In addition to reading the story, if you are a teacher or educator, you’ll find discussion questions and other teacher resources to go with the story on the website. Feel free to share widely – and yes, it is free. My books are about children who suffer from socioeconomic inequality, so it didn’t feel right to tie any kind of pre-order giveaway to a purchase.
For those of you who aren’t aware, a beloved character from THE BRIDGE HOME reappears in BORN BEHIND BARS as an adult. So, for all those who wondered what happened after THE BRIDGE HOME…you’ll find a hint in BORN BEHIND BARS.
Many of you, my readers, are moved to help others in need, and so I just wanted to share, as I have in the past, an organization that I believe is providing excellent aid to those suffering from the Earthquake in Syria and Turkey: Doctors Without Borders .
Thanks for reading my work and staying in touch through this newsletter! Sending best wishes,
I was also honored to share my thoughts on my experience of being the target of cyber-bullies in an essay published by Renaissance Learning – alongside essays by Jacqueline Woodson and Francisco X Stork, and featured on Edith Campbell’s blog.
On a personal note, I was so grateful that BORN BEHIND BARS received multiple awards (Julia Ward Howe / Boston Authors Club Award), South Asia Book Award, Nerdy Book Award, and Malka Penn Award Honor, in addition to the many amazing honors that it won in 2021; and it was an amazing experience to keynote three sessions at NCTE 22 and to be a keynote speaker at VAASL, which allowed me to return to Williamsburg, where I once was a student! I also loved spending time teaching in Southampton in summer ’22 … was blown away to be invited as a featured author at the Arizona Author festival, among others, where I ate one of the most beautiful desserts ever, before hiking in the desert with my beautiful family.
2022 was also a tough year in many ways, but I look forward to good things in 2023, including school visits, which I always love – and – coming up very soon, a keynote at the Write to Learn conference in MO. If you’d like to schedule a keynote or presentation or school visit, please feel free to reach out to my speaking agency, The Author Village, and copy me, as well. Thank you so much for your support!
A few of many happy moments in ’22… but hope ’23 will be better!
This spring began with so many delightful bits of news: The Bridge Home received another award – The Jerry, presented by WJRC! Born Behind Bars is also on Georgia’s state award list! I’ve been doing a lot of virtual visits, and over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing more.
On my slides, I quote from a lot of articles I’ve written about various aspects of diversity in the field of children’s and YA literature. I also point out that there are plenty of resources on this website for librarians and educators who’d like to use my books in classrooms. However, please note that many of the links may NOT work because of your school / library server. There’s nothing that can be done at my end to help solve that. However, most of the links can be accessed via my padlet.
So please click on this link for now, and thanks for your patience. You an also access many of my videos, including general writing prompts, via my YouTube channel and writing prompts may also be found on the COOKING UP STORIES blog that I write for the Highlights Foundation the first Friday of each month, in which I come up with a writing prompt and it’s paired with a colleague’s book and a delectable recipe by Chef Amanda. As for general diversity resources, an annotated list of some of my articles is below:
No problem with problem books (about gender inequity in kidlit, for YA Wednesday)
A list of awards the celebrate underrepresented and marginalized voices / books for young people (SLJ)
Golden silence, gilded words (about microagressions, on author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog)
Honoring the history of those who strove for diversity in our field and in our country (WNDB Walter Award acceptance speech, in a way – although the year I won it was the year COVID struck and the ceremony was cancelled)!
One of my very early books of nonfiction which was published before I considered myself an author, featured by Renaissance Learning
Can’t believe 2021 is nearly over. As this year winds down, I’m taking a moment to be grateful for all the honors and awards and praise Born Behind Bars has been blessed with. So far, to my knowledge, it’s on the Boston Globe, Kirkus, School Library Journal, CSMCL and India Currents Best Books of 2021 lists; on Mr. John Schu and Travis Jonker’s Top 20 Books of 2021 list; and in addition to the starred reviews to which it was released and the glowing reviews from the New York Times Book Review and Providence Journal, it was showcased as Parents Magazine’s November Book Club pick.
If you’d like to hear the story-behind-the-story or download a discussion guide, Born Behind Bars related writing prompt or hear the first chapter of the audiobook, which I read, or access further reading suggestions or support resources, you’ll find them at the Born Behind Bars page of this website (resources tab top right, Born Behind Bars drop down menu).
Sending my wishes out to the world for health, above all, and a safe and peaceful end to this year and joy in 2022.
November is my birthday month – and this year, it came with a wonderful surprise gift. Parents Magazine chose BORN BEHIND BARS as their book-of-the-month!
