1. WHEN DID YOU WRITE YOUR FIRST BOOK? I wrote my first book for kids in 1991, and it was first published in 1995, by Philomel. One Night – a story from the desert is set in Niger and is about how a Tuareg boy earns his turban. It’s my favorite book of the 10 I have written. I love the voice, the gentleness of the text, the gorgeous illustrations by Ian Schoenherr, and the connection I developed with Muhamad, a real Tuareg boy that I based the story on.
2. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR? My favorite author, and book, as a kid was Anne of Green Gables by L.H. Montgomery. My favorite authors now are Andre Brink, Barbara Kingsolver and Judy Blume.
3. WHY DO YOU WRITE BOOKS? I write books for kids because I think they don’t read enough. People always ask me why I don’t do videos of the exotic places and stories, and I always say kids need to read more. Also, as a kid I didn’t find enough books set in foreign cultures, and I always swore one day I would write them! I hope to create a curiosity about the world with my books. In today’s world, connecting kids across continents and oceans seems more important than ever before. By introducing kids from other cultures through my books and slide shows I hope to promote tolerance and acceptance of different lifestyles, religions, or ways of life, at an early age, and plant the seed of curiosity about the world around us. My books take kids to foreign lands long before they have passports.
4. WHAT INSPIRES YOU TO WRITE? All my book ideas come from real experiences I have had firsthand. When I live someplace I like to observe for at least a year to see what appeals to me, what I am most interested in. Most of my books are based on real events, but fictionalized – except for All the King’s Animals and Hope is Here! which are nonfiction. All my books contain details provided by specific entries from my journals to bring the story alive.
5. TELL US ABOUT YOUR MOST RECENT BOOK? Right now I’m writing a book that comes from my heart like no other. It’s a YA novel called TOUCH, and is about an HIV+ girl in South Africa who becomes a brave and fearless AIDS activist at a very young age. The book is inspired by my wonderful friend Woo, from Venda, South Africa, and includes things she has done to help countless other HIV+ people for 12 of her 17 years. The story is fiction, but based on different parts of Woo’s life. I hope to give my readers lots of info about AIDS and HIV+ through an engaging, and I think up-lifting book.
My latest book, HOPE IS HERE! came about in an unusual way. The former First Lady of the Virgin Islands, Mrs. Cecile Galiber de Jongh, had a wonderful Christmas book give-away program. Each year for 8 years she invited a local author to write a book set in the islands that she would give to every K-3rd grader in the islands, for Christmas. I had never written a kids’ book not set in Africa, but I knew exactly what story I would tell, when she asked me. I chose to write about Hope, a shorebird called a whimbrel. Hope had been captured in Virginia, and outfitted with a small solar-powered transmitter attached to an antenna to track her migration. Over 4 ½ years Hope’s flights were closely monitored and revealed that she bred in the Arctic Circle in Northwest Canada, flew to South Hampton Island in the Hudson Bay to eat and rest, then dead-headed to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to winter over. Each spring she flew back to Virginia to prepare for her non-stop flight back to the Arctic Circle. She clocked over 51,000 miles while her equipment still functioned. In 2014 she was captured again, this time on St. Croix, to remove the defunct equipment and wear a small green leg band so her followers can still identify her. St. John kids often stop me to say, “Mrs. Kessler, I’m a birdwatcher now!” It doesn’t get better than that. HOPE IS HERE! has just been awarded the Lumen Award from Literary Classics for “excellence in nonfiction for young readers”. Yahoo!
I just finished writing the first draft of my next book called Hammerkop Hotel. It’s another book about a bird. The hammerkop lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and builds multiple nests annually that other animals take over or share. For that reason they are also called “the hospitality bird”.
6. ANY ADVICE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE? Tips I always give future writers during our special lunch sessions are simple – READ, READ, READ; be a sponge; and keep a journal. I encourage them to soak in all the five senses of wherever they are, and then write it down in a journal. You never know when you’ll use it again, if ever, and by keeping a journal you get used to writing regularly. And most importantly, to have fun while you research, write and re-write. Re-writing is an important part of an author’s process. It doesn’t mean that what you wrote is wrong or bad, it means that you are making it better. If you have an editor/teacher/reader, listen to their advice carefully and use what will make your writing better. I have learned this over many years, and wish I had listened more often!
