Get to Know Asian American Children’s Authors: Sheela Chari, Author of Vanished
1) Which of your characters do you most identify with and why?
Sheela Chari: Vanished was first written as a gift for my niece, so the main character, Neela, bears her name. In the beginning, I assumed the main character would be her, too. But over time I found myself slowly creeping away from the person in real life I knew, to someone fictional on paper. Eventually Neela turned into someone different. As I kept writing, I found that there was a lot of me in this unfolding character – that I finally had a chance to write about a part of myself I had never articulated before.
Aside from being on a hunt for her missing instrument, Neela is afraid of playing in public. She has stage fright. Well, so did I. It took me years to realize there was a name for it. When I was in college, I felt a vague, nameless shame when auditioning and performing on my violin in front of others. But as I wrote about Neela and her fear of performing on her veena, I realized it was one of the most natural and fundamental fears that many artists face. It’s all about other people’s perception of you, and whether you can rise to the impossible standards you imagine out there.
By the end of Vanished, Neela comes to terms with performing, by arriving at the idea that creating music is done first and foremost for yourself. This was an idea that took me years to embrace. It might sound a little corny – putting yourself first when it comes to music – but I think it’s so important to convey to young people, who face the pressures of being musicians at an age where music can be all about performance and competition, and less about the pleasure and satisfaction of playing.
2) If you could give your Asian American kid readers one piece of advice, what would it be?
SC: This is a great question. Last year I began teaching a writing workshop for Indian-American kids, and at the end of every class, I held a drawing for a free book. At first I just wanted the kids to be excited about getting a brand-new book, so I tried really hard to offer crowd-pleasers – popular books that would be safe bets. But there was also a part of me that really wanted to use this opportunity to introduce books with multi-ethnic characters – especially Indian-American ones – that my students might otherwise not know about. I found that over the year, I could offer a mixture of both, and by doing a short reading at the beginning, I could pique their interests as long as the book was interesting.
And that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? So my advice to young Asian-American kid readers is this – there are some really wonderful multicultural/ multi-ethnic charactered books out there. But you have to seek them out. You have to demand them by asking for them from your bookstores and libraries and parents. You don’t always have to read about characters that look different from you. On the same token, you don’t have read only one kind of book about Asian-Americans either – the horizon is opening up to include fantasy, mystery, adventure and even historical fiction. In the end, an interesting book can be about anybody in any circumstance, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open.
3) Who is your favorite Asian American children’s author right now (other than yourself)?
SC: Ah! I don’t have favorite writers.There are so many wonderful ones out there, I couldn’t limit myself to one or two. But I will mention the last Asian-American themed book that delighted me and has stayed with me for a long time. I absolutely loved The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, which won the National Book Award and the APALA Children’s Literature Award, for which I served on the awards committee. Kadohata does a wonderful job of weaving together the lives of an American working class family and their Japanese heritage – of capturing small-town middle-America farming life along with what it means to be a Japanese-American twelve-year old girl growing up in its midst. Best of all, Kadohata goes beyond race and circumstance to write a thoughtful story about the patterns of our lives, the coming and going of seasons, of luck, and of triumphing over setbacks.
About the author:
Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED, a 2012 APALA Children’s Literature Honor Book; an Edgar nominee for best juvenile mystery; and an Al’s Book Club Pick on the Today Show. Sheela has an MFA in creative writing from New York University, and teaches writing at the Rye Arts Center. She lives in New York with her family.