I met Addie last summer. She rode around in the car with me, and I fell in love with her 12-year-old self. She is funny, resilient, and in need of love and a stable home. I would have adopted her … Continue reading
Have you ever read a story and wished you could ask the author questions about it? That is what happened to me while reading A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman. And guess what? My wish came true! A hearty welcome today to Ms. Venkatraman, who graciously agreed to give us a behind the scenes peek at how this beautiful book came to be.
First, a bit about the story itself. Here is an overview, from Goodreads:
“Padma Venkatraman’s inspiring story of a young girl’s struggle to regain her passion and find a new peace is told lyrically through verse that captures the beauty and mystery of India and the ancient bharatanatyam dance form. This is a stunning novel about spiritual awakening, the power of art, and above all, the courage and resilience of the human spirit.
Veda, a classical dance prodigy in India, lives and breathes dance—so when an accident leaves her a below-knee amputee, her dreams are shattered. For a girl who’s grown used to receiving applause for her dance prowess and flexibility, adjusting to a prosthetic leg is painful and humbling. But Veda refuses to let her disability rob her of her dreams, and she starts all over again, taking beginner classes with the youngest dancers. Then Veda meets Govinda, a young man who approaches dance as a spiritual pursuit. As their relationship deepens, Veda reconnects with the world around her, and begins to discover who she is and what dance truly means to her.”
Bharatamatyam is a classical dance form of South India. Here’s an example:
As I read A TIME TO DANCE I was especially carried away by the description of the dancing itself. So, the first question I asked was:
Nancy: What is your experience with Bharatanatyam dance? As I was reading, I was guessing you must have personal experience. Am I right?
I call that answer glib, because, for me, hearing the voice and being possessed by a character is incredibly important. It’s everything. BUT, editing is also everything – and that begins with self-editing.
I fought against writing A TIME TO DANCE in the verse form because although I love and read poetry, I’ve never studied it. Luckily for me, Richard Blanco (who later read at President Obama’s inauguration) let me sit in on a poetry workshop he was doing at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference, and his friendship and faith in my ability helped me overcome my fear of experimenting with this form. Many other modern award-winning poets who are also academics, helped and encouraged me: Scott Hightower, Peter Covino, and Peter Johnson also encouraged me.
My editor, Nancy Paulsen, is a self-confessed “fan” of the verse novel, I believe. So she was a stalwart supporter and stood by me through numerous revisions. She was very excited about this work and encouraged me strongly to experiment with this form.
Finally, as I was revising my work, I realized that this form is particularly well suited to two of the three main themes in this story: Veda’s love of dance and her spiritual awakening. A character’s spiritual growth is incredibly hard to write in verse. It’s virtually impossible to capture in straight out prose – or was, for me, for Veda. Spiritual growth – and the power of art – especially of dance – two key themes in A TIME TO DANCE – go beautifully with verse.
Nancy: I was very interested in all the religous elements of the story. You don’t always see a lot of spirituality in books for this age level. Did you get any push-back against including these details from your agent/editor/others?
My agent, Rob Weisbach, is an incredible ally. He admitted he was scared when he saw the word “God” on the first page, because few writers dare to approach this topic. He said it was damnably hard to write spirituality without coming off as religiously bigoted or proselytizing – and he’s right. But he said, even in the draft phase, that I had pulled it off – and he had nothing but praise for this aspect of the book. He never once suggested that I should tone down this core aspect – and he pointed out something that’s very important.
While Veda’s spiritual awakening is grounded in the religion to which she’s been exposed, the book is not religious; it’s spiritual. Her awakening is universal, not limited to one particular context. The novel is, in no way, trying to push a particular religion – in fact, if anything, Veda’s philosophy is based on acceptance. The title is a Biblical quote (Ecclesiastes) – a quote that has significant meaning to Veda.
An editor whom I deeply trust, Stephen Roxburgh, also read a draft, and his belief that I should and, moreover, could, pull off the spiritual aspect of Veda’s story, was vital. He called A TIME TO DANCE the “La Vita Nuova” of Bharatanatyam. La Vita Nuova is a text by Dante Allegheri, and in it, the main character progresses through different stages of love/understanding, as Veda does, maturing from Eros to Charis to Agape.
Stephen’s note was something I looked at every time I felt scared. Writing a story that touches on spiritual grown is one of the hardest things to do – for any age group. For the younger audience, it’s even harder, I think. Especially if the spiritual growth occurs in a character whose religion isn’t part of the mainstream. But Stephen’s encouragement kept me going, looking ahead, listening to Veda, seeing AT TIME TO DANCE play out in my mind’s eye, allowing her and the other characters to possess me.
It took years to write this novel right. And my own editor, Nancy Paulsen, as I’ve said earlier, was immensely patient. Her patience is truly unparalleled and it is amazing to have someone like her to help me polish my work and make it shine.
