Leah Henderson, who graduated from the Spalding MFA program in 2011 with a concentration on Writing for Children and Young Adults, has just launched her first middle grade novel, One Shadow on the Wall, which takes place in Senegal and centers on an eleven-year-old boy named Mor. After Mor’s parents die, he becomes head of household and must keep his two younger sisters safe. But it is not easy for someone so young to shoulder such a burden. And the world can be very cruel. The book is a gripping read that explores themes of loyalty, faith, and redemption. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Leah about her first (surely of many!) publications.
Leah Henderson: Thank you so much! That means a lot, especially because the relationships I’ve made at Spalding have played a key role in this book’s journey.
Lesléa: And what a journey it’s been. Let’s start at the very beginning. Where did the idea for the book come from?
Leah: While traveling in Senegal, I saw a young boy through a car window. Something about him captivated me. He was sitting on a beach wall and for all of two seconds we made eye contact, but his spirit and energy stayed with me long after my friends and I continued driving down the road. While still on that trip, I wrote a ten-page story about him and submitted it with other work for a Spalding packet. Little did I know at the time that the ten-page story would become so much more.
Lesléa: I love the story behind the story. One never knows when or where a story trigger will strike. What was the most joyful part of the writing process?
Leah: Finally figuring out Mor’s story after many discarded pages and failed plot threads.
Lesléa: How many drafts did the book go through?
Leah: Yikes! So many pages hit the floor before I ever figured out what story I was trying to tell. Then I floundered around with that story idea for awhile (and I thank you for graciously reading through all those pages). But once I had a strong first draft, I would say from start to finish it got revised at least three times before it sold. Then it went through two more revisions with my editors from Atheneum. But honestly, I feel like at least three books were written to find this one.
Lesléa: What was the most challenging part of the writing process?
Leah: Giving myself permission to write Mor’s story. This was a world and an experience I knew very little about, and I did not want to cast it in an inauthentic light.
Lesléa: Many writers struggle with this issue. What did it take to give yourself permission?
Leah: So many people stepped into my life because of this manuscript, and for some reason (that for a long time I couldn’t understand) they saw something in this story. Although I loved the characters I’d created, I also knew how harmful it could be to see someone that is supposed to look and sound like you be nothing like you at all, only a caricature or stereotype of what people thought you were supposed to be. I’ve seen it far too many times with depictions of people of color and I did not want kids reading my words to feel that level of disappointment. But my father, who refused to let me give up basically asked: this is an opportunity for these kids that are rarely seen on a page to have their story told and you are not going to give them that opportunity? After that there was no way I could turn my back on this story anymore. It was no longer about me and what I thought I couldn’t do. It was about making the best story I could for them. So I went back to Senegal to hopefully gather all I could to tell this story with compassion and truth.
Lesléa: And you have succeeded because compassion and truth can be found on every page of your book. Your characters are so complex and so real. Every one of them, from Mor, the protagonist, to his friend-turned-enemy Cheikh, to his two younger sisters Amina and Fatima, to the many adults who try and fail to help him, are complicated individuals. How did you manage to create such believable characters?
Leah: From life. Everyone is complex and we each have many, many layers to who we are. I tried to remember that. We are not all good or bad, and for the most part there are reasons behind our every action.
Lesléa: The setting of Senegal is so alive, it becomes a character in the story. How did you make the setting so vivid that I could literally feel the heat of the hot African sun beating down on my face as I read?
Leah: I lived in Europe for awhile, and I remember always beginning captivated by something as simple as a finely sculpted water fountain, or the little treasures I found down what appeared to my local friends as a mundane alleyway. But I always saw so much more. And I believe it was because my eyes and thoughts were open to taking everything in as new and intriguing, unlike my friends who had lived with it all their lives, no longer noticing many of the amazing things around us. I am guilty of this at home too, so when writing this book, I made sure to notice everything I could. I took trips to Senegal and tried to absorb every detail down to the feel and crunch of a grain of sand. I watched, smelled, listened, tasted, and touched everything I could. I treated it all like I had never seen it before and tried to find my own ways to describe it to myself, remembering that most kids reading my book will never have the opportunity to experience this amazing country for themselves. I tried my best to give them a wide open window into this world.
Lesléa: Your incredibly thorough research really paid off! How did you learn of your acceptance? What did that feel like? Who’s the first person you told? How did you celebrate?
Leah: I received an email from my agent telling me the news. I think I actually read it three times before I took a full breath. I was in utter shock that someone actually wanted to publish my words! At the time I received the news, I was traveling overseas again with friends so they were the first to know. Then they made sure everyone we met after that, including passport control officers, knew I was a soon to be published author (you gotta love friends). Though you were a close second in finding out, Lesléa. I sent you an email probably within four minutes of receiving the news since you played such an integral part in this story finding its way to the page, and Mor finding a home at Atheneum! (Thank you!)
Lesléa: I remember receiving that email. I gave a whoop and a holler and did a major happy dance in your honor all around my writing room!
Leah: Hahaha! I love it! And as far as celebrating on my end, everything my friends and I did for the rest of the trip was about celebrating the news!
Lesléa: What was it like working with an editor? How was it similar to working with a Spalding mentor? How was it different?
Leah: In many ways working with an editor is very similar to working with a Spalding mentor. Editorial letters look much the same, just sometimes longer. The biggest difference though is the schedule. While at Spalding I knew what to expect in terms of turnaround time with work. I was always able to plan around when I was supposed to send or receive a packet. Unfortunately my editorial experience hasn’t been the same. There are extremely long periods of waiting, and then BOOM! revisions are ready and often turnaround times are pretty quick regardless of whatever else might be going on in your life. Revisions have priority whenever they come.
Lesléa: Ah yes, the time schedule of the publishing world is like no other. Hurry up and wait is often the name of the game. What’s the most important thing you learned during your journey from idea to publication?
Leah: To have patience with myself, my work, and the publishing process. Everything takes lots and lots of time (especially the publication part).
Lesléa: I have a sign above my writing desk that says, “The reward of patience is patience.” It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again. What advice would you give yet-to-be-published writers?
Leah: If this is truly your dream don’t give up on it. Write the stories that are in you, and keep writing them. Find readers you respect and trust to critique your work, and listen to their advice, even when you disagree. That doesn’t mean you should follow every recommendation, but you need to be open to suggestions about improving your work. Then, like after any Spalding workshop, do what feels best for your story. But most importantly, stay true to who you want to be as a writer and a storyteller. You will have to live with these stories for a long, long time.
Lesléa: That is great advice. What are you working on now?
Leah: I’ve just finished revisions on a second middle grade novel that my agent and I hope to send to my editor soon and I’ve also recently completed a third middle grade novel that I’m extremely excited about and can’t wait to really dig into and start revising.
Lesléa: I know One Shadow on the Wall is going to be a huge hit and I am sure that these two more recent novels will find good homes before too long as well. Anything else to add?
Leah: Thank you so much for this opportunity to share a little more about my journey and Mor’s! And, Lesléa, I truly appreciate all you have done to get us this far!!!
Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for readers of all ages including the children’s classic Heather Has Two Mommies, and the teen novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her most recent book, Sparkle Boy, is a picture book that celebrates everybody’s right to shine.