By Ardeana Hamlin
of the Weekly Staff
ORONO — Author Katie Quirk drew on her experiences in Tanzania from 1998 to 2000 to inform her book — her first — “A Girl Called Problem.” The book, intended for middle school age children, is set in Tanzania and is the story of 13-year-old Shida, which means “problem” in Swahili.
Shida is a healer, but her skills can’t save the life of a young girl. There is much to deter Shida from attaining the education she desires, including the early death of her father for which she is blamed, a failed cotton crop and cattle escaping from their pens. But, said Quirk, the story has a happy ending.
It also has a happy beginning: Kirkus gave the book a starred review, thus sending it out into the reading world with the publication’s badge of excellence.
“I started writing the first draft [of the book] a year before my son was born in the fall of 2005,” Quirk said. “I never worked fulltime as a writer. I was teaching a community college, working part-time and parenting.”
As the story grew, she did a lot of revising, working hard to get it right. “I didn’t know what the standard was; I am a perfectionist,” she said.
Eventually, she emailed a few friends who had published books for the middle-school population and asked for advice. On the advice of one writer friend, she sent “A Girl Called Problem” to that friend’s agent.
“It worked,” Quirk said. “It was quick and easy. But it didn’t sell right away.” Approximately 2½ years passed before it was published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers on April 1.
Quirk went to Tanzania as part of Jesuit Volunteers International right after college. She was 22, and her job was to teach English to journalism to students at a newly opened university. Although she contracted tropical illnesses, she “had a fabulous time,” she said.
She also met 12-year-old Modesta, with whom she formed a bond and continued to help educate even after she had left Tanzania and went to live in India with her husband, Tim Waring, now a professor at the University of Maine. Eventually, it was arranged for Modesta to go to the school in India where Quirk and her husband taught.
Modesta really helped her out a lot while she was writing “A Girl Called Problem,” Quirk said. “She read different drafts to help with accuracy.” Quirk asked her questions about Sukuma tribal life, what song was sung at tribal funerals and what bark did her mother use to treat malaria.
Girls in Tanzania, Quirk said, have much to deter them from access to education. If there is only money enough in a family to send one child to school, it will be the boy, not the girl. Girls are given less nutritious food than boys, and there is lots of sexual predation toward girls, Quirk said.
“In the book, community is extremely important to young people,” Quirk said. “They have more independence and ability to self-define. Shida has standout qualities — she is a healer and resilient — but she is cursed not to succeed.” But Shida perseveres, and all comes right at the end of the story.
“I look forward to talking about this book with young people and getting their impressions,”Quirk said. She is working on a new nonfiction book for adults, as yet untitled, about raising a child in India for two years.
Quirk will talk about “A Girl Called Problem at 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 17, at Bangor Public Library; and at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at Orono Public Library; and at other venues in the Bangor area.