Please join us in welcoming Uma Krishnaswami to the blog! Uma’s new picture book, The Girl of the Wish Garden, is out now from Groundwood and has just received a starred review in Kirkus.
The Role of Energy, Narrative, and Dream in Writing The Girl of the Wish Garden
I’ve always been interested in what drives a story — where the energy comes from within the pages and how it manages to connect with the interest, curiosity, and energy of a reader. What is it that drives that, especially in a picture book? I’m always looking for that, for a moment of engagement that occurs when you absorb text or image or when some emotional response arises from some space in between text and image. Sometimes it occurs in the action of the page turn. Sometimes it’s a surprise, sometimes it’s pleasurably predictable, and sometimes it’s both at once.
In many ways this was a dream project for me, being invited to write text in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s beautiful pictures. I approached it, oddly enough, by writing nothing at all in the beginning. Nan Froman (Groundwood’s Senior Editor) had sent me scans of the 1999 Farsi edition, Dokhtare Baghe Arezoo. I read the Erik Haugaard translation of the original Thumbelina story, and about a hundred other Andersen tales in Haugaard’s Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. I read the 1872 H.P. Paull translation. I read an English translation of the Farsi book. By that time, my head was swimming, so I ended up just putting the pictures up in my office and looking at them for a really long time. Several months, as I recall.
Over time, I began to feel as if I was absorbing the colors and shapes in those beautiful images. They were beginning to be part of my visual consciousness.
There’s a physiologically grounded explanation for dreams called the activation-synthesis model, which suggests that during REM sleep there are circuits in the brain stem that get activated. These in turn stimulate areas of the limbic system that have to do with emotions, sensations, and memories. So we may be asleep but there’s all this activity going on, with the brain trying to create meaning from a whole range of suddenly freed-up stimuli. Therefore, we dream. Makes sense, no?
In a way, at its best, crafting a story should feel a bit like dreaming. The story emerges only when I can get my active, managerial, daily self out of the way. But I experienced a rather more direct example of activation-synthesis toward the end of my work on this project. Nasrin’s pictures feature a host of little animal figures that occur throughout. They almost seem to inhabit a kind of parallel world beneath the story’s surface. One night I went to sleep thinking of those little figures, troubled by the fact that my text didn’t address them at all. I awoke the next morning still not knowing how to fix that, but with a vivid dream in my mind in which those rock art-like figures were running. I felt compelled to take yet another look at the pictures.
When I did, I stopped at this image:
I knew where I needed to place a very small reference to these magical creatures. I am convinced that my sleeping mind sorted this out for me. I love Lina’s energy here, and the playfulness of chasing the “small ghost creatures/ That skittered through the undergrowth.”
For this story, narrative depended on giving Lina agency, making her the one whose actions drive the story. I remember at one point when I was trying desperately to stay true to the Andersen story, and grossly overplotting the whole thing as a result, Patsy Aldana (Groundwood’s founder and former Publisher) wrote this to me: “The writing here is beautiful but it doesn’t fit the pictures.” Of course. It was the permission I needed to let go my reteller’s mindset and draw once again from the art.
The most amazing thing about the pictures is their otherworldly, dream-like quality. It feels fitting that an actual dream might have played a role in writing some small part of the text.
Our thanks to Uma Krishnaswami for this very thoughtful post. The Girl of the Wish Garden is available now in fine bookstores and online.