I’m at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. Last night, thanks to a tip from Sarah Flowers, whom I saw in the hotel eating area, I went to a meeting at my hotel of the United States Board on Books for Young People.
This is the 10th year that USBBY has made an Outstanding International Books List. They are books published in the United States, that originated in a different country, and they help American children see other perspectives. This year’s members presented the 2015 titles — They definitely made me want to read them.
Then they had an author speak who has an international perspective. Here are my notes from her talk:
Sabaa Tahir, author of An Ember in the Ashes.
She has family all over the world.
Her personal history: Begins in the Mojave Desert, grew up at Richcrest in a Motel which her parents managed. She knew from an early age that she didn’t belong. People told her parents to go back to where they came from.
She was voiceless. Her Kindergarten teacher didn’t think she could talk.
She escaped to the library. Particularly fantasy novels.
She was a hero and an adventurer when reading.
These characters would have the chance to speak out.
She was working at the Washington Post — reading about the most powerless and voiceless people in the world.
Also about courage, loneliness, love, family.
Intersection of hope & despair. The decisions they make define everything that comes after.
She made the book as authentic as she could — lots of research.
She interviewed modern day warriors to get the souls of her characters.
Talked with an FBI agent who fought gangs in San Jose. Psychological matters a lot more than the physical.
Was told there are people in the police force who should not be in positions of authority.
West Point cadet had a presence.”Duty Honor Country” – not just words, a way of life for him.
Researched Ancient Rome – Julio Claudian era. Social stratification based on that. Used Sparta for the academy. Spartans entered at 7 years old.
Her female character must become a slave. Researched what it was like for slaves in everyday life.
Also storytelling research. Saw a Persian storyteller, practicing the ancient art of Nakali — which women aren’t normally allowed to practice. Amazing storyteller — even in Farsi. She used her whole body, and without the language she could still understand the story.
Character names: Each race has its own naming conventions. Each character had a name that fit with them. Elias — a humble Hebrew statement of faith. The names Elias and Alia are supposed to sound like a song when together.
Why she writes:
Writing for her is research, and revision, and frustration. It took her 6 years.
She wanted to tell their story.
In the end, she wrote because of her desire for a voice.
She wants to speak to those who feel they do not have a voice.