ProblemWithBeingSlightly_HiResCover“The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic” by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $16.99, 274 pp.

Uma Krishnaswami discusses “The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic”  at 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17 at Alamosa Books, 8810 Holly NE, Suite D, near Paseo del Norte and Ventura in Albuquerque.

By David Steinberg

Dolly the Bollywood star and Dini, her biggest fan, are back in Uma Krishnaswami’s “The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic,” a work of fiction for middle-grade readers.

Dini lives in suburban Washington, D.C. and she’s eagerly anticipating Dolly’s arrival for the American premiere of her new movie. Dini’s best friend, Maddie, is just as excited.

The lightness of the novel’s story is matched by the sweet airiness of the tone and the illustrations. The obvious appeal is to middle-schoolers but even avuncular readers will easily smile when they follow Dini and Maddie’s friendship and the way the author uses language to develop the story and shape the tone.

Here’s an excerpt: “And now Dini has a jiggle in her toes and a wiggle in her feet and she can’t, can’t, can’t stay still because Dolly’s getting closer.”

Uma_AuthorPhotoKrishnaswami said in a phone interview that she started writing these books to prove to herself that she could “write something funny and also because I wanted to write book with cultural content that was lighter in content, not about dark subjects. But just about kids having fun in their lives.”

By cultural content, the author is referring to the references to Bollywood. In India and with many Indian-American families, kids glom onto Bollywood stars (though Dini’s parents don’t).

“Usually what happens in kids of different cultures is that the mainstream American culture is seen as the desirable o thing and  the kids of color are are always trying to like everything in the dominant culture,” Krishnaswami said.

“Here, I’m turning that trope on its head: Dini loves Bollywood. Maddie loves Bollywood. Maddie will like anything that Dini likes.”

The author said that a Korean-American literature scholar told her that she grew up with American friends who loved Korean stuff. So she was delighted to see the same configuration in Krishnaswami’s Dini-Maddie books. “It’s sort of a cultural truth about growing up in this country that very often doesn’t get discussed,” Krishnaswami said.

The illustrations in the two Dini-Maddie books are by Abigail Halpin. Krishnaswami said she’s wild about Halpin’s illustrations, though she doesn’t know her. The publisher picked Halpin for the job, she said, “but I’m utterly thrilled with what she’s done.”In my mind, Dini looks like Abigail’s version of Dini When I wrote book one, I had no clear idea what these people would look like. Now that she’s brought them to the page, I can’t see them as being any other way,” Krishnaswami said.Like Dini, the author was born in India and lives in the United States. Dini lives in Takoma Park; Md. Krishnaswami makes her home in Aztec, New Mexico.

Why Aztec?”We wanted some place small, off the beaten track. My husband and I have lived there close to 15 years,” Krishnaswami said.”I can’t seem to write about places when I’m living in them. I need some distance for the license to turn them into imaginary places.”

“Slightly Heroic” is the second in a series. The first, “The Grand Plan to Fix Everything,” was favorably received, such as this comment from Newbery Medal-winning author Linda Sue Park: “A modern-day fairy tale whose crazy threads tie up perfectly in the end. Truly a delight!”

Besides her event on Saturday, Aug. 17 at Alamosa Books, Krishnaswami is planning mid-September promotional events in Austin, Texas and College Station, Texas. At those events she’ll be joined by Kathi Appelt and Susan Fletcher, both authors of books for middle-grade readers. Krishnaswami also writes picture books for children.