Andrea Torrey Balsara is an author and illustrator who believes in the goodness in people, especially children. Her stories and art reflect her belief that we are all one, and that no matter where we’ve come from, we’re all linked together.
Andrea, thank you so much for being a guest on “A Better World of Books!” I think we met some time ago through that amorphous world of social media. Although we’ve never actually “met” each other in-person, I believe we share a love for writing and helping children of all ages discover and embrace their true selves. Can you share a bit of your story of how you began to write and illustrate books for kids and teens?
When I was around 6 years-old, I remember holding a beautifully illustrated picture book and a yearning welled up within me. I wanted to make pictures like those so badly. I forgot about that dream the older I got. Later, when other things fell away, that old dream came back. I started out knowing nothing, and burned through many years learning the hard way what not to do. I had never thought about becoming a writer until my sister, Michele Torrey who is herself an author, encouraged me to learn writing. To my surprise, I love writing as much as illustrating. I love sculpting words and images from nothing.
You write on your website that all the characters in your stories go through their individual journeys to discover that “Life is good.” Can you give us an example or two of how your characters arrive at such an optimistic outlook?
For me, hope is essential for a story that inspires. My young adult book, The Great & the Small, deals with some dark themes but overall there is a feeling of the triumph of the human spirit. Hope isn’t a weak emotion, or a naïve turning away from the truth. It takes courage to see past the current state of things to what could be. The main characters in The Great & the Small, are deeply flawed and, as is human nature, run from truth and from pain until they are forced to stop and face their own frailty and fear. Hope springs from that courage. We all have deep sources of hope and courage within us, if we choose action instead of apathy.
I am wondering if your own characters and their journeys are at least in part inspired by your personal experiences. If so, can you tell us how you found and embraced the sunny side of life?
I struggled with depression and undiagnosed PTSD all through my school years, and it was hope that kept me going. Sometimes there was only a sliver of hope, but even that sliver of light can cut through the darkness. Somehow, step by step, I made it to a place of wellness. Now, I don’t see suffering as a curse, but rather as a teacher. Suffering teaches us strength, courage, and resilience. Then, once we move past suffering, we embrace joy. One of the presentations I do is entitled, “The Hero’s Journey.” We are all everyday heroes when we keep moving forward, learning, and growing.
Your book, The Nightingale’s Song was inspired by a dream you had. Can you tell us about the dream and how it bloomed into this award-winning book?
Around 25 years ago I became aware of the concept of Unity in Diversity, the belief that diversity is a strength, instead of something to be feared. I had grown up in predominantly white communities, but hadn’t realized I identified myself as “white.” One night, I dreamed I was walking down a long road lined with trees. I couldn’t see myself, but as I walked down the road, I wondered, “Who am I?” I couldn’t remember. Was I white? Brown? Black? Who was I? In my dream, I guessed that my skin was a deep brown. When I woke up, I realized that this dream was the first time since I was little that I was just ME. My outside identity, instead of defining me, had been fluid. It was a powerful shift in understanding. I wrote The Nightingale’s Song based on that dream. It starts out, “Last night, I had a dream that my skin was brown like mahogany…” By the end of the book, the child realizes that no matter what colour their skin is, they are still who they are. Humanity is one, and while we look different from each other, have different languages and different ways of doing things, there is a unity, a common humanity, underlying all of those differences. That is Unity in Diversity.
You’ve written and illustrated, I believe, eight books for children and young adults, two of which, The Great and the Small and The Nightingale’s Song have received awards. Which book, or books, that you have created are closest to your heart and why?
Each book feels like a little spiritual child to me, and you know I can’t choose between my children! Haha! Seriously, each book always requires so much from me and is so much a part of me, that I can’t choose. I will say that The Great & the Small was a book that I HAD to write if I wanted to get any sleep. It nagged at me until it was done. In some ways, The Nightingale’s Song is the same, although they are VERY different books. All of my books are my “heart-songs,” expressions of my heart, and so while they are different, they are the same. There’s that Unity in Diversity, again!!
Andrea, you don’t simply perform readings of your books for your audiences, you also offer empowerment workshops. Can you tell us a bit about how your book The Great and the Small is used as a guide for youth to “unlock their true potential?”
I wrote The Great & the Small as a response to an experience that I had when I was 10. My family lived in Germany, and we went to the museum at Dachau, which had been a concentration camp responsible for killing thousands and thousands of innocent people. The experience was deeply disturbing, and from that moment on, I was consumed with the question of good and evil. Many people believe that some children are born as “bad seeds.” I completely, TOTALLY, reject that idea. It lets us off the hook for being accountable for our actions if we are “born bad.” I believe we are born with the capacity for both good, and evil. So, I wondered, why did the baby who was Hitler, grow into the monster he became. Conversely, why did Nelson Mandela grow into a saintly, transcendent person, in spite of the injustices he endured? What choices did they each make along their paths? The Great & the Small is about how we each can fall into darkness, or can rise above. Both choices are within our grasp. Many young people feel helpless, and often feel that they have no control over their own lives. I want to change that narrative. I want to help empower them to see that whether they are famous, whether they are “successful” in the eyes of the world, that the CHOICES they make are what defines them. And that when they fail (and we all fail sometimes) they can CHOOSE to keep going, to keep learning, to keep rising above. We are not locked into a destiny as if we are railroad cars on a track. We, out of all living creatures, can choose for ourselves our path and can rise above even the gravest circumstances. But first, we must know that we have a choice.
If there was one “super power” that you could endow upon each child at birth, what would it be?
The power to think for themselves.
Can you tell us about any projects that you are working on right now?
I am working on finishing illustrations for my picture book series, Greenbeard the Pirate Pig, a book about a guinea pig with a dream. Haha! I love working on it, as he is such a funny character to me. I am also working with a website developer to sell my artwork and designs on an art website. It will be up and running in a week or so, and the website will be, www.balsaraboutique.com. Come and visit!
And, last but not least, what is the best way for your readers to connect with you?
They are welcome to connect with me on:
My Website: www.torreybalsara.com
Are you an author with a vision for a better world? Do you have a published book of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction that uplifts and empowers readers to create a more positive inner and outer environment? If so, I’d love to hear more about it. On a “Better World of Books,” I interview authors and review books of all genres that offer a vision for a better world. If you think your work is a part of this vision, please contact Alethea.