Author Marsha Skrypuch's Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars (Pajama Press) traces a young girl's harrowing journey from war-torn Vietnam to the alien suburbs of Southern Ontario.
Tasked with caring for the babies of a Saigon orphanage, Tuyet is eight years old and suffering from polio, long resigned to the understanding that she will never be adopted. When North Vietnamese forces take hold of the capital, however, she is swept up alongside the infants, finding herself barreling toward a brand new life in the west.
Adopted by the loving and supportive Morris family, it takes Tuyet some time to adjust to Canada. Starry skies, birthday cakes, and the freedom to just be a kid are all foreign concepts at first, but as she slowly begins to get used to her new surroundings, life takes on a beautiful rhythm.
There is still one obstacle to be overcome, however: her twisted ankle requires a scary corrective surgery and months of challenging physiotherapy. Still unable to speak English, Tuyet must gather her courage to face the unknown and fully heal.
An omnibus edition of Skrypuch's two previously published books, Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War and One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way, Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars shares Tuyet's beautiful and touching story in its full form, giving young readers an opportunity to appreciate diverse experiences and develop empathy along the way.
We're thrilled to have Marsha at Open Book today, where she discusses the inspiring true story of her book's young heroine, the benefits of stepping away from your comfort zone, and how to deal with a bad case of writer's block.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I had long been fascinated with Canada’s role in “Operation Babylift” – wherein orphaned children from Saigon were urgently airlifted just as the Vietnam war ended. I wanted to know what it would have been like to be one of those kids. They had been adopted into families in southwestern Ontario and were all adults by the time I began the research for Sky of Bombs, Sky of Stars. As I located each one, my heart sank. They’d been babies during the rescue operations, so they had no memories. Their adoptive parents told me lots, but I wanted to hear from the kids themselves. Then, by good fortune, I found Tuyet, who had been 8 years old when she was rescued. And wouldn’t you know, she’d been hiding in plain sight! She lived in my hometown of Brantford, Ontario, and for a time we’d even lived around the corner from each other!
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Step outside of your comfort zone. Step into the shoes of someone whose experiences are completely different from your own. By allowing yourself to see the world from that alternate point of view, you’ll develop empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
Tuyet is my hero. Imagine being whisked away from the only life you know and settling in with a new family who, while loving and accepting, don’t speak your language and don’t have the same cultural experiences. Imagine not seeing anyone who looks like you. Imagine doing all that while healing from the trauma of war and going through extensive and painful surgery. My own childhood challenges pale in comparison to Tuyet’s, but I am a dyslexic and I failed grade four. I was raised by my divorced mom at a time when that was considered a scandal. I was shunned and bullied by my classmates and labeled slow by my teacher. I know what it feels like to be different. Tuyet’s story gives me context and makes me realize how lucky I am.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
A deadline helps. Like with homework, it focuses you! All I need is a quiet space. No music. No food. Maybe a glass of water. Rough notes are always in a steno pad (I have one for each new book and they’re all filed for reference), but I write on a laptop.
How do you cope with setbacks or tough points during the writing process? Do you have any strategies that are your go-to responses to difficult points in the process?
Writers’ block happens when you don’t know enough about your story and/or your characters. If you hit a blank spot, brainstorm (in that steno pad!) a typical 24-hour day for your main character and anyone else you’re having trouble with. Another technique is to brainstorm the wants, needs, and loves for each of your characters – one person’s will often intersect or interfere with someone else’s. This is key to your story.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
People think it’s easy to write for young people. The books may be shorter but there’s no room for fat. Adult readers will give a book 50 or 100 pages to get interesting, but a young reader will decide if they’ll read a book on the basis of the opening paragraph. If they’re not hooked by then, the book is abandoned. It takes a lot of talent and darned muscular writing to hook a young reader and then keep their attention for the entire narrative.
What are you working on now?
I have a new WWII trilogy being published. The first novel was Don’t Tell the Enemy (published as Don’t Tell the Nazis in the U.S). Book two is written and is coming out in October 2020, called Trapped in Hitler’s Web. I’ve written the end of book three and am awaiting the edit.
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the multi-award winning author of more than a dozen historical picture books, chapter books, and juvenile and young adult novels. Her first work of narrative non-fiction, Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War, won the Red Cedar Information Book Award, was an OLA Red Maple Honour Book, and was nominated for the Hamilton Literary Award. Last Airlift was followed in 2012 One Step at a Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way, winner of the 2014 OLA Silver Birch Non-Fiction Award. In 2008, in recognition of her outstanding achievement in the development of the culture of Ukraine, Marsha was awarded the Order of Princess Olha, which was appointed to the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Endowment Council. She lives in Brantford, Ontario.