Kashmira Sheth's children's fiction makes connections between worlds

From India to Madison

Madison's Kashmira Sheth has written four award-winning novels for middle grade and teen readers, and a popular chapter book for six- to nine-year-olds, but right now her picture books are what she's excited to talk about. The most recent, out this past April, is Tiger in My Soup, an imaginative and gently humorous tale brought vividly to life by Jeffrey Ebbeler's illustrations.

"He really got my story," she says of Ebbeler, pointing to a few of the many well-chosen details, like a colander the boy wears on his head like a helmet while battling a ferocious imaginary tiger, and the hoodie and earphones his self-absorbed big sister wears as she ignores his persistent pleas for her to read him a story.

Sheth is equally pleased with the collaboration on her two previous picture books, My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon, both gentler in pace and tone, and fittingly illustrated by the pastel watercolors of Yoshiko Jaeggi.

All three picture books are so beautiful and thoughtfully written, any child (and her parents) would love having them.

Yet I can't help wondering how the author of such nuanced fiction for older children came to write for this age group.

"I tend to write from the world I live in," Sheth says, "and I have a 2 1/2-year-old granddaughter now."

In fact, it was when her own two daughters became school-aged that Sheth, immersed in the children's literature they were reading together, found the inspiration to begin writing herself.

"I started out wanting to share with my daughters a little bit of my own journey," she explains.

That journey included leaving her home in India at the age of 17 for college in Ames, Iowa. Those first writings evolved over time to become Blue Jasmine, a middle-grade novel about 12-year-old Sheema, who comes with her family from her small Indian town to live in Iowa City. The novel received numerous honors, including the Paul Zindel First Novel Award, and was named the Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Outstanding Book by the Wisconsin Library Association in 2005.

English was not Sheth's first language. Born in a small town in the Indian state of Gujarat, she spoke and received her early education in Gujarati, a circumstance she is glad about today.

"You understand so much more about a culture from the inside by knowing its language," she says.

Sheth, who began learning English in the fifth grade, believes strongly that children should learn a language other than their own. "Reading in another language really opens up that world in a way it wouldn't otherwise."

Also worth noting, she was trained for a career in the sciences. It was a job in microbiology that first brought her to Madison after graduate school.

"But my family were always storytellers," she says, by way of explaining how writing has become the career of her heart. It may be one of the reasons she tends to write in first person, so that it truly feels as if she herself is telling the story.

Sheth is not one of those writers who follow a particular routine. She regularly has several writing projects going at once, so if one of them gets bogged down, she has others to work on. She admits to getting more writing done in the winter because spring and summer are the seasons for going into the garden in the early hours of the day. And the physical work of gardening provides a nice counterpoint to the mental work of creating a story. Planting, weeding and turning over the dirt "is a great way to solve the manuscript roadblock problems," she says.

Though several of Sheth's novels are set in India, and all her books feature protagonists of South Asian heritage, she can't help wishing that publishers, libraries and booksellers would stop categorizing her work as "multicultural."

"I would like to see all children picking up books that are set in different places and times from their own, so they can get a flavor of the larger world."

The multicultural designation, she worries, may act unintentionally to make children and parents think that only children of color will have interest in those characters and subject matter. Sheth believes that her characters -- their feelings and concerns -- are relatable to children of any culture, even those from very different circumstances. And several of her stories could have been told by any child anywhere.

"All of my stories are rooted in family," she says, and families everywhere deal with the same joys and struggles. Siblings get into mischief together; families move and their children must start over at new schools; and all children want pets and friends and connections. These are the details of life that Sheth pays careful attention to, and they are what give her storytelling a resonance beyond the culture of the children they depict.

ON THE BOOKSHELF

Teen novels (age 12-plus)
Koyal Dark, Mango Sweet: A coming-of-age story set in modern Mumbai about a young girl who struggles between her desire to make her own choices and her parents' traditional views about arranged marriage.
Keeping Corner: The rise of Gandhi's nonviolent nationalist movement is the backdrop for the compelling story of a Gujarati girl, married at 9 and widowed at 12, who is expected to follow the Indian custom of staying confined to her home after her husband's death.

