Rich in books

I’m ashamed to admit that it took chaperoning a fifth grade class trip to the Rockville Memorial Library for me to remember how much I love the library. The old Rockville library, the site of the new District courthouse, was a huge part of my childhood. The stairs in the building were open, and as a little kid I was terrified of falling through the spaces between them. But that didn’t prevent me from looking forward to leaving with a bag full of books, feeling rich. Throughout my teens, the library was where I did my research projects—searching through the microfiche and encyclopedias—and whispered with my friends during group projects.  But ever since college, with the explosion of bookstores, coffee shops, and the internet, I slowly minimized the role of the library in my life.

The old Rockville Library

Even after motherhood, although my older son and I would sometimes walk to the same Rockville library from our home, we still ended up in the Barnes and Noble kids’ section more often. Looking back, Barnes and Noble made it so easy—the kids loved playing with the train table, I could sit with a latte and chat with friends, and we all enjoyed story time. I’d usually let the kids buy a small book to take home, but realize now that they spent most of their time fixated on the one book they wanted. It wasn’t the same experience as the library, where there is no “you can’t have that,” or “put it back.” My mother never groaned when I had a stack of books too heavy for me to carry on my own. I know now that it delighted her to know that I would read them all.  

I cried when I saw the old library building get torn down. It felt like a part of me was being destroyed, even though the new Rockville Memorial Library was open. The new library is a breathtaking building, a truly lovely space to be in that I remember marveling over when it first opened five years ago. But I’ve only made sporadic visits since. During my son’s fieldtrip, while the kids looked up information for their research projects, I leisurely browsed the stacks and ended up with a pile of books I didn’t intend for myself. My son left saying, “I love the library,” and I decided that we need to make regular visits to build new memories in this special place together. I want my kids to understand what it’s like to feel rich in books, even when you have to give them back.

The New Rockville Memorial Library

Welcome to the jungle

As one of the less outdoors-inclined people I know, it took a stretch of imagination for me to write about trekking through the wild and wonderful Amazon for my latest choose-your-own-adventure book. Even though I’ve "hiked" through tropical rainforests in Costa Rica and Panama, they were basically strolls on paths where I stopped to photograph the light reflecting off the trees, spotted a few unique bugs, and caught glimpses of cute little monkeys. So when it came to depicting what it would be like to seriously hike along the largest river in the world and encounter jaguars, pit vipers, and piranhas, I definitely needed help.

Lucky for me, in addition to some great guidebooks, help came in the form of Ed Stafford, the Guinness world record holder for walking the entire length of the Amazon River basin in a journey that took him over almost two and half years. Ed generously shared his experiences with our team, and added authenticity and real-life drama to the story. I was riveted to hear firsthand accounts from him about his adventures, from battling swarms of bees to fighting fatigue to scaring off wild pigs-like animals called peccaries. And the American in me found it all extra thrilling to hear the stories narrated in his charming British accent.

Ed wrote a book about his journey called Walking the Amazon that was recently published, along with providing his insight to the Worst Case Scenario Ultimate Adventure: Amazon, which will be available next month. Reading it allows kids (and adults) to experience what it would be like to navigate the mighty jungle and survive like Ed . . . IF they make all the right choices and avoid the pitfalls. Writing it allowed me to dream of getting to the Amazon one day and inspired me to seek a little more outdoors adventure in my life.

What would you do?

My fifth grader recently needed to pick a quote that spoke to him for a school project. Searching for Martin Luther King, Jr., he selected a passage from his speeches that dealt with big issues like ignorance. I realized that, ironically, he didn’t quite understand what ignorance was, and urged him to choose something that really meant something to him. So he ended up finding a line from The Lorax about caring. His project made me think about quotes that resonate with me. I often see thought-provoking passages on Facebook statuses, in signatures, and in articles—beautiful words by the likes of Dr. Seuss, Lennon, Mandela, Rumi and Mother Theresa that serve to inspire, elevate, or ground us. But the one that kept coming to mind is a simple anonymous saying written on a pewter paperweight that my friend Shazia gave me years ago. It was a gift of encouragement as I prepared to go back to work for a research organization after consulting from home and raising my kids for five years. The paperweight says, “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I’ve never told Shazia that I often stared at that paperweight on my desk for the next five years at my office, at times thrilled with my decision to be there, and at other times hungry for something more creative. And I still look at it today, now sitting on the desk of my home office while I finally attempt to do exactly what I would if I knew I could not fail: writing for myself and trying to make a living doing what I love most. I’ve been blessed by the support and encouragement of my loved ones to take the risk, whether they realize it or not. Thanks, Shaz!


A book is born

Although my mailman recently left a package on my doorstep, it might as well have been delivered by the stork. I knew before opening it that it was an advance copy of a much anticipated bundle of joy: my newest picture book named Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns. Breathless, I tore open the padded envelope and slid out the book. And then, like a mother counting the fingers and toes on her newborn, I caressed its pages, marveled at the cover, and felt a rush of gratitude.

As I savored the richly detailed illustrations, I realized that an artist not only put beautiful pictures to my words but elevated them beyond what I ever thought possible. I was so fortunate to have Julie Paschkis illustrate Night of the Moon and know that much of the positive attention it received was due to her brilliant contribution. And now, with Mehrdokht Amini’s talent splashed across the pages of this book, I’m again awed by her creativity and artistry. I haven’t quite figured out how she got the layers of detail into her paintings, but it’s stunning.

I hope you all will welcome this new book into the world and am super excited to see the life it leads. The first step will be for it to hit the warehouses. Then it will travel to the desks of those in charge of editorial reviews and hopefully make a good impression. Finally, it’ll make its debut in bookstores sometime in the late spring. Like a parent, I’ll probably be sharing key moments and experiences with you. In the meantime, here’s the requisite baby photo. Stay tuned!   

Hole-y holidays

A few days ago my sister mentioned that she was going to read Night of the Moon to my twin nieces’ pre-K class to share the holiday of Eid. Even though Eid currently falls smack in the middle of summer, the teacher was thoughtfully trying to be inclusive of all kids during the holiday season. My sister was going to have the students do a craft I recommended and take a special snack: halwa, a traditional Pakistani dessert made from cream of wheat.

Scene from Night of the MoonWhen I was in second grade my mom had me bring an Eid treat to school: another Pakistani dessert, made with vermicelli noodles and condensed milk. Unbeknownst to me, to make it extra special, she had added fragrant rosewater.  “Ewwwww! It smells like perfume!” the kids all cried in disgust. I brought back the untouched bowl, filled with shame and pretty sure my fellow second graders wanted no part of the strange holiday known as Eid.

Fast forward twenty-five years to when my son was in preschool and his older Pakistani teacher assistant asked me to come in for a class Eid party. As I excitedly walked into the church basement, the smell of frying dough and onions filled the air. Auntie was in the kitchen making pakoras, savory dumplings. And, sure enough, she had brought Pakistani sweets—green and orange squares of sweet cheese, sprinkled with nuts and decorative foil. One by one, the kids wrinkled their noses as she offered the treats. Luckily, remembering second grade, I had come armed with donut holes, which I quickly passed around amidst cheers.

“Take donut holes,” I told my sister.

“You can do that?” she asked.

“Yes. Trust me.”

My sister reported that the kids listened to the story, made paper henna hands, enjoyed their donuts and might even have gained a little understanding of what Eid is—a festive time for family, friends, and delicious foods, whatever that means to different people. In our family, that means donuts and “sweet noodles,” as my kids call them. But we make sure to leave out the rosewater.  

Wishing everyone happy and delicious holidays!