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Stories That Stretch The Imagination: Adventures in Learning with Newbery Honor Winner Jasmine Warga

Hippos named Fiona, whether robots feel afraid, stories as gateways for building empathy and compassion, and creatively avoiding silos as a writer. We talk about all of that and more with Newbery Honor winner Jasmine Warga on this week's episode of the Adventures in Learning podcast.

Jasmine Warga is The New York Times best selling author of middle grade novels Other Words for Home, The Shape of Thunder, and A Rover's Story. Other Words for Home earned multiple awards, including a John Newbery Honor, a Walter Honor for Young Readers, and a Charlotte Huck Honor. The Shape of Thunder was a School Library Journal and Bank Street best book of the year, a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Children's and YA Book Award, and has been named to several state award reading lists. A Rover's Story, her latest novel, was an instant New York Times bestseller, a Indie Next List and a Junior Library Guild selection, and was named a best book of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post. And I will say I laughed and cried all the way through this beautiful book, so run and grab it. She's also the author of young adult novel My Heart and Other Black Holes, which has been translated into over 20 different languages.

What do baby hippos have to do with resilience?

Fiona the hippo celebrates her 6th birthday at the Cincinnati Zoo
Fiona the Hippo celebrates her 6th birthday at the Cincinnati Zoo

[03:00] Jasmine Warga: So Fiona is a hippo at the Cincinnati Zoo, and Fiona was born premature. And for a long time, it was really touch and go around whether Fiona was even going to live, whether she's going to be healthy and the whole city kind of rallied around Fiona. And the Cincinnati Zoo did an incredible job, the trainers and keepers there, of feeding her, raising her, and eventually being able to reintroduce her back into the hippo habitat with her mom. And now she's thriving. She has a baby brother now, Fritz. But she kind of became symbolic to the city of this underdog story. And I feel like Cincinnati often feels like an underdog city. And so I think it's a fun vibe that the city has that we get excited about those kinds of storylines and sort of rally behind our own. And so I think she has kind of become just like a symbol of sort of the city's resilience and that community feel that I feel like Cincinnati has, that we all root for one another.

Resilience and A Rover's Story

[04:12] Dr Diane: I like that notion of resilience. And you actually gave a great segue into talking about the book that has been making waves this past year. You wrote A Rover's Story, and I know that it's gotten rave reviews. I read it, loved it, cried all the way through it, and it features Resilience, the Mars rover. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that book and what the experience has been and what got you writing it in the first place.

[04:39] Jasmine Warga: Yeah, so I think a lot of people, when they first heard the description of the book, felt like, wow, this seems very different. And I think on its face, it does seem very different from some of the other middle grade books I've done. And that it's my first novel that has a non human narrator, and it's my first novel that's kind of speculative, I guess you classify it as science fiction, but I got the idea for the book when we were on lockdown during the COVID pandemic.

I was at home with my family, and we were watching the launch of NASA's newest rover, Perseverance. And I was watching that launch with my kids. And that dramatic moment happens when the rocket that's carrying the rover launches and my oldest daughter, she jumps on the couch and she's clapping, and I'm clapping, and I feel really euphoric. You know, I was so excited watching this launch. I'd been feeling really down. And listening to the NASA scientist talk, I was already thinking about how this was so emblematic of sort of the best of humanity. This was indicative of what we can do when we come together through human collaboration and teamwork. And in this moment where our world felt really broken and it felt like we weren't working together, this felt so positive.

But, yes, that moment happened. The launch happened. But my youngest daughter, she looks upset and kind of nervous and I'm trying to explain to her, like, this is successful because I'm wondering if she's confused since we listened to lots of coverage about how scary the launch can be and all the things that can go wrong. She says, yeah, I know, Mama, but don't you think the robot is afraid? And then when I followed up, she explained, don't you think they're afraid to leave home? And I thought that was such a beautiful question.

And I think so many of us who write for young people write for young people for this exact reason of their ability to have that kind of empathetic, big imagination.

