One Shadow on the Wall: An Interview with Leah Henderson

 

Bas Bleu’s July Book a Month 2018 selections transport readers around the world, including to Africa in our Young Readers pick, One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson. Set in modern-day Senegal, the novel follows a young boy named Mor as he struggles to support himself and his two sisters after the death of their parents, endeavoring to honor his promise to his father to keep their little family together. With an endearing protagonist and a touch of magical realism, One Shadow on the Wall is a heartfelt story about perseverance, loyalty, and family. This week in the Bluestocking Salon, we’re chatting with author Leah Henderson about her literary inspiration, her globetrotting adventures, and the children’s books that influenced her.

Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about why and how you created One Shadow on the Wall. Why did you choose this story to tell?

Leah Henderson: One Shadow on the Wall, or more specifically, a little boy named Mor, filled my heart and head from the first moment the character introduced himself to me. But I definitely can’t say I chose to write this book, I think in many ways it chose me.

While on a trip in Senegal, I happened to see a boy sitting on a beach wall who captured my attention. I can’t exactly say what it was about him, but from one glimpse he instantly occupied my thoughts. I wondered what his day was like, and what he enjoyed. When I came back to the area later that evening he was still near the wall. I rushed over and asked for a picture. When I looked at the snapshot later, I remember feeling like he was challenging me in the image. I know it may sound a bit farfetched, but it felt like he was saying, “I dare you not to see me.”

And as a writer, my first response was to write. I jotted down a ten-page story inspired by the brief encounter, never thinking it would ever be more than that. But my professor had other plans. She thought it was the start of a novel.

BB: One Shadow on the Wall is set in Senegal, yet you live in Washington, DC. How do you write knowledgably about a country you don’t live in? What research is involved? Did you struggle in accurately portraying the culture at any point?

LH: I think whenever you write about an experience that is not your own there is always some level of struggle and learning that needs to happen even before you write the first words. I definitely questioned whether this was my story to tell, and worried about accurately portraying this experience. After shying away from the challenge for almost a year, never-ending encouragement turned me around. I boarded a plane and headed back to Senegal. I tried to soak up as much of the heartbeat of the culture as I could, always knowing these moments would never make a lifetime of knowledge. So along with doing my own research, I reached out to people who knew more than I did. From Senegalese professors, embassy workers, museum docents, students, and friends, I asked countless questions for almost six years. I am forever thankful to everyone for their support and guidance. One Shadow on the Wall would never have been finished if it weren’t for all the encouragement I received. And for my father reminding me not to stand in the way of that boy seeing his possibilities on the page.

BB: One Shadow on the Wall has elements of magical realism—the voice of Mor’s father, the sight of his mother’s spirit. What inspired you add those elements to a contemporary novel?

LH: During graduate school a constant refrain in the writing for children workshops was “orphan the child.” In other words, take adults off center stage and let the main characters solve their own problems. While I completely agree that young protagonists need to struggle and learn to navigate situations on their own, in this particular story it just didn’t completely feel true to my characters or me. I come from a very loving and supportive family, not to mention the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Even though my parents and other adults don’t hold my hand through each decision I make, they are definitely in heart and mind when I make them. And I wanted the same for Mor. I wanted readers to experience the love of his family. So I found a balance. I gave my workshop critiquers their orphaned child, but I kept my familial bond.

BB: Mor lives far away from his American contemporaries, but his struggles are not necessarily unique to Senegal. What aspects of Mor’s story do you think American children are most likely to relate to?

LH: So for me, the first thing I tried to do when creating Mor was to find my own similarities with him. There are many aspects where we differ, but I knew that finding a commonality between us would be my way into the larger story. I am an avid soccer player and fan, so I poured my love of soccer into Mor. I think anyone who has a sport or something else that they love and seek out both for comfort and fun will see that mirrored in Mor.

The complexity of friendship is also explored, and I think American readers can relate to the ever-changing nature of friendship.

Bullying is also something many young people are dealing with today, and it is something Mor has to confront. But more than all this, I hope readers will dive into this story to explore an experience that may vary from their own in some aspects, but at the root see that it is a story about self-reliance, friendship, family, and a determined spirit.

BB: You work with at-risk teens, and in your novel, Mor grapples with issues of integrity and doing what’s right, even when it’s the more difficult—sometimes dangerous—choice. How have the kids you mentor impacted your viewpoint and your writing? What do they think of Mor, the challenges he faced, and the decisions he made?

LH: Their resilience astounds me, but I am also struck by the fact many of these kids don’t know their own strength, or realize they have any. Yet they are so strong! They are in the moment trying to survive and sometimes doing what’s right is the hardest challenge of all. I truly admire them, and often wonder if I could be that brave for myself. Like Mor, so many of us are willing to try harder for those we love, before we would ever consider standing up for ourselves. I hope my mentees recognize that they have the same resilience as Mor, and that there are possibilities for them on this journey, just as there were for Mor.

BB: You’ve traveled to more than 45 countries. That’s amazing! What are your most memorable travel moments? Where do you hope to go next?

LH: As I type this, I’m in the midst of exploring Japan, so I hope to make some incredible memories here as well.

I’ve been fortunate to have had so many unforgettable and life-shaping moments when traveling, but some definite highlights were swimming with dolphins in Oman, sleeping under the stars in the desert outside Timbuktu, having a wonderful dog as bodyguard and guide on the Amalfi Coast, and visiting South Africa months after the fall of apartheid. As for where to next, Vietnam, Tibet, and Madagascar are highest on my list of hopes at the moment, but only time shall tell where my wanderlust will take me next.

BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?

LH: I absolutely loved Pippi Longstocking’s never-failing love of adventure, her fearlessness, and her optimistic spirit. My heart also melted and grew when I first read Corduroy by Don Freeman and saw a little black girl like me, in her own room, not only having a day out with her mom, but being part of an adventure. The Bernstein Bears were also big in my house, because all the stories centered around family. But in terms of truly shaping who I am as a person and as a writer, I definitely have to look to Virginia Hamilton and Toni Morrison. The People Could Fly was on my family’s coffee table—front and center—and I often cracked it open just to read a few words, or become transported by Leo and Diane Dillon’s illustrations. And when I read Toni Morrison’s Sula I began to see the power and beauty words held.

BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers? Who are your favorite authors?

LH: This question is one of the hardest. There are so many authors that I love and learn from while reading their words—Jackie Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Christopher Paul Curtis, Rita Williams Garcia, Lesléa Newman, Mildred D. Taylor, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Virginia Hamilton just to name a few. The list goes on and on, though. Books like Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind, Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman left me sitting still for a moment after turning the last page.

BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?

LH: I have a few picture books on the horizon, another [middle-grade novel], and I’ll be part of a YA anthology called Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America, which is due out January 8th with Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins.

BB: Thank you, Leah (and Mor), for escorting us on this wonderful journey. We wish you many more wonderful adventures!

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