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Archive for the ‘Southern Africa’ Category

JanayBrownWoodAuthor of Imani’s Moon, Janay Brown-Wood grew up in California, where she spent her childhood being surrounded by loving and creative family members. Through her school years, Wood could be found plopped with a notebook or computer jotting away stories, involved in adventures through books and movies, or somewhere stealing the show. She also participated in class performances, talent shows, sports, and leadership. Currently, Wood works as an Early Childhood Education professor and is married to her high school sweetheart.

Wood has wanted to be an author for most of her life. In her author notes written back in elementary school, Wood typically wrote: “I love to write stories. Mostly I write stories for kids around my age, but I can always make an exception. One of my goals is to become a wonderful and creative author, did you like my story?” After college, Wood began to actually pursue a creative field by joining SCBWI, attending conferences, taking classes to improve her craft, participating in a critique group, and just always writing stories.

Thanks to a critique partner who told her about the NAESP contest, Brown submitted Imani’s Moon, and that’s how she got her start. The inspiration came from a story that popped into her mind when she was in college. She started writing down this story about this boy who jumped to the moon, and her older sister reminded her about the Maasai tribe’s cultural jumping dance.

Imani’s Moon is the story of a young girl who perseveres even when others are telling her to quit. It’s the same kind of determination Woods has showed with her writing career. From the day she had the idea for the story until it was published took eight years, but Brown believed in the story.

Recently, Brown took time to answer my questions about family, mentors, childhood competitions, and of course her book. I’ll return tomorrow to review Imani’s Moon. Save the date: February 25!


ALLISON: Family seems to be important to you. How did your parents and sisters influence you?

JANAY: My family is such an integral part of my life. They are my rock.

My parents ingrained in me the importance of education and working hard. They taught me to never give up, to keep pushing myself, and to keep trying my best. They served (and still do serve) as support for my sisters and I. My two sisters themselves are my motivators too. When I was younger and had decided that I didn’t like reading books, I watched my older sister read books as if they were the best thing in the world, which made me want to read more. Plus, both of them are highly creative people as well (my older sister works in fashion and my younger sister uses her creative mind to conduct biomedical research as a student), so I think we push and complement each other.

Then there’s my giant extended family that includes so many loving and supporting members. My family is huge and always overflowing with joy and love and support. It makes me smile just thinking about all of them!

ALLISON: As a child, you participated in a lot of competitions as a child. Which one is the most memorable? Why?

JANAY: I never was a very shy child, so I loved having the opportunity to be front and center. I remember doing talent shows and school shows (one year my class sang a song from Oliver and Company and made sausages out of panty hose and cotton. It was awesome!). I also recited poetry at a competition called Peach Blossom. I even would write my own poems and recite them too. But, a competition that really stood out in my mind was Odyssey of the Mind. I participated in it more than once. I had to work with a group and creatively solve problems, which sometimes included writing skits and acting them out with my team. This was memorable because, looking back, I realize that I certainly was coming into my own with regards to things that I love to do. I certainly hope Odyssey of the Mind is still around today. It really was a great program for young students.

ALLISON: Who served as a role model or mentor for you as a teen?

JANAY: I have had a number of role models, but as a teen, there is one that really sticks out in my mind. I have an older cousin named Jeanette Harris who is a professional saxophonist. When I was younger, we would go watch her perform so my childhood was colored with jazz and Latin-inspired music because that’s what she played. And she was amazing. She IS amazing. I remember watching her on the stage, doing what she loved, being creative and fearless and inspirational, and I told myself that I wanted to do what I loved too. As a teen, I watched her continue to follow her dreams of being a musician, and now she travels the world and plays for sold-out crowds everywhere. I learned from watching her that hard work and perseverance pays off. It might take some time, but you can’t let that stop you. This has been an idea that I have constantly been reminded of by many people in my life. Jeanette is truly is an amazing saxophonist. See for yourself, check out her band’s website: Jeanette Harris Band

ALLISON: Why did you choose to study and pursue a field in child development?

JANAY: My aunt Annette has a child care center, which I attended when I was young. So, I was always around children. As I grew older, I would go back and help her, and I realized I enjoyed working with children. When I went off to UCLA, I learned about the fantastic programs that serve children and became involved. I was fascinated by the developing human brain, and how so many aspects can impact the growing child. I became interested in learning more about how to support the growth of young children. All in all, it does not feel like I chose to study child development. Instead, educating others is just a part of who I am, and I was able to do that in this field. It wasn’t later until I realized that I enjoyed teaching adult learners about children just as much as I enjoyed teaching children. Today, I have the pleasure of teaching students about early childhood education at American River College.


