Amazing Author: Saanvi Singal

May I introduce someone wonderful, marvelous, dedicated, and talented?

Quick backstory: during the pandemic, my library launched a program called First Draft. Young writers would email drafts of their creative works, and I would give constructive feedback and writing advice. Over the months and years, some writers sent multiple chapters of stories.

Today, we are proud to feature Saanvi Singal, a First Draft alumna who went on to publish her very own book!

Isabel Johns and the Lion of Power is the story of intrepid Isabel Johns and her friend Ashley, who embark on an epic and danger-filled quest to defeat a terrifying fur monster. Full of science, magic, action, and suspense, the two girls journey into enchanted lands to find the magical gems needed to vanquish their powerful enemy.

Saanvi submitted her manuscript to Young Inklings, a non-profit mentoring program dedicated to the support and enrichment of starting writers. And wouldn’t you know it, she was one of two writers selected for publication! I attended her book launch and was just SO proud!

Hi Saanvi! Tell us a little about yourself!

Hi Dr. Dana! I am a sixth grader, and live in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan. I love reading, writing and spending time with my friends.

Where did the idea for this book come from?

I took a filmmaking class after school while I was in fourth grade. My two best friends were part of the same class. While looking for inspiration for characters for my first film, I thought of the costume kit that my little sister had received as a birthday present.
There were three different costumes in this kit, a gardener, a scientist and an explorer. I decided to choose these as my film characters and imagined myself as the explorer and my two friends as Ashley the gardener and Professor Bob, the scientist.

As I was working on my film, my teachers in ELA introduced a fantasy writing unit. The planning sheets and organizers in this unit helped me build on the story and I decided to continue to write this script, making it into an eleven chapter book.

What was your writing process like?

I started drafting my first chapter and shared it with my parents. They loved it and encouraged me to keep writing and plan a story line. Using the organizing tips I learnt from my teachers in ELA at school, I planned out my story and started drafting. Once I was done with my first draft, I went back and started editing and revising. I spent time thinking through how I could zoom in to specific moments and add details to ‘show not tell’. I also reached out to resources who could help me with the editing process. I found the First Draft program at Princeton University Library and shared my first few chapters with Dr. Dana, who gave me a lot of great tips and ideas on how I could make my writing stronger.

What was the most difficult scene to write and why?

The most difficult scene to write about was when Isabel encountered Scaly. This was a battle scene and I struggled to find words that could help me show the intensity of the fight. I wanted to describe the scene well so as to create a graphic image in the mind of the reader.

Can you tell us a little more about Young Inklings?

Young Inklings is a non-profit group that mentors school-age authors, guiding them through the revision process, while also helping them talk about and publish their work. As a non-profit, they donate all royalties from the works they publish to charity.

What was the most surprising thing about writing a book?

The most surprising thing was that I wrote a whole book! It was amazing to me that I was able to accomplish a goal as big as that. I thought this to be a very difficult task, which needed a lot of hard work and patience.

Any words of advice for young writers?

I would tell young writers not to be afraid to express themselves. I would tell them that if they have an idea, however crazy it may seem, go ahead and write it, because if all authors were nervous of sharing their thoughts, we would never have all the wonderful books we have now. I would also tell them to not give up, even though the road may seem hard. Finally, my advice is to put all one’s imagination into one’s book, make it your own and make it BETTER!


Author images courtesy of Shonali Gupta. Book illustrations courtesy of Young Inklings. Cover art by Francie Towne, interior illustrations by Saanvi Singal.

350 for 50

350 fo 50_2017Announcing the winners of our annual 350 for 50 writing contest! Young writers were challenged to compose a short, 350-word story that included the sentence, “The directions were unclear.” Winners from our four age categories enjoyed a $50 shopping spree on Amazon. Congratulations to all!

Illustrations by Aliisa Lee


WOW, THE FUTURE REALLY IS A SHOCK
by Scarlett Gong, age 10

Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton handed the Tesla dealer a stack of $100 bills and said, “Sir, we would like to buy a car.” The dealer seemed quite puzzled when he saw both Franklin’s face and the $100 bills! Franklin quickly excused himself.

“Your grandpa looks so much like Franklin on the $100 bill!” The dealer whispered to Hamilton.

Hamilton coughed nervously. “Err, does he? Sir, I just came from the Caribbean and don’t know much. May I ask what people usually bring when they leave their house? ”

“A smart phone, of course!” Pleased with the sale, the dealer started chatting nonstop with Hamilton.

Franklin and Hamilton finally regrouped. “This world is really a shock compared to 1777. My time machine works!” Franklin said. He began to research the new Tesla. He tapped Tesla’s touch screen with his quill. After some reading, he informed Hamilton, “The directions were unclear. Oh this garage is dark!” He took out a match and a magnifying glass from his pocket, “We must investigate this car further if we want to bring it back to Washington.”

