On June 24 at 4pm Shana Burg will be joining us here at BookPeople to celebrate the release of her new book, Laugh With the Moon. Recently our Teen Press Corps had the opportunity to ask her a few questions:
Shelby: You say your work in Africa inspired you to write this book. What did you do while you were over there? Did any of the people you met there specifically inspire any aspects of this story?
Shana: First of all, let me say, excellent questions all of you! I’m quite impressed. Okay, Shelby, let me explain what I did. I went to Malawi, Africa for a few weeks in 1997 to investigate whether boys and girls had the same access to learning materials like pens, notebooks, desks, and teachers.
You see, up until the 1990s, it cost about $3 dollars to send a child to elementary school. That was too much for many parents to afford, so often, they just sent their sons to schools and kept their daughters home to cook, fetch water and firewood, work in the fields, and help with younger siblings.
Then the Government of Malawi decided to make elementary school free. Suddenly, thousands of families decided it was worth it to educate their daughters. As girls went to school for the first time, many people were concerned that these girls wouldn’t get treated the same as the boys. In terms of access to learning materials, though, in the schools I visited no one—boys or girls—had many pens, pencils, notebooks, or desks at all.
While I was in Malawi, I had the chance to interview hundreds of students, parents, teachers and school administrators. No one in particular turned into a character in my book, but everyone in LAUGH WITH THE MOON is a composite of many different people I met.
Shelby, Mackinsey, and Willa: Has this story been developing in your mind since your time in Africa, or were you recently reminded of that experience in a way that made you want to write this book?
Shana: While I was in Malawi I kept a journal, because I thought everything I was observing and learning was fascinating. A few years later, I taught sixth grade and I showed my students photos of kids learning to write with a stick in the dirt, when they didn’t have paper, or making a soccer ball out of plastic bags. I also shared with my students that many of the people I met—people with so little material wealth–were capable of such deep joy.
This planted the idea in my mind that middle school kids in the United States—beyond my classroom– would really be interested to learn more about how their peers halfway across the world live.
I didn’t sit down to actually turn this experience into a book, until four years ago. I had just finished my first novel, A Thousand Never Evers, and I wasn’t sure what I would write next. My editor at Random House, Michelle Poploff said, “Write what you are truly passionate about.” That’s when I knew there was no question—I would write a story about an American girl who discovers the true meaning of friendship, courage, and healing from her friends in Malawi.
Shelby, Mackinsey, and Willa: Laugh with the Moon is a very unusual, evocative title. Was it difficult to come up with, or does the phrase have special meaning for you? What do you hope it conveys to readers who might want to pick this novel up?
Shana: Well, thanks, I think. I was driving along a road beside a beach in Massachusetts. It was night. I looked out the window and noticed this enormous full moon hovering there in the sky and reflecting off the ocean. I had been racking my brain for weeks trying to come up with the right title, but just then I knew it would include the word “Moon.” I tried lots of different moon titles but when I tried Laugh With the Moon it worked in the context of the story. When you get to the end of the book, you find out what the phrase means to Clare, the main character, and her best friend named Memory.
Hayden & Emily: What do you hope to achieve with this story? Are you hoping your readers come away with any message in particular?
Shana: A lot of times, when kids learn about modern-day Africa in school or church or synagogue, it’s often in the context of “This is a really poor continent. The people there need our charity.” While it’s true that Malawi is a very poor country, Americans can still learn so much from the people there. I know I did. In this story, there really is a true exchange of friendship and life lessons shared between Clare and the Malawian kids like Memory and Saidi, who in a very short time, become her closest pals.