Interview with Karuna Riazi about A Bit of Earth

Kathie: Welcome to MG Book Village, Karuna! It’s a pleasure to have the chance to talk with you about your upcoming book, A BIT OF EARTH, which comes out March 14th from Greenwillow Books. Can you give us a brief synopsis of it, please?

Karuna: It is such a pleasure to be here – thank you so much!

Absolutely! A Bit of Earth is a contemporary retelling of the classic The Secret Garden, told with warmth and hope in a blend of poetry and prose. To borrow from the official synopsis: “Maria Latif is used to not having a space of her own. But what happens when she feels the sudden urge to put down roots in the most unexpected of places? Karuna Riazi crafts a tender coming-of-age story about friendship, family, and new beginnings. A Bit of Earth is a reimagining of the classic The Secret Garden, perfect for fans of Other Words for Home and The Bridge Home.”

Kathie: I had a chance to read an eARC of your book, and I love how you reimagined The Secret Garden. What was it about this particular book that inspired you to rethink it?

Karuna: I have always loved The Secret Garden, since I first read it around seven or eight years. As a rather grumpy and opinionated girl myself, I felt seen in Mary Lennox, and was raptly absorbed in her quest for acceptance in spite of that prickliness, for friendship, and for a peaceful garden to call her own. However, even as Mary made me feel seen, the also present elements of ableism and racism deeply embedded in the plot prevented me from fully calling the story my own – an experience I’ve found I am not alone in sharing, as I’ve discussed A Bit of Earth with friends, family and readers over the past few months. My hopes with A Bit of Earth is to honor and the classic and all it meant to me, while exploring the previously overlooked and rich cultural South Asian background and heritage that is also a part of the original legacy, and that this title – in the words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop – will open a new mirror, window, and sliding door that will only further The Secret Garden’s timeless messages and themes.

Kathie: Maria grew up in Pakistan and moved to the United States to stay with her parents’ friends after being bounced around among family members following their deaths. There are many richly detailed cultural elements in the story. Is there a section you most enjoyed writing?

Karuna: One of my favorite scenes to write was definitely the religious gathering, or milaad, that Maria is invited to attend at a new Bangladeshi-American friend’s house. I grew up attending milaads myself, being of Bangladeshi heritage, and being able to add in both a cultural and nostalgic touchstone of my childhood was a highlight. 

Kathie: The reader letter you included at the front of the book really influenced how I looked at Maria as a character. Can you tell us how you’d describe her and what life advice you might give her?

Karuna: I would describe Maria as pricky and grouchy, yearning for a place that will recognize the deep-set grief that results in those reactions and suspicion of the world, and for a found family to support her and love for who she is (and I am so glad that she is able to receive that found family, and a place where she is recognized and invited to start healing, by the end of the book). 

I’m not sure what life advice I would give Maria except for “Keep being who you are.” She’s doing pretty awesomely at being herself, and expecting respect and acceptance for who she is!

Kathie: You wrote the story in prose and verse, which I think worked very well. Why did you choose to tell it this way?

Karuna: It has been such a wonderful journey of discovery toward the inclusion of verse in this story – beginning during my second semester in Hamline University’s MFAC program, when I told my advisor (incredible middle grade author Laurel Snyder) that I wanted to rediscover the poet within me that had so feverishly loved and written verse over my high school years. When A Bit of Earth wasn’t hitting the emotional arc I wanted as a strictly prose novel, Laurel encouraged me to pursue the little verses I was writing from Maria’s perspective in the margins of the first draft. From there, when the book sold to Greenwillow, my wonderful editor Martha Milhalick recognized that the verses were introspective, intimate and emotional insights into Maria’s perspective, and the prose was invaluable in moving the plot forward. The rest is history. 

Kathie: Gardening plays a prominent role in the book. Is it a hobby that you enjoy?

Karuna: At the moment, the only gardening I do is tending to three house-plants, and virtually through farming sims like Stardew Valley – but I want the opportunity to garden more in the future!

Kathie: Relocating from one place to another is such an eye-opening experience. If you could choose one place to live for a year, where would it be and why?

Karuna: I would love to do a year-long artist residency somewhere with a view, preferably in the forest or maybe near the sea. I’ve always wondered if Prince Edward Island (famously home of one of my other favorite childhood heroines, Anne Shirley) offered a residency, or another of Canada’s remote, quiet islands – that would be beautiful, and probably very productive in terms of getting writing done!

Kathie: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you want readers to know about your book?

Karuna: I cannot think of anything else at the moment, and only hope that readers – both those who are familiar with the original Secret Garden, or are being introduced to the story for the first time – feel welcomed, seen and loved by A Bit of Earth, and are able to find a home within its pages that will allow them to set down roots and bloom into their own bright, beautiful potential.

Kathie: Where can we go to learn more about you and your writing?

Karuna: Readers interested in finding out more about me and my book are invited to visit my website, I can also be found on Twitter and Instagram under @karunariazi! 

Kathie: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today, and I wish you all the best with your book’s upcoming release.

Karuna: Thank you, Kathie! I appreciate your time and your support, and am so honored that you’ve read and enjoyed A Bit of Earth!

Headshot credit: S. Uddin

Karuna Riazi is a born and raised New Yorker, with a loving, large extended family and the rather trying experience of being the eldest sibling in her particular clan. She holds a BA in English Literature from Hofstra University, an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University, and is an online diversity advocate and educator. She is the author of The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2017), The Battle (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2019), Ghostwriter: The Jungle Book (Sourcebooks Wonderland/Sesame Workshop, 2019), and A Bit of Earth (HarperCollins/Greenwillow Books, 2023).

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