Leah Henderson is a gifted writer and teacher. Her debut middle grade novel, One Shadow on the Wall, is a poignant story about a Senegalese boy who must decide between doing what is right and what is easy. In reading reviews of the book, I often saw it described as “a page-turner” or “un-put-down-able” or even “a book for one sitting.” And though I didn’t want to rush through it, the book was in fact “un-put-down-able;” I drank the entire novel in one big gulp.
The idea for One Shadow on the Wall came to Leah while traveling. On a trip to Senegal, she saw a boy on a beach wall. This boy–the inspiration for her main character, Mor–had a story to tell, and Leah was impassioned to mold one of honor and promise for him.
Henderson said, “For me, this book is for anyone who loves rooting for the underdog, exploring new cultures and settings, and cheering for unlikely friendships.”
In the opening pages, we immediately find Henderson’s thoughtful voice in passages like, “You are not a python slithering in the dirt, hammering any life that falls across your path. Do not let your hurt turn you sour.” Hard to put down because of the author’s beautiful language and endearing hero, Henderson immerses us in Mor’s world. She doesn’t hold back testing Mor’s character, and with each page turn we see the promise of this debut and understand the need middle graders have for reading it.
Leah Henderson will help fellow authors develop rich characters at our Everything You Need to Know About Children’s Book Publishing course. Today, she chats with us about the workshop and her writing goals.
Alison: Hello, Leah! Thank you for joining us today. We are thrilled to have you on faculty at the Barn in 2018. You had quite a busy 2017. One Shadow on the Wall has been on the shelves for six months. Can you tell us a bit about the surprises and celebrations with your 2017 debut?
Leah: Thank you so much for having me. I have to say, just having a book in the world has been a huge celebration for me. When you put all you have and more into something, not knowing if anything will ever come of it, it is an amazing feeling when something does. Most can relate to this in some small way, I’m sure.
Another moment of celebration was mixed with surprise when I received my first letter from a young reader. Words can’t explain how excited (and relieved) I was when he shared that he’d enjoyed my book and that he connected with Mor’s story. Again, we write never knowing if anyone will ever read our words, but I think we hope that if and when somebody does, that they can find a connection within them, and he did. For me, moments like these are why I write. They are the kind of quiet celebrations that keep me going. Another noteworthy surprise has been the wonderfully supportive friendships I’ve made along the way. We have rooted for, uplifted, and consoled each other in ways I never knew we’d need to. These are things I will always cherish and celebrate during this journey.
Alison: Thank goodness our children’s book community is filled with supportive folks like your friends (and you!). They provide heart to this somewhat (often) long journey. And speaking of a journey, you’ve looked back with us over the last six months, but what about the future? With this New Year, do you have any new goals?
Leah: Absolutely; my main writing goal is to actually write. This past year was about juggling a lot, and one of the things that often got dropped was my writing. So it will be a priority to protect my writing time this year.
I am definitely one of those people who have more ideas in their head than time to write them down. I love it because when an idea makes its way through all the clutter in my mind and rises to the top, I get excited and know it might be a thought worth exploring. So there are a couple ideas that have already climbed to the top this year, so I am busy working on those. Like my first novel, family, friendship, and possibilities are at the core of each of these projects.
In terms of what’s next, this year–like most–will hopefully be filled to overflowing with writing, exploring, and learning.
Alison: We’re glad to be a part of your 2018, too! While we’ve enjoyed your attendance at events at the Barn, this is the first time we get to host you as faculty. We’re thrilled to have you on faculty for our Everything You Need to Know About Children’s Book Publishing course. We say that this workshop is:
“A workshop for serious beginners: learn all you need to know about the children’s book industry!”
You’re handling the craft sessions at the workshop, while Harold Underdown shares the business and submission side. Guests to the workshop include Bobbie Combs, David Richardson, and Lindsay Barrett George. I’ll also be there to talk about writing query letters. What can you tell us about your sessions during this in-depth workshop?
Leah: I’m so thrilled to be a part of the Crash Course faculty. This workshop is a fabulous opportunity for participants to get invaluable publishing-related information in one place–information that sometimes takes years to glean.
The craft component of the workshop will be all about getting to know our characters inside and out. We will talk about the importance of knowing more than we will ever need in order to create fully rounded characters. Through exercises and discussions, we will draw parallels from our own experiences to help add layers and enhance the lives of our protagonists and secondary characters to strengthen our stories.
Whenever I’m in a workshop, I always appreciate it when the instructor starts where we are in our own writing. Not everyone learns the same way, so we will explore a variety of ways to get to know our characters and our own writing process better.
Alison: Your sessions sound amazing! Can’t wait to see you in March. Thank you for your time today.
Leah: Thanks again for having me. I’m excited about the workshop and look forward to coming back to the Barn!
— Interview by Alison Green Myers