine my characters in their time, 60-70 years ago. Sometimes the research gets so interesting that I have to remind myself it's time to put it away and write some more.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read to children. Talk about books. Leave books lying around. Offer a wide range and let children choose. Make sure that range includes some books that will stretch a child’s reading but also some books that will be comfortable and accessible and easy to read. Let children reread the same books over and over. They need to do that. It’s a natural way to learn to read. Don't fret about reading levels or comprehension or any of that. Finally, and maybe most important, read for pleasure yourself, as much as you can. Behavior is more compelling as a model than words.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
I’m working on a sequel to The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. It doesn't have a final title as yet. I’m also working on that historical novel for which I’m still doing some research. It will be published by Lee and Low, but it too doesn't have its final title yet. Finally, I’ve started on a new story set in the Pacific Northwest. I can’t say any more just yet because I’m still finding out what it’s all about.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
Oh, I’d be miserable. I don't think I could possibly do anything else.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?