Sunday, June 27, 2010

Make Way for Uma!!

I'm so pleased today to have my colleague and friend Uma Krishnaswami answering questions about her latest book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! for readers here at The Drift Record. This is a lovely and lively story about how nature and busy communities of people can peacefully co-exist (and even enrich each other.)  As the publisher's description says, "In a simple lyrical way, the author subverts commonly held views on environment and development by showing simultaneously the growth of a wide-spreading tree and a busy winding road, with each making room for the other."  All of this delivered via a beautifully told, energetic story.

Uma and I teach in the Vermont College of Fine Arts' graduate program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and I'm happy to say we are also good friends. Her intelligence and sweetness simply light up a room the minute she comes into it - maybe it's something in those intense eyes, or her laugh, or the level of conversation that always takes a turn toward Very Smart when she's around....Well, whatever it is,  I'm glad for it.

Julie Larios: Congratulations, Uma, on the publication of Out of the Way! Out of the Way! The text is wonderful, as are the illustrations by Uma Krishnaswamy (with a "y"!) - the total effect is energetic and engaging. The people on the pages remind me a bit of the jointed leather puppets (always in profile) that I've seen in shadow-theater performances. So the book combines both the traditional and the modern.  Everyone must be asking about the amazing coincidence of your names being nearly identical! Can you tell us how your collaboration with "the other Uma" came about?

Uma Krishnaswami:  The Tulika Books offices are right around the corner from where my mother lives in Chennai, India but for years I had no idea. I wasn't really paying attention to children's publishing in India. Uma K...y had done a couple of books with them but I didn't know her at the time. I got to know of both the press and Uma through a reader in France who sent me an e-mail message. He'd gotten the two Umas mixed up and was convinced I was both a writer and an illustrator. The story was scooped by Cynthia Leitich Smith a year ago in her interviews with both of us Uma Ks. I love Uma's art--it's a marvelous combination of traditional and contemporary elements. I love the style she's created for this book, with black ink drawings interspersed with those bright patches of color and the road seeming to swirl with life.

JL: It seems to me that one of the best things about the story is the range of time and activity represented - from village life to modern urban life, from bullock-carts to motorbikes. Did you find the task daunting -  fitting this kind of time range (multi-generational! ) into a book for young children?

UK: I would have if I'd stopped to think about it, but because I tend to revise picture books over inordinately long periods of time in very tiny increments I was too busy playing with words to pay attention to the passage of time. In fact the story changed quite a bit over the course of its life. It was only in the edits with Sandhya Rao (my brilliant editor at Tulika) that the notion of the boy growing into a man with his own small children became fully realized. It was there in earlier versions but it was buried in a lot of other stuff. 

JL: The book begins with two simple sentences: "A dusty path ran through a village. People and animals walked up and down, going from here to there and back again." Talk to us a bit about simplicity, which is not a simple thing for writers to achieve.

UK: Words. They can be marvelous when they're the right ones, but so often in drafts they just end up getting in the way. At one point I threw out about 12 earlier versions and rewrote the whole thing. That helped. Simplicity can sometimes only be achieved by paying attention to what's underneath the original words of a draft. By reading and rereading what you have on the page so you can really begin to see what that is. So often the story is there, but it's hidden by the first few layers of words. Sometimes it's trying to make itself felt, poor thing, only my stubborn controlling mind hasn't relaxed enough to be able to perceive it.  

JL:  OUT OF THE WAY! OUT OF THE WAY! has an environmental message at its heart. Yet you manage to avoid being didactic. Talk to us a bit about that...?

UK: That was Sandhya's genius. She helped me to see that it wasn't an either/or story, it was about both the tree and the road. I must honestly admit, this wasn't always the case. As it turned out, the boy bears witness in the way that ordinary people bear witness, by forging connections to the changing world around them. For example, Sandhya helped me to see that I didn't need to name the boy. She suggested that naming him would paradoxically reduce him to a stereotype, because then I'd be writing this little village boy and the view wouldn't be large enough. The confines of my own mind would get in the way. She didn't say that but when she raised the point, I understood where I was straying from the story's natural tilt. The boy needed to be himself but he also needed to be anyone. He could be the reader. Not naming him places the reader with him as he puts the rocks around the green thing growing in the road. So that was my lesson in keeping didacticism at bay, that when the conventions of story lead you toward it you need to stay true to the heart of the story.  

JL: I know you've been traveling back and forth to India recently, and when I think of that kind of long trip,  I think of Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say, where the main character has two places that call to him as home, and he always misses one home when he's in the other. Does India exert that kind of pull on you, as not only a place where members of your family live, but where you feel at home in the culture and miss it when you're not there?
UK: Always. But I feel very fortunate too, to be able to have a foot in two continents, so to speak. When I was in Singapore speaking at the Asian Festival of Children's Content, the speakers' name tags had names and countries on them. Most people had one. They had me listed as "Uma Krishnaswami, India/USA" I loved that. It's who I am. So yes, you miss one place when you're in the other, but you also carry both around with you in a kind of emotional map.  

JL: Do you have a "Quick Tip" for picture book writers? 

UK: Yes: Out of the way! Out of the way! Let the story tell you where it wants to go. 

JL: Excellent advice - sometimes hard to follow, but worth it! Thanks, Uma - see you soon out in Vermont!

Uma is an expert picture book author and teacher, rotating in on a regular basis to teach the Picture Book Certificate semester at VCFA  - and she's also published longer fiction and folklore (Naming Maya and The Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha, and books for teachers (Beyond the Field Trip: Teaching and Learning in Public Places.)

You can read more about Uma and her books at her blog, WRITING WITH A BROKEN TUSK.

ORDER OUT OF THE WAY! OUT OF THE WAY ($6.95)  at the Tukila Press web site.


  1. Great interview. Uma's realization that "The boy needed to be himself but he also needed to be anyone" to avoid didacticism is powerful. Rather than the reader being on the other side of the desk being lectured to, with feet swinging high off the floor, she is pulled into the story and becomes a participant. Wonderful! Thanks Julie and Uma! And hurray for Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

  2. Awww, I loved reading about how Uma has two homes (India and the U.S.). :o)

  3. I ordered the Tamil language version of Out of the Way! Out of the Way! to give to my daugher and son-in-law.