Jasmine Warga has previously published two emotionally resonant novels for teens and, with her middle grade debut, now brings her skill at writing insightful, timely stories to a younger audience. Told in verse, Other Words for Home follows 12-year-old Syrian refugee Jude as she and her mother work to build a new home in Ohio while her father and brother are still in Syria. Warga spoke with PW about portraying Jude’s specific refugee story, the nuances in writing for a middle grade audience after writing for teens, and rewriting a prose novel in verse.
What first brought you to writing for young readers?
I think it goes back to the fact that I was the most passionate and dedicated reader when I was younger. I don’t think I’ve ever loved books again in the way that I did as a young person. I was kind of a lonely, outcast kid and books were my friends, my refuge, and my window to the world. Now that I get to write for young people, I have all these other answers about how interacting with young people today is so inspiring and that I believe every cliché about kids being our future, but the most honest answer is the selfish one: that I remember what books meant to me at that age and I’m hoping to replicate that experience for someone else.
Do you recall any titles or authors you enjoyed that you feel influenced you?
I’m of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter and, while those books obviously don’t need a shout-out, I think that having a series that grew with me was such a singular experience that impacted me in countless ways.
I also remember Anne of Green Gables and how real Anne felt to me, even though her life was so different than mine. I could get lost in that world. Girl of the Limberlost, which my mom read aloud to me, was memorable. I read and reread From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia was just such a badass. I was drawn to books with female characters who pushed against the standards that were being imposed by society. I was young and I don’t think I made the connection of why I liked those stories so much, but these stories about brave, creative girls made me think I could be, too.
Why, after publishing two novels for teens, did you decide to switch to writing for middle grade readers?
Before I wrote My Heart and Other Black Holes, the things that I was working on were often whimsical middle grade stories. I unexpectedly lost my friend and My Heart and Other Black Holes was born out of that period of intense grief in my life. And, when that book sold, I was lucky enough to be offered a second young adult book. Still, I had an itch to return to middle grade.
This story, Jude’s story, was always middle grade to me. I used to teach sixth grade science, so I think I’ve always had an affinity for that in-between space. I think [middle school] was also the worst years of my life, so it’s rife with creative expression. The place where you struggled the most and felt the loneliest and out of place—I feel a lot of love for kids who are in the space.
What was the inspiration for Other Words for Home?
The first time I thought about writing a book about Syria and someone immigrating from Syria to the United States way back in the fall of 2013. My father is Jordanian and the Middle Eastern community in Cincinnati, where he lives, is pretty small. His best friend is Syrian, and we had all gone to this friend’s house for dinner. At that dinner, there were several members of the friend’s family who had just come over from Syria to live with them. I had had a general awareness of the unrest in Syria, but it wasn’t at the level where it was in all the newspapers yet. What intrigued me the most wasn’t the conflict, but the interaction I was watching between the cousins from Syria and the American kids in the family. [It made me start thinking of my Jordanian cousins and this idea of families separated by oceans. Their life experiences are so different, but they’re still family, and this is an integral part of the American experience for lots of Americans.
Flash forward to the conflict in Syria getting worse and being covered in every Western newspaper. The response is mostly silence and apathy and, if not that, then actual contempt for these people fleeing a war zone. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’d also just become a mother—not that it’s at all necessary to be a parent to feel for these people, especially parents, fleeing a war zone—but it hit me extra hard. I kept thinking that if Ohio, where I was living, was to turn into a war zone, I would do everything in my power to keep my daughter safe. It seemed like people in the U.S. were afraid of these mothers and children, which I found really upsetting, especially because of my familial ties to the people they were demonizing.
I started working on the book from there.
How did you ensure you were authentically portraying the experience of a young refugee? Did you conduct any research?
Jude is very lucky in that she has family in America. Unfortunately, now the book is even more fictional, because of the travel bans imposed by the current administration in the U.S. Jude’s situation couldn’t happen today, which is depressing given how hard her journey is already. I always knew that I was going to be writing her particular refugee story, not the ones that we see of these families getting into overcrowded boats and trying to flee through Turkey and Greece, then ending up in a camp. That’s a whole separate story, I think. Jude’s story was specifically of someone whose family had the means to pay for a plane ticket, which mirrored the experience of my family friends. So, I interviewed our friend and his Syrian and American born family. I also spoke with a lot of other people in Cincinnati’s Syrian community.
I’m a Levant region Arab and, though the borders between Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon were drawn by Europeans—so they’re fluid in terms of culture even years after having those borders—but certain words are pronounced differently. My Syrian friends who read the book early caught things like that.
I hope Other Words for Home is authentic. I tried to talk to a wide variety of people while also being aware that the scope of the story is narrow, and that Jude’s experience is different than someone else’s escape via a much less privileged route.
Did the news coverage and what was happening with refugees add a layer of pressure while writing this book?
I cried several times when writing this book. I felt a global heartbreak and selfish, personal heartbreak. I kept thinking about the possibility of conflict reaching Jordan and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to bring my cousins over because, while Jordan wasn’t named as one of the travel ban countries, I had a fear that it could one day be on the list. So yes, I felt lots of pressure.
There were also points where I felt that I needed to change the book because it was no longer factual, then I decided that I wouldn’t be beholden to the news cycle and that I was going to write the story I set out to write.
I’d like to note that every person who immigrates to live here does in fact then live on land that was stolen from Indigenous people. I’m trying to be more purposeful about calling this out as it was mentioned to me earlier this year that the idea of perpetuating the U.S. as a country of immigrants without making that disclaimer is harmful to Native Americans.
