Nadia Hashimi's middle-grade novel The Sky at Our Feet is full of memorable characters. As the reader progresses through the book, three rise to prominence. Intelligent, impulsive Max struggles to balance the medical requirements of her seizure disorder with her desire to be independent. Jason D, thoughtful and tenacious, races to find his aunt, hoping together they can save his Afghan mother from deportation. As Jason and Max scramble around New York, the city takes on a spirit of its own, becoming as integral to the narrative of the two children.
Hashimi has written three novels for adults, as well as One Half from the East, published by HarperCollins for the middle-school market. The contract for that book included a stipulation that Hashimi create a second book for young readers. The Sky at Our Feet was born not of an image of Max or Jason D or even of New York, but of that promise. "I knew I had to deliver a book, but I didn't know what it was going to be," Hashimi told Spine.
She began with a disconnected pile of compelling narrative pieces.
• Hashimi's other books are set in Afghanistan or Europe. She wanted this book to be set in America.
• One of Hashimi's favorite children's books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, features children navigating alone a place they'd usually explore with adults. Hashimi wanted her characters to experience something similar.
• Hashimi is a pediatrician as well as a writer. While completing a residency at NYU School of Medicine, she observed many children struggling with seizure disorders. They needed representation in her book.
• Born in the United States to Afghan parents, Hashimi has written multiple times about characters living in Afghanistan, but never about the experience of immigrating from Afghanistan to America, and the struggles that follow. She decided it was time.
As she considered each of these pieces, trying them out against one another, a character began to emerge. One child formed, one boy — Jason D — battling a chronic illness while his family faced immigration-related issues. As Hashimi wrote her way into the story, and as her editor Rosemary Brosnan provided feedback, Hashimi realized her two central issues — chronic childhood illness and immigration — might better be explored via two central characters. Jason became Max and Jason.
Looking back, Hashimi sometimes wonders if the process would have been easier if she realized this from the start. But ultimately, doing the extra work was how she arrived where she needed to be. "You can't know. You have to play," she explained. "You have to mess things up a bit, in order to clean things up."
While her narrative route shifted, Hashimi's New York map stayed Manhattan-focused. The author lived in the city for six years, a time that provided excellent inspiration. "There's a certain vibe, a certain flavor to New York. It's multicultural, it's so many things. There are just so many kinds of people doing so many kinds of things."
Inspiration she could wrangle, but to get specific, real-world details correct, Hashimi relied on hard evidence. "In order to map out for this story where Jason is going, I literally had a subway map … pasted into the first page of my notebook, and I drew on that map."
She also studied the course and the timing of the New York City Marathon, whose runners serve to slow Jason's progress on several occasions. And she turned to HarperCollins, grateful for their Manhattan headquarters. "Having a publisher based in NYC, they were able to fact check me."
HarperCollins released The Sky at Our Feet earlier this month. Hashimi's well practiced in the art of book promotion, but her primary push at present is neither authorial nor medical. Hashimi is currently running for Congress, for a Maryland seat. While that keeps her from her writing, she does have an idea percolating, waiting for when she has the time to get back to it.
Last summer, Hashimi travelled to Italy to speak at the Center for Peace, in Bolzano, not far from the Austrian, and beyond it German, border. "It's so gorgeous it made me think of another time, another place, and things that might be happening on these rolling hills covered with grapevines and farmhouses," she said. "It's such a beautiful backdrop. What did this place look like during a time of war? This area has been in turmoil. That inspired some ideas. Whenever this wraps up, I have something to dive back into."
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.