A Conversation Between Author Shana Burg and Editor Michelle Poploff
Today we’re thrilled to welcome author Shana Burg and her editor, Michelle Poploff to our blog to discuss the story behind Shana’s upcoming novel, LAUGH WITH THE MOON. Shana’s first middle grade novel, A THOUSAND NEVER EVERS, was our group’s Rep Pick the season it was published, and her new book is just as thoughtful and beautifully-written. Kirkus Reviews said, “Melding the colors of heartache and loss with painterly strokes, Burg creates a vivid work of art about a girl grieving for her recently deceased mother against a Third World backdrop.” We know you will be even more excited to read this book, out June 12, once you hear the remarkable experience that inspired it.
Michelle Poploff : Do you remember back when you were thinking about what to write after A THOUSAND NEVER EVERS?
Shana Burg: Yes, we were tossing around a lot of ideas. You finally said, “Well, what are you really, really passionate about?” And that’s when it hit me: I needed to write about my experience in Malawi.
Michelle: How did you end up traveling to Malawi in the first place?
Shana: Well, I was at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard getting my master in public policy. I worked for a professor at the Harvard Institute of International Development, who was investigating whether girls were getting the same access to learning materials (pens, paper, teachers) as boys in Malawi.
You see, the government used to charge about three dollars a year for a primary school student to attend. As a result, a lot of families kept their daughters home to fetch water, clean the hut, and cook, while they sent their sons to school to get an education. Then in the early 1990s, the Government of Malawi began to phase in free primary education. Girls flooded the schools.
I read loads of reports about the education system in Malawi before I went. I stayed at the Save the Children compound in Mangochi, which is a four hour drive from the airport through the bush. Each day I traveled to a different school, where I interviewed literally hundreds of teachers, parents, students, and school administrators with the help of my translator, Norman. What I found was that no one—boys or girls—had very many learning materials at all.
At most schools, there were not enough classrooms, so students learned outside under the trees, and during the rains, they crowded into other classrooms or went home. I visited many classes that had hundreds of students in a single room. Because there was hardly any paper, students learned to write with sticks in the dirt or they made letters using the clay from termite hills.
Often there were no desks, so kids sat together on the floors. There was dirt everywhere. When I asked students what they wanted most, the loud and clear consensus was soap—they wanted to be clean. At another school, I held a roundtable with a group of parents. What did they want? They desperately wanted to learn to read, so they could help their children with their schoolwork. And I’ll never forget at another school, the headmaster wanted my address so that he could write to me but he couldn’t find a piece of paper anywhere in his office to jot it down on. Eventually he turned up the back of an old envelope, and I wrote my address for him on that.
Michelle: What about all the details that you needed to know to write a book set in Africa? Surely, you needed to do additional research.
Shana: Yes, I did. I was so fortunate to have two different research assistants in the course of writing this book: Felicity Charity Mponda (who is now deceased) and Lovemore Nkhata, who lived in Malawi and had internet access. They each answered hundreds and hundreds of questions and told me extensively about their own childhoods growing up in rural Malawi. Many of their anecdotes are woven through the pages of LAUGH WITH THE MOON.
Michelle: What sticks with you most about your experience in Malawi?
Shana: What amazed me most—and stays with me to this day—is the resilience and joyfulness of the people I met. Despite the hardships, they were innovating with what they had. At one school, students wove mats out of dried palm leaves, so that they didn’t have to get their clothes dirty when they sat on the floor. At another school, a teacher asked students to collect rocks from outside and used those to teach math. At every turn, students and teachers were doing the best they could with what was available.
I taught sixth-grade in Brookline, Massachusetts. Every year, I showed my students pictures from my visit to Malawi. They loved to hear about the lives of their peers halfway around the world.
In LAUGH WITH THE MOON my protagonist, Clare, is an urban 13-year-old from the Boston area. She thinks she knows a lot and has little to learn by being stuck in what she calls “the middle of nowhere.” But, just as I did, she travels to Malawi and is forever transformed by the friends she meets there.