Friday, October 26, 2012

Industry Q&A with author Shana Burg

Tell us about your most recent book and how you came to write it.

My second middle grade novel, Laugh with the Moon, was published in June, 2012 (Random House). It tells the story of a 13-year-old girl from Boston named Clare Silver who goes to Malawi, Africa for nine weeks, after the recent death of her mother. Though Clare is furious at her father for taking her away from her friends to live in the jungle, she soon discovered the reason behind her father’s motivation—it is healing to be among peers who, for better or worse, are expert at dealing with grief.

The novel is based on my own experience visiting Malawi, and I drew from the friendships I made with the people I met here.

Do you think of yourself as a diverse author?

I’d say yes and no. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, so I look white. But growing up in Massachusetts, I always felt an outsider in a town where there were country clubs, but only token Jewish and black members were allowed to join.  I was born in Birmingham, Alabama, where my father was a civil rights lawyer and a partner in the first integrated law firm in the state since Reconstruction. So while I’m not a person of color, I probably identify with the struggles more than some other people.

Who is your favorite character of all time in children’s or young adult literature?

I would have to say Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is a white prep school boy, who fully embodies the character of an outsider looking in on a mainstream culture, as he tries to make sense of it for himself.

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you are forced to sell all of the books you own except for one. Which do you keep?

Oh, man! That is evil, even hypothetically speaking. Okay, let’s see…after agonizing deliberation, I have chosen The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I love this story for so many different reasons. First, I learned a ton about the politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, we get to see the quizzical and endearing narrator Amir come of age while trying to make sense of the caste system so much a part of his everyday life. Also, all of the characters have such richly developed back stories and the writing is gorgeous to boot.  To me, this is a perfect novel.

What does diversity mean to you as you think about your own books?

Diversity can mean having a novel told from the point of view of a character of color. My first book, A Thousand Never Evers, was set in 1963, Mississippi and told from the point of view of a 12-year-old African American girl, who takes it upon herself to free her beloved uncle whose been jailed for a crime and rumored to be lynched.

But to me, defining diversity by the background of the narrator is too narrow. True diversity occurs at the spot where reader and story intersect. Without knowing who our readers are, we can’t say whether our books are diverse or not.

Part of diversity is opening the minds of readers to points of view, politics, history, and cultures they have never before examined in the same way. It’s only because A Thousand Never Evers is being read by many young people and adults of all backgrounds—people who were previously unfamiliar with many details the civil rights movement—that this novel, to me, is diverse.

What is your thought process in including or excluding characters of diverse backgrounds?

Because a person’s heritage and culture is often a fundamental part of his or her identity, if I’m being true to the story I want to tell, the characters’ backgrounds often emerge without much conscious thought. For example, in Laugh with the Moon, one of the protagonist’s closest friends is a Malawian boy named Saidi. I really didn’t think much about the fact that he is Muslim, and it’s not even mentioned overtly in the story, but the way I saw him in my mind, I knew that he was.

That said, before I get to the writing process, I do extensive—and I do mean extensive—research. For A Thousand Never Evers, I interviewed many African American people from Mississippi, who were children and teens during the civil rights movement. And in the case of Laugh with the Moon, Malawian research assistants answered hundreds of questions for me, and I also listened to cassette recordings of the interviews I had conducted with Malawian children, parents, and teachers, in order to absorb the cadence of local dialogue.

Please write an example of a paragraph that is tone deaf when it comes to cultural diversity, then write the correct version. Explain the differences in the third paragraph.

Paragraph 1
We black folks need protection, and many of us really don’t know what to do to fight injustice and protect ourselves, so we have to rely on Reverend Walker and his Brigade. Them dumb whites just near about kilt my brother, so now the brigade need go find my brother day before yesterday.

Paragraph 2
Whenever times get rough, Reverend Walker finds men with guns to stand guard by the railroad track and surround the home of anyone threatened. Folks call it the Reverend’s Brigade. But tonight one of their own is missing, so now the brigade has a different job: find Elias before the sheriff.

The first paragraph above is tone deaf and plain old factually wrong. During the civil rights movement, African Americans of all ages risked their lives to fight injustice on a regular basis. (Of course, if the point is that the character speaking is an unreliable narrator, then it would be okay.) Also, though there is a Southern dialect particular to that time and place, this paragraph displays an exaggeration and misrepresentation of that dialect. The second paragraph is the version that actually appears in A Thousand Never Evers.

Shana Burg is the award-winning author of A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008) and Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012). She lives with her husband, son, and dog, Athena, in Austin, Texas. You can visit her at and friend her on Twitter @ShanaBurgWrites and on Facebook at


  1. What an excellent interview and take on the importance of diversity in the literature world. I can't wait to read more from Shana Burg!

  2. Thanks, Paula. I'm really honored to be interviewed on the CBC Diversity Blog--and I loved answering these questions. They were unique and made me think.

  3. Thanks to Shana and the CDC for this interview! We've ordered this for our school library, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Our school has a large number of immigrants from various African countries, and I would love to hand them a novel set in a country from their home continent. Although the nations of Africa are so diverse in terms of culture, language and religion, I think it's so important to have a range of cultures reflected in the books on our shelves.

    I just may use Shana's three-paragraph sample with kids when we talk about stereotypes, and perhaps do a similar writing exercise together before we read her books. Our students come from 39 countries, so it would be interesting to see how they think other perceive them and compare that to how they actually see themselves.

  4. I've never wrote any books, I have to admit.But I also have to say what great appreciation I have for writers for their patience. There is some people with great spirit for writing books read by millions and those without like me. Mr. Odszkodowania Anglia