ALLISON: In one interview, you noted not yet having the privilege of meeting the Maasai people. What inspired you to set Imani’s Moon in Africa?

JANAY: Traveling to Africa is certainly on my to-do list, and I hope that one of my first stops will be the land of the Maasai. I am intrigued by their culture and I would love to go and learn more about them. I was inspired to set my book in Africa because after writing a few early drafts, I spoke with my older sister, Erin, who reminded me of the Maasai jumping dance. I did research, and everything fell perfectly into place.

ALLISON: In Imani’s Moon, her mama tells her of different heroes from myths. Which of these is your favorite? Why?

JANAY: I like the Anansi tales. This spider, also depicted as a man, is a determined trickster who often overcomes great obstacles. There are many different Anansi stories, and I have not come across one that I have not enjoyed.

ALLISON: What has been the most exciting part of about being published?

JANAY: Where should I start? There are a bazillion exciting parts! First, seeing Hazel Mitchell’s illustrations was mind-blowing. Her work lifted Imani right off the page, and is spectacular, so seeing her work for the first time is something I’ll never forget. Another exciting part is hearing people tell me how my words have touched them or their child. I cannot even clearly verbalize that feeling, when you know that your words inspired someone else to keep at it, to not give up, to not let others hold you down. It’s wonderful. It is also so exciting to read my book to eager listeners who ask questions and make connections as they listen. I love engaging children in thinking about literacy, so it is beyond exciting to blessed enough to be able to do this with my own work.

ALLISON: Do you have another book in the works?

JANAY: I do, I do! I have contract with Charlesbridge for a second picture book that is tentatively due out late 2016. I can’t tell too much, but I will say it is inspired by my fantastic family. More details to come!

Thank you so much for interviewing me. I hope everyone will read and enjoy Imani’s Moon. If you are interested in learning more about me, please feel free to visit my website, Janay Wood-Brown, and don’t forget to leave a comment on my blog! 🙂

Set in the near future in an unnamed location in Africa, Parched deals with the challenging conditions that drought can bring to children and their families. It also explores the brutality of the warfare which can result from lack of natural resources such as water. As such, Parched is not typical juvenile reading fare.

Its strength lies in its descriptions. In writing Parched, Melanie Crowder researched animals, plants, and geology, and it shows. From her references to aloe, baobab, and thorn trees, I instinctively felt this story happened in Africa. Moreover, from what I can find in dog guides, her depiction of the Ridgeback dogs (which are native to South Africa), are also accurate.

In addition, Crowder researched severe drought, trauma, and child psychology. This too becomes apparent in highly visceral descriptions of the land such as “ripples in the earth and the half-buried shells of long-dead water creatures were the only signs that creeks and marches had once streamed between the dry riverbeds.” As for the trauma, both of the main characters lose their parents to either disease or guerilla warfare. As a result, both become wary of others, which also puts them at odds with each other. Yet ultimately they’ll need to depend on one other to survive.

A weakness of Parched lies in the usage of dowsing by Musa, one of the main characters. Perhaps dowsing is practiced in Africa, but if so I was unable to find any confirmation of this. As such, I’m not sure why Crowder bestowed Musa with an ability borne from superstition and treats it as credible. This seems like an odd choice for an otherwise highly realistic novel.

Indeed, Parched is unusually brutal, given its target age of juveniles. Because of his dowsing skills, Musa is captured by thugs who chain him, drag him around by a leash, and even beat him. At one point, Crowder provides this dark scene: “A boy huddled in the corner, his face buried in the crook of an arm. Flies landed on seeping scabs at his wrists and ankles.” Incidentally, these thugs have no problem firing off guns at adults, animals, and children. While fantasies and dystopian novels often do contain these graphic levels of brutality, the targeted age is more often youth.

Because I’m reviewing Parched as part of a multicultural committee, I need to evaluate it on two levels. From the perspective of diversity, it only partly succeeds. Africa Access Review admits that it seems to build logically on a South African framework, but also notes that it feels somewhat disjointed perhaps due to the lack of a close connection to the region by the author. From the perspective of entertainment, again it only partly succeeds. The use of dowsing took me back to days of watching Walt Disney movies and reading Nancy Drew mysteries or to light-hearted stories which required me to suspend my disbelief. However, Parched is an intense survival story.

Criticisms aside, I haven’t seen too many stories explore drought. For that reason, Parched is still an interesting enough of an adventure to add to your reading list.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Tomorrow I’ll review Parched by Melanie Crowder. Although a location is never given, the general consensus from readers seems to be that it’s set in South Africa. All the characters struggle from drought. One of the main characters, Musa, has a gift which might help them, in that he is a dowser. To enrich my understanding of this novel, I researched some of its cultural background.


