By Sandie Angulo Chen
Today we’re thrilled to welcome author Karina Yan Glaser to the WNDB blog to discuss her middle grade novel A Duet for Home, out since April 5, 2022!
From the New York Times best-selling creator of the Vanderbeekers series comes a triumphant tale of friendship, healing, and the power of believing in ourselves told from the perspective of biracial sixth-graders June and Tyrell, two children living in a homeless shelter. As their friendship grows over a shared love of classical music, June and Tyrell confront a new housing policy that puts homeless families in danger.
It’s June’s first day at Huey House, and as if losing her home weren’t enough, she also can’t bring her cherished viola inside. Before the accident last year, her dad saved tip money for a year to buy her viola, and she’s not about to give it up now. Tyrell has been at Huey House for three years and gives June a glimpse of the good things about living there: friendship, hot meals, and a classical musician next door. Can he and June work together to oppose the government, or will families be forced out of Huey House before they are ready?
What inspired you to write A Duet For Home? Since people haven’t necessarily read the thoughtful author’s note that explains your background.
When I was right out of college, my first full-time job was at the largest provider of homeless shelters for homeless families. I worked there for four years in the central office, but I would travel a lot to the different shelters. For about a year, I worked really closely with the shelter in the South Bronx, which was a former hospital that the organization I worked for had bought out when the hospital closed and transformed into a homeless shelter. They had purchased the two brownstones on either side of the hospital as well. One of those brownstones had an after-school program. And as part of my work there, I got to go to that shelter once a week and do literacy work with the kids. It was an incredible experience for me to go through the shelter, and then enter the brownstone and kind of climb up this really narrow set of stairs. On the main level, the brownstone had computers and a big rug, and then there was another set of stairs that led up to the top floor, where there was this tiny little space that was filled with books and tiny little chairs. I would sit there and call up the kids individually, and they would come up. We would read together; they would read to me; and I would read to them.
Through that time with them, I got to learn a little bit about their life stories. I got to know their families. It was a beautiful experience… There was one kid in particular that I really loved. He was a third grader named Steve. He was just like a really funny kid. He was pretty mischievous, but he had a very kind heart. I loved reading with him every week. He was at the shelter for quite a long time, and so I got to know him pretty well. He didn’t really like to read, but I knew he really liked baseball. So, I bribed him with a ticket to a Yankees game. He begrudgingly came to the sessions, and his reading skills got so great over the course of our time together. And we did go to that Yankees game. He brought his friend who also lived in the shelter, and who I worked with a lot. It was the first time they had gone to a baseball game. Of course, at the time I had no money, so I got tickets way in the nosebleed section. They just had the best time, and it was really fun to be a part of that with them.
Ever since that experience, I had always thought about a story set in a homeless shelter. There are books set in homeless shelters written for kids, but there’s not a lot of them… I always carried the stories of those kids in my heart and wanted to write a story from that perspective.
How long did it take for you to write?
It was a very long work in progress. I think it took me many years to think about the story, to process it, to figure out how I wanted to write it… I probably started writing it about maybe nine years ago. It had just been an off-and-on project where I just needed a lot of time to make sure I wrote the story in a way where I felt like it reflected the reality of what living in a shelter was like but also brought a lot of humanity to the characters. Also, I wanted to show how the community that surrounded these families was so important to their surviving and thriving, and I wanted to be able to show that too.
What kind of research did you end up doing—or was the story based on your years of experience working with the kids?
Part of my work, when I was working at the organization, was doing a lot of research and a lot of analyzing policy. So that’s something I sort of carried with me. Even after I left, it always remained something I was interested in. I always followed the news and various think tanks that would study the different statistics surrounding homelessness and poverty…The policy that I talked about in the book, which was a policy that was aimed at reducing homelessness by moving families out within 90 days of entering the shelter system, was something that happened and was implemented when I was working there. It was something I worked very closely with and attended a lot of city meetings about and advocated for having this policy rescinded. It was something that we lived through, and as an organization we really fought against. I felt like it was something I could portray, because it was something that I had worked against when I was working at the organization. The other parts of the book were really parts of when I was working there, the kids I worked with.
Were the backstories of why the various kids and adults ended up living in the shelter mostly based on real people you had gotten to know?
The main character, June, she’s Chinese American, just like I am, and I think a lot of her experience is actually reflected in how I grew up. I had a mother who was very distant who struggled with a lot of mental health issues. My father left when I was in sixth grade and moved to China, and I didn’t see him for the next 17 years. In the book, June’s father dies, and she’s separated from home. For the character of June, I tapped into a lot of my experiences growing up with my family… In the case of Tyrell, his experience was similar to the stories I heard from a lot of the kids that I worked with. A lot of these families had been in the shelter for more than a few months; they really needed the structure and the services that the shelter provided in order to find some stability before moving out. So his character’s more based on some stories I heard when I was working there.
