There’s nothing Michelle Kadarusman loves more than immersing herself in nature. It’s not only integral to her well-being – it’s also where she finds inspiration. “I like to combine nature and animals with human themes,” she says. “When I can find a combination of those two, that’s really my passion as a writer.”
So it should come as no surprise that Kadarusman, an internationally acclaimed children’s author, brings that love for conservation and wildlife to her newest titles Room for More and Berani.
Room for More (Pajama Press, out now), her first picture book, was inspired by the bush-fires that devastated Australia in 2019. It follows two wombats: the optimistic Dig, who offers their burrow to animals in need of shelter, and the cynical Scratch, who reluctantly goes along. Kadarusman couldn’t help but think of Room for More during a recent visit to New South Wales, Australia, which saw unprecedented flooding that affected thousands of people.
“It was amazing to see the groundswell of support in the community,” she says. “But, at the same time, for every person who’s helping, there are others who are [choosing] to look away, and it was devastatingly sad to witness in real time.” For Kadarusman, the experience reinforced the importance of sharing with children the simple yet powerful message of helping those in need.
Like Room for More, the story of Berani (Pajama Press, August 2022) was born out of a real-life experience. It weaves together the perspectives of Malia, a young environmental activist ready to risk it all; Ari, who fears the consequences of doing what is right; and Ginger Juice, a caged orangutan who longs for home and her mother. It’s a story Kadarusman has been carrying around for 26 years.
While living in Surabaya, Indonesia, she got a call from her older brother, also residing in the country, who had come across a caged orangutan being kept as an attraction at a small restaurant. Wanting to help, the two started asking around and learned that an acquaintance knew someone who volunteered for animal rescue. With the help of Kadarusman and her brother, the organization found the female orangutan that had been held in captivity for nearly seven years in a cage she had long since outgrown. “They had to get a chainsaw to get her out, and it is that detail that has haunted me for all these decades,” she says.
Kadarusman spent countless hours reading, as well as watching webinars, movies, and documentaries to be able to depict Ginger Juice’s emotional, mental, and physical state accurately. (Originally, she had planned to travel to Sumatra as well, but that was thwarted by the pandemic.) She also relied on a dear friend and primatologist who had spent time in Sumatra studying orangutans. “We share so much of the same DNA that any of the anxiety and depressive traits you would imagine in a human [in that circumstance] is exactly what you can imagine in an orangutan,” Kadarusman says. It’s this heartbreaking reality that drives Malia and Ari to secretly arrange for Ginger Juice’s rescue and face whatever consequences may come their way.
Berani also gave Kadarusman the opportunity to show Indonesia, her father’s homeland, in another light. Unlike Nia, the protagonist of Kadarusman’s Governor General’s Literary Award shortlisted Girl of the Southern Sea (2019), who lives in extreme poverty and is unable to get an education, Malia is quite privileged and attends a private school. “Indonesia is a very complex place, and there are many different faces to Indonesia. Not everybody is poor,” she says. “I didn’t want my only representation of the country to be that. I wanted to present a glimpse of the different socio-economic groups.”
As with any of her writing, Kadarusman’s hope is that readers will enjoy the stories for being stories and be transported for a moment. “I love to write for middle-grade readers because it’s an age of great courage. You’re still looking outward to the world and wondering how you can help,” she says, adding, “If I was to say one thing to young activists, it would simply be to believe you can make a difference.”