Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Our Friend is Here: Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of May, where Asian and Pasifika authors are invited to celebrate being Asian and Pasifika work and literature! Find the introduction post for Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month here.
If you have ever asked me for a middle-grade or novel-in-verse book recommendation, then I would have recommended to you Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. To this day, Other Words For Home remains to be one of my favourite books of all time – Jasmine’s beautiful words burrow a way into your heart, making a home there, and will stay and carry you. When I was planning Asian Pasifika Heritage Month, Jasmine was among the people that I absolutely had to invite. And I am so excited to be here today, having Jasmine visit the Pond.
Friends, it is such an honour to have Jasmine Warga visiting us today at the Pond. She visits us as a walrus wearing a pink skirt (with lightning bolts on it!) and holding a pink book. (This may be one of my favourite pond-sonas I’ve ever drawn!) I am incredibly excited to share with you all the interview that I did with Jasmine, as we delve into Other Words for Home as well as her wonderful upcoming book, The Shape of Thunder, which releases tomorrow.
But, before I share the interview, I would like to introduce to you all The Shape of Thunder – which I know, without a shadow of a doubt, will be another effortless favourite book. I cannot wait to read it, and I hope you will all read it too!
The Shape of Thunder by Jasmine Warga
Cora hasn’t spoken to her best friend, Quinn, in a year.
Despite living next door to each other, they exist in separate worlds of grief. Cora is still grappling with the death of her beloved sister in a school shooting, and Quinn is carrying the guilt of what her brother did.
On the day of Cora’s twelfth birthday, Quinn leaves a box on her doorstep with a note. She has decided that the only way to fix things is to go back in time to the moment before her brother changed all their lives forever—and stop him.
In spite of herself, Cora wants to believe. And so the two former friends begin working together to open a wormhole in the fabric of the universe. But as they attempt to unravel the mysteries of time travel to save their siblings, they learn that the magic of their friendship may actually be the key to saving themselves.
Author Interview: Jasmine Warga
CW: Hi Jasmine! I am so excited that you’re visiting us at the Pond today; thank you so much for coming, and a huge and warm welcome to you. For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jasmine: Hi, CW! I’m thrilled to be with you here today. I’m a huge fan of the Pond, and appreciate all the work you do. I’m a reader, a writer, and a mama who is based in the Chicago area. I live in a house that is filled with books and is always a mess because my two young daughters are constantly working on some kind of art project–but I wouldn’t have it any other way <3. I’m the first-generation daughter of an Arab immigrant. I come from a long line of storytellers, but I’m the first in my family who has been granted this platform and audience and I take that responsibility really seriously. I’m so grateful to have the chance to tell stories because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I also hope to help to uplift the other voices of storytellers who for a long time have not had a voice in our mainstream publishing ecosystem. Waving hi to everyone!
CW: Your middle-grade book, Other Words for Home, remains to be one of my favourite books of all time. I’m speechless just thinking about it – it was just so immaculate and incredible, and I genuinely view it as a masterpiece. What was the ‘spark’ or the inspiration behind Other Words for Home, and how has the story grown since its first conception?
Jasmine: Oh my goodness. Thank you so much for your kind words. That’s very generous of you to say! The initial spark came all the way back in August 2013 when I was having dinner at a family friend’s house. At this dinner, I was introduced to relatives from the family that I had never met before that had come to the US because of the growing conflict in Syria. At this point, I knew a little bit about the unrest in Syria, but it wasn’t yet something that was being covered widely in our media here in America. But what sparked my imagination wasn’t so much the politics of the situation in Syria, but the dynamic that I was watching unfold between cousins who were born here in America and cousins who were born in Syria. It made me wonder about my own cousins who live in the Middle East, and what it would’ve been like for me when I was in junior high if my cousins had come to live with me.
So as you can see, the book was initially Sarah’s story! Which is very odd to think about since she, in lots of ways, is the antagonist of Other Words for Home. But as the idea lived in my head, it grew and it changed and it became Jude’s story. I think this change happened in part because of how frustrated I was by so many people’s negative reactions to the children fleeing from a warzone. It made me realize, and not for the first time, how many Americans have been led by our media to be scared of Arabs, scared of Muslims, and to link that whole region of the world with war and violence, and therefore, to believe that the people who live there are inherently violent. I wanted to tell a story that pushed back on that media narrative. And most of all, I wanted to tell the story I needed to read as a young person when the only media I could find about my cultural heritage and my family’s religion was intensely negative and demonizing.
CW: One of the things that I loved about Other Words for Home is that you explore Jude’s experiences – all of which are monumental and so life-changing, in every sense of the words – but you convey them in these beautiful and simple ways. What is your process when you write poetry? And what were the ‘places’ that you were writing from when you wrote Jude’s story in particular?