Why did you choose to tell Jude’s story in verse rather than prose?
Initially, the story was in prose. My editor and I kept going back and forth and the book was well into the editing process, but something still felt off. My editor [Alessandra Balzer] is really smart and always has great suggestions and had a lot of ideas about how to change the plot arc and pacing and all the things that are your normal go-to changes, but I kept feeling that the emotional heart of the novel was wrong. That’s something your editor can’t change for you, it’s the writer’s responsibility. I eventually realized that there was a distance between Jude and me, and narrative distance doesn’t serve you well when you’re writing in first person. I think it was because of the fear I had that I’d get her story wrong or that I wouldn’t completely understand her as a character.
I went back and did more interviews and started thinking about how Arabic is a naturally poetic language. There are so many different words and ways to say things. Even the way you speak is more poetic than English phrases. I’ve always loved poetry and would always recommend prose writers read poetry to remember the beautiful things you can do with language. I was sitting in LAX terminal waiting to come home from my book trip to the Philippines and I was so sleepy and jet-lagged. I started hearing words and verses of the book in my head and it sounded so much better to me. It was more authentic and closer to the emotional core of the novel. So, in LAX, I wrote the first 15 pages in verse. The book was due in two weeks, but I sent my idea to my agent and editor, and both were on board with me completely scrapping and rewriting the book in verse.
What did that rewriting process look like?
I just rewrote the whole book. A verse novel is not made from just haphazardly putting line breaks into prose. Thankfully, I learned a lot about Jude and the other characters from the prose drafts, so it wasn’t wasted time. I had a general plot arc in my mind, so I would have the prose version up, so I could refer to things if there was a line or character detail that I liked from the earlier drafts. You can’t be afraid to rewrite your book. I’m telling myself that now as I’m working on my fourth book. Sometimes you can be too precious about revisions. I always think editing is going to be like painting rooms in a house, when really, it’s rebuilding the whole house.
Does your writing process differ depending on whether you’re writing verse or prose?
In prose, I like to think that I care about the aesthetics, too, that I like lines that flow well, but there’s an economy of language in verse that made it important that every line and word was exactly right and had earned its place.
There’s a lot left unsaid in a verse novel, whereas in prose, things are more fleshed out. In verse, words need to do more, so I was examining my writing with a different level of scrutiny. I don’t think about rhythm as much with my prose books, either.
Does your process change when you’re writing specifically for teens or middle graders?
Yes. Initially, after the first draft of this book, Alessandra said it wasn’t a middle grade book. She was right. [laughs] I was frustrated and insisted that it was [middle grade] because the character was 12. She pointed out that the voice was clearly young adult. You can’t just make a character 12 and call it a middle grade book. I was agitated and felt that we were underestimating 12-year-old kids, but she explained that it wasn’t at all about underestimating kids, it was about the breadth of experience. A 16-year-old has lived so much life and has so much more experience to reference; it’s not about how sophisticated the language is or the content. It’s about being authentic to the way a 12-year-old will relate to those details.
I also read all the great middle grade books Alessandra recommended and tried to immerse myself in that world and think about how I saw the world at that age. I think that served the book well because it wasn’t me trying to write a less sophisticated YA book, but me honoring what it feels like to be 11, 12, and 13 years old.
What do you hope readers gain from reading Other Words for Home?
I hope the readership for this is varied, but I specifically hope young readers of color will read the book and be inspired by Jude’s dreams. She’s such a big dreamer and has these high hopes for herself and the courage to go out and achieve those dreams. The book is obviously difficult, and Jude faces a lot of challenges, but the thing I most love about the book are the parts that are about brown joy instead of brown pain. I hope that resonates with the readers who need to see that; she has a lot of love for herself, for her culture. It’s a gift that I was giving to my 12-year-old self, who didn’t see that on the page.
In the wider realm, I hope that Jude’s story provides an empathetic window for other readers to humanize these children that we sometimes become numb to because we read about them in masses. Those numbers become so staggering that it’s hard to wrap our heads around them and imagine a 12-year-old girl who likes American rom-coms and wants to be an actress and has a fondness for Kit-Kats—all those things that round out a person. Which is why I think singular narratives can be so powerful. Obviously, it’s not the story of every single person, but it lends a human touch to tragedies that can feel so inhuman because of how mindboggling they are in scope.
And, finally, I feel like we live in a world, and, specifically, a country, where art for art’s sake is a luxury for those whose rights and freedoms aren’t under attack. I used to be embarrassed that my books always included some sort of message or call to action, but recently I’ve decided to lean into this idea of writing as activism. I’m very mindful of the fact I’ve been given a platform that so many people of my cultural and religious heritage aren’t given, and I intend to use my voice in the best way that I can. Of course, I want to write beautiful and compelling books, but I also feel a duty to write books that inspire young readers to choose kindness and empathy in the most radical of ways.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another middle grade book. It’s in prose, not in verse, but I hope to do another middle grade in verse someday. It’s tentatively titled The Shape of Thunder and is about two girls dealing with the aftermath of a school shooting in Ohio. It’s about gun violence and how terrifying it is to be a parent in this country and send your kids to school every day. I live across from an elementary school and was watching kindergarteners do a drill. I was thinking about how soon I would need to talk to my oldest about doing drills in school and what a world that we live in that we are expecting our kids to save us, as opposed to having the moral courage to do something about the issue. So, another book with a tough topic that I hope has those pockets of joy and hope.
Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $16.99 May 28 ISBN 978-0-06-274780-8