Monday, May 22, 2017

Debut View of Leah Henderson and ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL by Kathy Halsey

Author Leah Henderson's debut middle grade novel, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, releases on June 6, 2017. I met Leah twice in April, first at the Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature and then at the NESCBWI Spring Conference. We have mutual writer friends and talked about craft and life long into the night at NESCBWI. (You will see more about her again on writer friend Patricia Nozell's blog, Wander, Ponder, Write, in the near future.) 
Nalini Krishnankutty, Leah Henderson, Kathy Halsey, and Brittany Thurman @ Virginia Hamilton

Today I'm thrilled to feature her as we await her book's birthday. I was lucky enough to score a PDF "arc," and I am half way through the book now. I'm immersed enough in the story that I feel confident in recommending this novel. Leah graciously offered to do an interview with me, so read on for her writerly advice!
  • Age Range: 8 - 12 years
  • Grade Level: 3 - 7
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (June 6, 2017)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1481462954
  • ISBN-13: 978-1481462952
Please note you can see the novel summary on the Amazon link above.
From Kirkus: In her debut, Henderson paints a detailed picture of life in Senegal. The author’s experience, research, and sensitivity shine, making this distinctive novel a valuable addition to the literature....A book that rewards patient, sensitive readers willing to dive in." (Kirkus Reviews May 15, 2017)
From me via a writer's lens:
  • First, the buzz on this book is amazing. I was raring to read this debut ASAP due to the social media buzz surrounding it. Any author would be thrilled to have Mr. Shu, Besty Bird, and The Brown Bookshelf in their corner! Being able to orchestrate good advance PR for a debut is priceless. Please, check out embedded links for more information. 
  • ONE SHADOW begins with an engaging prologue that sets up an integral piece of magical realism that pervades the entire story. In less than a page and a half, Leah introduces us to Mor, the eleven-year old main character who hears and feels the spirits of his dead parents. Writers, do not be afraid to break writing "rules" that will serve you story! 
  • Leah's intention for this book was to spark readers' interest in the beauty and dignity of Senegal and to share the plight of talib├ęs, religious schools that can produce street children. Many of these schools are above board, yet some create conditions that follow the path of Mor via poverty and lack of options for a better life. Writers, know your book's intention and make sure your plot adheres to it.
  • Remember that setting can be a character, too. Leah's lyrical, sensory language immerses readers in a world they learn to inhabit along with the characters. Leah also uses the Sengalese language while she lets context clues fill in the gaps to create authenticity. I learned many new Wolof words as I read.
  • Finally, find your main character's heart and follow your inner fire to create riveting drama. Mor's character is one we root for from page one due to the writer's craft in making him real and vulnerable. Leah has traveled to Senegal and is passionate about its culture and beauty. Readers feel that, too.
  • My verdict is that ONE SHADOW will be a book to remember this year. It is a lush, lively, page-turner of a book. I read it in big gulps as I made myself stop to linger over the beauty of Leah's words. 

Interview with Leah
K: Leah, I first met you at The Virginia Hamilton Conference and then at the NESCBWI Spring Conference this year. Why do you feel it’s important for writers to attend conferences? 

L: Writing is such a solitary pursuit, so conferences and workshops are a great way to connect with people who might be on a similar journey, or who at least have a similar love of writing and a desire to learn more about the craft. Plus, they can be so much fun!

K: What conferences do you recommend?
L: There are so many conferences out there: they all can serve  different needs. Research as many as you can and then ask yourself what your focus is at this stage of your writing journey: Are you just starting out? In the murky middle? Do you crave feedback? Or are you ready to find an agent? Targeted workshops like those at Highlights or one run by a local writing organization could fit the bill, or maybe an SCBWI event might make more sense. If your focus is the “Color of Children’s Literature,” maybe the Kweli Conference would give you the insights you’re looking for. Think about what would serve you best right now. Conferences can be pricey, so choose wisely.

K: Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
L: I am a little of both. I generally have an idea of where I want the story to go (just no clue how I’ll get there). Sometimes I will create a very sparse outline early on and wander a bit from there. For ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I began as a pantser, because I wasn’t quite sure what story Mor wanted to tell. But as soon as I felt like I could outline and narrow the focus, I did. Still it took a lot of writing and rewriting to figure it out.

K: Is MG your preferred age group or do you write across other grade levels, genres? 
L: My heart lies with middle grade, but as a curious soul, I try writing in other genres as well. I don’t know if I’ll ever produce something those outside my critique groups will ever see, but I enjoy trying.  

K: What led to your decision to pursue you MFA? 
L: It’s pretty simple—I craved being part of a community that understood my love and need to write. My non-writing friends and family have always been supportive, but they do not really understand all the ups and downs and twists and turns related to this whole writing "thing." I also wanted to become a stronger, more confident writer by studying craft. I have always loved learning, so it was an easy decision. I needed to invest in me.   

K: I recently read your piece from The Brown Bookshelf  and these questions came to mind.  The origin of your debut came from a ten-page story you wrote for a class. What class were you taking, and what did your professor see in this story? 
L: It was a graduate school course on children’s writing. To be honest, I am not sure what she saw—maybe an opportunity for young readers to see another part of the world or an interesting character. Even while I doubted my story all those years ago, I always had a love for my main character, Mor, so perhaps she saw a glimpse of that love in my early work. 

K: You also said you approached ONE SHADOW with a larger concern from your past – hoping to read about a true-to-life character, yet finding “simply a stereotype, a caricature.” How did create Mor's individuality and voice?
L: I was very unsure when I started to explore the world of these characters, even though it was fictional. I remembered a time when I opened books hoping to see a likeness of myself, yet instead I was met by something altogether different. Those images and depictions left me feeling like the author didn’t care enough about my story and my experience to get it as accurate as possible. I did not want to do that with Mor’s world. 
Senegal is a wonderful place that many young readers know little about, so in no way did I want to mislead them. I wanted to write a story that readers familiar with Senegal could recognize in the spirits of the characters I created, and I wanted readers unfamiliar with the place to walk away knowing a little more and hopefully make them eager to do additional research.

K: Where did the seed for Mor originate? 
L: So when I thought about who I wanted Mor to be, I remembered the boy I first saw on the beach wall in St. Louis, Senegal who inspired it all with his quiet strength and poise. Then I watched, listened, and learned from the kids around me that inhabited a similar world to the one Mor was a part of. I drew him out of them.

K: What surprises did you find as a debut author? 
L: I think because I have attended so many conferences, lectures, and workshops, I was prepared. However, I still was a bit surprised by the quiet then the hustle of publishing. For months you don’t hear a peep about anything, then—BOOM—everything is due at once.

K: Please share a few writing tips for our readers:
L: Hmmmm, tips:
Be patient with yourself and your writing.
Trust in the power of revision.
Find a group of writers who have similar wants (because not everyone’s goals and needs are the same).
Always work on your craft. Read, attend conferences and workshops if you can, and continue to write.
Celebrate the little victories.
Always try and learn from each mistake.
Be open to constructive criticism, especially if it is meant to make your work stronger.
Be true to yourself and your story. And don’t let anyone turn you around.

    K: What’s next for you, Leah? Book launch, school visits, new novels? 
L: All of the above. My book launch is June 6th at the Black History Museum in Richmond, VA (so if you are in the area please stop by, I’d love to see you). I will also be speaking at my graduate school next week about my novel & debut journey, and am currently working on two other MG projects that are very different from this one, but that echo some of the same themes—family, friendship, grit, and possibilities.
Thank you so much for having me, Kathy, it’s been great! And hopefully I’ll see you at another event soon