Wednesday, July 25, 2012

An Interview with Shana Burg, author of Laugh With the Moon

I'm so excited to welcome author Shana Burg to Read Write Reflect today. Shana was kind enough to answer questions about her writing process and her new book, Laugh With the Moon. I'm bookmarking this page for the fall to share with my students in writing workshop. And please see the bottom of the post for a giveaway of Shana's new book! 
To see more from Shana, check her out at these blogs! 
7/17: Sharp Read

What books have influenced you as a writer?
When I taught sixth grade language arts and social studies, I really paid attention to the stories that transported my students and me to other places and times. For example, we were fascinated to learn about the Dust Bowl, while reading the compelling tale of Billy Jo in Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. We learned about Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps after World War II by reading Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Despite all of our advances in technology, books like these are still the closest things we’ve got to time travel machines.

What was your favorite children’s book when you were a child?
I loved the Nancy Drew books, as well as anything by Judy Blume or Paul Zindel. In high school, I liked books that were heavy on the facts, like Cry the Beloved Country, about life under Apartheid in South Africa, and Johnny Got His Gun, about a man who returned from fighting in Vietnam without arms or legs, but with his mind perfectly intact.

When did writing become part of your life? How has it evolved?
One of Shana's first poems from fourth grade.
I first discovered that I loved to write when my fourth-grade teacher assigned us to make our own books of poetry. I was instantly hooked. The next year, I proposed a class newspaper, and I became editor of The Razzling Dazzling Room Review. In high school, I wrote for two newspapers and then began keeping journals and writing stories. It was only as an adult that I took creative writing classes and tried to publish my fiction.
People always say, “Write what you know.” Because of that, I used to think that in order to write a good story, you had to have survived a shark attack or at least parachuted out of an airplane into enemy territory. Then one of my elementary school teachers pointed out that everyone has an interesting life—it’s all about observing the emotions and the details. After that, I began to see stories everywhere.

What is your writing routine? Do you write in the same place? Do you need quiet or do you listen to music as you write? 
I work a full-time job right now, so most of my writing happens at night or on the weekends. Because my writing time is at a premium, I’m always daydreaming about when I will get to write again and what scene or chapter I’ll tackle next.
Sometimes I write at home, but if possible, I like to write at a cafĂ© with a big cup of hot chocolate beside me. I bring earplugs, though, in case the music is too loud, or in case the barrista is yelling at the top of her lungs, “Double mocha frappuccino two pump extra foam!!”

What do you hope your readers get from your books?
My first book, A Thousand Never Evers, tells the story of a 12-year-old African American girl who bravely leads her town in fighting discrimination in 1963, Mississippi. I hope readers of this book will understand that it was young people—sometimes even kids in elementary school—who stood up for justice in the civil rights movement and changed the course of history.
Laugh with the Moon is about a 12-year-old white girl from Massachusetts who travels to Malawi, Africa after the death of her mother. Her doctor father thinks she will heal there, but she is furious to be dragged away from her school and her friends, to live in what she considers “the middle of nowhere.” I hope readers of this book will realize that sometimes it is only through meeting people different from ourselves that we can receive the gifts we need to feel whole.

You mentioned you traveled to Malawi, were you immediately inspired to write upon returning or did Clare and her story come to you later?
While I was in Malawi, I kept a journal for myself. A few years after I had returned, I was teaching, and I showed my sixth-grade students photographs from my trip and told them about the Malawian people I had met. My students were riveted by how different life was there, and they really wanted to know more about the kids their age in that part of the world.
I didn’t think about using my journal and photos as a basis for a book, though, until I had finished writing my first book, and my editor said, “What are you going to write about now?” I told her I wasn’t really sure. Then she said, “Well, what are you passionate about?” As soon as she asked me that question, I knew the answer: I was passionate about the people I’d met in Malawi—people who are smart and joyful despite having so little. I was passionate about telling the stories I’d shared with my sixth graders with a much larger audience.

What lessons did you take away from your travel to Malawi?
The biggest lesson is this: People in Africa who are living in extreme poverty might need aid from richer countries, but they don’t need pity. My friends from Malawi are vibrant, resourceful, and wise. They love their families and they like to have fun. And they have much more experience with surviving hardship than I do. That means they can teach me a lot about being resilient through life. 

What future do you see for Memory? For Clare? For Saidi?
These are excellent questions. Because I haven’t ruled out the possibility of writing a sequel to Laugh with the Moon, I am going to keep the future paths of these characters to myself. But I’d love to know what you imagine for them!

Why do you think Agnes is the way she is? (Side note – I really enjoyed Agnes’s journey)
I’m glad you enjoyed Agnes. Just like here in the United States, there are always some kids who are more competitive and bitter than others. Sometimes they have good reason to be that way and other times they don’t.
As for Agnes, she is always trying to prove herself at home and at school. She has lots of brothers but is the only girl in her family, so in addition to going to school, she is the only sibling who cooks, cleans, fetches water, and helps with her younger brother. (This piece of her back story didn’t make it into the book, but it still informed how I wrote her character.)
Also, Agnes wants to be first in the class but is frustrated to no end that she can’t seem to surpass Memory. These are the reasons for her frustrations. Then she sees Clare come along, who is enormously wealthy next to her, and she’s enraged and jealous.

As a teacher I have a feeling that children will read this story and want to help children like Memory, Innocent, and Saidi. Would you have any advice for them?
Many Malawian teachers really would love pen pals for their students. The letters kids write in English are so exciting that they inspire Malawian children to go to school just to receive the letters, and they also help Malawian children learn to read and write English. This is huge! If you are a teacher looking for pen-pals for your students, or if you are a student, you might contact Erin Mwalwanda at: or Sarah Greenberg:
World Altering Medicine (WAM) is one of my favorite organizations that works to help children in Malawi. In fact, Dr. Kevin Bergman, one of the founders of WAM helped me with the research for Laugh with the Moon. Dr. Bergman says that just $2 can buy a dose of life-saving medicine for a child and thousands can transform an entire community. To find out more about WAM and how kids are joining forces with WAM to help their peers halfway across the world, click here:

Giveaway Rules
1. The giveaway will run from July 25, 2012 to midnight on July 27, 2012.
2. This contest is open to people living in the continental United States.
3. You must be at least 13 to enter.
4. If you can, please pay it forward. Thanks!