But after it was done, I was, frankly, terrified. It was really a tremendous relief that A TIME TO DANCE was released to starred reviews in 5 journals: Kirkus and Booklist and VOYA and SLJ and BCCB. And I am thrilled that so many newspapers carried glowing reviews. I’m also delighted to share the recent great news that it’s a Booklist Top 10 art book for youth!
Nancy: Even though Veda has experienced a horrific life-changing event, I love how you wrote so many typical problems into her world via her crushes on two different guys, including Jim who fits her prosthesis (and is basically her physical therapist). Was the program Jim was working through to help people in India be fitted for limbs based on a real group you know about?
Padma: I spoke to several disabled people, physical therapists, doctors, and physiatrists when I wrote the novel. I went “method” the way actors sometimes do – and spent a lot of time doing experiments to simulate the tactile illusion of a phantom limb, using crutches, etc. In my late teens, I narrowly escaped the loss of a leg, so I guess in some ways Veda’s experience was nearer to my heart that I realized, until I wrote the book. All this to say, Jim’s character is inspired by several Americans whom I met, who volunteer to travel to other countries to help with the making of prostheses. And, when I visited India, I did come across many programs to aid socio-economically deprived people who were, among other things, disabled. But I saw several groups of people in India and elsewhere, who inspired me. I can’t point to just one person or one group. Then again, Robert C. James and his son Josh James, who create artificial limbs in my home (Rhode Island), gave me more time than probably anyone else did – so, in part to honor them, I named my character Jim.
[Note: What a fun way to honor them – I love it!]
For more information on the novel, a free downloadable discussion guide, and lesson plans, please visit Padma’s author website: www.padmasbooks.com. Also, check out her other titles, including: ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS.
Thank you for your time and for sharing your process with us, Padma! I encourage all readers to make time for A TIME TO DANCE. It’s gorgeous.
Have you ever wondered what Clementine, Ramona, or Junie B. would be like in middle school? I hope they would stay spunky and turn out a lot like Maggie Mayfield, the main character in Megan Jean Sovern’s THE MEANING OF MAGGIE (Chronicle Books, 2014). In any case, I know they’d be friends with her!
Maggie is someone I was rooting for from the minute she wished her hospitalized dad would wake up so they could split a Little Debbie. (She’s willing to eat the whole thing herself, but she’d rather share). Then, I just – plop – fell in love with her when she was describing how amazing her first day of sixth grade was, including this:
“And lunch was the best because I got a whole table to myself so I spread out my notebooks and went to town on a stack of syllabi.”
She’s quirky, she doesn’t fit in, and she doesn’t care! She has much bigger things on her mind, such as her report on Sandra Day O’Connor, and her new friend, Clyde, “the most beautiful boy I’d ever seen.”
Underneath this layered, interesting character is a story of family bonds that are tested by parental illness. From the jacket flap:
Eleven years old. The beginning of everything!
For Maggie Mayfield, turning eleven means she’s one year closer to college. One year closer to voting. And one year closer to getting a tattoo. It’s time for her to pull herself up by her bootstraps (the family motto) and think about more than after school snacks and why her older sisters are too hot for their own good. Because something mysterious is going on with her cool dude Dad, whose legs have permanently fallen asleep, and Maggie is going to find out exactly what the problem is and fix it. After all, nothing’s impossible when you’re future president of the United States of America, fifth grade science fair champion, and a shareholder in Coca-Cola, right?
Maggie’s position as youngest child and her own personality leave her somewhat oblivious to the true reality of her dad’s worsening struggle with multiple sclerosis. She doesn’t have much time for her “hot, but not on a school night” older sisters, Layla and Tiffany, but we as readers can see how they help shelter her from their dad’s illness and mom’s return to work.
This is a serious book on a difficult topic, but the author makes you laugh out loud along the way. Maggie’s inner dialogue, highlighted by footnotes, made me feel like I was visiting with a real kid every time I picked up the book. And there is a clever connection at the ending, which made this a “clutch it in your arms and sigh when you finish reading it” kind of book for me. I recommend this book for kids in grades 5-7 ish, (or anyone who loves realistic middle grade novels.) It will be especially meaningful to readers who have been touched by MS. Ultimately, the unpredictable and relentless nature of the disease is woven into a story of strength and hope.
Don’t miss MAGGIE!
*Special thanks to Alyson Beecher and her wonderful book-based blog, Kid Lit Frenzy, for offering a copy of TMOM as a prize via Chronicle Books.*
Welcome Anna Stanizewski, whose latest novel, THE PRANK LIST (Sourebooks) will be released July 1, 2014! Anna is the author of many books for children and young adults, including: THE UNFAIRY TALE LIFE SERIES THE DIRT DIARY SERIES ..and two upcoming picture books from … Continue reading
When life’s tough topics come into our homes, we search for answers in many places. How many worries have been Googled in the lonely hours of a long, dark night? We also turn to friends, family, acquaintances – anyone who may have had experience with this “thing,” this unwelcome guest that is spread out in the spare bedroom and looks to be staying awhile.
