By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: November 10, 2010
TCBR: Saraswati’s Way, is your second published novel. It’s set in India, where you currently live. Tell us about the book and its main character, 12-year-old Akash.
Monika Schröder: The book tells the story of 12-year old Akash, from the rural northern Indian state of Rajasthan. He has a gift for math. Numbers line up in his head easily, arrange themselves in patterns, and move in formations. In order to develop his gift for numbers Akash wants to go to a school in the city. But Akash’s family is poor and doesn’t understand his longing for learning. He prays to the Hindu gods Ganesh and Saraswati. When circumstances become so dire that his dream seems forever unattainable he makes an extreme decision, and runs away. After an adventurous train ride, he ends up in the New Delhi station, where he joins a gang of street kids. Finally, with the help of a newspaper vendor he learns that Saraswati will only help him if he deserves it.
TCBR: How did you develop the idea for this book?
MS: By the time I started SARASWATI I had already lived in New Delhi for six years and knew that my next book would take place in India. Most contemporary fiction for children set in India has female protagonists but I wanted to write about a boy. To learn more about the street children who end up in the New Delhi train station I went to the Salaam Baalak Trust, an NGO that works with these kids. Here I listened to some of the children’s stories and tried to imagine what circumstances forced them to leave their families and to embark on an often dangerous journey to New Delhi. So I wanted to explore how a young Indian boy can find the strength to overcome his fear in pursuit of something he wants desperately.
TCBR: What were the challenges you faced while writing this book?
MS: I grew up in Germany, a predominantly protestant country, where in school I learned bible stories and went to protestant confirmation at the age of 15. Writing about a Hindu boy was the biggest challenge while working on SARASWATI’S WAY. By the time I started the book I had traveled to Rajasthan several times so I knew the setting. Though I never became fluent I have also taken Hindi classes for four years and my Hindi teacher, whom the book is dedicated to, taught me a lot about religious customs and festivals. While writing the book I frequently asked her and other Indian friends if my depictions of a particular event were correct. One of the most challenging scenes to write was the funeral for Akash’s father. I have never attended a Hindu funeral and relied completely on the description given by Indian friends and colleagues. Trying to bridge this cultural divide was a challenge, but I also learned a lot about my host country while researching and fact checking the details for the story.
TCBR: Your first novel, The Dog in the Wood, was published in November 2009 and Saraswati’s Way comes out just one year later. Do you have another book in the works? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
MS: My next book is called, MY BROTHER’S SHADOW. It will be published by Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux in September 2011. The novel is set in Berlin 1918 at the end of World War I. 16-year-old Moritz works in the print shop of a Berlin newspaper and longs for the old times, before the war changed everything. While his mother participates in the socialist revolution that sweeps away the monarchy to make way for a democracy, Moritz falls in love with a Jewish girl of socialist convictions. When his older brother returns a bitter, maimed war veteran, ready to blame Germany’s defeat on everyone but the old order, Moritz has to chose between the allegiance to his dangerously radicalized brother and his love for the women around him who are enthusiastically ushering in the new democracy. This will be my first YA novel. Just as in, THE DOG IN THE WOOD, the novel deals with an important transition period in German history and shows the horrible consequences of war.
TCBR: How has your current role as the elementary school librarian at the American Embassy School in New Delhi helped you with your writing career?
MS: Obviously, as a librarian I read a lot of children’s books and reading is the best preparation for any writer. But it is also helpful for a writer to watch kids’ reactions to stories, their tastes and preferences. I read parts of my own novel drafts to our fifth grade classes and they have made some great comments. In the future, I would like to write a picture book and hope that having read many picture books to our students over the years will help me in shaping my own story.
TCBR: So, as a children’s librarian, you read a lot of children’s books, but you also make time for adult literature—mostly historical fiction novels. What book are you reading now?
Since I am planning to write another historical fiction book, this one set in India in the 1830s, I am currently reading diaries and travel reports written by missionaries and merchants who traveled in India at that time. I also very much enjoyed reading Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, a novel set in India during the time of the Opium Wars. The main character of my new book will travel by boat from Boston to Calcutta, so I am also reading books that describe sea voyages, such as Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before The Mast.
To learn more about Monika Schröder, visit: www.monikaschroeder.com
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