We tell our kids not to judge a book by its cover, but we all do it. We are programmed to size up the situation around us, make a judgement, and proceed. Unfortunately, in that split second, we can only see through the lens we have at that moment.
In terms of literally judging books by their covers, I know when I walk into a bookstore and browse the tables for new offerings, often my attention goes to what I find pleasing, interesting, and aligned with what I perceive is my taste. Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. After I pick up the book I'm drawn to, I flip it open, and look deeper.
I think it's okay to have our snap judgments as long as we always look past them, question those judgements, and keep our minds open to whatever we may find inside.
When I saw the cover for my new book, The Night Diary, I couldn't have been happier. I love how it tells a story, but leaves room for more understanding. My favorite book covers often do. I remember when I was a child, after reading a book I loved, I would go back to the cover and stare at it. I liked to see how my new understanding of what was inside changed the way I looked at the cover. It was always different, every single time.
Hopefully when readers look at this cover, they'll be drawn in by the story it tells, curious about why the hands are there, why they're all a little different, why they're holding on, and why they're letting go. Maybe the reader will recognize some of the South Asian details on each wrist: Hindu Kalava/Mauli (the red thread), the Sikh kara (iron or steel bracelet), Sindhi ajrak (block printed fabric), the bangles, or the bare wrists signifying that the person might be Muslim.
The last hand on the bottom is my favorite. To me, it's my main character, Nisha, writing in her diary. There she is, right there on the cover! It's the window into the book for me, the final image that might catch a reader's eye before they dive in.
I'm so grateful to Kelley Brady, the cover artist and book designer, Dial's design team, and my editor, Namrata Tripathi. It means so much to an author when the people who work on your cover bring to life the essence of your story.
I like to think of the reader sitting quietly after they finish my book and looking at the cover again. Do they remember what they thought when they first looked at the cover, and how the meaning of it changed, and possibly how they were changed by looking inside? I hope the reader holds on to that experience--that process of judging, looking deeper, and seeing again.
Lots of exciting things are happening with The Night Diary, coming out from Dial on March 6! So far, the book has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, so I'm feeling grateful, a little dumbstruck, and anxious to get out there and share this book. This spring, I'll be traveling to many spots in the country visiting schools, meeting booksellers, and speaking at some exciting conferences. Bear with me while I update my appearances section!
Today, however, I wanted to announce that Listening Library is doing an audio version of The Night Diary! I've never had one of my books recorded as an audio book. An amazing actress, Priya Ayyar, is reading the book, but I had the pleasure of recording my dedication and author's note. It was a little scary, but Listening Library's Executive Producer, Orli Moscowitz, and Director, Christina Rooney, made it easy. Here are a couple of pics of me looking all professional at the mic! More to come soon. I'm buckling my seat belt because I have a feeling it's going to be quite a ride!
Last week I wrote my acknowledgement page for my upcoming middle-grade novel, The Night Diary. It’s an emotional experience, because I’m grateful to so many people for so many things. But I have to remember that this act is supposed to be book focused. I’m lucky enough to have been through the process a few times and the same thing always happens. Beyond thanking those closest to the project (and I won’t mention all those amazing people here, because I’ll save it for the book), I have an urge to thank everyone who has meant anything to me, ever.
I want to thank all my friends and family. I want to thank my loving pet collie I had when I was a kid who always made me feel worthy. I want to thank my 4th grade teacher who taught us about playwriting and Arabic. I want to thank my first best friend I ever had because she showed me I could have a best friend. I want to thank my favorite babysitter who often took me and my sister after school to feed wheat thins to those horses nearby. I want to thank my “mean” high school English teacher who made me revise that essay five times until I actually learned something. I want to thank the nice lady at the bakery who gave me my first job. I want to thank the adults I knew growing up who were artists because I saw that one could be such a thing. I want to thank the boy who asked me to my first dance. I want to thank anyone who has ever invited me to a party.
