Welcome to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Leah Henderson, the author of
THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS
Can you change your fate—and the fate of those you love—if you return to the past? Journey to 1939 Harlem in this time-travel adventure with an inspiring message about believing in yourself.
Eleven-year-old Ailey Benjamin Lane can dance—so he’s certain that he’ll land the role of the Scarecrow in his school’s production of The Wiz. Unfortunately, a talented classmate and a serious attack of nerves derail his audition: he just stands there, frozen. Deflated and defeated, Ailey confides in his Grampa that he’s ready to quit. But Grampa believes in Ailey, and, to encourage him, shares a childhood story. As a boy, Grampa dreamed of becoming a tap dancer; he was so good that the Hollywood star and unofficial Mayor of Harlem, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, even gave him a special pair of tap shoes. Curious, Ailey tries on the shoes . . . and instantly finds himself transported to 1930s Harlem. There he meets a young street tapper and realizes that it’s his own grandfather! Can Ailey help the 12-year-old version of Grampa face his fears? And, if Ailey changes the past, will he still be able to get home again? Featuring an all-African-American cast of characters, and infused with references to black culture and history, this work of magical realism is sure to captivate and inspire readers.
Let’s talk to this amazing author about her marvelous book!
This is Leah. Everyone say, “Hi, Leah!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Leah! Tell us about yourself!
First off, thanks so much for having me!
When it comes to learning about me, my heart spot is middle grade, but I also have a few picture books on the horizon and a story in the YA anthology BLACK ENOUGH: Stories of Being Young and Black America. I teach in Spalding University’s graduate writing program.
And one thing all my books have in common, is that I want my characters and kids reading my words to see and believe in their possibilities on the page and in the world.
Where did the idea for THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS come from?
Actually, I was being led by my dog, Boston, in a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. He stopped at a statue to do his business. When I looked up, I saw the feet of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson the famous tap dancer and movie star, and started thinking, those shoes definitely have something to say. And as if my dog realized I was finally paying attention to a new story idea, he glanced back at me one more time and then continued on his journey like he’d done his work for the day. The idea spun around in my head for a while longer, but then the pieces thankfully started coming together.
Oh, wow! Good job, Boston! You can’t beat those right time, right place, right brain space moments.
This book has time travel in it which I LOVE! How did you tackle writing a story with all of the good stuff that time travel entails such as time paradoxes and changing the future? (if you can answer that in a non-spoilery way?)
Oh my goodness, there is so much to think about when writing time travel stories. Something I’ve never attempted before. Let’s just say, a lot of revision needed to happen. I kept realizing, “well that doesn’t make sense,” or “that doesn’t work logically.” But I had to go through and write out ever implausible idea first to realize this. But overall, it was a really fun challenge once I got out of my own way and let story take over. Not sure I did it all right, but I definitely had fun trying.
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS?
THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS is all about highlighting moments of Black Excellence, so I decided early on that I would name the characters after people and places that exuded Black Excellence. A lot of the people and places that inhabit the story, I was already familiar with, but there were a few who I stumbled upon while doing my research that were wonderful discovers for me, like Mr. Rock, my main character, Ailey’s teacher.
The real John S. Rock was not only a grammar school teacher at one point, he was also a dentist, physician, lawyer, abolitionist, and orator. Talk about living your life with purpose! But that’s not all, he was one of the first African American men to obtain
a medical degree and was the first African American lawyer admitted to practice at the U.S. Supreme Court.
I also learned so much more about the exceptionally talented and generous
Bojangles. Every time I think of him, I can’t help but smile. Among the many things he stood for and believed in, he refused to wear blackface when he performed, even though it was a mainstream expectation of the times regardless of if you were white or Black.
But honestly, something I learned about myself while writing this, was really just how important it is to remember the achievements of those who came before, because they left imprints on the world in both large and small ways, hopefully reminding all of us that we can too if we’re willing to discover our stars.
What is your favourite thing (or things if you can’t pick just one) about writing middle grade?
As I said before, I’m a firm believer in everyone seeing their possibilities, and I feel like middle grade is all about what is possible and discovering it. I feel like that is really the time kids are coming into their own, and really begin to decide which ways they might go.
Very true. Love that.
Any hints about your next book project?
Up next are a few picture books: TOGETHER WE MARCH (nonfiction), A DAY FOR REMEMBERIN’ (based on actual events), and a couple others still under wraps. 🙂 Oh, yeah, and I’ll be contributing a story to the MG anthology Calling the Moon edited by Aida Salazar & Yamile Saied Méndez.
So exciting! Can’t wait to read them all!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
Finding a way to live with the uncertainty of it all. But within that, the AMAZING friendships I’ve been blessed to gain in this business have definitely helped to get me through. Publishing has ups, downs, and waiting involved almost daily! You have to have a healthy way to find balance or you’ll certainly lose yourself and your creative spark along the way.
What are you reading right now?
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
This quote by Ernest Hemingway says it all: “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”
So, stop writing each day before the last scene, sentence, or moment you are certain of. Save it for the next time you sit down to write. You will be excited to return to the page to get it all down.
That is a really good practice to get into. *takes notes*
Bonus Question! You’ve travelled to over FIFTY countries which is so cool! If you could go anywhere in the world, right now, right this second, where would you go?
(Interviewer’s note: This question was sent out pre-pandemic so thank you to Leah for going with it and answering in such a lovely way.)
We are in such uncertain times at the moment with social distancing, masks, and COVID, that I’ve only been able to let my wanderlust dream. And although I have a list two miles long of the places I’d still like to explore (including Madagascar & Tibet), at this very second, a flight wouldn’t be needed.
I’d simply love to hop in the car with my dog and go see my parents and enjoy family. But that’s not a wise possibility right now, so phone calls, Zooms, and FaceTimes are key to my mental travel these days. I’m getting to see friends and family all over the world!
Stay safe everyone, and remember to be appreciative of the little moments especially now!
Casey, thanks again for having me and take good care of yourself.
You too, Leah! Thank you so much for the chat!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out
THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS! It’s available now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of THE MAGIC IN CHANGING YOUR STARS!
Contest closes Friday, August 7th at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!