In National Book Award nominee Mitali Perkins’s forthcoming novel, Hope in the Valley (FSG), 12-year-old aspiring poet Pandita “Pandu” Paul struggles to navigate grief and change in her rapidly gentrifying Silicon Valley neighborhood. Pandu does not like change, and her summer is filled with it: drama camp, a flailing friendship, Baba’s new girlfriend. When the apricot orchard across the street—which Pandu and her late mother called Ashar Jaiga, or place of hope—is threatened with redevelopment into purportedly affordable rental units, Pandu finds herself at odds with her family. Perkins considers the book a return to writing for middle grade readers, a complement to her 1993 debut, The Sunita Experiment (republished in 2005 as The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen). PW spoke with Perkins about research, writing character, and her long publishing career.
Did you think of Hope in the Valley as a historical novel?
It’s a dual history. Parts of it are set in the ’80s, an era that set in motion a lot of things we’re struggling with in our culture today. It was a formative period for our current present. It’s history that I lived, but it’s historical for the readers. But it also goes back 100 years; my main character Pandita has to do some deep historical research figuring out how they got into the mess they’re in.
What kind of research did you do?
I re-encountered the physical land and geography. I took it in with all of the senses—the beautiful orchards and hikes in the hills that I did in college. I recalled what it was like to come of age in the 1980s: entering eighth grade and having a friendship that’s on the rocks, feeling lonely and disconnected from your friends, not excited to grow up. I went deep into California history. I visited working apricot orchards in Sunnyvale. I read books about that time period. I interviewed people who work on issues of affordable housing in that time period. I studied public policy and I’m very concerned about the lack of housing and the increase in homelessness and all the equity issues in this area of California.
You have a connection to the Silicon Valley area. Are there any autobiographical aspects in the book?
My parents immigrated to the East Bay and it was very white then. Can you picture us: my mom in sari and her heavy accent? She wanted us to be fully American. They pulled us away from tapping into our Bengali culture because they wanted us to assimilate. There was no diaspora here. This context is very similar to what Pandita is facing with her parents. The scene where her Baba was shot with a BB gun—that happened to us. The turmoil over Asian cars is also from my childhood. I had a librarian like the librarian character. I had teachers who were open and friendly and hospitable to me as a newcomer. The poetry in the book is the poetry that I wrote when I was 12. I found my old diary with scribbled poems, and I included those poems almost verbatim.
Loss is a big theme throughout the book—loss of a parent, loss of a place. How did you land on writing about the contradictory processes and emotions that loss can bring up?
Pandita’s whole family is stuck because they’re grieving the loss of their mom and wife and they can’t move forward. Even though there’s such a deep loss of letting go of people you love and things that you love and the way life used to be, you still have to let go. That’s part of growing up. Her story also stands in for how family systems, communities, and nations can get stuck in holding onto the past in a way that impedes equity and justice in the future. Time presses forward. You can’t stop that. But that doesn’t mean we can’t honor the best of the past. There are people who say, “The past is all crap; let’s move on.” And others who hold onto everything, who say, “Make America Past Again.” In Hope in the Valley, there’s a town that cares about what happens to their community, but disagrees about how to flourish. My fiction is nuanced and leaves room for a child reader to be curious and uncover what they think.
Baba, Mr. Mavin, and Aunty Lydia are complicated characters with strengths and weaknesses and struggles of their own. How do you approach writing adult characters in books for young people?
I try to do the deep work of knowing each character—their age, race, class, culture, education, gender, their past, their traumas, everything—even if they’re a secondary character like Ms. Maryann, the librarian. I wanted to know that she’d lost her husband to cancer and she’s involved in historical preservation, and that she loves young people and music. I don’t put that into every scene, but it informs the subtext of her interactions. I try not to be heavy-handed with those identities because I want to leave a lot of room for the reader’s imagination to intersect with those characters. Secret Keeper was set in 1970s India and had all Indian characters. I got a letter from a girl in Iowa on a dairy farm who read the book seven times. When you’re reading a book, it becomes your story. She’d never left Iowa. One of the characters was an aunt, who was really bossy, and this letter-writer went on for seven pages telling me how her stepmom was exactly like that aunt. I try to leave room for the reader to find their connections. I have no idea what those are going to be.
What relevance do you think Hope in the Valley has for kids today?
In my town, we recently had a debate about a parcel of land. It was marked to be developed with a large-scale property. We had a huge voter turnout, which you often don’t at the national level. It was because people cared about that property. At a local level, a lot of our quality of life is affected by that governance, and that’s what I want to show readers. I like the decentralized way that the American government is set up. We can make a difference at the local level with our feet, our voice, our opinions.
Hope in the Valley marks your 16th book for children. How has your writing evolved over the years?
What’s grown in me is an understanding of the strength and dignity of my child reader. The intersection of a reader with a story is such a mystery and something we don’t have control over as a writer. I’m letting go more and leaving room both for the characters and the reader to breathe. I dread Goodreads. There are readers who want me to be more rigid in my faith-forward books and my justice-oriented books. I’m moving away from rigidity toward love. Children are in formation; they’re still open to love. They haven’t developed grooves of rigidity ingrained in their hearts yet.
What’s next for you?
Holy Night and Little Star (WaterBrook, Sept.) is illustrated by Khoa Le. It’s a Christmas story from the perspective of a little star who doesn’t like change and wants to stay in her spot in the sky, even on Holy Night when her Maker needs the entire galaxy to take part. Between My Hands (FSG, 2024), illustrated by Naveen Selvanathan, is a story of a girl who wants to help her community. She’s got little hands, and she asks, “What’s between my hands?” It’s the namaste gesture, that idea of “I bow to the world.” Her grandfather tells her, “When you use the namaste gesture, you’re saying, ‘How can I serve the planet? What can I do to serve you?’ ” It asks what little hands can do to promote justice, love and mercy in a very big problematic world. I once asked the poet Mary Oliver, “How can a poet serve the poor?” It’s a question I’ve wrestled with for a long time. My nonfiction book Just Creativity is an exploration of how an artist can promote justice. It’s not going to be just my voice; I interviewed authors and artists who address that question head-on. As an artist, you sit for hours in front of a computer or in front of an easel, and there are hungry children in the world. How do you justify that investment of time when you care about justice?
Hope in the Valley by Mitali Perkins. FSG, $17.99 July 11 ISBN 978-0-374-38851-5