What steps do you take as a writer to ensure authenticity, when you’re writing characters from different cultural or racial backgrounds?
What I try to do as a writer, really, as a person, is to try to have a lot of different viewpoints coming into my ears. My family and I, we live in Harlem, and we’ve lived here for 12 years now… With the South Bronx, that was a community that I spent a lot of time in because I was traveling to the shelter all the time. I also was part of a dance group that was based in the South Bronx, so I spent three days and three nights a week there for many years. I definitely love to be in the communities I portray in my books. The Vanderbeeker series is set in Harlem. I live in Harlem, I’m raising my kids in Harlem. The South Bronx is not a community that is widely available in children’s literature, so it was really nice to be able to bring that community to life—at least from you know, the way that I experienced it and experienced at the shelter. Every book I write, I have readers who have different backgrounds who read it and let me know if they think there’s anything that, you know, is problematic or something that they think I should explore more. That’s always helpful. I think every writer should have people from various backgrounds and cultures who read their book and they trust to give good feedback. That’s another part of my process.
What was a scene that just brought you the most joy and kind of laughter to write?
One of my favorite scenes to write was the moment where June and Tyrell first meet in person, face to face. They sort of know of each other in the beginning of the book, but they’ve never really met. When they meet, Tyrell is with his best friend, like cruising around, making sure they know what’s going on. They always have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening. They finally find June, and she has her instrument with her. They make up all these things about what she could be hiding in her instrument case. She’s so frustrated, because she’s just trying to figure out where to practice and feeling nervous about carrying her viola, because instruments aren’t allowed in Huey House. And they’re just sort of like making fun of her. I just love the way that their friendship begins right then… It’s a beautiful friendship, and it was really fun to write.
Talk about why you chose classical music, as one of the main ways that June and Tyrell bonded?
My older daughter is a violinist, and my younger daughter played viola for a while. I think the viola and violin are sort of funny, because they’re very complementary instruments. But when you get really into the nitty gritty of classical musicians, there’s always this playful banter about violists, and how violists are not as cool as violinists or bassoonists. It’s just this funny running joke that no one really takes seriously. Violists are very proud of being violists, and I really wanted my character to be a violist rather than a violinist… I wanted that orchestra scene where the viola gets the solo to be something special, because generally, it’s not a violist who gets the solo—it’s the flutist or the cellist or the violinist. So I wanted to steer clear of something that was typical.
Classical music is a huge part of our life, because my daughter plays quite seriously, and she really loves it. And one of the things I wanted to explore a little bit is Domenika, who lives in the brownstone next to Huey House. She is an African American violinist. There are a lot of African American classical musicians and composers, but they’re just not as recognized as, say, musicians who are Asian or White. For Tyrell, who’s African American and Chinese, I wanted him to be able to see someone who reflects his African American heritage playing an instrument. I wanted Domenika to be someone he could relate to.
Talk more about the depiction of adults in the story. Did you give them a lot of thought?
Just like in life, there are people that are super helpful on your journey, really encouraging and are a big part in helping you figure out who you are and who you want to be. And then there are people who aren’t very helpful and who can sometimes be an impediment, or just get in your way. I wanted to show both sides of that in this book. Definitely the most fun is to write those super encouraging characters, like Ms. G, the Family Services Director, and Marcus, who’s the head of security. I just love their role in knowing the kids so well, wanting to be part of their lives and, and being like extended family in a way. And then there’s Domenika, who is just very used to being alone and having her own life and not being burdened by anything except for her own career and her violin playing. I love seeing her transformation as well, seeing how she is always this strict teacher, but who also has this other side of her, which is very tender and very much wanting the kids to do well.
And then you have the director of the shelter, who is very into order and just having things done in a certain way. She’s not a very pleasant or understanding person, but just wants everything to run smoothly, but not really caring much about helping anyone… That is reality, so that is something I wanted to show in the book.
Karina Glaser is the New York Times best-selling author of The Vanderbeekers series. A former teacher as well as employee of New York City’s largest provider of transitional housing for the homeless, Karina is now a contributor to Book Riot. She lives in Harlem, New York City with her husband, two daughters, and assortment of rescued animals. One of her proudest achievements is raising two kids who can’t go anywhere without a book. www.karinaglaser.com Twitter: @KarinaYanGlaser Instagram: @KarinaIsReadingAndWriting
Sandie Angulo Chen is a film critic, entertainment reporter, and book reviewer. She’s written professionally about movies, books, and pop culture for more than 20 years, contributing to outlets such as Common Sense Media, where she’s the senior reviewer, The Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, EW.com, Moviefone, and Variety. She’s a proud member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the nonprofit advocacy group We Need Diverse Books. Sandie lives in Silver Spring, MD, with her husband and three children.