When we’re facing a life challenge, books can often be a particular comfort, especially for children. Books give us a chance to examine our problem through the safety of someone else’s eyes. How did they feel? How did they react? There is also such healing power in the message you are not alone.
Cynthia Lord is a Newbery Honor author who embraces big topics, and weaves them into charming stories for middle grade readers.
Her latest book, HALF A CHANCE (Scholastic Press, 2014), uses the idyllic premise of spending a summer on a lake in New Hampshire as a backdrop for exploring how dementia can affect a whole family.
“When Lucy’s family moves to an old house on a lake, Lucy tries to see her new home through her camera’s lens, as her father has taught her — he’s a famous photographer, away on a shoot. Will her photos ever meet his high standards? When she discovers that he’s judging a photo contest, Lucy decides to enter anonymously. She wants to find out if her eye for photography is really special — or only good enough.
As she seeks out subjects for her photos, Lucy gets to know Nate, the boy next door. But slowly the camera reveals what Nate doesn’t want to see: his grandmother’s memory is slipping away, and with it much of what he cherishes about his summers on the lake. This summer, Nate will learn about the power of art to show truth. And Lucy will learn how beauty can change lives . . . including her own”
HALF A CHANCE is a good resource for kids who are struggling to understand the confusing and sometimes scary topic of dementia. However, the story also celebrates the simple joys of summer lake living. I think this book will bring a lot of comfort to many families.
You may recognize Cynthia Lord’s name because of her 2007 Newbery Honor Book, RULES (Scholastic Press, 2006). If you missed this one, be sure to check it out.
“Twelve-year-old Catherine just wants a normal life. Which is near impossible when you have a brother with autism and a family that revolves around his disability. She’s spent years trying to teach David the rules-from “a peach is not a funny-looking apple” to “keep your pants on in public”-in order to stop his embarrassing behaviors. But the summer Catherine meets Jason, a paraplegic boy, and Kristi, the next-door friend she’s always wished for, it’s her own shocking behavior that turns everything upside down and forces her to ask: What is normal?”
The characters in RULES push through challenges on a daily basis. My favorite character is Jason, who communicates by pointing at word cards in a book he balances on the tray of his wheelchair. As Catherine gets to know Jason, she helps him expand what he is able to say by making word cards for him that go beyond stock phrases like “sad” to things like “stinks a big one!!”
Catherine helps her younger brother navigate the world, and helps Jason express himself. But of course she learns just as much, if not more, from them.
The real grace of the way Cynthia Lord writes is that she is able to take daunting, life changing challenges and remind readers that in every situation, there are things to celebrate and give thanks for. Put these two on your “to be read” pile!
I won my copy of HALF A CHANCE thanks to Debbi Michiko Florence at DEBtastic Reads. Thanks also to Cynthia Lord, who signed it over to the students at Hebron Avenue School, where it will have a permanent home.
When I was around 12 years old, my family went on a camping trip “out west.” Among other things, we stopped at Four Corners, where four states (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado) come together in one place. I remember feeling strangely powerful, like I had accomplished something, when I stretched out arms and legs to be in all four states at once. But it also made me think about how intensely small my place in the world was. I was a speck, tinier than a grain of sand.
Twelve-ish is a time for feeling both big and small, isn’t it? Last week I went to a middle school celebration ceremony (the students had completed their Drug Abuse Resistance Education program). During the evening, each 6th grader was presented with a certificate. As the kids crossed the stage, I marveled at the variety of shapes and sizes and types I saw. Some looked like they should be back in elementary school, some looked like they could drive themselves home! Sneakers and haphazard ponytails shared the stage with high heels and make up. The dichotomy of this time of life – you are little, and you are big – swirled around me. It was beautiful.
Pianist Paul Sullivan composed an emotional song that captures this tricky time, called Clara’s Dance. He was inspired to write it when his young son’s babysitter was in this season of life. Give it a listen – your heart will tug.
The dance of the pre-teen played out before my eyes again after a recent trip to the mailbox yielded two magazines for the 11-year-old in my home. The American Girl doll catalog, and Teen Vogue (both came unsolicited). I peered over my daughter’s shoulder at the cover of Teen Vogue and pinched my lips together as I read the teaser “Bad Trip – the real deal with the new It drugs.”
Yikes! I am so not ready for this, I thought. But apparently, neither was the 11-year-old. She brushed both magazines aside, but later asked me, “Where is Kit [her American Girl doll], anyway?” The next day, while gathering up laundry I saw something I hadn’t in years:
And my heart was glad.
Most of us remember this particular stage of life, when you are both little and big, with some tinge of poignancy. We want to reach back in time and say to ourselves: don’t hurry! It’s not as great as you think over here!
Perhaps that’s why coming-of-age stories are perennial favorites. We can relive that time through someone else’s lens, distant enough to not feel all that pain, but close enough to realize we aren’t the only speck out there, and that it’s a pretty nice beach to be on after all.