Previous “Raising the Future” book club titles include She Persisted: Ruby Bridges by Kekla Magoon and Chelsea Clinton; Daddy and Dada by Ryan Brockington and Isaac Webster; I Wish You Knew by Jackie Azua Kramer; Stamped (for kids) by Jason Reynold and Ibram X Kendi; The Chance to Fly by Ali Stroker and Stacy Davidowitz; Simon B Rhymin by Dwayne Reed; Milo Imagines the World by Matt De La Peña; My Very Favorite Book in the Whole Wide World by Malcom Mitchell; Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea by Meena Harris; My Rainbow by DeShanna and Trinity Neal; Class Act by Jerry Craft; I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes and Antiracist Baby by Ibram X Kendi. As you might imagine I was super thrilled to be in such marvelous company. And I got a chance to converse about BORN BEHIND BARS with superstar teacher Colby Sharp on Parents Magazine’s Ig live.
My first ever Ig live – but Colby made it so much fun, and so very easy. Not enough words to thank him and Parents Magazine for this honor. What’s more, School Library Journal awarded BORN BEHIND BARS a starred review! It’s the 21st time I’ve seen a message saying one of my books received a star, and each time, my eyes fill with tears of thankfulness.
“This novel is for readers who are seeking realistic fiction that tug at the heartstrings. The story is authentic, and the emotion … will induce tears. This is a true window book for many readers unaware of caste systems and the struggles within them. Venkatraman takes these complex topics and makes them heartfelt and resonant.” – SLJ, Starred Review
Another exciting bit of news I didn’t yet share – BORN BEHIND BARS received a marvelous review in the New York Times after I’d posted last month. I was especially thrilled – and touched – that the reviewer echoed my editor Nancy Paulsen’s sentiment (when she first read a draft of BORN BEHIND BARS, she said it had the quality of a fable)!
“confidently stripped down, crystalline style…Borrowing elements of fable” – New York Times Book Review.
Many more author events coming up this month, including a Mackin panel, and 4 events on the first and last days of the NCTE conference.
On Thursday November 18, 2021, I’ll begin with a panel moderated by Becky Calzada, entitled More Than Just Friendships: Allies in Middle Grade Fiction Time: 12:00 AM EST. This is an On Demand Session.
Next, that afternoon, I am thrilled to join Donalyn Miller and others at The Nerdy Book Club: Supporting Equitable, Joyful Reading Communities – a Roundtable Session, from 1:30 PM EST – 2:45 PM EST. This is a LIVE session.
My next session on Thursday Nov 18 is also live and also a Roundtable Session moderated by Steven Bickmore and it’s called Toe Tag Monologues: Creating Equity and Justice for Adolescents in Crisis through Performance and Young Adult Literature, 3:00 PM EST – 4:15 PM.
Finally, on Sunday November 21, 2021, the last day of the conference, I’ll join JoEllen McCarthy along with other authors, to discuss Unlocking Layers of Justice and Equity Through Children’s Books– this Panel Presentation is a Scheduled session but it’s prerecorded which means, I believe, that we authors will be online for live Q & A.
So grateful for the warm welcome, starred reviews and praise BORN BEHIND BARS has been receiving!
Immense gratitude to the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus. Here’s a wonderful article about and review of BORN BEHIND BARS in India Currents. Thrilled to hear the wonderful reviews of the book shared by Colby Sharp and Pernille Ripp, too! So honored to be together with the brilliant Donalyn Miller, as a guest on the incredible John Schu’s BookJoy Live.
If you hear(d) me present one of my two keynote addresses this week (Montana State Literacy Association 10/21/2021; Rutgers One on One Conference on Sunday afternoon), and would like to read some of the most essays I’ve written on diversity-related issues, here are a few links:
Book recommendations I provided today at MSLA conference:
Some picture books by indigenous authors: Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Jingle Dancer; Traci Sorell’s We are Grateful; Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal. Some chapter books by indigenous authors: The Arrow Over the Door by Joseph Bruchac; Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell (for which I did a writing prompt). Some books for young readers that feature disability can be found on my statement on invisible disability on the resources page of this website: scroll down until you see Further Reading under Teach The Bridge Home in the drop down menu and you’ll see a link to a pdf; some authors with disabilities who have written middle – YA books that came to mind: Corinne Duyvis, Cindy Rodriguez, Lyn Miller Lachmann, Ann Clare Lezotte.
Some graphic novels by authors from underrepresented/marginalized communities: Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai (who is very special to me because she won the Sid Fleischman award the same year I won the Golden Kite for THE BRIDGE HOME); Jerry Craft’s Class Act and New Kid; Cece Bell’s El Daefo; Twins by Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright; Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese; Measuring Up by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu; When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed; One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry; Nidhi Chanani’s Pashmina (which I have yet to read, I’ll admit)!