Middle-grade novels (age 9-plus)
Blue Jasmine: A terrific, nuanced story of a young girl who moves with her parents to Iowa City, leaving behind everything she loves in her small Indian village.
Boys Without Names: An 11-year-old boy learns the power of storytelling as a way to keep his identity and sense of connection after being tricked into work in a Mumbai sweatshop. Transformative, and more uplifting than it sounds.

Chapter book (ages 6-9)
No Dogs Allowed Rule: The misadventures of Nishan, who tries to be helpful to his mother as a way of convincing her to let him have a dog.

Picture books
Tiger in My Soup: A lively story about the power of imagination.
My Dadima Wears a Sari: A charming tribute to traditional Indian dress. With sari-wrapping instructional photos at the end.
Monsoon Afternoon: A grandfather teaches his grandson about the pleasures of monsoon season.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Young love

Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (Near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.

Mama Madison: What a mother fears most

All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.

Operation Fresh Start's Youth Conservation Corps helps kids, and kids help parks

Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.

Mama Madison: Summer stress solved by yoga

The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.

Mama Madison: The greatest fans of road repair

Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.

Mama Madison: The alarm sounds

As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.

Mama Madison: My summer book list

For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.

Make Music Madison gives young artists a chance to perform

The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.

Mama Madison: Watching talent grow

Last week, for the first time, I made my way up to one of the open gallery nights during Madison West's Fine Arts Week, the school's annual showcase for all things creative. The scope of the event is huge, with nearly 1,600 students participating, and the quality of the presented works is phenomenal. It's almost as if the school had been lifted off its perch on Regent Street and traveled back in time to Belle Époque Paris.

Mama Madison: Writing time at Olbrich

If you have aspiring authors in your house, this summer offers a fabulous opportunity for them refine their writing skills. For its second summer, the Greater Madison Writing Project, in partnership with Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is sponsoring two week-long camps in August for young writers entering grades 3-8.

Mama Madison: When UW-Madison's semester is over, the kids want out too

There are lots of benefits to living in a college town. First and foremost, there is always something going on -- a lecture, a film series. Maybe even a protest, if you're lucky. And since becoming a Madisonian, I, for the first time in my life, find myself interested in college football.

Mama Madison: Another amazing talent show

My passion for the talent show clearly runs deep, but I'm more than just a fangirl. This year marked my second as one of the "Ziegfelds" of the Follies, Hamilton's annual showcase for singers, musicians, dancers and other varied forms of entertainment. Trust me, when you are part of the spectacle's "producing/directing" team you get a new-found appreciation for how hard the kids worked to get up on stage.

Mama Madison: Preserving children's stories

My daughter, who turned twelve just this past week, is not legally "of age" when it comes to social media. But I guess, in many respects, especially in those that involve screens, I am a permissive pushover. I've allowed her join some networks.

Tenting tonight? Not so fast -- take the time to prepare for the first family camping trip

What adults love about camping -- sleeping under the stars, getting away from it all, the sounds of nature -- can be scary for children. It's dark in a tent. Nothing is familiar. Of course, camping with kids is more work for adults, too. Stay cool, live in the moment. Forget about that lost fork. Making s'mores, spotting wildlife, that's what kids will remember.

Mama Madison: It's time for the college tour

I have just returned from a whirlwind, five-day, four-city college tour with my son. You know those "101 Things to Know Before Visiting Disney World" guidebooks that experienced theme park travelers have written to help the uninitiated? I think I am now officially seasoned enough in information sessions and campus tours to give some serious thought to penning a similar "insiders guide" for the junior-year parent.

Mama Madison: When mom gets a new roomie

This past week, against both my will and better judgement, I accompanied 50 or so middle school kids to the Future Problem Solvers Wisconsin State Bowl, a popular academic and skit-writing competition.

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.

Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.

A summer camp quiz for parents

If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.


Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!