Something Personal

By Soman Chainani

Writing THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD & EVIL series is like running a fantasy corporation. Six years into writing, five books later, I wake up every day and juggle over 150 characters, 40 plot lines, and a world so big it feels like it’s outgrowing my own head. But it’s what I was born to do – write big worlds and sophisticated stories that can keep up with a clever child’s imagination. 

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But there was something else I was born to do, only I never thought I’d find an outlet to do it: tell my own story.

And my most personal story is about my grandmother, who without sounding too crass, was a person far more significant in my life than my own parents. We shared the same birthday. We both liked gourmet food and fancy hotels, even if we couldn’t afford them. We both were highly suspicious of my grandfather. And most of all, we were deeply, deeply unhappy.

But Nani didn’t want me to be. And something about my own unhappiness made her intolerant of her own.

And so the summer trips began.

She came to my parents’ house one spring morning when I was ten years old, jaunting into the house in her oversized sunglasses and leopard-spotted coat and said “I’m taking Soman on a trip. He needs a passport and clothes that aren’t from Old Navy." 

A few months later, we were in Spain. I still remember all our hijinx in the days that followed – the scandal at the nude beach in Catalan; the X-rated flamenco show in Malaga which I should not have seen; the hellcab ride in Madrid… For the first time in my life, I saw a world beyond the hierarchies and injustices of school, accompanied by a tour guide whose only goal seemed to be ‘more, more, more.’ More life. More adventure. More trouble. In the years that followed, we went all over the world together, from the Kremlin to Bermuda, from London to Morocco.

There was one rule for the trip, however, that was ironclad: I wasn’t allowed to do homework. No summer reading. No studying for SATs. No getting ahead on AP History. Nani had watched me accrue straight A’s and subject trophies year after year, and as she put it to my mother: "The more trophies he wins, the more miserable he looks.” She was right, of course – I was looking for validation anywhere I could find it at the time, and if it wasn’t from my classmates, it was going to come from a teacher’s gradebook. But the law of diminishing returns had set in. And it wasn’t until my grandmother intervened that I realized that I didn’t need validation. I needed to build experiences, confidence, connection.

My trips with Nani were my real schooling. 

I wanted to write about it. 

I needed to write about it.

But how? I was THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL guy – the high fantasist, charged with my fairy tale corner of the universe. 

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Like a fairy godmother responding to my wish – and those of so many others – We Need Diverse Books came into being with the expressed mission of letting all those of us who had our locked-up stories finally bring them into the light. 

Indeed, when I got the call to contribute a story to their first anthology, FLYING LESSONS, the instructions were clear and simple: “We want something personal. We want something you.”

I’d had the story ready my whole life, just waiting for someone to let me tell it. Finally the time had come. 


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Soman Chainani’s first four novels in THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL series each debuted on the New York Times bestseller list.  The series has sold more than 1.5 million copies, and been translated into more than twenty languages across six continents. QUESTS FOR GLORY is the most recent SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL novel.  Soman also contributed to FLYING LESSONS & OTHER STORIES, edited by Ellen Oh, named a Best Book by School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and the New York Public Library; an ALA Notable Book and a Best Fiction for Young Adults Pick.

Soman is a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University’s MFA Film Program. You can visit him at www.somanchainani.net.

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