And so I thought, oh, wow, that's a really good idea for a book. But it didn't really occur to me that I was going to write this book. It felt like such a stretch, but I couldn't let it go. And so I started researching the rovers, and the more that I learned about them, the more that the book fell into place for me. But I think my daughter's central questions of is the rover afraid and is the rover afraid to leave home really helped to ground me in the narrative and made it something that, even though it's much more speculative than things I've written before, I feel like I was able to get a footing into the storyline because of that emotional core question.

[07:05] Dr Diane: I think that emotional core question absolutely resonates. You hear it not just in Resilience, but you hear it through Sophie and the letters that she's writing. And even in the scientist, Raina, she starts out being very scientific, but she develops that empathetic connection to the rover as well. And I was sort of wondering, what was your inspiration for the scientist? I love her as a character, thinking about diverse models and STEM. She is a real keeper. And I'm wondering sort of, did you talk to real NASA scientists to get that, or was that something that you made up completely?

[07:46] Jasmine Warga: Yeah, I love that you appreciate her character. And so, sadly, I didn't get to talk to any actual NASA scientist, but I did read the memoir of one of the head chief engineers who worked on the rover Curiosity. And that memoir really helped me because I think the real challenge of the book was how do I bring out kind of the texture and feel of this lab where it's somewhere I've never been and somewhere I haven't worked, and what do those interpersonal relationships look like?

But then Raina also just came kind of from the depths of my imagination of what I would have wanted to see in a book when I was that age. I think that even when I'm writing about a Mars rover, representation is really important to me. And I especially want young girls, particularly young girls of color, to see themselves in these roles and also to kind of flip the script. I think we have in Raina's family like a mom that has a really demanding job and what that looks like and the complicated feelings her daughter has about that and how that's all really real and true.

So I really was excited to get to sort of develop her character and I'm glad you appreciated her. And I think also I was inspired by listening to the interviews that I saw before the launch. And NASA's website has, like, a treasure trove of resources so you can go on and listen to different interviews with all the incredible people who work on the rovers. And one of the things that struck me the most is how attached to the rovers so many of them feel and how they feel like this is like, a member of their team and their family. And I thought that it was kind of cool to probably show that progression line because probably for some of them, that's something that almost surprises them, that happens, that attachment.

Storytelling and STEM Connections to A Rover's Story

Jasmine Warga reads aloud from A Rover's Story at a school visit. Photo credit to
Jasmine Warga leads a school visit for A Rover's Story.

[09:37] Dr Diane: Now, I know you were a teacher, you've taught elementary school kids and I'm sure you've been traveling the country promoting A Rover's Story. What's the most interesting way you've seen teachers use your book?

[09:52] Jasmine Warga: I love that so many kids are building their own rovers. So I think it's so exciting to go into a school visit and there's a lot of synergy. They're using the book. This isn't just a book that's being used in the language arts classroom. Like, they're obviously using it there and they're talking about character, they're talking about plot. But I love that it's stretching to sort of bring that synergy with their science classrooms, where they're building rovers or they're learning about planet science or they're learning about Mars and space exploration. That's really cool because I think so often we think of learning in these silos, and it’s really not. So that’s something that's exciting for me. And I think what I was a young person I didn't quite understand is just how imaginative science can be and how creative science can be, and sort of showing that overlap and also hopefully bringing kids — maybe there are kids who really thought they didn't like reading stories, that the story may appeal to them and kind of be a gateway in that way, and vice versa for kids who are reluctant to think that they enjoy science and then being like, this is also science.

[10:58] Dr Diane: When I was in the classroom, I loved thematic connections and being able to connect language arts and science in particular for exactly the reason you're talking about that you might just have that lightning strike where a child who didn't know that they loved science suddenly realizes, oh, I like books, and I can do this too. Or the other way around. And I think that's really important.

[11:19] Jasmine Warga: Yeah, I love, which I'm sure you're familiar with, the One School One Book Read. And I've been so lucky that A Rover's Story, schools have been using it in that way. And I think there's nothing that gives me a more special feeling than walking into the school and seeing how a book has brought together a community, because that's my very favorite thing about stories, is their ability to connect us to one another.

