I so appreciate Margo Sorenson’s insights below, about the need to take a story from “oatmeal” to something special and unique. She does it through aloha spirit and puns, resulting in a charming picture book, Little Calabash, illustrated by Anneth Lagamo, about overcoming obstacles. And if you want to hear more about Margo’s work, see a previous blog post here.
Mahalo nui loa to Kirby for inviting me to share my newest picture book, LITTLE CALABASH (Island Heritage, 2020). What in the world is a calabash? many of you are probably wondering, unless you remember Jimmy Durante’s tagline, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash”—but, it’s not the same at all!
When we lived in Hawai`i for ten years, we found the word “calabash” refers to a large serving bowl, usually made from monkeypod, put on a buffet table or in the middle of the dining table, filled with delicious local food to share. You may have heard of the terms “calabash cousin” or “calabash family,” and these heartwarming phrases in Hawai`i indicate an extended family (“ohana”) and friends growing up around shared meals with a calabash—special relationships. Pictured is the calabash the Punahou School (Honolulu, HI) Speech and Debate Team gave me as a going-away gift when I moved to the Mainland, after being one of their coaches. Because Hawai’i and the dear friends we met there (you know who you are 😊) mean so much to our family, I love searching for story ideas that might bring the aloha spirit to life in print.
LITTLE CALABASH first began as LITTLE CUP. I enjoy writing about kids overcoming obstacles, but, LITTLE CUP just didn’t seem to resonate with editors, I think, because it didn’t have a “hook,” something that would give it some snap. It was sort of an “oatmeal” story, as I used to tell my English students. Then, I realized that if I could give it a Hawaiian setting and try to fill it with aloha, that might help it to stand out from the crowd—and LITTLE CALABASH was born.
Kids definitely know what it’s like to feel left out, and Little Calabash wants to be helpful and needed by Keoki’s mom in the kitchen, even though many of the other kitchen utensils sneer and scoff at him. Because I am a hapless punster (just ask my long-suffering family and former students!), I just had to make one pun after another. In fact, my editor at Island Heritage gently asked if I minded cutting out a few of them (yes, there were more!). I agreed to cutting only a few, because our Adorables (grandchildren) loved the puns. “It’s a jokey-kind of book,” they said, and I couldn’t deprive them of that. 😉
It was lots of fun to include so many local Hawai’ian references and touches, and my editors suggested a brief glossary at the end to help young Mainland readers make sense out of terms such as “starfruit,” which adds more depth to the Hawai’ian atmosphere.
As you well know, an illustrator can make or break a book. Anneth Lagamo’s colorful, vivid illustrations are so whimsical—all the kitchen utensils—the good guys and the bad guys— come to life! She gives each of the calabashes a personality—they are very special. My favorite illustration is (spoiler alert 😉) how joyful Keoki and Little Calabash look when they realize Little Calabash can be used for Keoki’s birthday cupcake, after all. Anneth is an indispensable partner for LITTLE CALABASH, bringing Hawai’i’s joyful aloha spirit to life on the pages.
On the cover, my Hawai’ian name, Leipua’ala (lasting gifts for children), given to me by dear Hawai’ian family friends, means a great deal to me. According to Hawaiian tradition, you cannot make up your own name; it must be given to you by a native Hawai’ian. My friends presented their explanation of my name in this way: “The lei represents the books you create which are gifts for the younger generation. The pua are all the children to whom you dedicate your work. And the fragrance or ‘ala is the lasting imagery from your books the children will take with them into adulthood.” I feel very honored to be able to use it, and I treasure the tradition that it represents.
I hope that LITTLE CALABASH will help young readers to feel encouraged to never give up—to treasure their ohana—and also to engage in silly word play—of which there can never be enough. 😊
Author of thirty-one traditionally-published books for young readers, Margo Sorenson has won recognition and awards for her books, including ALA nominations and finalist for the Minnesota Book Award in YA Fiction; LITTLE CALABASH was selected by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for their May 2021 “Celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month” Recommended Reading List. Now living in Southern California with her husband, Margo enjoys meeting with students everywhere, visiting her grandchildren, watching sports, and, of course, creating groan-worthy puns. To learn more about Margo’s kids’ books, visit Margo at www.margosorenson.com Follow her on Twitter: @ipapaverison, on Instagram: margosorensonwriter, on Facebook: YAItalia, and on Pinterest: margosorenson