There’s more, many more, but for the book, I stick to those who directly impacted the project. That’s the thing, though. Whenever you achieve something important to you, all those special people in your life, starting from your very first memories to today, are part of the achievement. They are part of the building blocks which created whatever allowed you to believe that you could do something.
Then I thought, what a great writing prompt! What a great life prompt. So for anyone who’s interested, take some time today and write your acknowledgement page. You can write it for anything you consider an achievement. Maybe the achievement is simply that you are a person who is a lot more good than bad, and that you’ve survived everything you’ve been through so far, and that you’ve cared about people and they’ve cared about you.
Maybe write it because you’re standing here this morning, ready to do it all over again, and there’s someone out there who you want to thank for that.
It happened like this. Several months ago my new book idea and I started a relationship. I saw it from across the room and I had to introduce myself. We met for coffee and I fell pretty hard. Before I knew what was happening, I became obsessed. We spent every day together and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Spring turned into summer and as the heat, endless light, and unpredictable schedules began to distract me, something shifted. We saw each other less, then not at all.
To be honest, it started to annoy me. Little things like where was the plot actually going and why didn’t the characters seem as interesting as they did in the beginning? Were the themes too complicated or perhaps too simple? The glow faded and I began to feel lost. Then it was August. The kids were out of camp and I was full on mom. September came, though, as it always does. School started and my fall routine returned. As I prepared my courses and read instead of wrote, I thought a lot about the book that came before this new idea. That book had a clear beginning, middle, and end. Though I was revising it, that book had developed characters who still captivated me. It even had a contract. Could this new book idea ever mean as much to me as that other book?
I hadn’t spent time with the new manuscript in over a month. I felt guilty, disappointed with myself, mad that I could let a good thing go like that. But I kept avoiding it. What if all those passionate feelings were really gone? What if I had just been kidding myself?
Then one day, a rainy Monday of all days, a day when I had slept poorly the night before, when the kids grumbled about school as I gently pushed them out the door, after an annoying appointment, a few tedious errands, and some work emails, I decided to open my manuscript out of the blue. As soon as I began to read, I remembered what I loved about it. It was still beautiful to me, in its broken and raw sort of way. We started hanging out again. I think it might be serious.
This is my process. Sometimes I start “dating” a manuscript, wander away for a bit, and then when I return, the magic isn’t there at all, like how could I have ever thought this was a thing not there. It’s frustrating and sad when that happens, but I stay in the game because I know I’ll fall in love eventually. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.
I'm posting this a few days after the NYC marathon and admiring pictures on social media of people crossing the finish line. Though I don't pretend to have that kind of stamina, I can relate to the finish-line moment in a new way.
Two weeks ago, I participated in the 39-mile Avon Breast Cancer walk in New York City. What did it mean to walk across that finish line? It meant a great deal to me, especially because I didn't think I actually would or could. The first 26-mile day of the walk was tough, but doable. A bunch of us ran late after lunch in Brooklyn and they bussed us back over the bridge, which was okay with me. The couple of miles I didn't walk absorbed itself quickly into the accomplishment of the long, hard day. I was just relieved that I did enough training to carry me through. Saturday night, however, proved to be a bigger challenge. As hundreds of walkers slept in pink tents (not made for cold camping) on Randall's Island, it dropped to a windy 38 degrees. The layers, hand warmers, and good sleeping bag I brought wasn't enough.
When I woke up on Sunday morning, shivering in my tent with maybe an hour of sleep behind me, after walking for 12 hours the day before, the thought of walking 13 more miles seemed absurd. It felt like the last possible thing I could ever do. I already did it, I thought to myself. I raised the money, I showed up, I survived yesterday. Why do I need to push myself? Why do I need to finish the walk?
When and why do we need to push ourselves to the finish line? Sometimes the right answer is letting something go. Sometimes the right answer is not finishing and being okay with that. That morning I didn't know what the right answer was. All I can say is that you have to try and listen to yourself, truly and completely, without the noise of other people's judgements. Other people will come in and out of your life, but you have to live with you, forever.
