I “met” Leah Henderson when new friend Joanne O’Sullivan brought a copy of Leah’s ARC to a lovely lunch during my May visit to Asheville, North Carolina.
The book sounded so intriguing, I immediately reached out to Leah about being a Friend Friday guest and, lucky for us, she agreed! Join me in celebrating her debut novel, One Shadow on the Wall, (Atheneum/Simon Schuster), which just published on June 6.
I’ve always believed in the power of seeing your possibilities largely because my parents made sure that even if the world outside our door didn’t always reflect possibilities for my brothers and me, we would still know they were there. I grew up hearing about and seeing places where people who looked like me had done a myriad of things—experiences and moments that reflected us in positive and empowering ways. And I believe learning about these possibilities gave us the encouragement we needed to truly explore.
Unfortunately not every child is afforded these same opportunities, so that is why it is vital all children see fully-rounded versions of themselves in stories. They need to see their possibilities unfolding on the page and in their hearts, because sometimes that is all it takes in order for them to believe they can do something wonderful too. And it is this belief that I needed to remember while writing this novel.
A few years ago on a trip to Senegal, West Africa, I happened to see a young boy sitting on a beach wall and snapped his picture. Something about him struck me and stayed in my heart and head all day. Then later, I was fortunate to see him again and asked his permission for another photograph. In this one, he wanted to stand.
What my camera captured made me smile. I remember thinking: This is how he wants to be seen. What he wants the world to know of him. A strong, proud, fearless boy looked back at me through my lens. And every bit of that image locked onto my thoughts. And because of them I wrote a short story imagining what the young boy’s day might be like. Never did I believe it would become anything more. However one of my professors thought it was the start of a novel.
I immediately disagreed. I was certain I wasn’t the one to tell this story about a boy and a place I hardly knew. Each time I was asked to show “more of Mor (my main character),” I dragged my feet, certain I wasn’t the writer to bring this story to light.
For almost a year, “I want to see more of Mor” became a constant refrain among my grad school professors. Even though I thought every page I turned into them lacked focus, direction, and most of all heart, not once did any of them point that out, they simply encouraged me to keep writing.
It wasn’t until I confided in my father after graduation that I was excited to finally be putting this project away that he reminded me of the belief I’ve always held dear.
He said the daughter he raised would never stand in the way of someone else seeing his or her possibilities and that I had the honor of helping these kids from Senegal who rarely, if ever, see themselves in a book be the heart and soul of an adventure. When he spoke that truth to me, this project became about doing whatever amount of research I needed in order to write a story that didn’t intentionally do harm, but that also showed the beauty and strength of this young boy, Senegal, and her people.
It is amazing what a spark of a possibility can bring.
Leah has always loved getting lost in stories. When she is not scribbling down her characters’ adventures, she is off on her own, exploring new spaces and places around the world. One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster) is her debut middle grade novel. Leah received her MFA at Spalding University and currently calls Washington D.C. home. You can find her on Twitter @LeahsMark or at her website: leahhendersonbooks.com.