Before he could light up his match, Hamilton stopped him and turned on the flashlight of a phone, “Mr. Franklin, I have something better!”

“Dear lord, what is this? Much better than my match! The light seems like the electricity I captured on my rod.” Franklin cried.

Hamilton grinned and showed him the phone. “It’s a phone. The car dealer sold me this. Look at this messaging App. You don’t have to use horses to send messages anymore! Also, a website here called Google can answer all your questions! ”

Franklin’s eyes were wide with shock. He scratched his head. “Wait,” he said slowly. “What if we use this so-called Google to find out the ending of the American Revolution? We can see if we won! ”

Hamilton’s mouth stretched into a grin. “Should we? I’m very firm we will win, even though the current winter in Valley Forge is harsh. Besides, Mr. Franklin, do you see any British flags in this future world?”


LOST IN A TRAIL
by By Emily Tang, age 11

Towering trees swayed and creaked in protest as the raging storm lashed the forest with pounding rain and fierce winds. My siblings and I huddled together in our nest, our feathers fluffed against the chill, as my mother impatiently waited for the storm to pass.

“ I have to get you guys food before you starve to death! “ She cried over the roaring wind. And then without hesitation, she spread her wings and launched into the stormy sky. I watched as she started to become a tiny dot in the distance. The thought of my mom being gone made me anxious, but worms sounded good to my stomach.

As the storm started to clear up, I really began to worry. It had been past an hour but my mom still hadn’t come back. The things that could’ve happened ran through my mind. Then, determined to find her, I mustered my courage and spread my wings for the first time, ready to venture into the unknown.

The forest was a chaotic mess. There were tree branches and muddy puddles at every corner of my eye. Suddenly, I spotted a bright yellow feather that lay on the ground next to a knocked down tree. And then I saw another. Then another. I thought they were a trail leading to my mom, but they weren’t. The directions were unclear. The feathers were all over the place, like they were scattered. I called to her but only the echo of my own voice responded. It was then when I gave up. I flew to the nearest tree branch and let the drizzle of rain sink into my feathers.

While I sat on the edge of a tree branch, I heard a sudden rustle behind me. I thought it was a squirrel but when I turned around, my heart leapt with joy as I spotted my mother’s familiar form perched on a branch. She was safe, but her feathers were ruffled, and she looked exhausted.
“ Mom! “ I tweeted loudly. Then I flew faster than I ever could and sat next to her.


MESSAGE NOT DELIVERED
by Emma Peppler, age 14

It was probably a dumb idea to agree to meet my friends in the middle of the woods at an unholy hour of the day. But here I am, making a left at the collapsed shed and a right at the fork in the road. Once I reach the tree that fell down during some tornado, I’ll make a right and be with my friends.

The directions were unclear. They didn’t specify which of the thousands of fallen trees to turn at! My friends’ voices surround me as I walk and my feet, that are stuffed into wedge sandals a size too small, ache. My hair whips my face as wind rustles the trees and frogs noisily croak in the distance. My feet start to feel numb, which gives me relief from the excruciating pain of the sandals.

I turn, hearing Mari’s voice, my oldest friend, sharp and clear like pristine water on a tropical beach. Knowing she has to be close, I run off the path through a stone archway covered in moss. On the other side sits weeping trees and mannequins on a rusty bench. A little merry-go-round statue stands by the bench with zebras and tigers on it. Creepy.

Another narrow and tunnel-like archway isn’t too far off in the distance and so I run into it, convinced that my friends are just on the other side. Halfway through, I collide with something in front of me. Glass? I wonder. I run back to the beginning of the archway, but another pane of glass appears. Other than the throbbing of my heart, all I hear are two words repeatedly running through my brain: I’m trapped, I’m trapped, I’m trapped. A quiet ping brings me back to reality- a text from Mari.

Girly, u here?

Freaking out, I quickly text Mari back, no attention to punctuation or capitalization.

i dont know where i am

I sink into the cold ground, the pressure of a menacing nonexistent hand pushing me down. A little red exclamation mark and three dreaded words pop up on my screen:

Message Not Delivered


WHAT THE WATER GAVE HER
by Anjali Harish, age 15

The witch was a small man, but otherwise rather ordinary. He had white hair— like snow, not silver—, kind eyes, and a fondness for darjeeling tea. He called himself Mother.

The directions were unclear. But it was unwise to question a witch so she paid that as little mind as she could. The slip of paper bearing the directions crumples in the tight clutch of her fist, the writing surely too smudged and sweat soaked to be of any use to her now. She is glad that she had the sense to commit it all to memory before she began the journey.