My sister and I hunched over our hot breakfast, now in the freezing outdoor dining tent at 7am, trying to warm ourselves up with little paper cups of coffee. As we watched the better prepared or just heartier women set off for the walk, I resigned myself to boarding the bus that would bring me to the first rest stop and shave off about 4 miles. There, we would walk a bit, and then hop on the bus when we peetered out. This wasn't a race. Other people were doing it that way. I did what I set out to do, didn't I? But I didn't. I wanted to know I could push through something really hard and rally. I wanted to know I was that strong, or at least I wanted to know I really tried. If my mother could get through two rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, and radiation, I could do this. Still, my hands and feet felt numb. The coffee wasn't helping enough.
My sister, Shana Hiranandani, who is also a life coach, saw me looking wistfully over at the walkers. The crowds were starting to thin.
"Look," she said. "We may have to wait a while for the bus. Let's just start and see how we feel. We can take a bus at the next rest stop if we're really miserable."
Suddenly it seemed clear--"Let's just start and see how we feel." I nodded, grateful that I had my sister at that moment to help point me in the direction I needed to go. Usually when we're at a crossroads, we do need someone to help us get where we want to go, whether it's letting go or pushing through. I do that with writing all the time. I certainly don't finish every story or novel I start and I usually consult with a trusted person to help me make my decision. I got my achy self to standing and we started walking, simple as that. We came here to finish something.
When the sun finally hit my face that morning and I was again part of the pink-clad crowd heading down the east side of New York City, I felt joy and energy bubble up through me. Shana and I walked all 13 miles that day. We were greeted proudly by our families at the finish line, who would have been proud no matter what, but my sister and I had made the right decision. Maybe, though, in a different circumstance, getting on the bus that morning and feeling good about what I managed to do would have been the right decision.
This time, knowing I rallied has given me the courage to think about bigger goals and bigger possibilities for myself. But it also showed me where my limits were, and that limits are okay. The trick is knowing if you've hit a real limit or not. If we don't have that hard, quiet moment over a cup of coffee with a trusted person to figure it out, we may not hear ourselves. Rather than coming up with a bigger, newer challenge, doing the walk has ultimately made me want to go deeper into the things I already love, the things I've already chosen to challenge myself with--my writing, my teaching, my parenting, my marriage, and all my important relationships. I want to spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff and a lot less time thinking about what other people think of me.
I don't believe I'll ever run a marathon. And that's okay. There are a lot of things I won't do. I'm at the point in my life where, though I believe in the phrase "it's never too late," I also believe that narrowing things down and truly committing to what I already have, what I already do, with a depth that can only come from more days lived on the planet and a growing awareness of the fragile and fleeting nature of life, is going to be my greatest marathon.
Thanks to everyone who supported me.
During my training walks for Avon 39, I've been thinking about my feet. I really like my feet. They're not particularly beautiful. They're kind of big. They have a tendency to get dry and sore around my heels, but I like them. They're the one part of my body that's purely functional to me, the one part of my body I'm not critical, or precious, or self-conscious about. Yes, I'll dress them up with polish for fun, but ultimately I'm happy with them however they are. They've carried me through life for forty-four years and I hope they carry me through another forty-four. First, they need to carry me along my 39-mile walk in October.
I said I'd post every week about my walk training, but there hasn't been much new to say. I've mostly been doing daily three-mile walks. The longest walk I've been able to fit in is five miles. It's a challenge to find the time, but I'm planning to attempt a ten-mile walk tomorrow and one fifteen-mile walk before the big day. I figure if that feels okay, I'll be good to go. Showing up is the most important thing. I'm also proud to say I've raised $3,200 towards breast cancer research, so far. It's still not too late to donate! Just click here. I promise it will feel good. I'm looking forward to writing about my post-walk experience. I'm sure my feet and I will have plenty of stories to tell.