Thanks again, Montana State Literacy Association conference and RUCCL for the honor of an invitation to do a keynote, and heartfelt thanks to each person who has written to me expressing love for Kabir, Rani, and Grandma Knife (who seems to be everyone’s second or third most favorite character in the novel).
I’m so excited to share the news that Born Behind Bars is a Junior Library Guild Selection! And it received it’s first review – a wonderful STAR – from Kirkus:
” This compelling novel develops at a brisk pace, advanced by evocative details and short chapters full of action… A gritty story, filled with hope and idealism.” * Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
If you’d like to listen to an excerpt of me reading the BORN BEHIND BARS audiobook, here’s a link to Penguin’s Listening Library Page. If you’d like to read more about the novel, including an excerpt, here’s the link to Penguin’s page for BORN BEHIND BARS.
I’m looking forward to my keynote address for the Montana State Literacy Association, during which I’ll be addressing questions of diversity (which I’ll also be speaking about today during my first panel with the amazing Molly Ness and Elizabeth Blye at nErD camp PA today; and which I also spoke about during my keynote conversation earlier this month for the Writers On Writing – WOW -conference). I though I’d list some of my articles on diversity, that I’ll be referring to during the keynote, in case attendees wish to read them. More links to diverse resources are available via the website’s diversity page (resources drop down menu), which will be updated regularly.
Accept, Don’t Tolerate. Invited article contributed to Kirkus Reviews, outlining thoughts on Religious Diversity in Literature for Young People.
This weekend was a mixture of joy and grief for me. The joy: #NESCBWI21. I officially accepted my Crystal Kite award at the New England SCBWI conference, presented the closing keynote address, and felt surrounded by the warmth of supportive friends and colleagues. It was a perfect virtual conference experience for me.
Yet, through it all, a part of me was immensely sad. COVID has been raging out of control in India and the tragedy was brought to international media attention last week. Many people I care deeply about live in India, some of whom are unwell or have suffered great loss. If you are in a position to help, here are links to 3 organizations I trust:
HasiruDala works with adults and children like those in THE BRIDGE HOME : https://www.ketto.org/fundraiser/HasiruDalaCovidRelief. My cousin vouches for this organization and if you’d like to learn more about the parent waste management company, here it is: https://hasirudalainnovations.com/ It is an organization that I hope to be able to donate to regularly in the future, and the most closely related to the Vijis, Rukkus, Aruls and Muthus who need your help right now.
If you have any questions on any of this, as always, click on the post itself, and when the window refreshes with just the post, you should see a box for a response. Thank you for anything you feel able to do, to help others at this time of tragedy.
Updating and adding a few more links 5/7/2021. I wrote this post a few days ago. I am updating it today because since the time I wrote, things have only worsened in India. On a personal level it has been a roller coaster, and I spent so many days in prayer, to feel relieved about 2 people who are very dear to me; but this morning I received another piece of news that feels surreal and too shockingly close to share publicly. I will be offline to spend the weekend in prayer, among other things. But here are links to some other organizations.
What a wonderful year for poetry, with Naomi Shihab Nye as our Young People’s Poet Laureate, and Amanda Gorman reading aloud the inaugural poem!
A personal milestone for me – two of my poems, Undone and Whenever You See a Tree, were published in the March 2021 issue of Poetry Magazine! I said that in my post last month, but it means so much to me that I’m saying it again. As my friend Rene Saldana Jr. (brilliant author and poet) said in a congratulatory note, “… YOU HAVE POETRY APPEARING IN POETRY!!!!!!!!!! … Oh. MY. GOODNESS! … the last is a dream for us all, and you’ve done it!”
All of this spurred me to put into action an idea that’s been marinating in my mind ever since the pandemic began: Diverse Verse.
Diverse Verse is a website and a resource for educators and diverse poets and verse novelists, as of now; but I hope it will grow into a supportive writing community and a podcast, as well. I reached out to many poets I respect (including Jacqueline Woodson, Janet Wong, Carole Boston Weatherford, Nikki Grimes, Margarita Engle and Joseph Bruchac) as this idea took shape. I also discussed it with many dedicated advocates of diversity and with educators I admire (Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ellen Oh, Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich, Stacey Lee, Traci Sorell, Floyd Cooper, Mitali Perkins, Uma Krishnaswami, Tracey Baptiste, Miranda Paul, Sylvia Vardell, Lisa Krok, Sarah J Donovan, Alaina Lavoie, Pernille Ripp, Matthew Winner, Donalyn Miller, John Schumacher, Yangsook Choi and the Authors Take Action and WNDB communities).