Africa Access Review describes Parched as a realistic story set loosely in Africa. Crowder shares in her interview with me that she researched animals (especially ridgeback puppies), plants, and geology as part of writing Parched. This is evident in her descriptions. Dog Breed Info describes the Ridgeback, which is breed of the dog featured in Parched, as a dog bred in South Africa. It is a large, muscular hound with coat color of light wheaten to shades of red. Moreover, while ferocious as a hunter, at home it’s a gentle, calm, and obedient dog. The Ridgeback is also considered brave, intelligent, and loyal to family. This matches the depiction that Crowder makes of pack leader, Nandie, and her pups. As for plants, aloe is native to Africa, while baobab and the thorn tree can also be found in Africa.


According to Climate Education for K-12, drought can have many devastating effects on communities. The amount of devastation depends on the strength of the drought and the length of time the drought has lasted. It also tends to have greater effect on poorer communities, who may not have the ability to being in resources from other areas. Perhaps, the notable impact of drought is on water supply. Many communities have faced water restrictions, where restrictions were imposed on how often residents could water their lawns or wash their cars. In extreme drought conditions, the option for watering of even farm crops may cease to exist. At this point, there are often other negative spiraling effects such as a shortage of food, pollution of water, and shutdown of power plants. All this can lead to poor health and a strained economy. In Crowder’s novel, Parched, it also led to warfare.


Then there is dowsing, a technique wherein one attempts to locate ground water by the use of a Y or L shaped rod, which is used by Musa. The Skeptic’s Dictionary notes various theories which have been given as to why the rod might move: geologic forces such as electromagnetism, suggestions from others or from geophysical observations, or paranormal explanations. Most skeptics accept the explanation of William Carpenter (1852) that the rod moves due to involuntary motor behavior. Although there is an American Society of Dowsers, there also seems to be a consensus that there is no scientific evidence to indicate dowsing is effective. As for the use of dowsing in Africa, I couldn’t find information to substantiate the practice one way or the other. Crowder also doesn’t provide any information in her book or on her website regarding this belief in Africa.


Finally, educators may want to check out the Teacher Resource Guide. It is free to download and use.

Melanie-CrowderAlthough Melanie Crowder may not have been one of those who grew up knowing she wanted to write, she was one of those who wrote her first novel while she was supposed to working on her university studies. Parched is told in three voices and set in a near future scarred by drought and devastation. Tomorrow I’ll provide some background to her debut novel and on Saturday I’ll review it. Save the dates: April 11-12!

Crowder didn’t grow up keeping journals and writing stories. Instead she held many jobs in her adult life including artist and teacher. One summer, Crowder even worked as a fisheries biologist, snorkeling in streams to count and identify fish! However, in 2005, Crowder hit a rough patch in her professional life and needed something outside of work to put her heart into.

Eight years, several manuscripts, and an MFA in Writing later, Crowder now has a published book. She explained to Writer’s Digest that getting her writing degree was the best thing she ever did. “It was a time for me to forget about the pressures of the industry and just focus on the craft of writing.” For Crowder, those two years were invaluable. And now she’s pursuing the career she was meant to have!

Her novel Parched came about in the third semester of her MFA in Writing program. Between drafts of her critical thesis, the story began to take shape. She shared with Literary Rambles that the idea for Parched came to her from a combination of things: First, an image of her character had appeared in my mind; Second, she was living through a hot and dry summer in the state of Colorado, which is often in state of drought; Third, she started thinking about water politics and scarcity, and the play of power when critical resources become threatened.

A West Coast girl at heart, Melanie now lives and writes in the foothills of the Rockies. In my interview with her, I ask her about her aspirations outside of writing, her studies, and her novel.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that you were never one of those kids who knew in her bones that she wanted to be a writer. What dreams did you have as a child?

MELANIE: I was certain I would be a marine biologist. Absolutely certain!

ALLISON: Adolescence seems to be either the best or worst of times. How would you describe yours?

MELANIE: I was lucky in a lot of ways. Truly. But dealing with the aftermath of my parents’ divorce as a teenager was really difficult. It took me a long time to grow into the person I wanted to be.

ALLISON: You have had many jobs as an adult. Which did you least like? Most like?

MELANIE: For a summer after college, I waited tables at a resort perched at the edge of a narrow spit, surrounded by ocean, a stone’s throw away from the Canadian border. It was so beautiful—that’s pretty much the only reason I applied for the job. But I was probably the worst waiter in the world, and it’s not fun doing something you know you’re not doing well.

It sounds cheesy, but seriously, being a writer is my favorite job. It fulfills both my cognitive and creative needs, and it is incredibly satisfying to hold the tangible result of all my hard work in my hands.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that it was a good decision to get your MFA. How did pursuing it benefit your writing career?