[11:44] Dr Diane: Absolutely. And it works so well as an independent read for middle grade readers, but it also works as a read aloud for younger children to get them excited about Mars, to get them excited about science, to get them excited about diverse women in STEM. And so I think this book absolutely works as a One School One Book choice.

Diversity and Storytelling

[13:29] Dr Diane: So my next question for you, you referenced it a little bit, talking about writing for representation, making sure that when you're writing, people have a chance to see themselves. I've been really big into Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors. And when I work with my college students, I try to make sure that they're really looking at those books for their classrooms and being intentional about what they're sharing. And so how has that sense of writing informed what you've written so far and what's coming up for you?

[14:04] Jasmine Warga: Yeah, honestly, it's complicated because I feel so strongly right about wanting representation in books. But I hope that we're also moving in the direction of having a wider imagination of what we think of as a diverse book, because I'm very proud of the book that I wrote in Other Words for Home, and I really said a lot of the things that I wanted to say about what it means to be Arab American, particularly what it means to be Muslim American. But to me, A Rover's Storyis also a diverse book, And talking about if when I was young and in middle school and had opened that book and had seen a book that was a fun space adventure that also had a couple of Arabic words and the main scientist was Arab American, and that would have meant the world to me. And it's different, right? It's a different type of representation in Other Words for Home, but I think that they're both meaningful. And so, moving forward, I can see myself writing books that kind of fall into sort of both of those categories.

But I'm hoping that we can sort of expand our idea of when diversity is important because I think for so long we've had this idea of diverse books almost being like vegetables, right, that they need to teach you something about a particular marginal nation or about an experience. Like I said, I think those books are so important. I myself love those books and I've learned so much about other people's lived experiences and think those books are super important and we need those books and we need those stories. But I also think that it's incredible to open a book that's a fun fantasy adventure and the protagonist is black and another protagonist is Korean, and that just is because they deserve to be in those stories and should be in those stories, that it doesn't have to be about what does it mean to be of that race or ethnicity? And so I think that's to me, the direction I would love to see representation going in, that we can just have it more across the board, that it isn’t, to use the word I keep using apparently today, but isn't just siloed to this one particular type of story that we expect to see diversity in.

[16:08] Dr Diane: There's an image that I've seen which makes so much sense of a child being able to look and see so many different possibilities for themselves. And I think that's what you're talking about, that it's not just seeing one type of representation, but being able to see all the possibilities and recognizing that there is no single story.

Diversity in Children's Books 2018 -- an infographic showing the spectrum of stories and images available to children from different backgrounds based on statistics compiled by the CCBC
Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from

[16:27] Jasmine Warga: Yeah, exactly. And that there isn't a type of person who writes one single story. Like, I love now getting to go do school visits and I think some of the people are surprised that I am the person who wrote A Rover's Story. I think for so long, even just like the male to female author binary bias, right.

And so I think that it's exciting to, like I said, expand our idea of where we can see representation and what a diverse book looks like, and what that means for kids to be able to see themselves in all types of stories and know that their voice matters and that they can tell any type of story.

Do you remember the first story that you were told or that you read that really stuck with you?

[17:17] Jasmine Warga: Yeah. So I share this, actually, on all my school visits. But my first memory is also, I think, the first story that was ever told to me. And I don't have, I'm sad that in my memory is foggy, and I can't completely remember the story that was being told, but I remember the feeling of listening to that story, the anticipation, the warmth, and the love that was being communicated. So in my memory, I'm four years old, and I'm sitting on my grandmother's lap, and my grandma, she lived in Jordan for all of my life, and I only got to meet her two times. This is the second time in my life that I'd ever met her, and also the first time in my life that I'm consciously aware that I'm meeting her and she's telling me a story and I know she's telling me a story about mermaids that lived in the Dead Sea. And I was just enraptured by this story. And I know because for years, I would always ask my dad to tell me the same story, and he didn't know what story this was. But I think my grandma was communicating to me some idea about home and love.

And what I remember distinctly, though, is when she finished, she asked me to tell her a story about my home in Cincinnati, in America, and I think early on gave me this idea that storytelling is a conversation and it's a collaboration, and that's today still how I approach my books.

