Uma Krishnaswami is a woman of many talents- writing, teaching, knitting, and more. But at Children's Literature, we know Uma additionally as one of our best longtime book reviewers. Uma's gift for book analysis helps readers,
parents, educators, and librarians understand a book in a way that defies any average book review. She dives deep into the plot, characterizations, and impact of a book. Her eloquent way of describing the significance of a
title and helpful critique leaves the reader better and also the author. It is a voice like hers that helps us understand the place of children's literature in society and, more importantly, in a child's growth. It's hard to
narrow an interview to just a few short questions when interviewing someone as prolific as Uma. Her talent in so many areas is why we need to ask her so much. But alas, we asked a few varied questions on the hearts and minds
of children's book lovers in 2021.
First, we want to congratulate you on your 2021 Award nomination for the
Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the global award given to a person or organization for
outstanding contribution to children's and young adult literature. Your works have won many
awards and honors and still appear on numerous best book lists, but what was the feeling of
being considered for this particular award?
Uma: Thank you for the congratulations. It turns out that I’ve been nominated twice in successive years, and no one’s more surprised than I am! The first time was in 2020, when the nominating group contacted me to
ask for things like my address and phone number, and so on. To be honest, at first, I thought it was a joke, but my agent assured me that wasn’t the case! Well, 2020 came and went after sweeping us all up into the Covid-19 pandemic
quake. And I thought, well, it was very nice to be nominated, and it’ll never happen again. Then in the spring of 2021, I started getting congratulatory notes from people who were obviously keeping a sharper eye on such things
than I do, which was when I realized I’d been nominated again. It’s a gratifying vote of confidence in my work, and I can’t deny that I’m very pleased. It perks me up on days when my inner writer gets into a slump, which happens
from time to time.
Your books have been translated into multiple languages so that they are
available to children around the world. How important is it for children to read books
published in other countries?
Uma: I think it’s critical. Books that are published in a lot of different places offer many different approaches to storytelling, in a variety of styles, with varying viewpoints, settings, characters, and themes.
If children understand and appreciate fiction and nonfiction from different parts of the world, they’ll come closer to understanding and appreciating places and people different from themselves. I’d argue that far from being a
luxury, it’s essential for future generations around the world to understand and speak to one another. The life of our planet depends on it. The corollary to that is that we also need books that show children of every country their
own reflections. That way, to use Rudine Sims Bishop’s wonderful metaphor, books that are windows for some will be mirrors for others. Which is why I’m so thrilled every year to see awards for translated books like the Batchelder Award and the GLLI
YA Book Prize.
What significant changes have you seen in children's and YA literature
since you published your first book in 1994?
Uma: I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak to that question on its largest scale because everything I know is just one small slice of that reality. So, I’ll answer it on a smaller scale, as a writer and reader. Having
stood my ground through plenty of early rejections and having had editors and agents question whether there’d be any interest in the kinds of stories I was trying to write early on, the biggest change I see is that the field may
finally be opening up to a diversity of voices. I say this cautiously because it hasn’t happened without a struggle, and I’m very aware that trends come and go in cycles. Still, it does seem to me that we’ve made some shifts here
due to the CCBC’s documentation of diversity statistics, the work of publishers like Lee and Low, and groups like We Need Diverse Books. I think some of the shift is also to the social and political turmoil of the past few years that really
has led to a point, in the United States at least, of rethinking and reevaluating history and its darker legacies. At any rate, we see the emergence of publishing houses like Levine Querido and new imprints like
Heartdrum and Kokila. This is true to some degree in Canada as well,
although the market here is smaller, but some of those historical through-lines are certainly shared. In all, it seems to me that the kind of writing I’ve found personally interesting, the stories I’ve been drawn to over the years,
as well as the kind of writing I like to read, are being centered in the conversation in a way they’ve never been before.
What trajectory would you like to see children's literature take in 2021
and moving forward? What trajectory would you like to see YA literature take?
Uma:I’ve always believed in the power of books to shape the minds of young readers. Some writer friends have told me how much the pandemic and so many other events in the real world have shaken their ability to write
or their faith in the craft of writing itself. So, I don’t know that I have a straightforward answer to that question at all. What would I like to see? I know what I think we need. We need books that make bold, imaginative leaps.
We need ways to find joy and community while refusing to be blinded by nostalgia for a past that never really existed. Two books by writers I’m proud to count as friends and colleagues contain great lavish helpings of all those
elements: A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia, and Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith. The first is a YA novel, an epic multi-generational story of life, death, crime, love, survival set against the astonishingly
vivid background of a declining antebellum Louisiana plantation. In the other, a middle grade novel, Lily and Wendy reclaim the Peter Pan universe, speaking back to the canon with humor and grace. Back in 2019, I wrote an article
in The Horn Book back calling for diverse books to be more than windows and mirrors—I argued they can also work as prisms that refract the light of their characters and themes and cast them back upon the real worlds of readers.
Both these books do that in very different ways. So, I’d argue that windows and mirrors are necessary but as the world gets increasingly complicated, representation is not enough. I’ll be looking in 2021 for more books that act
With all of the books you reviewed in 2020 and 2021 so far, which has been
your favorite and one you hope will make award and best book lists this year?
Uma:I never try to second-guess awards, and I can never just pick one book, so I’ll tell you about several that I found memorable:
- The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf, a ghost story with a Malaysian setting, written with a sure touch and a loving hand. It reminded me of another middle grade ghost story I loved, Forgotten Girl by India Hill Brown—they’re
very different books but in some ways they both speak back to stereotypes and they both carry loads of meaning beneath the surface.
- Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story) by Daniel Nayeri, an autobiographical novel with a sharp, tender voice.
- The Ship of Stolen Words by Fran Wilde, because I love wordplay and Little Free Libraries.
- In the picture book department, I loved Kafka and the Doll by Larissa Theule—it deals with growth and life, affection and loss, but never loses sight of the child audience (full disclosure: Larissa was my student
years ago, but I’d have loved this book even if she hadn’t been).
We’re always waiting on a new book from you. What are you working on now?
Any books to be released later this year?
Uma: I try to juggle a picture book and a longer work at all times. At the moment I’m in transition so I seem to have a couple of each on my hands, while I figure out where I should settle my attention for the next
I’m pleased to say I have two books slated to be released later this year: Threads of
Peace: How Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Changed the World (middle grade nonfiction from Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum) will be out in August. Two at the Top: A Shared Dream of
Everest (a picture book illustrated by Christopher Corr, from Groundwood Books) follows in October.
You can find out more about Uma on her website https://umakrishnaswami.org/.