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.

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