Winning a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award was very exciting news. I bought my ticket to Traverse City, MI where I would receive my award at a banquet at the Top of the Park, an elegant restaurant in the tallest building in town. I was thrilled! Then I learned that I would be expected to make a 2-3 minute acceptance speech. Ok, a little less excited, but still…I know I can do this, just go in prepared. I spent several days hammering out a lively and amusing little speech that was guaranteed to whip the crowd into a frenzy of excitement for Askari. I practiced in my head on my drive, in the airplane and in the shower (I can’t look in the mirror and take myself seriously!). When I got dressed up and ready to receive my medal, I was confident, sweating only moderately, and praying that I wouldn’t sound like a blithering idiot once I’d stumbled my way to the stage.
However, as I sat in the auditorium listening to the other recipients, a theme of most speeches became apparent. They were all driven to write their stories, compelled by something beyond themselves; a passion to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get their stories into the world. I started to squirm in my seat. That was not what I was prepared to talk about. I started to sweat more profusely. Then a beautiful woman stood up and accepted her award and gave a speech that pulled into focus everything that I had worked to hard to try and convey yet still managed to miss the mark. I knew in a split second how I was going to recover my speech. In essence, her message was this:
I have a friend who was, for most of his life, a Sherpa in Nepal. He moved to the United States and, after some time here, called me for some advice. He said, “Miss Rebecca, (the author was Rebecca Braden Nordeman who wrote Sanjaygawa and the Yak Whisperer) I don’t understand Americans. They stop to ask you how you are doing, but never stay to listen to your answer. In my country, when we greet someone, we put our hands together (she demonstrated both palms out like expecting two high-fives) and we say ‘I honor the greatness inside you.’
In that moment, I realized what my book Askari was really about. It is about honoring the greatness inside. I wrote it in honor of my eldest son Dale, who still has trouble finding acceptance. There are those kids (and adults) who don’t have obvious, measurable talents. They aren’t gifted athletes, musicians, intellectuals or whatever. For many, they are given labels and lumped together with all the other undesirables. For Dale, who is extremely handsome and intelligent (no, that’s not just my bias) but suffers from a learning disability and personality disorder, finding and keeping friends and finding an identity when so much focus is on what people can define you by other than your label, it was extremely tough and he is still working through, successfully, those challenges.
I began the story of Cedron Varkaras with Dale in mind. A boy who doesn’t fit in because of his differences. Although for fantastic fiction, I had to blow the issues way out of proportion and up the stakes to make a compelling novel. So Cedron is tormented and bullied because he’s different, but once it becomes known that the Varkaras freak has magical powers, taboo in Askari-Barre, his life becomes forfeit. He has to escape the throngs of terrified Askari who want to destroy him, the evil forces who want to exploit him and discover for himself that his perceived failings are truly the only gifts that Muralia has for her salvation. The gifts that Cedron has are the same as Dale’s and are not his phenomenal magical powers, but something much more significant. Without giving away the ending to the third book in this exciting trilogy, I’ll just say that both Dale and Cedron have to learn to embrace their true natures, redefine what is valued and find the courage to move forward, honoring the greatness that resides within each of them.