#WeHaveDiverseBooks: 5 Questions is a spotlight on OOM dedicated to exploring Scholastic’s amazing distinct voices. We’ll take a deep dive into the backgrounds, inspiration and works of these authors and illustrators.
Today we're talking with Kheryn Callender, the debut author of Hurricane Child (ages 8–12).
Tell us a little bit about your background and yourself as a child.
I was born and raised on St. Thomas of the United States Virgin Islands. My father’s side of the family is from Barbados, but he’s also from the US Virgin Islands; my mother and her side of the family are from Tortola of the British Virgin Islands, only a short ferry ride away. I have vivid memories growing up of experiences that I could only have on St. Thomas—looking for eels under the rocks at the beach, poking at the clear moon jellyfish washed ashore, eating Johnny cake and chicken wings in the park during Carnival, listening to j’ouvert at the start of dawn… These are memories that I cherish now, but at the time, I felt caught between two worlds. I attended a private school where, for a few years, I was the only black person in my class, even though the islands are predominantly black. I learned how to speak like children from the states, so whenever someone from St. Thomas listened to me, they thought I was a statesider, or that I thought I was better than they were, because of the way I spoke. I was isolated in my school as well—I’m sure race played a large part in my isolation for my first few years, but I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to sit with me, and why I was always in trouble. By the end of my elementary, junior high, and high school career, I’d endured intense bullying by both students and even some teachers. I look back on my experiences now, and how isolated I’d been—but I’m also grateful to have grown up in the US Virgin Islands, and to have a different perspective than many others. I think my experiences shaped the empathy I have for others today, and that’s a rare and important gift.
What was your favorite subject(s) in school?
English was my favorite subject—but I also really loved art, and even thought at the time that I would focus on painting and drawing, rather than writing, for my adult career. I was pretty set on being a manga artist and running away to Japan to intern at Studio Ghibli. (One of the greatest compliments I’ve received is that Hurricane Child reminded someone of a Miyazaki movie!) It was in college that I decided I needed to pick one area to focus on developing my craft, and I chose writing, because I wanted to create more stories for marginalized readers who don’t see themselves enough, myself included. I now regret thinking that I needed to choose either art or writing… but, it’s never too late for me to start my art again!
You work as an editor in a publishing house. Tell us about your experience being both an editor as well as an author.
It can be tough to be both an editor and an author at times—I definitely need a Time Turner, but for now, I wake up pretty early and go to bed pretty late so that I can fit the amount of work I need to get done into one day. Still, I absolutely love being both an editor and a writer. My writing informs my editing, and I feel like I can connect with authors and understand their goals to better make suggestions (at least, I hope I do…) And, vice versa—my editing has taught me a lot about the market and what readers might be looking for in novels. Ironically, though, I think I need an editor more than ever now for my own writing, because it can be difficult for me to shut off that internal editor and miniature publishing company, and I find myself doubting my writing constantly. Editors help shine a flashlight on the path I’m supposed to take while writing my books, instead of wandering aimlessly because I’m endlessly second-guessing myself. I’m not sure I would be either an editor or a writer, if I weren’t able to do both.
Your latest book, Hurricane Child, which just came out this week, tells the story and struggles of twelve-year-old Caroline, a young girl from the US Virgin Islands whose life and luck seem to be predestined since she was born during a hurricane, which in island culture is seen as unlucky. Tell us about Caroline.
Caroline Murphy was created from me, as I guess most main characters are from their authors. Like Caroline, I’m also a hurricane child—a person who is born within a week or so of a hurricane. Caroline was born in the middle of one, while I was born two days after Hurricane Hugo, which remains one of the more devastating hurricanes in Virgin Islands history. It was teasingly suggested all of my life that being a hurricane child is unlucky, and that I’m the person bringing these storms, which have always hit the islands around my birthday—but, as a child, with the bullying and isolation I faced, I sometimes thought this was true. Caroline also endures intense bullying and attacks from her classmates and teacher, like I did—but, I also wrote Caroline out of what I wish I’d had growing up: a sense of strength and self-awareness in who she was, even in the face of adversity. Caroline doesn’t compromise herself for anyone, and finds beauty within herself, even while she’s isolated and even hated by others. I spent many years trying to be accepted on St. Thomas, doing everything I could for positive attention—when I should have spent those years cementing who I am, not who others wanted me to be. It might be funny to say, but I look up to Caroline’s character, and try to take more cues from her these days.
In the story, Caroline's school receives a new student, Kalinda - a girl who moves to St. Thomas from Barbados. Tell us about Caroline and Kalinda's friendship, and the intensity of Caroline's developing crush on Kalinda. How does this change Caroline's path in the story?
With Kalinda’s introduction comes an opportunity for Caroline: to be seen for the first time in her life. While Caroline knows she deserves love and happiness and friendship, it’s still nice for someone else to confirm this. Kalinda, for Caroline, is the acknowledgment that she isn’t alone, when she’d previously been so lonely. Their friendship blossoms into a crush, and for Caroline, having the first friend in her life gives her the acceptance she’d needed. It’s also with Kalinda’s help that Caroline is able to find her missing mother.
What would you like to say to any educators or students who are just picking up the book? What would you like them to know before they begin reading?
Well, I’d like to first thank them for picking up and reading Hurricane Child! I’d want them to see a world that’s possibly different from their own, and to learn empathy for people who might be different—and for anyone who feels different and isolated, I want them to know that they aren’t alone as they read Caroline’s story.