MELANIE: VCFA helped my career by giving me a massive network of writing professionals to turn to for mentorship, support and camaraderie. This is a tough business, and I would never want to go it alone!

More importantly though, my MFA helped my writing by encouraging me to experiment, to step outside my comfort zone, and to see that I could write in ways I had never imagined before. It gave me a glimpse of all that is possible in this medium, and it gave me the skills and training to begin the lifelong pursuit of realizing those possibilities in my own work.

ALLISON: What has been your most fun creative project outside of writing?

MELANIE: I love ceramics. There is something almost meditative about throwing on a wheel. I’ve always wanted to take an encaustic class. Oh, and glassblowing. There is so much still out there to explore…

ALLISON: Are you a summer or winter person?

MELANIE: Summer! A fresh snowfall is beautiful of course, but summer is just so…alive. (And I love to swim!)

ALLISON: Why did you write Parched from three perspectives?

MELANIE: That’s a really good question.

I suppose the simplest answer would be that each character had such a distinct experience of the events, that to take the narrative away from any of them would have limited the reader’s experience of that character, and, as a result, of the story.

ALLISON: You said once in an interview that your editor for Parched helped you realize that you needed to show emotion more clearly on the page. How did you accomplish that?

MELANIE: Oh, it’s so hard! Especially within a spare prose style like I used in Parched.

I couldn’t use dialogue, which is a great way to show emotion, because my characters spent a lot of time alone, and if they were with another person, they usually didn’t trust that person at all!

So instead, I used the weather and the natural environment around my characters to reflect their emotions. I wrote short, crisp sentences, or long flowing sentences to show the character’s state of mind. I chose harsh or soft or sweet sounding words to show anger or sadness or joy. And I used the other characters, like how Sarel subconsciously reaches out to Nandi when she is afraid, or the push/pull that gets Musa when it comes to Dingane.

ALLISON: You live in Colorado, where there is often drought. Thinking about water politics and scarcity and about the play of power when critical resources become threatened was part of the inspiration * behind Parched for you. Have you ever encountered situations where a region erupts into conflict?

MELANIE: I have not, and I hope I never have to. But we have all seen it, both through the lens of history, and in current events. Right now, children are caught, just like Musa and Sarel, in the middle of violence. It may not be water that is the cause; it may be oil, or diamonds, or a dispute over borders between countries.

The question remains, are we going to let all that suffering continue, or are we going to do something about it?

ALLISON: What other kind of research was involved in writing in Parched?

MELANIE: Oh, I researched all kinds of things—geology, plants and severe drought, animals (especially ridgebacks), trauma and child psychology—you can lose yourself in the research. It’s fascinating.

ALLISON: Which natural disaster most scares you? Most awes you?

MELANIE: I don’t live in a tornado territory, and I’m so glad! Those things are terrifying!

I grew up on the coast, so I’m most in awe of tsunamis. The ocean is astonishingly powerful!

ALLISON: What’s next?

MELANIE: My next book is a poetic novel for teens about labor activist Clara Lemlich. She was an amazing young woman living at a critical time in this country’s history. It comes out from Penguin/Philomel books in 2015. I can’t wait!

The Herd Boy is about Malusi, a young boy in rural South Africa who takes care of sheep and goats for his grandfather, and wishes to grow up to be a president. By writing a captivating narrative about the typical routines and harrowing adventures that a herd boy might face on any given day, author and illustrator Niki Daly both educates readers about the life of a herd boy and pays tribute to this livelihood.

Daly was born and raised in South Africa, has a working-class background, and likes to champion the cause of the lower class. His detailed watercolor artwork sensitively captures South African village life. It also vividly depicts both the beauty and harshness of the grasslands where Malusi lives. Adding to the cultural experience of his picture book, Daly also incorporates South African terms, all of which are defined in the context of the story and/or in the glossary.

Daly encourages a strong work ethic with sentiments such as: “You have to be awake and you have to be brave to be a herd boy.” Other scenes also reinforce this work ethic, such as when Malusi observes two columns of termites on the march, and declares they are such hard workers—all working together. Then there is the highlight of Malusi’s day, when a shiny new car stops, the back window opens, and an older man, whom readers might recognize as Nelson Mandela, asks Malusi and his friends what they want to be when they grow up. Upon learning of Malusi’s wish to become president, Mandela replies, “Ah, a boy who looks after his herd will make a very fine leader.” The author’s note near the back reveals that other great men came from humble starts: King David, the prophet Mohammed, and even former President Nelson Mandela. What a great message to instill hope in young readers!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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