age range: 8-12
genre: contemporary fiction; magical realism
Leah Henderson’s website
discussion and activity guide
Debut author Henderson’s depiction of Senegalese life is well researched and warm with affection….Mor’s drive to do right and his love for his family are unmistakable. Keep an eye on this author!
Through tight, polished sentences and a smattering of regional vocabulary, debut novelist Henderson believably evokes the harsh realities of the impoverished seaside village and the resilience of its residents….Mor’s indomitable spirit, love for his family, and refusal to give up make him a fascinating and well-rounded protagonist.
— Publisher’s Weekly
Thanks so much for inviting me to Classroom Connections!
You’re welcome, Leah. I’m excited to have you on the blog today — the day of your paperback release! Please tell us about your book.
One Shadow on the Wall takes place in contemporary Senegal and is laced with magical realism. It’s about a newly orphaned boy named Mor Fall who must decide between doing what is right and what is easy in order to keep a promise he made to his father before his death. With an aunt ready to separate Mor and his sisters the first chance she gets and a group of boys ready to take all he has, Mor must figure out ingenious ways to keep his family safe and together. At its roots, this story is about love and loss, family and friendship, and creating your own future—even if it’s hard to do.
What inspired you to write this story?
A few years ago, while on a trip in Senegal, West Africa, I happened to glance out a car window and locked eyes with a young boy sitting on a beach wall. I’m not sure what it was about him, or that moment, but it stayed at the forefront of my mind all day. Later when I went back to the town where I’d first seen him, I saw him again.
This time I asked permission to take a photograph. Moments later, I stood, staring at it. I remember feeling like the boy was saying so much to me in that image. I felt like he was daring me not to see who he really was, as if most people had overlooked the essence of him so many times before. I know it may seem a bit far-fetched that I might have felt all this from a simple photograph, but I did. And I remember thinking at the time: “I do see you.” The whole encounter took less than 90 seconds, but it was the start of a story for me. My way of letting him know he wasn’t invisible to me.
In a number of interviews you discuss your research process for this book. Why was doing research for this particular story so important to you? Could you share with readers how you conducted some of your research?
From the minute I started writing this story I knew I knew nothing. I was a visitor to Senegal, and had only been two times before that. No part of me felt like an expert on the country or her people. At every step I was hesitant. I knew I had to do research!
This all started with a 10-page story that I shared with a professor in graduate school never thinking it would go any further than that. Where I just wanted to process the young boy’s challenge, my professor saw the start of a novel.
For almost a year I dragged my feet, not sure this was my story to tell. Then my father told me not to stand in the way of that boy seeing his possibilities on the page. I agreed. And in order to do that, I needed to learn as much as I could to create a fully rounded world for Mor and his community.
I was fortunate enough to be able to go back to Senegal to do that research. When I stepped off the plane, my senses were my guide. I watched, listened, recorded, wrote, touched, tasted, and experienced everything I could in every way that I could. Never knowing what I might need or how I might use what I compiled. For me, it was about being as present as possible while I was in the country. I asked a ton of questions and tried everything that I could. I filled notebooks, took endless amounts of photographs, tried different foods, squished fish guts, and did so many other things that I thought my character Mor might do.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting your audience might be unfamiliar with?
Senegal is an amazing country, but it is also a place many of my readers maybe unfamiliar with. I wanted people to experience the heartbeat of the place like I had, but I also realized since they couldn’t see what I could see, and hear what I could hear, and touch and smell what I could experience I had to find a way to show that on the page. Daily life in the village I envisioned can be a bit different from here. I knew many readers would have no reference point or perhaps a very imbalanced one. African communities are not always shown in the best light. And I wanted to give a bit more balance in my story, if I could.
At times I found myself overwriting, unsure if my words were capturing the essence of a moment. Also, because certain things might be new to my audience I had to do more explaining in general which at times during revision felt like it was pulling me out of the story.
Basically a bit of world-building had to happen before I could even get to the heart of Mor’s journey. And that happened over many drafts!
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
My hope is that it can be utilized many different ways in the classroom. Mor’s story is unique in some aspects, but there are also notes of similarity as well.
One of the first things I talk about with students is how I found my way into writing this book—through finding my commonalities with Mor and building on those to understand how and why our life experiences may be different.
I ask students to write about their own summer experiences and then we compare them to Mor’s. Students are always surprised by how much they have in common when things are simplified. Shared love of sports, family, or the summer months. Many young people also experience bullying and this story may be a way into a larger discussion on the topic as well.
Cultural elements are also strong in this book. Exploring more about the country itself could be a wonderful addition to any unit on Africa.
Thank you again for having me today, and thanks, everyone, for taking the time to learn more about One Shadow on the Wall.
Irene Latham says
Leah and I co-presented earlier this year, and I loved hearing her share about her experiences (particularly about writing-across-culture) with this book! We have lots in common. 🙂 Thank you for featuring her here today, Caroline… and congrats to Leah on the paperback edition. xo
I love learning this, Irene! Too bad I missed that presentation. I’m thrilled Leah agreed to join me today.