Again, she thinks. Go over it again.

1. If you ever had a name, forget it. It is no use to you now.

2. When the bullfrog croaks for the third time, wade into the river until you see him.

3. He will give you a choice. Despite what he may tell you, it is a choice. Choose.

The river is a gaping maw when she reaches it. The reeds and rocks that line the bank form a fiendish grin. The water itself is the color of ink spilled across parchment and it blots out even the moon. It laps at her toes, gentle freezing nips, like snowfall, like delicate daggers.

A fat, bulbous frog lunges for the rock beside her, and croaks once.

Twice.

Three times.

She doesn’t breathe until the water goes over her head.

She doesn’t have to wait long. In fact, when he arrives, she wonders for a moment if she is dreaming it, because nothing has changed. Like he’s been with her the whole time. With a shudder, she realizes that he has. He stares at her, all bones and sharp shoulders, all artless boyhood and innocence, all nursery rhymes and ghost stories, and she sees him for who he is: the child she came here to destroy.

I shall consume you, her wicked unborn son sneers. It is decided.

He opens his mouth. A baby’s cry. A hyena’s cackle. Wide as the river.

She beats him to it.

No. It isn’t.

Pascal Lemaître

PascalLemaitrePortrait01_72res2It’s always wonderful to see an artist’s finished work, but rarely do you get a chance to see their creative process. Especially when that process includes a correspondence with Toni Morrison! In researching the Toni Morrison Papers for our current exhibit, we were delighted to discover the charming and captivating work of artist Pascal Lemaître. From sending Morrison quick sketches in the margins of a fax, to a funny observation in a letter, to a touching dedication on a card, Lemaître’s warmth, playfulness, and vibrancy shone out of every folder and archive box we opened.

pig with flower 4

Original illustration of pig holding a flower by Pascal Lemaître; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Based in Belgium, Lemaître is a freelance author and illustrator with an impressive catalog of publications for both children and adults. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Le Monde, Libération, Le 1, Lacroix, Astrapi, J’aime Lire, Pom d’Api and Dorémi. In early 2000, he began working with Toni and Slade Morrison on their second children’s book, The Book of Mean People, and continued that collaboration with three subsequent stories: The Ant or the Grasshopper, The Lion or the Mouse, and Poppy or the Snake, which are all part of the innovative Who’s Got Game series.

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The Book of Mean People original Illustration with inscription by Pascal Lemaître; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

I reached out to Lemaître to ask about his artistic process and experience in working with Toni and Slade Morrison. The interview was conducted in French and is translated below. The original French version can be found here.


How did you first meet the Morrisons?

In the office of Carolyn Reidy, president of Simon & Schuster. We had a meeting about the Who’s Got Game series, for which I had received the initial text draft. I had sent a proposal for a comic book adaptation with a range of dominant colors depending on the album and the place where the story took place. Madame Morrison had my envelope in her hand. She and Slade were excited. Madame Morrison had read comics in her youth and was partial to this medium and she gave me carte blanche. I was with my agent, writer Holly McGhee. Nan Graham and Alexis Gargagliano managed the project for Scribner.

Turtle and Hare_edited 3.

Original illustration of turtle by Pascal Lemaître; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Before we start talking about Toni & Slade’s books, had you ever illustrated for children before?

Yes, my first book was published in 1992 by Editions du Seuil and translated into English by Hyperion in 1993. But I had mainly worked in children’s publishing in Belgium and France, a lot for Bayard Presse which publishes magazines such as Astrapi, J’aime Lire, Pom d’Api etc. Some of my drawings had already been published in The New Yorker.

bunny and bug 3

Original illustration of rabbit and bug by Pascal Lemaître; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Can you tell us a bit about your creative and collaborative process with them?

For The Book of Mean People, my sketches went through Andrea Pinkney, editor at Hyperion. For the Who’s Got Game series, I spoke directly with Madame Morrison. She was very welcoming, open and warm. It helped me to feel free and to forget that she was a Nobel Prize winner. Slade, being a painter and a musician, also respected and encouraged my freedom. It was he who told his mother how much the morality of Aesop’s fables bothered him. I submitted my graphic-designed sketches of the characters and made adjustments according to their requests. I then moved onto dividing the stories into boxes with the speech bubbles which were reread and sometimes adjusted by Madame Morrison so that there was not too much redundancy between the content of the image and the text.

FINAL lion notes 3

Various lion sketches by Pascal Lemaître with notes from Toni Morrison; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

For The Ant or The Grasshopper the text’s lyricism made me think of poetry slams and hip-hop. So I set the action in Brooklyn with gray-blue tones that convey the chill of autumn and winter. For The Lion or the Mouse, there were passages of inner thought that made me think of Kurosawa films like “Ran,” when the clan leaders start monologues. The rhythm of comics offers these possibilities of slowness. The Lion or the Mouse has dominant warm colors and takes place in Africa.