Jasmine: Oh, thank you again! I love the ability of the verse format to crystallize language in a way that helps you talk about profound and complex things but in an accessible and simple way. When I’m writing in verse, I’m always reading everything out loud to myself over and over again. I want the words to sound a certain way. I’m always concerned with the phonetic sound of my writing, but even more so when I’m writing verse. And when I’m writing verse, I think I write more from the heart and less from the head. Some of my prose books are a bit more brainy if that makes sense, whereas a verse novel is pure heart.
CW: A lot of beautiful themes emerge in Other Words for Home, but what resonated with me in particular was the ’otherness’ that Jude experiences in America and how joy can feel like a personal resistance to that ‘otherness’. Why was it important to you, and for your readers, to explore this duality?
Jasmine: As difficult as Jude’s journey is it was really important for me to showcase and center joy. I think so often when we read the stories of refugee children we focus on trauma. And in doing so, we reduce those children down to their pain. We sensationalize the toughness of the journey, and in doing so, sort of reduce these kids down to caricatures. I wanted to show Jude in all of her complexity. It was really important to me that she wasn’t a caricature and that she didn’t solely exist for the reader to “feel bad” for her.
I do think joy is a resistance to otherness–it is a way of saying that Jude belongs here and Jude can thrive here. I also hope that in showing that readers will recognize that they are more than just the sum of their pain, and that their joy is important and meaningful too.
CW: Congratulations on your latest book, The Shape of Thunder, which released on May 11th! I’m really looking forward to reading it. In this middle-grade book, you explore friendship, grief, and gun violence. What was the inspiration behind The Shape of Thunder?
Jasmine: Oh, thank you! I hope it will resonate with you when you read it. The Shape of Thunder started with me wondering how I was going to talk to my own young children about active shooting drills. It came from wondering about what it means to live in a country, to grow up in a country that has accepted and normalized so much violence. What is about our culture that is breeding this violence? That is causing young people to become violent? I also was thinking a lot about deferred responsibility–how our young people feel this pressure to fix this problem that shouldn’t be theirs to fix. That we’ve thrust the responsibility onto them with the active shooting drills and etc. So my two main characters–Cora and Quinn–were born out of thinking about that responsibility that kids feel today. And the trauma and stress of that. You know, when I was a young person, I searched for books that would be honest with me. That would tell me the truth about the world. I liked books that challenged me because I felt seen and empowered by those books. My hope is that kids will feel empowered by this book. That they’ll know someone sees them, that this isn’t okay, but also that they have the ability to help change things.
CW: How did your experience of writing Other Words for Home differ to The Shape of Thunder? In what ways were your experiences of writing the two similar?
Jasmine: You know, every book is different. I think Other Words for Home was a tad bit different than writing The Shape of Thunder in that I was deeply thinking a lot about my own family history and my own relationship with my identity. For The Shape of Thunder, I was grappling with one of my biggest fears as a mother. But the processes were similar because they were mired in self doubt. Every book I write feels impossible at first. The first drafts are so messy and it all feels overwhelming. But for each one, I struggle through it, and eventually find that click.
CW: Another thing that I loved – to be honest, I loved so many things about it – about Other Words for Home is how, at the heart of this book, it’s about hope, and I know that The Shape of Thunder is written with hope and healing as well. As a parent and a writer, what does it mean to you to write hope into your stories?
Jasmine: There’s a famous quote from Katherine Patterson where she says when you write for young people you are duty bound to write with hope. And I think that’s so true. You can write about really tough things–you can be honest with kids, and they deserve that honesty–but you also have to leave them with a sense of possibility that they can help change and make the world better than it is. It’s so important to me to make sure kids know their power–that they feel like their voice and actions can make a difference. To me, and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, but the takeaway message from The Shape of Thunder is that you–the young reader–are magic. You are what can help change the world.
CW: Thank you so much for visiting, Jasmine. It was such an honour to have you! My last question is a question I love to ask all of our guests: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?
Jasmine: I have two answers to this–Musakhan, which is a traditional Palestinian dish that I grew up eating and just reminds me of childhood. I now make it for my own kids, and they love it, and it’s so fun to share that food memory with them–to have them now associate it with home. And the second would be Graeter’s Black Raspberry Chip ice cream. Graeter’s is a famous ice cream shop in Cincinnati, my hometown, and whenever I eat that ice cream, I feel like I’m home.
About the Author
Jasmine Warga is the author of the New York Times bestseller Other Words For Home. Other Words For Home earned multiple awards, including a John Newbery Honor, a Walter Honor for Young Readers, and a Charlotte Huck Honor. She is also the author of young adult books, My Heart and Other Black Holes and Here We Are Now, which have been translated into over twenty different languages. The Shape of Thunder, her next novel for middle grade readers, will be published in May 2021. Originally from Cincinnati, she now lives in the Chicago-area with her family.