We now have a small diverse verse team (Ruth Behar, Reem Fauqui, Edna Hoku Moran, K. A. Holt, Aida Salazar, Rene Saldana Jr., Ray Anthony Sheppard, Anindita Basu Sempere, Lisa Stringfellow, Ari Tison). I’m happy (and a little bit scared), that together with the AuthorsTakeAction team, we’re doing an official launch event tomorrow (Tuesday, April 20; please read the details, so you can respectfully amplify a BIPOC poet’s voice if you wish to participate in the event). This is just the beginning and I am hoping that our brilliant team members will help to build this resource.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I wrote a post with 10 lesson plan suggestions (on using poetry to spark respectful discussions and speak out against hate crimes). I also started a padlet with a BIPOC poet directory, to which, I am so grateful that Janet Wong, Lisa Stringfellow, Rene Saldana Jr. and Traci Sorell have contributed.
Looking forward to adding more (from guest bloggers and team members, in addition to myself) in the next few months and years…
Wow! Can’t believe it’s 2 months into 2021 already.
I’m trying hard to stay positive, although it’s sometimes hard to do so in lieu of the horrific display of violence and white privilege we all witnessed in the United States in early January. Then again, it would be impossible to write a post that doesn’t even mention the depth of my grief over so many things that have happened in America and around the world. The terrible loss of life that so many have suffered and the difficulties that so many are continuing to suffer even right this very minute.
I’m not going to speak about any of this at length in this blog post; instead I’m just going to mention how grateful I am that the Asian Author Alliance is coming together to do a fundraiser because they’re concerned about the increase in hate crimes against Asians in America, as I am, and so I am contributing items to their auction, which is scheduled to go live on their blog on Friday 26 February. I will, for sure, be contributing a signed 1st edition 1st printing copy of THE BRIDGE HOME, as well as a 1st edition hardcover copy of A TIME TO DANCE. It’s the least I can do to help.
I’m doing what I can to help in other ways as well, as I am sure so many of you are – and indeed, I’m sure many of you are doing far more than I.
This evening, I have the honor of presenting one of many keynote lectures for an ongoing course at Highlights Foundation. Since the time that I first put up this post, several thoughts have entered my mind and I decided to set them down in writing. Especially because, so often, after I give a talk, I notice someone lifts my words and uses them without attribution. And as much as I might try to focus on the positive, a part of me is absolutely attached to my words and I don’t enjoy feeling that they were stolen… So here’s the draft of my upcoming talk.
Centering the child within us and without us
By Padma Venkatraman
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I often spoke of the power that words have to break walls, and I often referred to books as bridges. I continue to think of these ideas as valid, but the past year has made me also consider the deeper validity of another metaphor that emerged in my mind. That of a book as half a bridge, and half a bridge only.
More and more, I see the importance of this view, that always co-existed with the more widely accepted view of an author as the creator. This other view of mine is that a story-teller shapes only part of tale – the story itself is completed by the reader. At the deepest level, I’ve always thought of myself, in the role of author, as one engaged in a co-operative endeavor, that requires two for completion. I have, ever since I started writing, sensed that I am not THE creator, but only a creator; a book is co-created and reborn each time a reader (or listener) experiences. They are our co-creators.
When I center this thought, that my book is re-created each time the story I set down is experienced, it both liberates me and brings to me the importance of my work and the necessity that I must do my best to be responsible and responsive, sensitive and sensible as I move through my writing life, to the best of my ability. Because my story will be felt by other souls and other minds in ways that my own can never fully grasp.
Each reader who holds, let’s say, The Bridge Home, holds precisely the same published story. And yet each one will also hold a co-created version of which I have only contributed, at best, a half.
I am a builder of half-bridges. And yet, I think of myself as the generator and possessor of my books. Indeed, I do think my name deserves to go on our books, but, I am also increasingly aware of the pain that comes with this attachment to my work. The concept of Karma Yoga, as Veda expresses in A TIME TO DANCE , is one I see myself embracing, but incompletely.
When I see myself as the builder of half a bridge, when I see a book as one half of an Anjali mudra, a half-lotus gesture open, offered to the world, waiting for the reader to complete it, I am both humbled and acutely aware of my responsibility. For half a bridge to stand and invite others, it must be built as best it possibly can.
To me, this means centering both the children within me and the children without me, those co-creators who may complete this bridge in their own fashion. I say children, plural, because I – and we – “contain multitudes.”
