It is my honor to host Varsha Bajaj today, as she shares about the genesis of her latest novel, Count Me In (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Group). Varsha’s essay below certainly reminded me of the opportunity a writer has to respond to and reflect upon current events. With Count Me In, Varsha is not simply holding up a mirror to our world. She uses the mirror that is her story to reflect light and hope on the path ahead.
In 2013, Dr. Singh, a practicing doctor and professor from Columbia University, was attacked by a group of young men in upper Manhattan. It was unfortunately not the first such news story I was reading. The story stayed with me because it could have been me, or someone from my family or friends.
In the following years, the prevalence of hate crimes rose, and I was alarmed at the reported escalation in bullying in schools. I felt compelled to write a story that would address this, and help readers process the events going on around us.
At the time I also saw people coming out and speaking against hate and supporting each other. These positive voices gave me hope. Count Me In (Nancy Paulsen Books) is therefore an uplifting story, told through the alternating voices of two middle schoolers, in which a community rallies to reject racism.
The early drafts of this story were told solely from Karina Chopra’s viewpoint. Karina is a twelve-year-old girl who lives and attends school in Houston. The story begins at the beginning of her seventh-grade year. The early drafts were a struggle. I read my work aloud. I started doing this a few years ago with my picture books. Magically every flaw becomes apparent when I read aloud. I started doing it with my middle grade work too. While I found Karina’s voice early, something felt missing. At one point, I remember trying to write the story in verse. My sympathetic critique partners and writing friends held my hand through these attempts, offering feedback, chocolate and lattes.
I also know that a draft is not going well when writing feels like a chore. One day I sat down at my desk and I decided that I would write a chapter from Karina’s friend Chris’s viewpoint. Karina has had some issues with Chris and his friends, and I wondered how Chris felt about it. My fingers flew. The chapter I wrote that day became chapter 2 in the finished book. I read the first two chapters aloud and I was excited. I had never thought of writing this story from alternating viewpoints till then. I sent the chapters to my agent at the time, Jill Corcoran. She loved them too. Could I carry the alternating viewpoints through the story she asked? Yes, I replied.
Having both Chris and Karina’s voices tell the story was so important, because it was yet another way to show different perspectives. It opened the story in an exponential way and felt freeing. This story also includes Papa, Karina’s grandfather and the victim of the hate crime. I wanted to highlight the difference in perspectives within immigrant families. Papa is the immigrant and his generation’s thoughts and actions are different from Karina, who is born in America.
I hope readers believe that, just like Karina and Chris, each one of us can make a difference, and that we are stronger together. Count Me In is a story of two American middle graders, who might come from different backgrounds but have so much in common. There is more that binds them together than separates them.
Varsha Bajaj is the award-winning author of picture books and middle grade novels. Her latest middle grade novel Count Me In was published by Nancy Paulsen books, Penguin Group in 2019. Abby Spencer goes to Bollywood, (Albert Whitman and Co., 2014) was shortlisted for the Cybils Award and included in the Spirit of Texas Reading program. Her picture books include The Home Builders (2019) and This is Our Baby, Born today (2016) a Bank street Best Book and How many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? (2004) She grew up in Mumbai, India and when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree, her adjustment to the country was aided by her awareness of the culture through books.