I want my books to feel like a call to action for the reader, that when they finish, it feels like I've asked you to think about something and wonder about something. And hopefully they feel like now they want to use their voice to respond in some way or tell a story.

I think storytelling is a conversation that all of us are having. And so that idea, and I think that was keyed in to me really early by my grandma. I think so many of us who are children of immigrants who grew up in families where storytelling is really important because it's sort of a way to preserve culture and it's a way to preserve memory, and it's a way that my father was able to teach my brother and I about lots of our family on the other side, and what his life was like. And I think that was just a huge part of my family culture growing up. And because I was a shy child, writing became the best vehicle for storytelling.

Did those family stories inform Other Words for Home?

[19:38] Jasmine Warga: The proverbs that are in the book are things that, obviously, I think my grandparents taught my dad, who taught us. And as is, I think now, sort of almost like cliche, when I was growing up, I would be so embarrassed and annoyed when my dad would say those proverbs because all I wanted to do was feel like a regular American, whatever that meant. And I think Other Words for Home, in some ways, was my challenge to my eleven year old self to realize what is an American? How do we define an American? What does that mean? But when I was younger, I just wanted to fit in, right? I just wanted to feel like everyone else.

I remember being so mean to my dad. I'm so embarrassed. He was like telling me one of these proverbs on the way to a soccer game where he was driving me, my friend. I was mortified. But then how many years later I'm texting him while working on this book, being like, remember that thing he used to say to me when I was young? What's the correct translation? Like, what does this look like in English? And getting to reclaim that. So that was all informed from things that my family has said, that they do say. But it's obviously a fictional story. But I think that what is at the heart of Other Words for Home is that having to lose your home for reasons beyond your own control, and my dad was the son of refugees. And so I think in my family story, that's something that has lived at the heart of it.

What does it mean to have to leave home when you don't want to leave home? What does it mean to have a longing to return to a home that you can't? What does it mean to build a new home? And how can you make multiple places feel like home? And so I think the emotional truths that are in the DNA of the book are things that I grew up wondering about and hearing stories about, even though the play by play plot points in the book are very different from my family's own lived experience.

What were the books that influenced you growing up?

[21:36] Jasmine Warga: Yeah. So my mom read Charlotte’s Web aloud to me. And when you were asking about stories, that's the second thing that comes to mind.

That's my first distinct memory of a read aloud and crying at the end of that book, recognizing the emotional power a book could have. But that can also make you feel safe, right? Because for a lot of us, I think our first experience, if we're lucky, with really hard things, is through story. And we sort of learn about those difficult things in story.

And then actually my grandmother died when I was in third grade. And it coincided around the same time that I read Bridge to Terrabithia and remember feeling what that book meant so much to me. I felt like it was telling me the truth about a really hard part of the human condition in a way that I felt lots of times the grown ups in my life didn't really want to address. So really early on, I was very into books that were challenging you. I loved The Giver. I grew up kind of in that period where I feel like we were reading all Lois Lowry's books. So I loved her books. I loved Ella Enchanted. I definitely wrote Ella Enchanted fan fiction. I didn't have the word at the time for what that was, but I loved that world.

[22:45] Dr Diane: My daughter is named for the Ella in Ella Enchanted.

[22:48] Jasmine Warga: Oh, my gosh. That's amazing. Yeah, it's such a perfect book. It's such a fun book. I have memories of just like, January, cold January in Cincinnati, feeling miserable and just being so excited that my fifth grade teacher would start the day with her read aloud of Ella. Absolutely loving it. And so those come to mind.

One of the first things I did when I figured out that I wanted to write for this age group was I went back and I read all my favorite books from when I was a kid because I was trying to figure out, why are these the books that I remember? Why are these the books that stand out? And I always say I thought maybe initially they would sort easily by genre, right? That I would have all fantasy books or I'd have all really sad books that make you cry or funny books or whatever, and they're all different genres. It seems like I was not a genre specific reader as a kid, but it was more that idea of like, what books were asking really interesting questions and what books gave me worlds that really made me wonder and I wanted to return to them and again gave me that idea of like this was an invitation for me to want to tell the story from them. And so I think that sort of was the X Factor in many of my favorite books.