Poppy or the Snake is the only book where Madame Morrison asked me to draw black characters. I proposed that the action take place in Louisiana and to have the book in swampy green tones to continue this idea of books differentiated by their color atmospheres. I drew a 1950s Dodge pickup for aesthetic reasons. I photographed it at a Belgian collector of American cars. He has a big hangar with lots of old American cars. It was the Belgian cartoonist Evermeulen who introduced him to me. For Poppy, I made a small sculpture of his face to draw from different angles.

poppy and the snake sculpture 3

Image courtesy of Pascal Lemaître.

I knew Louisiana from having stayed there. I was able to add symbols like dogs (inhabited by the souls of the dead) and make reference to the Blues by introducing a moment when Poppy meets a singer (Robert Johnson) while going shopping.This story within the story was a homage to Slade’s relationship to music and connected with the musical grasshopper of the previous volume.

poppy and the snake 3.

Who’s Got Game? Poppy or the Snake? Simon & Schuster, 2003

We did proof readings with Toni Morrison in her Center Street apartment. She was a joy to listen to. She spoke with such pleasure. She was extremely quick-witted and lively. She was very tolerant and patient with me given my very average English. Luckily for me, she loved Edith Piaf. P.s. – there is another story that was illustrated, but not published.

I’m curious – the title The Book of Mean People makes me think the “bad guys” would be humans, but the characters are actually rabbits. Has there been a lot of discussion about this?

At my level, no. However, I do not know if there was any between the publisher and Madame Morrison. I had received a rather short draft by fax in Brussels. To have a book of a minimum of 24 pages, I proposed making a double page per line. Additionally, this text seemed universal to me. It was about the gap between adults and children as well as a relationship to language (I will come back to this later). It is for this reason that I created animal characters, to avoid having to stereotype humans. Also, the rabbits allowed me to bring a softness to this rather hard text and to play more free and symbolic games with the ears, for example. The rabbits also allowed the final image to be a return to nature, to the forest. I think this idea of a story within a story interested Madame Morrison and opened the door for me to collaborate on the Who’s Got Game series.

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The Book of Mean People, Hyperion Books for Children, 2002.

A few years ago I proposed to do an illustrated French version of her Nobel Prize speech. This text is very strong and addresses the vulnerability of language just like in The Book of Mean People where the words also lend themselves to confusion and misunderstanding. Entre vos mains [“In Your Hands”] was published in 2018 by Editions de L’Aube.

Is there an illustration from your children’s book collaborations with the Morrisons that is really meaningful to you? And why?

I think it’s the grasshopper in the cardboard box in the middle of Central Park. I feel like text and image work well. The picture is so sad. It is also a reference to Charlot (a.k.a. Charlie Chaplin) poor and alone in the silence of the night and in silent cinema. Madame Morrison’s idea of crumbling wings is such a strong one.

grasshopper in box 5

Who’s got Game? The Ant or the Grasshopper? Scribner, 2003.

Toni Morrison is so amazing, what impact has working with her had on you as an artist?

I would define “extraordinary” in the sense of extra-ordinary, out of the ordinary. She is one of those people who are living proof that life can be vast, who broaden the horizon of thought and of humanity. I would also add this line from Guillaume Apollinaire that my friend Stéphane Hessel adored and which reminds me of her: “We want to explore the enormous kindness of the land where everything is silent.” Collaborating with Madame Morrison was so motivating, so nourishing. I had the feeling of being useful to a cause. It was a huge acknowledgement. It gave me self-confidence without forgetting the fragility of existence and of the world. It was also an apprenticeship with a heroine of history. It was something! I had a lot of affection for Slade and her. Slade was touching and very sensitive. But I’ll stop writing there because I am tearing up. We have lost the Sun.

toni morrison

Image courtesy of Pascal Lemaître.

In our archives, a ladybug walking a smaller bug appears several times in your sketches and correspondence. We see a final version of her on the first panel of The Ant or the Grasshopper Does this character have a special meaning for you? We have our theories…

I’m curious to find out your theory. This character is also effectively a story within the story.

My theory is that it is a tribute to an important woman that you hold in high affection in your life. Did I get close?

You got it ;)

ladybug canvas 4.

Illustrations (two original) of ladybugs by Pascal Lemaître; Toni Morrison Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Thank you for interviewing today, it was truly an honor and a privilege! Is there anything you would like to add?

I would like to thank Ford Morrison and express my gratitude for their support.


Many thanks to Mireille Djenno, Global Special Collections Librarian, for her translation work. We appreciate it!