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.
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.
I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.
It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders " 10 boys and six girls " enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.
Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.
Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.
Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.
Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.
Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.
This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.
In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.
In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.
It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.
Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.
Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.
The week between Christmas and New Year's is famous for all sorts of things. Malls are packed with folks exchanging those holiday sweaters that don't fit just right. It's the week those same folks pledge to never again eat another frosted sugar cookie or candy cane (hence the sweater issues). It's also the week the media saturates the public with dozens of "Best of Year" lists.
This will not (although it could) be a treatise on the value of "alone time" for a healthy marriage, though. Nor will it be an ode to how nice it was for me to have a few days off from lunch-packing, carpool-driving and homework-nagging.
For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.
If I had my druthers, I'd sit out the entire shopping week that follows Thanksgiving. Black Friday, for starters, has corrupted the fine art of bargain shopping and turned it into a gladiator sport. There is no percentage off that is worth losing sleep, or even worse an eye, over. Especially if you have kids in tow.
When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
Many of the pop-culture seasonal touchpoints of my youth are completely lost on my kids. You see, while I may have memorized every word to both the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser's songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, I'm pretty sure the only Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special my kids have ever seen has been Rudolph.
I am so thrilled that the United Way is sponsoring a Teen Gift Drive this holiday season. Sure, teen "wants" often aren't as fun to shop for as precious baby dolls and sweet Lego sets. But middle and high school kids still "need" to feel valued and loved during this time of year. And helping a family in need to provide this for their child is a wonderful way to get in the spirit.