[24:10] Dr Diane: I like that idea of books that address really interesting questions, because I think that's something you've definitely carried into your writing today, and I think that's something that kids who are readers are craving as well. It's a difficult world they're navigating. And so books can be that comfortable place to discover those things before you have to test it out in real world relationships. And so I think it gives them a safe space to be able to do that.

Given all of the book banning challenges, what would you tell teachers and librarians who are in the trenches right now?

[30:53] Jasmine Warga: The first thing that I want to say before I say anything is to acknowledge that I'm not in the trenches. And as a former 6th grade teacher, I know how difficult that can be to enact the type of change you want to enact within a system that maybe is working against you. So I recognize everything I might say here is more utopian and fanciful sounding than what you may actually do on the ground.

But I think recognizing that by and large, the kids are with you. And I think by and large, most of the community is with you. And so just getting the kids the books they can the best that you can, and sort of, I think, trying to proceed with sort of radical empathy and kindness of sort of advocating for these books, but through the lens of why these books are so great.

I don't like when we get put in the defensive posture. I think we should actually take the offensive posture of a lot of these books are life changing, and they're amazing for communities, and this is what they can do and this is what the studies show, and these are the words they want and these are the reviews. As opposed to the defensive posture of being afraid, of saying, okay, I'm going to pull it. I think that we have, by and large, history, and I like to think the majority of people's thinking, on our side.

And I think also acknowledging not every book is for every reader. And I think it's okay if certain kids don't want to read a certain book. Like, I think that we have so many great books, and diversity is always a wonderful thing in a library. And so I think moving more towards reader choice. You have a selection of books, and what a fourth grader might be ready for is very different than what their class they might be ready for. And I'm super understanding of that.

I've written books about more difficult topics, and I would never assume to think that that's the right book for every kid, but I also think that it is the right book for some kids, and those kids deserve the right to read that book. It’s sort of the more nuanced argument.

[33:03] Dr Diane: Well, I think that makes a lot of sense. And I like the fact that you approached it from the idea of empathy and compassion, that that's what these books are providing gateways and avenues to greater empathy and compassion. And I think we'd agree that isn't that what we want as a society is a kinder, more empathetic society? And you're right, not every book is going to be for every child in any circumstance. We've got kids who are at different reading levels, different maturity levels, different family situations, but that doesn't mean you don't have the books out there for those who need them and who may not know they need them.

[33:38] Jasmine Warga: And I think the last thing that I'll say, too, is this idea that I think so many of the people who get upset about the books haven't even read them because I have a lot of angry reader mail about Other Words for Home. And the number one thing that was said is like, if you hate America, leave America. I don't want my child to read a book that hates America.

And what's funny to me is I actually think Other Words for Home is really a celebration of America. She gets so many opportunities here in America. While she has difficult times, she also experiences a lot of joy. And it's kind of about wanting America to live up to the dream that so many people around the world have of it. And so I think it's really a celebration of what makes our country so unique and special and why it's still the number one place in the world. People from all over the world dream about coming.

And so I can tell from the emails I read that the people who are upset about the book have not even read the book. And so I think sometimes, too, that's that idea of meeting, I know it's hard to meet anger and criticism with kindness and empathy, but I think responding to that by saying, I'm sorry that you would be upset about that, but I really don't think that's what this book is.

What are your hopes for the future?

[35:17] Jasmine Warga: I hope to get to keep creating books. I mean, I think that everything that we talked about here, I hope to continue getting to do books that stretch my imagination and hopefully stretch young people's imagination and also to get back to the heart of what we were talking about with kindness and empathy.

There's nothing that is more satisfying to me than doing a school visit and getting to see the way books can inspire kids to feel more confident in themselves, feel more confident in their voices, and also feel more confident in being able to be kind to one another. I think that kindness is its own source of confidence. And I think that if we can make kids feel good about themselves, they'll be better to others. And I think stories can really do that.

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