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India RPCV Nancy Farmer speaks at the Arizona Book Festival
India RPCV Nancy Farmer speaks at the Arizona Book Festival
April 3: Arizona Book Festival
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 1, 2004 12:00 AM
When Nancy Farmer speaks Saturday at the Arizona Book Festival, it won't be like coming home again. She is coming home.
Farmer, whose good-conquers-evil children's story, The Warm Place (Puffin Books), is this year's children's selection for OneBookAZ, was born in Phoenix. She lived in the Valley off and on, graduating from North High and attending Phoenix College, but has mostly lived away from her native state.
Farmer will join about 150 other authors at the seventh annual festival, the kickoff of OneBookAZ, a statewide effort that brings readers together in April by focusing on one book for kids and one for adults.
Due to a scheduling conflict, Canadian author Yann Martel, whose Life of Pi (Harcourt Inc.) is the selection for adults, won't be at the book festival. Martel will read from and discuss Life of Pi at book signings next Thursday in Tucson, on April 9 in Phoenix and April 10 in Prescott.
Notable authors joining Farmer at the festival include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Valley residents Diana Gabaldon and Ron Carlson, Alan Dean Foster of Prescott, Ursula K. Le Guin and Tom McGuane.
Farmer, who lives in Menlo Park, Calif., and claims to be "62, possibly 63," visits Phoenix infrequently, preferring Arizona's wide-open spaces.
"My husband (Harold) and I go down to Ajo and hang out, and to Yuma, and we wander around the desert," she said. "We like places where you can't see any lights at night, where it's completely remote and just desert."
Before publishing her first book in 1986, Farmer taught science in southern India during a stint with the Peace Corps, worked on a vaccine for the bubonic plague in a California lab and was a "freelance scientist" in Africa for nearly 20 years, studying insects in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
She got out of bugs and into books after giving birth to son Daniel in the late '70s, realizing the dangerous jungles were no place for a young boy.
"It was very isolating; I was used to a busy life, and when he was 4, I started working (at writing)," she said. "I was reading a book, and I thought, 'I can do this,' so I sat at the typewriter and wrote a short story. It just came to me."
Concerns about Daniel's education, soaring HIV-positive rates in Africa and the perils of war-torn Zimbabwe prompted the Farmers to return to the United States in 1989.
"After a certain point, you get tired of machine-gun nets and convoys of soldiers with guns, and it gets more and more restrictive," she said. "You feel trapped."
Once on American soil, Farmer wrote and published several more books, including The Warm Place in 1995. The fantasy adventure about animals that communicate and conspire to help a baby giraffe return to her family in Africa isn't the most lauded of her books: The House of Scorpion was the 2002 National Book Award Winner. But The Warm Place met the OneBookAZ for Kids selection committee criteria - it's good literature with depth and humor that will promote an interest in reading - and it's available in paperback. Further, Farmer is a good speaker who has a following, although she's not as well-known as the enormously popular Jack Gantos, author of last year's selection, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key.
"I'm not one who thinks boys and girls have significantly different tastes as long as the book is interesting," said Mala Muralidharan of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records and the chairwoman of the selection committees for both OneBookAZ and OneBookAZ for Kids. "I think it will appeal to boys and girls because of the adventure, the environmental issues, friendship and identification with the lost little giraffe."
Meeting separately since last summer, the committees' members - librarians, bookstore owners, community college representatives and others - picked two books that are surprisingly similar. Each is about animals, religion, ships, oceans and zoos (though one is pro-zoo and one is not), and involve main characters who struggle to survive and return home.
"It was only after the selection was made that it slowly dawned on us that both books were animal based, both had survival and resilience issues, both spoke of the zoo and finding their way back to a home they knew," Muralidharan said. "It surprised us, too, as no one in either committee had read both books at the time."
Of course, the selections have their differences. Life of Pi is mostly narrated by a zookeeper's teenage son, whose father lovingly cares for the animals. It's a philosophical, thought-provoking adventure, descriptive and moving, but gruesome at times. The boy learns to survive the most awful experience imaginable.
The Warm Place is told from the point of view of a baby giraffe, Ruva, who's poached from her mother and her home in an African savannah. She's smuggled to an American zoo, which is owned by a tyrant and subjected to rude visitors who throw things at the animals and hope they will fight over food. She, too, endures her plight and learns something about herself in the process.
Farmer said her book hasn't been embraced by public school librarians because it includes Bible stories told from animal points-of-view.
"But once people discover it, they pick up on the feeling of home and motherhood, the feeling that there's always a place where you belong, where you have to go, where it's just right," she said.
That's what Danielle Stout, a 13-year-old Phoenix reader, likes about it. Danielle is a member of the Phoenix Theatre, which will perform The Warm Place at the festival and at other Valley locations this month. The seventh-grader at Anthem Elementary landed one of the prime roles, Ruva, the baby giraffe, and is rehearsing her shy animal mannerisms and gangly walk.
"I just like the characters," Danielle said. "A lot of them have really diverse personalities, and that made it really interesting to read."
After being nabbed from her African home and sent to live in a zoo, Ruva makes several friends, among them two rats, a chameleon and a boy. She learns to feel a warm place within, a compass of sorts that will guide her back home. Farmer believes children need such an internal guide.
"They should know where they are truly happy and accept where they belong," she said.
The zoo in The Warm Place is a nasty prison, owned by a horrid man and frequented by unmannerly children. Farmer isn't anti-zoo, but they wouldn't have a place in her perfect world.
"Animals should not be in cages, but zoos are the only way some animals are going to survive because they're being killed off and their habitats are being destroyed."
Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8998.