7. WHY DO YOU WRITE ABOUT AFRICA? I love Africa, and I write to celebrate Africa in general, the various cultures that are facing the challenges of change today, and to record them permanently. For example, my first book, One Night – a story from the desert, is set in Niger and is about how a young Tuareg boy earns his turban.. It’s also about the gentle side of Islam, rarely recognized by the American media. It’s about respect for nature and feeling wealthy when your personal connections to family, the earth, friends etc. are more abundant than your personal possessions. In these days it’s important for kids to know that not every Muslim is a terrorist. I want my readers to know that Muhamad is afraid to spend a night alone in the desert, just like they would be, but he does it. The realization of shared values, fears and fun at a young age creates a bond that will serve well in later life. It never ceases to amaze me to see the cultural diversity in American classrooms, and often my books provide the opportunity for kids of different cultures to share their background with their fellow students for the first time. All religions have radical elements, so entire groups should not be judged on the actions of a few, but the actions of the majority. Islam is the perfect example of this.
All of my books celebrate common traits, like Fatima from Sudan in My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd. She chooses to stand by her grandmother in the face of village ridicule, showing the family loyalty kids share everywhere. The Best Beekeeper of Lalibela celebrates a young Ethiopian girl who follows her dream to raise bees in a male-dominated field. Almaz shows the importance of believing in yourself and never giving up. She succeeds after several tries, something all kids need to know and believe.
My three YA novels all have different – but ultimately interwoven themes – of be true to yourself, and be strong. No Condition is Permanent explores cross-cultural friendships and the respect necessary to make them succeed. American Jodi and Khadi from Sierra Leone, learn many life-changing things from one another. Our Secret, Siri Aang follows a young Maasai girl, Namelok-ai, into a solo bush journey pursuing a rhino poacher. An act of courage and determination that may not have been the smartest thing she’s ever done, but it definitely is the only choice she saw. And Trouble in Timbuktu follows Bella twins, Ahmed and Ayisha on a quest to protect ancient manuscripts from their beloved city of Timbuktu, thwarting two foreign thieves in the process. All the characters in these books encourage kids to follow their passions, learn from their mistakes, and know what matters most to them.
Another focus of my books is on conservation. Jubela tells a true story of a baby white rhino in Swaziland, whose mother is killed by a poacher. It’s a book about survival because Jubela is adopted by an old white rhino who teaches him to graze and drink and always run from his worst enemy – man. I want kids to know about the plight of the endangered rhinos, and learn what they can do to help. All the King’s Animals, also set in Swaziland, is nonfiction and tells the story of Ted Reily, and King Sobhuza II and King Mswati III who join forces to return 58 species of wildlife back to their original territory of Swaziland. It’s a conservation success story.
All my books celebrate the positives of cultures and conservation and hopefully give kids the inspiration to look beyond current news stories to relate to kids and their lives and recognize all the things they share. Also, one can never be too young to care about the earth and all the animals that need our help. It’s definitely easier to introduce positive ideas to young open minds than try to change closed adult minds.
8. ANY OTHER NEW PROJECTS? 2014 and 2015 have been years of new projects. Besides writing my first book not set in Africa I did a few other new writing challenges. One project involved interviewing St. John matrons about their hats for program called “Chats About Hats”. These interviews were then combined and turned into an amazing dance performance by St. John School of the Arts. I also taught a memoir-writing class called Senior Moments. Many of my students were older than I am, which was a big change! This goes to show that there are endless new challenges and opportunities in the world of writing. Also, with the expertise and guidance of my website guru, Frank Welffens, we made my YA novels available as e-Books for the first time. I was reluctant to do this since I love the feel of holding a book. The good news is that each book is also available as a soft cover print-on-demand book.
Also very exciting is that my husband and I went back to Africa for a month this summer. We spent time in the bush of the Kalahari Desert, on the outskirts of Kruger National Park, and in the parks and reserves of Swaziland. It was a life-affirming trip for me, confirming that I truly belong in the African bush.