The community of children’s book creators continues to inspire me with the many ways they demonstrate empathy and generosity. Padma Venkatraman so deeply respected the stories that struggling children had shared with her that she took many years of careful thought and reflection before bringing The Bridge Home (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House) to life. Not only is her writing poignant and powerful, so is the book itself: Padma is donating a portion of her author’s royalties to help children in need. That makes for a doubly good reason to add this book to your own local or personal library.
Padma has also generously offered to give away a copy of The Bridge Home. Click on this Rafflecopter link to be entered.
My earliest memories are of a home in India, inside which there was a library lined with leather-bound books, and outside which there was a garden filled with massive trees. In my room was a large window that opened out onto the Madras Polo and Riders Club, where, every morning I could see horses being exercised. In that room, in that garden, and in that club, I fell in love with the beauty of life – but I also learned early that life wasn’t just filled with beauty.
It was impossible to avoid seeing children who scrabbled through rubbish heaps for a living. Poverty was all around me. And the cruelty that first appeared to be outside the home soon entered mine, as I experienced domestic violence and my parents separated. I continued to experience abusive situations even after my mother and I moved into a dingy, cramped apartment – but, like Viji in my novel, I hated the thought of anyone pitying me and I didn’t waste time on self-pity. How could I, given that there were so many children who had it far, far, far worse than I did?
Despite how hard my mother had to work to start again from scratch, she volunteered to help at schools for children who had next to nothing. Over the years, some of these children began to trust her and me with stories of the terrible things they had faced. Stories that horrified me so much I wrote them down.
Those early pieces of writing were banal and only recorded what I’d heard. But I never forgot the challenges these children faced, and more importantly, the immense courage they had. Many of them had somehow managed to preserve a sense of humor, which I loved best about them. I was sure I’d write their stories someday.
And sure enough, their characters returned to haunt me. I began an early draft of THE BRIDGE HOME (Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House) after my first novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS (Speak), but then there were so many portrayals of homeless children and poverty in books and movies that I put it away for several years. I just didn’t want anyone to think I was getting on a bandwagon. But the story wouldn’t let go of me – and I knew I had to finish it when the characters began to haunt me.
THE BRIDGE HOME is about four very different children, whose characters and stories are inspired by real people. Viji and Rukku are sisters who run away from home when their father beats them, only to find themselves homeless and hungry on the streets of an Indian city. They are befriended by two boys, Arul and Muthu, who eke out a living by salvaging recyclable material from rubbish dumps. The friends soon become a sort of family and they shelter on a ruined bridge, together with a stray dog whom Rukku adopts. They find ways to laugh, until tragedy strikes and Viji is forced to risk their hard-fought freedom.
As a writer, I always push myself to explore new forms. My last novel, A TIME TO DANCE (Speak), was written in verse – and THE BRIDGE HOME is written in direct address (it’s essentially a letter that Viji is writing to Rukku, addressing her in second person, as “you”). I also wanted very much to capture laughter, as much as I wanted the reader to empathize with the sadness, and I love that this it’s the first of my novels that has a lot of humor in it.
And, although I didn’t make a public declaration of this, I plan to donate part of the proceeds to charities that help hungry and homeless children. I can’t understand how those problems still exist, even in my home state of Rhode Island, even today – and I hope that both in this way and by helping my readers live and breathe and feel the way my characters feel, I can do a wee bit to help the world become a happier place.
Padma Venkatraman, was born in Chennai, India, the setting of her novel THE BRIDGE HOME. She worked as chief scientist on oceanographic ships, explored rainforests, directed a school, and lived in 5 countries before becoming an American citizen and settling down in Rhode Island. The New York Times described THE BRIDGE HOME as “gorgeous storytelling.” It is a 2019 Global Read Aloud book, a Washington Post KidPost Summer Book Club selection, a Today Show Summer Read and has received 5 starred reviews (in SLJ, Kirkus, SLC, ALA Booklist and PW), for a total of 17 stars so far, together with her previous 3 novels: A TIME TO DANCE, ISLAND’S END and CLIMBING THE STAIRS. Currently a recipient of the Fiction-Meets-Science fellowship from the Hansewissenschafts Kolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany, Venkatraman enjoys teaching, mentoring, participating on panels, giving commencement speeches and providing keynote addresses at national conferences, has been chief guest at international literary festivals. She was recently interviewed on a national PBS program, and her work has been featured previously on national and international TV and radio, and in a documentary. Visit her at her website, or on Instagram or Facebook.