This March, I had the pleasure of meeting author Leah Henderson at a writing workshop. When she described her debut middle-grade book set in contemporary Senegal, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Eleven-year-old orphan, Mor, struggles to keep the promise he made to his dying father to keep his young sisters safe and to keep their family together. His aunt comes to take them away from the village they call home, and Mor begs for the opportunity to prove that he can care for himself and his sisters. But finding work and food for his family isn’t easy. To make matters more complicated, a gang of boys from a nearby village, the Danka boys, threaten to take the little bit he’s saved and his opportunity to keep his promise to his father. Mor is faced with a tough decision: do whatever it takes, even if it goes against his principles, to keep the family together or do what is right.
In ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, the sights, culture, and customs of Senegal are delicately woven into the story, giving the reader the unique experience of understanding what present-day life is like in Senegal. ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL beautifully shows the power of determination and the importance of family, friendship, and community. It would make a great classroom read for grades 4-8, ages 10 and up.
I invited Leah to chat with us about her story. Welcome to The Winged Pen, Leah!
Thank you so much for hosting me today. I’m excited to be here.
ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL is a story about family, resilience, and determination. It feels lushly intimate, especially the scene where Mor recalls the happy memory of playing soccer with his baay (father). Do bits of the story come from your own life?
I hesitate to say no because in many ways I think I draw from my own life experiences in everything I do, but the scenes in this story are completely fictitious. Though I will say growing up I always loved playing soccer with my dad and watching him compete and coach. And there are definite glimpses of people I’ve met sprinkled within many of my characters. I think that is what helped bring Mor and the individuals populating his world to life for me—a smile I remember, the gut punch of an unkind word, the sunshine behind someone’s laughter—you know, the kinds of moments that fill our days. These experiences can’t help but find their way into my stories.
What do you hope young readers will learn from Mor and his sisters?
I hope they will learn about a tiny fraction of the beauty Senegal possesses and that they will want to discover more about this country and many others around the world that they are unfamiliar with. I also want young readers to consider that when faced with what they might believe are insurmountable obstacles that there is almost always a way to the other side. It may not be easy, but with hope, determination, and help, they can attempt to overcome the difficulties set before them.
In this interview with The Brown Bookshelf, you mentioned your inspiration for ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL came from seeing a boy sitting on a low beach wall while you were traveling in St. Louis, Senegal. His story came to you as that image replayed in your head while you wrote a short story for a MFA class. With encouragement, it developed into a full novel, but you were hesitant to write this story. Many writers struggle with the question “Is this my story to tell?” How did you overcome your internal resistance? How do you feel about the story now that it’s about to be shared with the world?
Honestly, I’m not even sure I’m completely over my “internal resistance”. My hope at this point is that I haven’t done harm and that a story like mine will not only be an enjoyable read, but that it will make people more curious about the larger world we live in and the varied lives that inhabit it.
I think my true turning point came when my father reminded me that this was possibly one of the first opportunities a cast of characters like mine might be seen by a wider audience or more importantly, by kids that mirror these experiences. And was I really going to deny them the chance to see themselves? A question like that left no room for turning back. There was nothing left to do but keep going. I tried to forget about myself and my apprehensions and focus on the characters and the people I modeled them after. I tried to tell the most heartfelt story I could.
As far as how I feel about sharing this book with the world, I am both nervous and excited (mostly nervous) that in a matter of weeks it will be taking a journey that I no longer have any control over (not that I ever really did)! But mainly I wonder if the little boy on the beach wall saw it would he be able to see glimpses of himself in my writing, and if so, would he smile . . .
After reading ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, I have a greater appreciation for Senegal and its people and, thanks to the rich imagery, I can almost image what life might be like there. Did you do much research as you wrote, or were the details about life in Senegal active in your mind from your travels there?
So the story I tried to tell in my book only captures a small piece of the complexity, richness, and hospitality of that country. The majority of my time in Senegal is spent in cities, in marbled-floored homes with striking courtyards with entrancing scents and gorgeously attired friends and acquaintances, so this side of Senegal, the side I assumed the young boy was from, was a huge departure for me, and cause for much worry. So I tried to do as much research as I could. I was really starting from a place of not knowing.
At first, I could only assume what the life of that boy might be like, and we all know how simple assumptions can quickly turn into stereotypes and untruths if we aren’t careful. So I took trips, watched, listened, tasted, touched, and breathed in everything around me. I asked tons of questions of those who knew this world. I did not pretend to know anything and hesitated to make things up when I didn’t know the answers. I was open to learning and tried to remember every moment I experienced. As an avid traveler who loves to traverse unfamiliar, less trodden paths, I was open, curious, and excited about it all.
Nice! What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
I have a great love for middle grade, so I am busy working on two new stories which are both very different from this, but still center around determination, family, and discovery.
Okay, Leah. Buck up your seat belt for the Lightning Round! *hands Leah a cookie Fun!
If you had a superpower, what would it be? The power to heal (or the power to truly understand motivations, desires, and dreams).
Wooden pencil or mechanical? Wooden pencil
Coffee or tea? Tea, definitely tea!
Sweet or salty? Depends on the day or minute and the possible sweet or salty option. =)
Dog, cat, or other? Dogs are my heart, especially mine.
Plotter or pantser? I’m a bit of both.
Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there? Sure, if this is truly what you love to do, don’t give up. Keep writing the stories you want to share with the world, not just because you hope someone will see them, but because you have to get them out of you. Write because you love it. Everything else is simply a brighter sunshine!
Thanks again for having me. It’s been fun to share a little more of my story!
Thanks so much to Leah for joining us!
MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.