Within us is sometimes the child who wants, the child who weeps. When this child surfaces, here’s what I do. I sit with her. I wait. I watch and listen. I don’t judge. If she wants a pity party, I throw her one – but I try, when it’s ongoing, to bring her focus, gently, to the fact the party aspect of it all. And when she’s ready, I take her hand in mine and lead her back to the space where she felt in touch with the intense beauty and eternal joy of words. Because that’s the space of positivity that serves as my compass of compassion as I canoe along the meandering river of the writing life, secure in the knowledge that the ocean will and even now, does, embrace me.
Each river has a different course. A river’s course is unpredictable. And if we pine to be that rushing river that with one great leap mixes with the ocean, we might consider and realize that if this happens, we have less time for the journey.
As much as we can, let’s enjoy the meanders. Respect ourselves and give ourselves the self-care we need. When we feel we’re veering off course, remember all that we have in life that centers us and has nothing to do with writing. And rejoice in the gift of words we are giving ourselves and the children we once were.
So much for the children in ourselves. What of the children outside us?
To me, that’s where my understanding and dedication to diversity comes in. And here, then are some suggestions that I share with myself and the larger community – because I think they help us move together to provide a space for children to co-create with us.
Engage, don’t avoid. Apologize from the heart if an action causes hurt, and do your best to change.
Awareness that deep questions may have more than one good answer. Find what works for you now.
Listen, LISTEN. LISTEN! Yoga, for example, is something that carries deep meaning to me, as a direct disciple and student of yogacharya, Shri T. Krishnamacharya. Yet I have yet to have a conversation about this with someone in which the other person listens instead of immediately trying to equate or impress me with their own experiences / knowledge. When do I do this to others – speak without listening fully and attentively?
Learn and unlearn. We all should be constantly doing both.
Can we please use A instead of THE? As in Copernicus was one person who espoused heliocentricism, not “THE Copernican revolution”, THE ENLIGHTENMENT, WESTERN VALUES – west of what? Who drew that line?
Ask ourselves, in terms of diversity: What can I GIVE UP? (Not just what can I give).
Pledge NEVER to plagarize / steal words / ideas. Respect verbal copyright. That means, if you hear something you like today and want to use that piece of wisdom in your writing or talk, provide proper credit. Name the source. Cite the book/talk/person.
In science we always refer to those who came before us. In the field of kid lit we don’t do it enough. We must be better at acknowledging prior contributions. Instead of indulging in age-ism, let’s respect older wisdom and the contributions of those who came before us.
Can you raise up a diverse author or book that has existed for a while, a person who has excelled for a while but not gained the recognition YOU think they deserve? Can you CONTINUE to help these books?
May we try to understand why cis-gendered males are so often promoted? Who do we allowed to have ambition? Whom do we permit ourselves to cruelly criticize / dislike?
Why do we “love” certain authors / books? How do we promote hierarchies? Should we try to dismantle them?
What ways of telling story do we put on a pedestal? Might we epitomizing certain craft skills and giving them the status of rules?
Consider giving diverse books respect. Rather than buying / teaching/citing an old “classic”, why not a current book that you love?
Let’s engage in self-reflection about our attitudes to issues in the world today as we move through our lives as part of the kidlit community. And let’s try to build half-bridges that are as strong as we can make them, by coming together in compassion for ourselves, for one another and most of all, for ther readers who are our co-creators.
That’s as far as I got with the draft of my talk. Now – and this makes, I realize, for a totally disconnected type of blog post, but hey it’s my blog and aren’t we all sort of in a disjointed space these days – now to finish with some very personal happy news.
To end on a joyful note, my next novel, BORN BEHIND BARS, is off to copyediting! I don’t have the precise publication date, but it is scheduled for 2021 October release!
And today I received an amazing honor. A copy of Poetry Magazine, featuring 2 of my poems, alongside the work of such brilliant poets as Margarita Engle, Jacqueline Woodson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nikki Grimes, Elizabeth Acevedo, Joyce Sidman, Marilyn Nelson, Renee Watson, Kara Jackson and Linda Sue Park. I began writing poems when I was about …
… okay, not quite as little as the baby you see in that photograph above, although I am indeed that baby. That’s me and a very dear cousin. I started writing when I was about as old as he probably is in that photograph… around five years old, according to my mother. So poetry has always been a part of my life. If you imagine that I wept with joy to see my work showcased in a magazine that is considered by many to be one of the most important poetry magazines in the English Language today, you would be quite right. The issue is filled with beautiful poems that moved me greatly and I hope many readers, including teachers, librarians and parents, will read it, as it was especially curated with young people in mind.
Stay well, stay healthy, stay safe. And thank you all for all the good you do in the world.